Giulia Bartrun: The genius of Dürer's woodcuts

From a talk at the British Museum, in London, by its prints and drawings curator

Tuesday 07 January 2003 01:00
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The striking originality of so many of Dürer's images manifests itself in a deep and prolonged influence on generations of artists. Painters and craftsmen frequently referred to his prints as a constant supply of ideas, rather as textile designers would use a pattern book. A few of his images, such as his Christ-like self-portrait of 1500 and the Praying Hands went way beyond such visual quotations and took on an iconic status. His woodcut of The Rhinoceros, one of the great images of European art, also falls into this category.

In common with many of his contemporaries who were absorbed with the discoveries made in an age of exploration, Dürer was obsessed with the exotic. His wide-ranging taste is documented in his drawing of another unusual animal, Head of a Walrus, and is also recorded in his Netherlands diary. Unlike elephants, which were known in small herds in 15th and 16th century Europe, no rhinoceros had been seen alive in Europe since the third century AD. The large size and aggressive appearance of this specimen, which Dürer recorded in long inscriptions on both the print and its preparatory drawing, must have added to its instant newsworthiness.

Hans Burgkmair, Dürer's contemporary who worked for the Emperor Maximilian in Augsburg, also designed a woodcut of the so-called "Lisbon" rhinoceros in 1515, which has survived in a unique impression in Vienna. In stance and proportions, the creature is similar to Dürer's woodcut, but its front legs are tethered and it has a much milder demeanour. The detail is less stylized and its skin does not bear the resemblance to embossed armour-plating that is the hallmark of Dürer's animal. Ultimately it was the strength of Dürer's design that ensured that it was remembered by posterity.

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