WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. “Mom, why are the angels fighting?”
During a recent visit to “The Strange World of Albrecht Dürer” at the Clark Art Institute, most of the visitors were silently absorbed in the drama of a room filled with devils, monsters, saints and trumpeting cherubim.
But there was one young viewer, a boy of about 6, whose wonder couldn’t be contained in a whisper, and as he tried to make sense of it all he peppered his mother with questions.
When Dürer drew his images of “The Apocalypse” more than 500 years ago, just like the little boy, people were wondering and worrying. The year was 1498, and Europeans were really afraid that the end of the world would happen at the turn of the 16th century. There seemed to be other signs, too. Religious unrest raged across the land, and the Protestant Reformation was soon to be unleashed.
‘The Strange World of Albrecht Dürer’
WHERE: Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Mass.
WHEN: Through March 13. Museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.
HOW MUCH: Free
RELATED EVENTS: “Dürer: Between Past and Present,” lecture at 5:30 p.m. Thursday; “The Art of Melancholy,” lecture at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 24; and “Dauntingly Dürer Family Day” on Sunday, March 6.
MORE INFO: www.clarkart.edu or 413-458-2303
Like the boy at the Clark, most peasants couldn’t read about what they were seeing, they had only images.
Art for everyman
With advances in the printing press, Dürer’s Doomsday woodcuts and engravings became art for the everyman, images that could be bought for pennies and posted on the walls of a humble home.
In the early 21st century, more than 90 percent of Americans believe in God, or so the surveys tell us. There seems to be a climate of fear, whipped up by terrorism, planet destruction and senseless wars. And let’s not forget 1999, when we feared the wrath of Y2K.
Albrecht Dürer, Germany’s most famous painter and graphic artist, a master of both intensity and clarity, touches us across the centuries.
“The Strange World” is an extraordinary look at the Clark’s collection of more than 300 Dürer prints. Sterling and Francine Clark, the museum’s founders, purchased the first two, and most of the others were acquired in 1968 from the collection of Tomas Joseph Harris, an artist, art dealer and British intelligence officer during World War II.
The entrance to “Strange World,” with its black walls and minimal text, ushers viewers into the first gallery, where they are plunged into the horror and holiness of “The Apocalypse,” and more black walls are marked with monsters painted in silvery paint. Some of the monsters, with multiple heads on long, snake-like necks, look a bit like Dr. Seuss characters gone bad.
A Roman Catholic with Martin Luther leanings, Dürer brought to life the Book of Revelation, the last part of the Christian Bible, when according to Matthew, “The angels will come forth, separate the wicked from among the just, and cast them into the furnace of fire.”
Chaos and turbulence
In Dürer’s mind, there is chaos and turbulence as heaven meets Earth. In one image, a man is boiled in a kettle, in another, tongues of fire rain from the sky. Even the sun and moon are grimacing.
In “Saint Michael Fighting the Dragon,” a winged and robed holy man skewers a sharp-clawed demon while flying through a sky with other angels and devils, all of them hovering over a placid village unaware of the tumult above.
And “The Apocalypse” is only the beginning, as the exhibit’s 70-plus images continue in four more sections: “War and Suffering,” “Symbolic Space,” “Gender Anxiety” and “Enigma.”
Visitors are allowed to stand inches away from the framed prints, which measure about 14 by 10 inches. Large, hand-held magnifying glasses are available for even closer study, and if you wish, you can take pictures, a security guard assured me.
In the “War and Suffering" section, Dürer shows us a society obsessed with human torment and conflict. Although his soldiers are knights on horseback, it’s not too far a stretch to think of our warriors in Afghanistan.
The “Enigma” section presents images dense with symbolism and objects that have puzzled scholars for centuries. Here we see five of Dürer’s knots; round designs that remind one of Medieval labyrinths or mandalas created by Buddhist monks.
And then there are his animals, such as “The Monstrous Pig of Landser,” a freakish beast with a set of extra hooves protruding skyward from its back, and “The Rhinoceros,” an astounding true-to-life creature, when one considers that Dürer probably never laid eyes on one.
St. Eustace appears in this section, too. He’s the Roman general who converted to Christianity after he saw a vision of Christ while stag hunting in a forest. Like many early Christians, he was martyred in a most gruesome fashion, shoved inside a bronze sculpture and roasted to death along with his wife and sons. As the patron saint of hunters, his symbol, the cross and stag, is today depicted on bottles of Jägermeister.
In “Symbolic Space,” the images are calm and contemplative as Dürer turns his attention to architecture and landscape, and the “Life of the Virgin,” from her parents’ courtship to her deathbed, are depicted. In a Nativity scene, “The Adoration of the Shepherds,” he creates the illusion of three dimensions in his drawing of a manger.
In 1528, shortly before he died at age 56, the Nuremberg artist wrote a ground-breaking book on human proportion.
One of these books, borrowed from the Williams College library, is here in a glass case for our inspection, in “Gender Anxiety,” the last section of the exhibit.
On the walls, Dürer’s men are muscled and the women pear-shaped, in fascinating prints that explore sex, lust, immoral behavior and gender roles. “Young Woman Attacked by Death,” also known as “The Ravisher;” “The Four Witches,” also known as “Four Naked Women;” and the other prints are rich with symbolism familiar to 15th and 16th century viewers. The witch riding a goat? That’s the sign for lust and damnation.
While an impromptu visit to “The Strange World” will offer plenty of information, if you’d like to play detective in the galleries, dig into the Clark’s website. In the “symbolism” section, you’ll learn that a lizard is a sign for danger and a cupid on stilts indicates “the precarious nature of love.”