Wednesday 22 May 2013
The Gallery recently acquired a superb early impression of Albrecht Dürer’s engraving The Virgin and Child with a Monkey, c.1498. (An early impression is pulled from the copper plate early in its life before the engraved lines deteriorate through repeated printing. This impression is also in the earliest state: Meder a.)
Albrecht Dürer was the leading artistic personality of the Northern Renaissance and his work was highly prized in the succeeding centuries. Dürer dramatically improved the standard of printmaking through the influential work produced at his studio in Nuremberg and his many prints were in wide circulation, making him famous throughout Europe. Importantly, Dürer acted as a conduit for many of the artistic advances of the Italian Renaissance which he encountered in person during his two trips south of the Alps.
The impact of Dürer’s first visit to Italy in 1494-95 is particularly evident in the classicising of the drapery of the Virgin’s costume seen in this composition. The simpler lines of the falling cloth reveal that Dürer had cast off much of the weight of the earlier Gothic tradition. We need only look to an earlier depiction of the same subject by the artist in which the heavy, stylised folds of the cloth are more reminiscent of carved stone or wood than actual fabric.
The close observation of incidental detail is found throughout Dürer’s work, whether it be in his paintings and prints or in the preparatory works, including his drawings and luminous watercolours. A fine example of the latter is the watercolour depicting the Weierhaus (pond or fisherman’s house) seen in the background of this print, and which is now in the British Museum, London.
It is useful to recall that Dürer created the visual effects of the wide range of textures and surfaces found in this print with only the tip of the engraver’s burin. The burin is a metal instrument with a sharp v-shaped tip which the artist uses to engrave the lines of the design into the copper plate. (A very thick ink is then rubbed into these grooves before the surface is wiped clean prior to printing.) In order to differentiate between the surfaces depicted, the artist needed to vary the depth, number and variety of marks he made in the copper. Compare the short and velvet-like fur of the monkey’s nose with the smooth skin of the fleshy Christ-child; while the rough wood of the low and rustic fence is in marked contrast to the softly waved and loosely worn hair of the Virgin.
The monkey (perhaps a Wolf’s mona monkey – Cercopithecus Wolfi) adds an exotic note to this composition. It seems that monkeys were kept as pets in the period and this poor creature may be seen chained for just that reason. However, the animal is also loaded with meaning and Erwin Panofsky pointed to the monkey as a symbol of base, immoral behaviour linked to Eve and the doctrine of Original Sin. Freighted with the weight of human failings, the monkey stands in contrast to the purity of the Virgin.
The Gallery did not previously hold an example of Dürer’s compositions of the Virgin and Child, so this acquisition fills a gap in our representation of the artist’s work. (Indeed, there does not appear to be another impression of this print in any of the other public collections in New Zealand.) For obvious reasons, this particular print was enormously popular in Dürer’s own time and later and a number of copies were produced by printmakers who were keen to cash-in on Dürer’s success.
Erwin Panofsky, Albrecht Dürer, two vols, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1945, p67.