Albrecht Dürer: Art and Autobiography by David Ekserdjian; Dürer’s Lost Masterpiece: Art and Society at the Dawn of a Global World by Ulinka Rublack - review by Peter Marshall

Peter Marshall

Oil, Resin, Vinegar & Paint

Albrecht Dürer: Art and Autobiography


Reaktion 272pp £17.95

Dürer’s Lost Masterpiece: Art and Society at the Dawn of a Global World


Oxford University Press 448pp £30

The German Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) was fortunate in his initials. The stylised ‘AD’ that he routinely inserted into his paintings and engravings, and even the preparatory drawings, seemed to imbue his productions with an almost divine stamp of approval. Most German painters of the era did not sign their work, but Dürer was eager to assert creative ownership of his productions, obtaining legal protection of his sole right to the trademark monogram.

Dürer, writes David Ekserdjian, in an illuminating and engaging short survey of his life and achievements, was unique among contemporary artists in the ‘almost obsessive interest’ he displayed in himself. The apogee of this self-absorption is surely the self-portrait of 1500 (one of several he executed), now hanging in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich: an individual likeness of piercing realism that bears a striking resemblance to contemporaneous portrayals of Christ.

The tension between the artist as an autonomous creative genius and artistic creations as commodities with a fluctuating market value has never been truly resolved, though the Renaissance is often regarded as the era when it became fully visible. This is a major theme in Ulinka Rublack’s ambitious and impressive new book, which employs a single painting by Dürer as ‘a lens through which to view the new relationship developing between art, collecting and commerce’ from the early 16th to the mid-17th century.

The painting itself, the central panel of an altarpiece once housed in a Dominican priory in Frankfurt, no longer exists: it was destroyed by fire in 1729, and survives only in the form of an early 17th-century copy. Yet one of the preliminary drawings Dürer made for it

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