Quality is the first norm for art, but its final norm is love and truth, the enriching of human life, the deepening of our vision.


Dürer, Albrecht - by H.R. Rookmaaker

Dürer and Landscape

by H.R. Rookmaaker
The development of landscape painting in the fifteenth century
introduced little that was new, other than a growing refinement of the
techniques discovered by van Eyck and his contemporaries. We must not
forget, though, that Hugo van der Goes, Dirk Bouts, Memlinck and
Gerard David (who was already a part of the sixteenth century) were by
no means just followers or imitators, but were all masters in their own
right. But it is not until the sixteenth century that some new elements
were discovered and developed. In this respect Dürer, who is the focus
of our attention here, rose far above his contemporaries. We will discuss
not only his place in the history of landscape art but also the various
graphic techniques he used.
Germany experienced a period of massive turmoil and change in the
early sixteenth century. Many diverse movements and trends coexisted
and competed for a following. The art of this period was integrally
connected with the profound spiritual struggles of the day and reflected
the great diversity of world views; it is therefore difficult to capture it in
a few words.
Dürer is one of the greatest artists of all time, a genius of almost
incomprehensible diversity. He was a man full of conflicting tendencies
who expressed himself passionately and vehemently, and yet strove to
work within the rules that govern a controlled and rational style of art.
He was an artist who could portray nature with great accuracy based on
his incredible powers of observation, without ever becoming tedious or
losing his eloquence. At the same time he sought to portray the ideal
human figure, constructed according to the rules for proportion, etc.
He was a man with an almost inexhaustible ability to fantasize, but he
never depicted bizarre and outlandish worlds in his art (as is so common
today); his monsters and his fantasy creatures are always plausible. Even
his depiction of the most ‘unearthly’ visions imaginable, such as those
from the Revelation of St John, have something self-evident and real
about them without ever becoming shallow or losing their visionary
His art never lapses into ‘isms’ and therein may lie one of the secrets
of Dürer’s greatness. His art always conveys a healthy sense of reality, and
the artist has a normal relationship with nature. That is to say, he never
sees it as his enemy (as happens so often in modern art), but neither
does he worship it, thus robbing it of its createdness (as Romanticism so
often did). He presents the world as it is, without falling into a shallow
materialistic naturalism that recognizes only what it can see with its own
eyes. In short: he recognizes his place as a creature among creatures,
part of God’s rich and diverse world in which everything has its place,
and in which nothing stands alone or is a law unto itself. Every part is
bound by the God-ordained order of creation.
Because of his rich personality full of conflicting tendencies Dürer is
not easy to analyse or understand, but his perception of the world is
rooted in a solid, Bible-believing background and comes across as
sound and true. That wholesome understanding is what makes his art so
rich and full. Even when he allows his fantasies free rein and depicts the
most unusual stories or imagines the things that John might have seen
on Patmos, his art always retains a sense of ‘normalcy’; it never becomes
forced, weird, or contrived.
In 1495, and again from 1505–1507, Dürer travelled to northern
Italy. The journey through Tyrol and the Austrian mountains had a
strong influence on his landscape art. He captured some of it in a
number of watercolours (most of which are housed in Vienna) which
clearly show his growing insight into the structure of the landscape and
especially into the portrayal of space.
In contrast with the more or less construed and schematized
landscapes of the fifteenth-century Dutch artists, Dürer’s thoroughly
natural representation is a large step forward in the technique of
landscape drawing. He gives ample evidence of his mastery of this
technique in his gorgeous copper engravings, which quickly became
famous and were freely imitated. We especially want to point out his
portrayal of fortresses built on rocky cliffs. He had seen these on his
journeys through Tyrol and was such an expert on the subject of
fortification building that he even authored a book on the topic. The
picture that springs readily to mind today when we imagine an ideal
castle has been largely shaped by Dürer’s art. After all, have we not been
familiar since childhood with his creations through reproductions and
in works of better and worse quality by his many followers? You should
really try to see some of Dürer’s original engravings and woodcuts. Enjoy
especially the utterly wholesome and sound poetry of his panoramas
which reveal not only the majesty of the natural world but also the most
minute details – a blade of grass or a lizard. (Has any other artist even
come close to Dürer’s skill in depicting animals?) The many details are
never imposing or intrusive but always keep to their own humble place.
It was not only, or even primarily, his innovations in the field of
landscape art that earned Dürer his fame. His incredible engravings and
woodcuts will always be his most famous legacy, and it is in these that he
has never been surpassed. To understand these graphic works of art, we
will diverge for a moment to explain something of the technique and
history of this art form.
Graphic art uses a variety of specific techniques to make multiple
copies of an artwork. The oldest of these techniques is the woodcut. We
know that the Chinese were acquainted with this process – in Central
Asia, for example, a huge library was discovered of printed books
decorated with woodcuts, probably dating back to the seventh century
after Christ. Most likely, however, this technique was not directly carried
from there to Europe. Rather, it was independently discovered here. The
earliest known European woodcuts date back to the 1400s, although it is
uncertain whether the honour of having created the first woodcuts on
this continent belongs to Germany or to France. Still, it was not so much
a discovery as a new application of a familiar technique, because already
by the end of the 1300s people were making printed fabrics – i.e. fabrics
to which the colours and motifs were applied with ‘blocks’. When we
remember that this technique was adopted from the Byzantine tradition,
it seems possible that in a roundabout way the Chinese technique of
woodcuts came to us in the West via the Byzantine route. Thus, it may be
that Europeans just came up with the idea of applying this process to
books and prints. It was such an inexpensive process that an almost
infinite number of copies could be produced in this way.
At first this art form was used almost exclusively for making prints of
devotional pictures – an unpretentious form of folk art. The woodcut
was also used to illustrate books, but in this case it hardly rose above the
level of a handcraft. It was Dürer who finally figured out how to use this
process to create art of the highest quality. It seemed that in a very short
time he developed the technique to a standard that it seldom reached
again. Because of Dürer the woodcut also became Germany’s art form
par excellence in the early sixteenth century, and whenever this
technique has been revived, Dürer and his contemporaries have served
as the main source of inspiration.
The process of making a woodcut is based on the concept of relief
printing. One takes a piece of wood and carves out everything that is
meant to be white on the finished print. Thus the lines stand out like
narrow ridges. Next ink is applied to the block, which is then pressed
onto a sheet of paper so that the ink-soaked ridges make their marks on
the paper.
It is fairly certain that the art of copper engraving or etching was
discovered in Germany in the years just prior to the mid fifteenth
century. It involves the process of intaglio, whereby the artist engraves
lines in the copper plate using a burin (a kind of engraving tool). When
ink is applied to the plate, it runs into the grooves, which then make
black marks when pressed against the paper. This process, much more
difficult than the woodcut, had already been used in the fifteenth
century by a number of master artists; among them Schongauer is
deservedly the most famous. Once again, Dürer managed to carry this
art form to new heights of excellence, and perhaps his work set the
highest standards for what can be done in this genre. He has never been
surpassed and has seldom been equalled. It is a process that allows the
artist to draw incredibly fine lines and intricate details. One can do no
better than to see some original Dürer prints, which can be found in the
print galleries in the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague, or in Leiden or
Amsterdam, for example. The treasures lie there just waiting to be
discovered. Reproductions can give only a very relative impression of the
actual quality of the artwork, since it seems that the precision and
fineness of the lines and the deep black colours can never be
satisfactorily reproduced.
Then we have etching. Apparently this technique was first used by
weapon-smiths, who used it to create elaborate decorations on
harnesses, etc. Taking a metal plate, one coats it with a thin layer of wax,
scratches the desired image into that wax using a needle, and then
immerses the plate in an acid-bath. The acid only eats away the areas
where the wax has been scratched off and thus the image is engraved on
the metal plate. One can then use that metal plate to make copies; this
process is one that we call intaglio. The advantage of etching is that one
can draw in the wax, as it were, so that the lines can be much more
flowing and free than is possible with the much more difficult
techniques of woodcutting and copper engraving.
The first etchings were produced around 1500. Dürer used this
technique too, on occasion. But stylistically his etchings are closely
related to the copper engravings. It was not until the seventeenth
century, especially in the work of Rembrandt, that this technique gave
rise to a new genre of art with its own unique character.
An example: Dürer’s Cannon of 1518
It was hard to choose an artwork to discuss in this article, since Dürer’s
body of work is so incredibly vast. We selected this particular etching of
a cannon in a landscape because it gives a good impression of Dürer’s
skill as a landscape artist.
Notice the spacious breadth of the panorama. Notice how vivid and
detailed the images are without ever becoming overly fussy – is that not
how we actually experience reality? It all looks so natural that there is
hardly anything to say about it – explanation is not really needed. But
the extraordinary quality of the work is certainly not commonplace,
make no mistake about that. Notice how Dürer places the little town on
the plain – so naturally, without anything being squashed – just the way
things really appear to us. The wide pastures and mountain slopes
spread themselves out beautifully in the distance, interspersed
occasionally with a grove of trees. On the left we see a lake or the ocean
with little ships sailing on it; many more lie in the harbour of a town of
which we can see only the faint outlines. Take note too of the wonderful
play of light and dark across the print, contributing not only to a lovely
and responsible composition, but also giving each area the proper
emphasis and the appropriate contrast with the other parts.
In the foreground we see a large cannon: it, too, has been rendered
appropriately and vividly. Dürer was interested in just about anything,
and there was no area of reality he considered beneath his dignity. He
had an interest and a loving concern for the world around him – a rare
thing for artists today. The cannon has been magnificently incorporated
into the whole, and portrayed in a way that is not at all contrived or
forced. It is anything but a technical working plan, despite the
technically precise and fine details. Notice the man with the turban
standing there looking at the cannon – once again we can point to the
ease with which these figures move, the naturalness of their pose, the
artistically flawless way in which they have been placed: they really do
stand with both feet on the ground. We are reminded that during the
time this print was made (1518) a war with Turkey was raging.
Undoubtedly there is much more to see in this marvellous print,
which in the original measures 22 x 33 cm. We see here in a completely
convincing way a portrayal of reality, in which everything is in its proper
place, nothing has been overdone, but neither are there any ‘empty
spots’. All of the elements have been woven into a composition that ties
together the individual parts, the play of lines on the surface and spatial
dimensions. The landscape is not just depicted but has become a poem
with its own unique rhythm and sound.
Originally published in Dutch in Stijl 1, 9, 1952.
Published in English in M. Hengelaar-Rookmaaker (ed.): H.R. Rookmaaker: The Complete Works 4, Piquant – Carlisle, 2003. Also obtainable as a CD-Rom. and