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Albrecht Dürer


Albrecht Dürer’s The Knight, Death and the Devil, 1513. Photograph: The Whitworth, The University of Manchester, Photo:Michael Pollard

An artistic phenomenon: how Albrecht Dürer revolutionised the world of design

This article is more than 9 months old

In the first major exhibition of its Dürer collection in half a century, the Manchester’s Whitworth is showcasing game-changing art by the German artist – and the objects that inspired him

Industrialists have always used their wealth to buy and collect great art. But something more was going on when the textile magnates of late 19th- and early 20th-century Manchester began to collect prints made by Albrecht Dürer.

Dürer, the great artist of 15th- and 16th-century Renaissance Nuremberg, adopted techniques in the new field of printmaking, and his art embraced the revolutionary products emerging from the economically dynamic world around him. So his work was not only artistically prestigious, but also exemplified a sense of innovation that chimed with the Manchester factory owners, who prided themselves on being at the cutting edge of manufacturing process.

It was these collectors who went on to establish the Whitworth art gallery in Manchester in 1889, and many of their artworks later became the bedrock of its permanent collection – including a number of Dürer’s woodcuts, etchings, and engravings on paper. These holdings are now the subject of a new exhibition at the gallery, the first showing of its Dürer collection in more than half a century.

“Dürer’s engagements with travel, and with nature, have been very well covered over the years,” says co-curator Edward H Wouk. “So we wanted to examine his material world: the objects that featured so prominently in his life and work.”

In the show, Dürer’s prints are juxtaposed with many of the things he depicts: from books and textiles to armour, ceramics, scientific instruments, timepieces and furniture. That he should portray contemporary technologies so readily is understandable. The son of a goldsmith, from a family of metalworkers, Dürer grew up in a Nuremberg that was a hotbed of invention and manufacture. There was also a sense of internationalism – Dürer’s family came from what is now Hungary – and the city was a place where the worlds of science, trade and ideas collided.

Dürer’s genius also extended into the commercial sphere, and he had an astute appreciation of the possibilities offered by the new technology of print production. While a painting is a single object in a single space, prints can be everywhere, and he used their ubiquity to widely promote himself and his work. He had an equally astute appreciation of protecting the ownership of his work, which had been quickly pirated. He is reputed to have brought an early example of an intellectual property lawsuit, and his AD monogram, used to identify his work, became one of the most recognisable symbols of his age.

It is easy to see how this dazzling combination of design, manufacture, marketing and, ultimately, profit, was attractive to the business community. But behind it all was an artistic phenomenon. Dürer’s depiction of the material world around him, from mundane tools such as scissors and drinking vessels to instruments for calculating planetary movement, still evoke both familiarity and wonder.

“It’s an engagement with a world that is convincing and recognisable,” Wouk says. “He projects the tremendous emotional resonance these objects have for people, whether they acquire them, display them or simply use them.”

Four more works from the exhibition …

 Photograph: Michael Pollard/The Whitworth/ University of Manchester

Albrecht Dürer’s Nemesis (The Great Fortune), c1501
The goddess holds a golden Nuremberg goblet similar to those designed and produced in Dürer’s father’s shop. In depicting this luxurious object, he advertises not only his father’s trade, but also his own facility for representing such luxury.

 Photograph: Michael Pollard/The Whitworth/University of Manchester

Albrecht Dürer’s Saint Jerome in His Study, 1514
Dürer’s depiction of everyday objects in traditional images of Christian devotion transports the mythical into the realm of the immediate. Here Jerome, the translator of the Bible into Latin, is surrounded by the latest products of contemporary Nuremberg: bound books, a brasswork candlestick, furniture.

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 Photograph: Michael Pollard/The Whitworth/ University of Manchester

Albrecht Dürer’s Melencolia I, 1514
This study has been subject to many different interpretations, but at its heart is the abundance of contemporary measuring instruments: a sandglass, dividers, scales, ruler and other objects reflect a world in which people’s lives were increasingly subject to precision in time and measure.

 Photograph: Michael Pollard/The Whitworth/ University of Manchester

Lucas Kilian’s Portrait of Albrecht Dürer, 1608
This portrait of Dürer, made by the German engraver Lucas Kilian 80 years after the artist’s death, speaks to his enduring fame. Dürer’s understanding of new technologies allowed for unparalleled promotion of his skill and reputation. He was not the first printmaker, but was the first to attain celebrity.

Albrecht Dürer’s The Knight, Death and the Devil, 1513 (main image)
Dürer was from a family of metalworkers and this enigmatic study – one of his most famous prints – is illustrative of his keen interest in contemporary armour. In the exhibition it is presented alongside 16th-century armour borrowed from the Royal Armouries museum in Leeds.

Albrecht Dürer’s Material World, The Whitworth, Manchester, to 10 March.