The Met’s curators are certainly giving the region more attention. Most of the drawings on view were acquired fairly recently, over the last two decades. Just outside the exhibition, in the Robert Wood Johnson Jr. Gallery, is a spillover show of related drawings, prints and manuscripts that entered the collection too late to make it into the catalog.
“Dürer and Beyond” was organized by Stijn Alsteens and Freyda Spira, curators in the Met’s drawings and prints department. It includes about 100 drawings, supplemented by prints, illustrated books and decorative objects.
The show sets the stage for Dürer with a drawing by an artist he admired, Martin Schongauer, of a man whose upturned gaze is accentuated by the wide brim of his hat. It’s thought to be a character study, but the features are distinct and specific enough to give it the presence of a portrait.
Strong as this image is, it can’t compete with what is probably the Met’s most outstanding drawing by Dürer: his “Self-Portrait and Studies of the Artist’s Hand and a Pillow” (1493). On this sheet of sketches the young artist furrows his brow and purses his lips in a look of withering intensity; he wears the same expression in a famous early self-portrait painting in the Louvre, for which this drawing is probably a study.
Dürer’s “Self-Portrait and Studies of the Artist’s Hand and a Pillow
His head is nonetheless overshadowed by a detailed and disproportionately large rendering of his left hand, and by an incongruous study of a squished pillow that occupies the bottom third of the page. Placed where his chest would be, it reads initially as an oversize heart. On the reverse side of the page (which is displayed in a double-sided frame) Dürer drew more pillows: six in all, scrunched and fluffed in various ways, their folds delineated by fishtail-like areas of cross-hatching.
It’s tempting to linger here and among the other Dürers installed on a nearby wall: the unfinished oil painting “Salvator Mundi” (“Savior of the World”), with its visible underdrawing; a quick and tender sketch of the Holy Family in a garden; a spirited rendering of scampering, musical cherubs. But the show, which is organized chronologically, moves past the early 16th century.
Easing the transition is the gifted Hans Schäufelein, who spent time in the workshops of both Dürer and Holbein the Elder. In his “Portrait of a Man, Bust-Length, Wearing a Hat,” sprightly curls of red chalk give buoyancy to a subject with angular features and a generally serious mien.
As the exhibition works its way through the 16th century, and away from Dürer, it encompasses a bewildering array of styles and subjects. The shift from naturalism to allegory, or from an Italian Renaissance mode to a Netherlandish one, can be disorienting.
Joachim Lüchteke’s “Allegory of Art,” from 1595
Hans Hoffman’s meticulous gouache of a hedgehog and Virgil Solis’s profile of a greyhound, for instance, share a corner with Peter Flötner’s bronze plaquettes of figures representing Charity and Temperance. Nearby is a drastically foreshortened male nude by an anonymous German artist; the pose recalls Mantegna’s “Dead Christ,” but the strong contour lines resemble those in engravings from the Netherlands.
With a bit more clarity this part of the show also delves into the relationship between drawing and the decorative arts in Central Europe, with examples of bronze medals, glass roundels and stained-glass windows. Sixteenth-century drawings by Swiss stained-glass designers like Jost Amman, for instance, look unfinished because the artists did not bother to complete patterns that could easily be reproduced by the glassmakers.
The 17th-century drawings aren’t as compelling. Writing in the catalog, Mr. Alsteens admits that during this period in Central Europe “no dominating personality emerged — no Raphael or Dürer, no Titian or Bruegel, no Rubens or Poussin.” The lack of star power is felt most acutely in the final gallery, of competent but forgettable biblical and mythological scenes.
And so the standout in the show’s final gallery is not a Düreresque genius of a draftsman, but a humble genre painter: Nikolaus Knüpfer. He is represented by two eyebrow-raising treatments of Venus and Cupid, a drawing and a small painting.
In the painting a careless Venus is awkwardly half-seated on her bed, having just knocked over her chamber pot. The drawing is even more outrageous; here, a urinating Cupid misses the pot — possibly on purpose, to judge from his mischievous grin.
Knüpfer is normally considered a Dutch artist; he was born in Leipzig but settled in Utrecht. But his inclusion in this show of Central European drawing, however tenuous, catapults us from the Northern Renaissance into the world of Jan Steen, Gabriel Metsu and Vermeer: the “beyond” in “Dürer and Beyond.”
“Dürer and Beyond: Central European Drawings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1400-1700” continues through Sept. 3 at the Met, (212) 535-7710, metmuseum.org.
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