Durer, Met Nudes of Patti Smith, Hermaphrodite: Review

"Self-Portrait, Study of a Hand and a Pillow (recto)" by Albrecht Durer. The drawing is on view in the show "Durer and Beyond" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through Sept. 3. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art via Bloomberg

Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) and his wife did not get along.

She thought he was a “craftsman who produced pictures as a tailor made coats and suits,” according to Durer’s biographer Erwin Panofsky.

Frau Durer was wrong: her husband, rarely home, was the most prolific, inventive and influential artist of the Northern Renaissance.

“Durer and Beyond: Central European Drawings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1400-1700” demonstrates the German master’s preeminence.

Taken from the Met’s holdings, the handsome, chronological show of some 100 drawings is complemented by prints, illustrated books and decorative objects such as stained glass. The artists were all working in the Holy Roman Empire -- basically today’s Austria, Germany, Switzerland and the Czech Republic.

The star of the exhibit is undoubtedly Durer. He is the linchpin who brought Northern European innovations south and Italian innovations north.

In astounding drawings of the Holy Family, musical angels, a female nude, the head of a woman, a self-portrait and several studies of a pillow, Durer’s assured hand softens High Gothic angularity with Italian naturalism and classicism.

Artist as Christ

We can also sense in his figures the first stirrings of the psychological portrait. In his unfinished oil painting “Salvator Mundi” (c. 1504-5) the artist depicts his own strong, sensitive face, penetrating eyes and beautiful, curly locks, holding the orb and raising his hand in blessing, as Christ -- as “Savior of the World.”

Yet the exhibit also sheds light on the broad spectrum of Northern European masters, including Albrecht Altdorfer, Hans Baldung, Martin Schongauer, Hans Holbein the Younger and Lucas Cranach the Elder.

“Beyond Durer” begins strongly but is stretched a little wide and thin. Throughout, however, are surprises and worthy oddities, such as an anonymous German artist’s watercolor “Male Nude Lying on a Table (c. 1567). It seemingly bridges Mantegna’s foreshortened “Dead Christ” far beyond Durer, all the way to Modernist Surrealism.

‘Naked Before the Camera’

Just around the corner from “Durer and Beyond” is the Met’s “Naked Before the Camera,” a show of approximately 90 photographs of the nude, in which there is something to please practically every taste.

You can’t miss the entrance, where “naked” spelled out in electric lights seems to be advertising a peep show rather than a serious exhibition at the Met. Inside the intimate, chronological exhibition are some bizarre pictures that suggest sideshow attractions.

There is Nadar’s graphic, medical photograph “Hermaphrodite” (c. 1890), albums of gruesome crime scenes and rare skin diseases, images of scantily clad Pygmies and Zulu girls, as well as the dreamy, stereoscopic daguerreotype “Woman Reclining on a Lounge” (c. 1854). Taken by an anonymous French photographer, it is the raciest picture on view, since the reclining woman is also pleasuring herself.

The strength of this show is in its variety, as told through one medium and one theme. It includes numerous approaches to the nude -- anatomical, ethnographic, forensic, documentary, sexual as well as through the prism of identity and gender politics.

Thorough to a fault, especially in works by Jim Jager and Larry Clark, the exhibition sometimes favors diversity over visual quality.

Tackling the Nude

Long before Greco-Roman antiquity, the nude was a charged, popular subject. Vaginas and phalluses were common prehistoric symbols. And a nude, male stick figure is at the center of the earliest extant composition on the wall of the Lascaux caves.

So it is not surprising that at the advent of the medium in the 1820s, photographers almost immediately tackled the nude.

In “Naked,” we get beautiful daguerreotypes in which flesh gleams like porcelain and polished gems, early nudes, both straightforward and erotic and classic poses by Gustave Le Gray and Oscar Gustav Rejlander.

While some of the photographs are almost clinical, others capture the inner life and mystery of Corot’s women in the Met’s adjacent 19th-century galleries.

There are also Eadweard Muybridge’s studies of figures in motion, Diane Arbus’s nudist portraits, the distorted and elongated figures by Bill Brandt and Andre Kertesz, as well as Robert Mapplethorpe’s nude portrait of Patti Smith.

Yet the most compelling 20th-century photographs here are by Brassai, Man Ray, Irving Penn and Edward Weston. In some of these masterworks, the human body suggests landscape, monument and abstract sculpture. These figures are no longer merely “naked” but, in the classical sense, “nude” -- the human body reimagined and reformed.

“Durer and Beyond” runs through Sept. 3, while “Naked Before the Camera runs through Sept. 9 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Information: +1-212-535-7710; http://www.metmuseum.org.

(Lance Esplund is U.S. art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include articles on the Paris Triennale and author Hilary Mantel.

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