Dürer and the Aztecs

Matisse: Drawing Life is a new exhibition at Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art.    Most of the drawings come from the Bibliotheque Nationale de France in Paris, with others from the National Gallery of Australia and elsewhere.  GOMA has curated the exhibition very well – and I just love the ‘Drawing Room’ at the end, where visitors are encouraged to do their own still lifes, either with pencils on paper, or on electronic pads (which had me hooked – I’ve now downloaded Zen Brush to my iPad).

Drawing at the Matisse exhibition, Brisbane

Matisse drawings are often an extreme simplification of form, a reduction to a few telling lines.  They look easy – but get close and you can see where lines were changed or rubbed out as he drew, until he reached that deceptive simplicity.

Matisse Patitcha smiling

Henri Matisse, Patitcha souriante (Patitcha smiling) 1947

Matisse was influenced by non-Western art.  It is hard to imagine Picasso’s art without the influence of African masks.  Matisse too, to a lesser extent, was influenced by North African images, while Rodin was inspired by Cambodian dancers.  All of these exotic images were readily available in Paris or Marseilles, courtesy of French imperialism.

Some artists are content to work within their culture, but others push the boundaries.

In 1520, the German artist Albrecht Dürer travelled from his home in Nuremberg to Antwerp to meet Charles V.  Dürer had worked for Charles’s grandfather, the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian, who had given him a pension, and now he needed to renegotiate this with the new Emperor.  Dürer was nearly 50, an established artist with a wide reputation.

self-portrait in a Fur-Collared Robe

Self portrait, 1500, via Wikipedia

Dürer and his wife and maid left Nuremberg on 15 July 1520, and travelled along the Rhine, through Cologne, to the Netherlands.  To our great benefit, Dürer kept a diary of the trip, listing costs, purchases, people he met and places he saw.

The Netherlands was then the political centre of the Habsburg empire.  Charles V was born and educated in Ghent, part of the Burgundian inheritance that came to him from his grandmother, Mary of Burgundy.  On his other side, though, he inherited the kingdoms of Spain and – the point of this story – the new Spanish Empire in Mexico.

Dürer’s journey coincided with the conquest of the Aztec Empire.  As he set out from Nuremburg, Tenochtitlan was under siege.  It fell on 13 August 1520, and Hernan Cortés and his allies began systematically to loot the city of its treasures.

Meanwhile the painters’ guild in Antwerp hosted a dinner for Dürer:

On Sunday, it was St. Oswald’s day [5 August] the painters invited me to the hall of their guild, with my wife and maid.  All their service was of silver, and they had other splendid ornaments and very sumptuous meats.  All their wives also were there.  And as I was being led to the table the company stood on both sides as if they were leading some great lord.

Cortés sent his Aztec booty back to Charles V, and Dürer was in Brussels when the first objects arrived at the end of August.  It was one of the first serious encounters between an important European artist and non-Western images – and Dürer was blown away:

I saw the things which have been brought to the King from the new land of gold, a sun all of gold a whole fathom broad, and a moon all of silver of the same size, also two rooms full of armor of the people there, and all manner of wondrous weapons of theirs, harness and darts, very strange clothing, bed-covers, and all kinds of wonderful objects of human use, much better worth seeing than prodigies.  These things were all so precious that they are valued at 100,000 florins.  All the days of my life I have seen nothing that rejoiced my heart so much as these things, for I saw amongst them wonderful works of art, and I marveled at the subtle Ingenia [ingenuity] of men of foreign lands.

It would be nice to think that Aztec art transformed Western art as a result of this encounter.  But not one of these objects that fascinated Dürer has survived.  Nobody else saw any intrinsic value in them, and they were melted down for their gold and silver.

Albrecht Durer, Rhinoceros, 1515

Dürer, meanwhile, continued to be fascinated by the world beyond Europe.  He didn’t always get it right – his Rhinoceros (1515) is based on other people’s descriptions – but in his day, he was every bit as innovative as Picasso or Matisse, even using the new print technology to make his work, in the form of etchings, available to a wider audience.  I suspect he would have loved Zen Brush.


5 responses to “Dürer and the Aztecs

  1. Did somebody just read The Economist? 😉

    • As it happens, no, I hadn’t read this article, Portrait of the Artist as an Entrepreneur at the time I posted this. Although the Economist article is dated 15 December, I only came upon it in Zite few days later. When I did read it, I thought about including the link, which I am now doing. sorry, but it’s a matter of great minds thinking alike, not plagiarism, though the economist article is much more detailed – and I’d love to kow who the author is. (The Economist never gives bylines)

  2. The article in The Economist inspired me to have look at Dürer’s things on the net, for which I am grateful. Dürer was, to my mind, just a man who did (stiff) wood cuts and wrote about perspective. Turns out I was wrong (the praying hands are fantastic!) — but he did make some awfully stiff wood cuts for his book on perspective late in his life. I wonder what went wrong?

    Your post made me realize that it’s been over twenty years since I last took a good look at Matisse. Probably something I am going to do over the next few weeks 🙂

    So, thank you!

    (ps: they do sometimes add initials these days, at least on the web.)

    • No luck – I checked, and there are definitely no initials for the article on the website. But Durer is definitely worth a look – posters of his etching of a hare are, I believe, the most popular items on sale in the National Gallery shop. Matisse is worth another look too – though a bit repetitive – once you’ve seen a whole room full of odalesques, you may never want to see one again!

  3. Pingback: Treasures of Afghanistan at the Queensland Museum | Historians are Past Caring

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