At the British Museum

Peter Campbell

Drawing, like handwriting, uses a repertoire of lines. One kind of drawing concentrates on the straightness of what is straight, the purity of what is curved, and the perfect spacing and alignment of shading and hatching. In this mode objects are made from marks whose spring and stiffness produce wonderfully energetic textures. The sheet is enlivened, as a field is when the wind bends grass all in one direction. In another kind of drawing the line seems to be shaped by the thing seen, to reach around surfaces rather than outline or decorate them, to be as heavy or light as the thing represented.

Dürer was a draftsman of the first sort, Rembrandt of the second. They were both great printmakers: Dürer an engraver on copper and designer of woodcuts (these techniques happen to be the best for long runs); Rembrandt an etcher, master both of the bitten line and of drypoint – the direct scratching of the plate which can give a strong line, but because the burr is quickly flattened during printing, does not produce many impressions.

That these two ways of drawing – and the kinds of print-making most natural to them – can nourish one another is proved in the exhibition Albrecht Dürer and His Legacy, at the British Museum until 23 March. It includes Rembrandt’s Christ Expelling the Money-Changers from the Temple of 1635 in which the central figure is clearly taken from the woodcut of the same subject in Dürer’s Small Passion of 1509-11. The difference between Rembrandt and Dürer is not just the difference between 17th-century and 16th-century styles. Whole schools and individuals can be assigned places on the gradient that runs from hand-control to eye-control. Van Gogh was a draughtsman of the Dürer kind, Daumier of the Rembrandt variety.

Drawings – even more, prints – of the first kind are much easier to copy than those of the second. They are more like type, less like handwriting. Woodcuts were, anyway, as much tracings as originals: what an artist drew on the block was cut round by a craftsman (Dürer’s engraved lines were made by his own burin). So the great influence he had through the circulation of his prints – both in editions from his own blocks and plates and in copies by others – is the result in part of his mastery of a style which welcomed duplication, and in part of his use of means which facilitated it. Marcantonio Raimondi made very accurate engraved copies of the woodcuts of the Life of the Virgin, and although Dürer was able to get the Venetian authorities to say he had an exclusive right to his AD monogram, these and other examples in the exhibition show that even in the 16th century technology could be an enemy of intellectual property as well as a route to its profitable exploitation.

An engraved, still less a woodcut, line is never tentative. The knife or burin tells it where to go, and the same artist’s drawings and prints can look quite different – the drawings freer, more timid, more shaky. But Dürer’s drawings are not like that: they are decisive, not suggestive and clearly from the same hand as the prints. Even the brush drawings (the beautiful study in grey wash of the hound that reappears in the engraving of St Eustace) are constructed from wiry outlines and wonderfully controlled hatching and stippling in much the same way as the pen drawings and the engravings themselves. The brush is used here as a drawing tool which makes marks as smoothly swelling and fading as those made by a burin as it gradually digs into, and then lifts out of, the copper. Even the charcoal portrait drawings make little use of soft smudges.

The result makes you concentrate on surface rather than structure, on pattern and detail rather than light, shade or movement. Dürer’s prints pull you in; you read them piece by piece. They invite commentary. Peter-Klaus Schuster wrote a two-volume book about Melancholia; the catalogue,[*] which says that the print ‘must be the most written about image in the history of art’ includes a long meditation on it by Günter Grass – the final chapter of his From the Diary of a Snail. The subject of the print is the marriage of creativity and melancholy. A glum angel is surrounded by tools and instruments, a child genius perches at her shoulder, an emaciated dog sleeps at her feet. Equally curious and almost as enigmatic (to choose a few details almost at random) are the huge hanging gourd in St Jerome’s study, the lizard that crawls beneath the armed rider in Knight, Death and the Devil, the monkey in the Virgin and Child with a Monkey and the bathing girls and turbaned Oriental in The Sea Monster, who are so far off as to be no bigger than the foot of the nymph who is resting on the monster’s back. All this probably sounds a bit sinister, but then it is sinister. There are few truly handsome people in Dürer’s work if you except his self-portraits, and that long-ringleted Christ-like face is not to everyone’s taste. The odd slinky nymph has a centrefold lubricity, but not even the female saints or the Virgin herself have winning faces. This was not for want of thinking about beauty. Much of the latter part of his life was spent making studies of human proportion. It is suggested that the constricted neck in one drawing of a standing man shows that he used jointed dolls to study movement, which would explain a stiffness in his figures. His male bodies are more attractive and likely than his female ones, as are his male faces. One famous portrait drawing of a smiling woman is both memorable and disturbing: her bared teeth – ‘laughing’, the catalogue note has it – need not be friendly. Yet a pretty, smooth drawing in the Italian manner of a young woman verges on the porcelain blandness of the faces in paintings by some who reckoned themselves his followers, like the 19th-century Nazarenes. His genius is not to be separated from a need for the grotesque. His woodcut of the Men’s Bath-House, in which one well-muscled man plays a pipe, another a viol of some sort, while an older, fatter one drinks from a lidded stein, and another, in a becoming bath-hat, holds a flower, seems to ask us to think in terms of narcissistic 1960s San Francisco. His genius is to stimulate curiosity.

Stand back a little and the dynamic variety of the scenes in the woodcut series the Large Passion and the Life of the Virgin is tremendous. Like a great stage producer he can make groups of figures work together; like a stage designer he knows how to fold landscape and architecture round them. The exhibition is about his legacy as well as his genius. These compositions fed the European imagination in ways that can be traced in compositions by painters who neither had nor wished for his power to suggest things which twine and slither. Those who emulated him technically, who tried for his linear energy and variety, in particular in Germany in the 19th century, on the whole devalued his currency. The direct borrowing of his images, exemplified in the exhibition by the history of his rhinoceros, which reappeared in prints, illustrations and, most charmingly, surrounded by flowers on a Meissen centrepiece, is a mark of their authority. His woodcut, made from second-hand information, is so well drawn, so well designed, so finely worked out, that long after real rhinos were available for study it held its place as the iconic image. If someone asks you to imagine hands joined in prayer it is his all too famous drawing (it is in the exhibition) which comes to mind. It is a tribute to the quality of his unwavering line that neither has become half as hackneyed as it should have done.

[*] Albrecht Dürer and His Legacy: The Graphic Work of a Renaissance Artist by Giulia Bartrum (British Museum, 320 pp., £35, December 2002, 0 7141 2633 0).