Saturday, November 20, 2010

Albrecht Durer's "Adam And Eve" Engraving (Two States); Adam And Eve Cocktail

Albrecht Durer, Adam And Eve, 1504, Engraving (trial impression before completion of the plate, second stage)

    When I came across this early stage impression of Albrecht Durer's famous Adam And Eve engraving two days ago, I was in a funny mood and, rather than looking at it seriously and "for itself" initially, I considered (for reasons I think are easy to understand looking at this compellingly uncompleted work) what sort of jokey caption I might apply to it -- something along the lines of "Not Feeling Completely Yourself These Days?" or "Scenes From A Marriage".  Fortunately, the feeling quickly passed.

     It had been some time since I paged through my wonderful Dover collections of Durer's woodcuts and intaglio work and, while I hadn't forgotten what a master Durer was (that would be like forgetting the most basic facts of life), his greatness as a print maker immediately hit me again like a tidal wave and it was very difficult to put the books and images down.

Albrecht Durer, Self-Portrait at 28, 1500, Oil painting on panel, Alte Pinakotech, Munich

     Connecting my impressions to my memories, I thought back to the best art history course I took in college and graduate school, Robert Walker's Master Print Makers seminar at Swarthmore College. What most distinguished the course (which was as in-depth a survey as one could hope for in the history of graphic art) was the fact that we spent about half our time at the Lessing Rosenwald Collection in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, one of the finest print libraries in the world, experiencing and learning to work with original works of art on the most intimate terms possible.

 Albrecht Durer, Self-Portrait at 13, 1484, Drawing, Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna

     At the Rosenwald, we had access to everything -- Durers, Callots, Rembrandts, Goyas, Daumiers, Redons, as well as 20th century works by Picasso, Matisse and other master graphic artists. We learned so much from the good and patient teaching, but the greater lesson was learning to look hard and intensely focusing and training our eyes studying these great, small-scale works.

     Prints (at least before the advent of large-format 20th century fine art lithography) are by their nature an intimate medium.  They mostly take the form of book-size pages that can be held (carefully) in the hand, which need to be seen up-close to be fully legible. (Using a magnifying glass to examine woodcuts, engravings, etchings, drypoints and monotypes is commonplace.)  For a 20-year old, being afforded this kind of proximity to a broad range of Albrecht Durer's graphic work was overwhelming. Like Durer's own 15th and 16th century contemporaries, it was immediately apparent to me that I was in the presence of genius: a brilliant, original, inventive mind who possessed eyes and hands capable of the greatest power, dexterity, precision and judgement.

Albrecht Durer, Wing of a Roller, ca. 1512, Watercolor and gouache on vellum, Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna

     Intense study of Durer could easily and profitably occupy a lifetime.  As is universally known, Durer was equally accomplished and displayed surpassing talent in every artistic medium (painting, drawing, watercolors, print making) he essayed and he was as prolific as he was prodigious.   Shortly after my seminar concluded, I decided to devote at least a year to  Durer and his world by applying for a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, an unusual scholarship set up by the children of the founder of IBM in his name.  Now, as then, the Watson Fellowships award a generous stipend to American students for a year of travel outside the U.S. to pursue "non-practical", i.e., not strictly academic or purposeful, goals.  No tangible output of any kind is required of Watson recipients and the travelers are specifically barred from engaging in any kind of outside, paid employment during the fellowship year.  The idea is simply to pursue the idea that got you the grant for your own edification.  It's easy to see why students found this a very attractive program. 

Albrecht Durer, Portrait of Elizabeth Tucher, 1499, Oil painting on panel, Staatliche Kunstsammlung, Kassel

     I formed a plan to ferret out and try to follow the route and activities Albrecht Durer pursued beginning in about 1490 during his wanderjahr, the traditional period following completion of a formal apprenticeship when newly minted "journeymen" craftsmen seeking to attain "master" status in their fields traveled away from home to broaden their skills and hone their art.  I planned to use some of my stipend money to purchase  portable video equipment, which had recently become available in the artist/hobbyist consumer market, to record my journey and make a sort of art piece of the experience.  Because many of the details of Durer's wanderjahr were (and in fact still are) shrouded in mystery, I thought my idea had all the elements of a great and fundable Watson project -- imaginative, worthy-sounding, impractical.  I worked hard on the proposal and believed in it passionately.

Albrecht Durer, Nemesis or Fortuna, 1502, Engraving

     At this point, I can't remember who I lost out to, but I clearly recall that their ideas seemed more straightforward and obviously socially redeeming than mine. (The lesson to be learned here, I believe, is  Never Believe The Advertising.)  I was briefly crestfallen, but was somewhat consoled when the artist husband of an art history professor at the college told me that he liked my idea a lot and had been rooting for me.

     Now that I seem to be approaching new mystery plateaus in life, perhaps the door is still open to make the trip. As I said, so much is still unknown and Durer, like all great artists, is inexhaustible.

Albrecht Durer, Adam And Eve, 1504, Engraving

While we're still with Adam And Eve, I thought it would be useful to present an excerpt from Walter L. Strauss's notes on the finished work.

After that, it's time for drinks:

1.  Adam And Eve:  "Mentioned in Durer's diary of his trip to the Netherlands, 1520/21, on three occasions.  According to Zahn, the conscious application for the first time of a set of rules of proportion explains why these figures have a rigid pose, contradictory to the essence of Durer's concept of nature.  The disagreeable impression is compensated only by the mastery of technique. Thausing asserts that 'this brought Durer before the world in full consciousness of his power, as indisputably the greatest master of the burin', while Kohler remarks that 'it is equally certain that the biblical story served the artist only as a pretext for presenting the nude, both male and female, according to the best lights he then had, based on Apollo Belvedere and on Venus. Nowhere else has Durer treated the flesh with such caressing care, using much fine dotting in the modeling, and in no previous plate has he used such a variety of textures in the conscious striving for color.'"

Adam And Eve Cocktail

2.  Adam And Eve Cocktail

1 oz. brandy
1 oz. gin
1 oz. Forbidden Fruit liqueur (see note below)
1 dash lemon juice

Directions:  Shake ingredients with ice and strain into a cocktail glass.

Note: "Forbidden Fruit liqueur" is a now defunct, once highly regarded, proprietary American brandy-based, pomelo-based liqueur, which was light amber in color and slightly sweetened with honey.  I think a reasonable substitute might be grapefruit (pink grapefruit sounds nice) juice fortified with a small amount of vodka or a dry vermouth or fino sherry, slightly sweetened with simple syrup, or even substituting something like Lillet, the French aperitif.  If pomelos are available, use those of course.

Pomelo (also known as Citrus grandis, Citrus maxima, shaddock, Chinese grapefruit, shabong, lusho fruit, pomelmous and பம்பரமாசு).


  1. Why, thank you for sending this. And please visit again soon. Curtis

  2. Dear Acravan,
    Enjoyed your writing! Am a Dürer fan since forever.
    I curated an exhibition on the Apocalyptic Woman on her 500th. Anniversary last year.

    M. Gallac
    Caracas, Venezuela

  3. Dear M. Gallac, Thank you for writing. It's very kind of you. Please let me know more about your exhibition. I've never been to Caracas, but would love to visit. As you can no doubt tell, I share your feelings. Discovering Durer, a lifetime's activity, is part of discovering yourself for some of us. Although the bright light of genius shines fearfully bright, he is the most humane of artists and invites you to know what's going on in your mind. As I get older, I find that my old fantasies about meeting certain people get discarded. I would love to have met Durer and seen him going about his day(s). There may be other things on this blog you find interest you; I try to keep it varied. It's very nice to hear from you. Please let me know more. Curtis