London: Dürer’s Journeys @ the National Gallery

Back in London (I mean, I’ve been back in London for ages, but I’ve been posting about Cleveland for the past couple of weeks) at yet another exhibition about an early modern artist, Dürer’s Journeys: Travels of a Renaissance Artist at the National Gallery. I don’t exactly frequent the National Gallery – I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve been there – and I honestly don’t think I’d ever been inside their annexe for special exhibitions before, so this was all new to me. The exhibition runs until the end of February and costs £20 or £10 with Art Pass – the price probably goes some way towards explaining why I hadn’t been to a special exhibition there before this, though admittedly I regularly pay that much at the V&A without complaining too much. I guess I just prefer the V&A as a venue (the proximity of Ben’s Cookies probably doesn’t hurt either).


I mainly know Dürer from his most excellent sketch of a rhino, but if you’re expecting to see that here, prepare to be disappointed. You will, however, get lots of lions instead, in various degrees of derpiness, which is almost as good. The premise of this exhibition was charting Dürer’s journeys around Europe, including the Alps, Venice, and the Netherlands, and the artists he discovered there, which is all well and good, but if you’re from Germany, even back in the 16th century, I don’t know that a journey to the Netherlands is really worth bragging about. Basically, this seemed like an excuse to bulk out the exhibition with pieces by Dutch and Italian artists who were Dürer’s contemporaries and charge £20 for it.


This isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy parts of the exhibition, but I felt that for someone like me, who didn’t really know much about Dürer going in, a bit more context would have been appreciated. Particularly strange was the way the exhibition just sort of ended. There was a room about his painting of St. Jerome with some work by other artists that had clearly been inspired by it, but no signage to conclude the exhibition or indicate the end was nigh. Nothing like, “Dürer died in 1528, and left behind a body of work including blah de blah,” or “Dürer’s legacy is yadda yadda”, just a room full of paintings much like all the others and an arrow pointing to the exit. I actually did a quick stroll around the museum to see if there was another room around the corner that I’d missed or something, it was that abrupt.


But amongst the pieces that were there, I was definitely preferred his woodcuts and engravings to his paintings. The paintings were technically proficient, they were just a little boring compared to really detailed woodcuts of Death or the Apocalypse (except for the painting of the cardinals above the last paragraph, where Dürer stuck himself in the background. I like how he’s staring directly at the viewer (long haired beardy guy) and he actually looks kind of hot!). Also, Dürer absolutely sucked at drawing children. They were so, so creepy, and I loved it. I honestly think I prefer terrible art to good art, whatever that says about me. And despite the rhino not being included, we did actually see quite a few animal sketches in the end, including a baboon with a glowing pink ass, which I certainly can’t complain about.


But for £20 (or even the £10 I actually paid), I was expecting an exhibition that told more of a story. Whilst most of Dürer’s pieces were great, I like to leave an exhibition feeling that I’ve learned something, which was not the case here. This was possibly my own fault for not paying more attention, but most religious art makes my eyes glaze over (unless someone is being actively martyred or carrying their own severed breasts on a platter. That I can get behind!); since most of the non-Dürer art was generic Renaissancey religious stuff (that was all I saw on the whole of my visit to the Louvre, just an endless corridor of religious art. Ugh. I’m sure there’s good stuff there somewhere, but I never found it!), my attention span was limited. I can only give it 3/5 at best, and that’s being generous and taking the pink baboon bum into consideration.



  1. The title of the exhibition sounded great, and I was about to be jealous (again!), because I also love the details in his wood cuts, and the title makes it sound like they would be giving details about how his travels influenced his work. To bad it didn’t live up to expectations. You’d think with all the emphasis on museum education these days, institutions (especially major ones!) would be better about having a cohesive through-story. But, it’s amazing how often that’s not the case. Very frustrating. I like to learn new stuff at exhibits, too. A well interpreted exhibit can make almost any subject interesting (or the opposite for one done poorly).

    1. To be fair, they did talk a little bit about that, just not to the extent I was expecting, and it was written in a really boring way, so I didn’t properly take it in. It was a very dry exhibition, which seems to be in keeping with the tone of the National Gallery – another reason why I barely go there. The same could be said for the permanent collections of Tate Britain, but they generally do a better job with special exhibitions.

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