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D�rer for the People

The end of the world as a Renaissance artist knew it.


D�rer recognized the anxiety in the air and gave voice to it through a series of woodcuts, etchings and engravings. On display now at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts are 83 of D�rer's best-known prints, on loan from the Academy of Visual Arts in Vienna.

The show, "Albrecht D�rer: A Renaissance Journey in Print," is made up mostly of his three major woodcut series, including his famous "Apocalypse" book. Even by today's standards, the imagery in the "Apocalypse" series remains excruciatingly complex, fanciful and jarring. The dense phrasing in the book of Revelations is translated into equally dense illustrations. In one print, D�rer depicts a scene in which a "harlot" sits upon a "scarlet beast which was full of blasphemous names. ... holding in her hand a cup full of abominations." And "The Four Avenging Angels" shows the principal characters on horseback with drawn swords, hacking away at a group of trampled noblemen.

While most of the prints in the show aren't quite as provocative as the "Apocalypse" series, even D�rer's subtler works contain elements of the grotesque. One of the few secular works in the show is a scientific study of "The Sow of Landser," a pig with a conjoined twin on its back. This engraving is placed next to D�rer's famously imaginative rendering "Rhinoceros," which was based upon secondhand accounts of the animal. The intricate patterns on the plates of the Rhinoceros' armor, contrasting with its oddly human eyes, give it the feel of an enormous, benevolent monster.

Perhaps it is this blending of scientific detail with cartoonish distortion that separates Northern Renaissance artists such as D�rer and Hieronymus Bosch with their Southern contemporaries. While Italians like Raphael sought inspiration primarily through antiquity and an idealized form of man, D�rer seems to revel in nature's little imperfections. It is doubtful that an artist in the tradition of the Southern Renaissance would have accentuated, as D�rer did, a gnarled vein in the bulbous forehead found in "Portrait of Philip Melanchthon." These subtle messages of mortality and vulnerability, found time and again in D�rer's work, would have been read loud and clear by the embattled people of his day.

For all of D�rer's obvious talent and unrivaled skill in the medium of printmaking, the exhibit explores another of his abilities: shrewd marketing. With his finger placed keenly on the pulse of the public, D�rer created his "Apocalypse" series just before the dawning of the 16th century when many people were convinced the end of the world was at hand. The series of stirring woodcuts, based on several passages from the book of Revelations, tapped into European angst and made D�rer an instant celebrity among all classes. Because D�rer had published and paid for the series himself, he received all the profits.

Near the entrance of the show, an interesting and informative area has been set up to explain the differing techniques of printing and their implications during the Renaissance. And the museum places due emphasis on D�rer's technical mastery, offering magnifying glasses so that no tiny detail is missed. S

"Albrecht D�rer: A Renaissance Journey in Print" runs through Jan. 9 at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 2800 Grove Ave. The galleries are open Wednesday to Sunday 11 a.m.- 5 p.m. Tickets cost $4-$6.

Style Weekly is sponsoring a special "Halloween After Hours" at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts with a costume contest, "Art from the Dark Side" tours and music by DJ Rick Danger on Oct. 29, 7-10 p.m. Tickets are $10-$13 and include admission to the Durer exhibit. Call 340-1405 for details.

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