Why Albrecht Dürer beats Leonardo, Raphael and Michelangelo

    Imagine it’s 1510. Someone asks you to mount an exhibition devoted to the greatest and most significant artist at work in Europe at the time. Who would you go for?

    Obviously, Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) would be a contender. He’d recently painted the Mona Lisa and with all that scientific brilliance crammed into his notebooks you had to consider him. Then there was Michelangelo (1475-1564). At that very moment he was painting the Sistine ceiling, so you couldn’t very well miss him out. And what about Raphael (1483-1520)? OK, he was the young gun in town, but everyone was already going on and on about the beauty of his work. Who do you go for?

    Before you decide, let me throw another fish into the pond. He’s neither as widely known nor as evidently popular as the aforementioned Renaissance biggies, but forget the allure of Italy for a moment, wrap your imagination in something warm and practical, and focus instead on Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528). Count the things Dürer did that are still influential today.

    First, there was his love of himself. Dürer was the first obsessive self-portraitist. He liked dressing up, posing furiously and pretending he was someone else. You could not be more au courant than that!

    He was also a fierce lover of nature: a conservationist before his time. The breathtakingly beautiful watercolour studies he produced of birds and animals are surely the most impressive observations of nature ever made.

    Then there was his trust in technology: a pioneering faith in mediums of mass communication. Dürer may not have invented woodcuts and engravings, but he was the Renaissance artist who employed, enlarged and progressed these mediums most enthusiastically and creatively.

    If it were 1510 and it were up to me, my choice for the most influential artist of the epoch would be the great multitasker of Nuremberg.

    As fate would have it, what should land on our doorstep just as we are deciding all this but a Dürer show at the National Gallery. Not only that, it’s a show that adds something significant to the above list by focusing on yet another pioneering aspect of his prescient creativity: the hunger to travel. Where Michelangelo and Raphael never left Italy, where Leonardo only managed to hobble over to France as an old man, Dürer was a determined voyager who crisscrossed Europe to learn and teach.

    This peripatetic itch is the focus of Dürer’s Journeys, a complex and demanding display that needs often to be enjoyed a couple of inches away from your nose as you lean in to examine minute details or squint through the blurs of time into the faded and silvery evidence left behind by his exquisitely touched drawings.

    Dürer was fated to be a traveller. His father, whose portrait at the age of 70 is the first work we see (and doesn’t he look good for his age?), was a Hungarian goldsmith who fetched up in Nuremberg when it was one of the most cosmopolitan cities in Europe. Taught the wonders of goldsmithery by his father, Dürer junior had something alchemical and magical running through his fingers. It’s in evidence everywhere here. The hunger to fine-tune it and, I suggest, to show it off is what drove him to travel.

    In a four-year study trip across Europe that took him to all the artistic centres of the German-speaking world, the young Dürer travelled most enthusiastically to Colmar, the city of Martin Schongauer, another unfairly neglected giant of the Northern Renaissance whom we could do with knowing better. Unfortunately, Schongauer had just died. However, his brother let Dürer examine the contents of his studio and from the brief evidence presented here we can see how transformative the experience was.

    Schongauer was a genius printmaker. His touch — made evident here by a dazzling little drawing of Christ as Teacher — seemed to writhe like a basket of snakes as it searched for the most effective way to describe different textures: hair, fur, cloth, flesh. This brilliant search became Dürer’s search as well.

    The show lists his voyages and tries to evoke each of them with combinations of his own work and examples of the art he encountered on the way. In Venice, where he travelled twice, he met Giovanni Bellini and must surely have come across Giorgione, whose poetic moods he tries a mite awkwardly to mimic in the Madonna of the Rose Garlands, a crowded altarpiece painted for a Venetian church featuring a lovely lute-playing angel in the foreground (very Venetian) and Dürer himself in the background, forcing himself into the storyline (very un-Venetian).

    The best recorded journey took him to the Netherlands, where he came into intimate contact with Flemish art — Van Eyck, Gerard David, Bosch — and was both influencee and influencer. The National Gallery’s much-loved The Adoration of the Kings by Jan Gossaert, which will be on a Christmas card near you any moment now, has a greyhound in the foreground borrowed from a Dürer print. This is also the moment in the show when we finally get a glimpse of his genius as an animal artist when he visits the royal menagerie in Brussels and sees lions, monkeys and lynxes for the first time.

    With just a few paintings able to make the journey, his prints are the stars of the show. All his great engravings are here — Adam and Eve, Melencolia, St Jerome in His Study — represented by superbly detailed examples as he sought to democratise the ownership of art and to broadcast his influence far and wide.

    Thus most of the best moments in a show about journeys happen just past the tip of your nose.

    Dürer’s Journeys, National Gallery, London WC2, until Feb 27