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Friday, May 11, 2012

Albrecht Altdorfer

Albrecht Altdorfer
Albrecht Durer
In today's world, when a war breaks out or a major battle erupts into armed conflict, we are accustomed to the major television networks struggling mightily to cover every minute detail of the military encounter while at the same time trying to impart to those of us lacking in geopolitical astuteness some feeling for what it all means in the greater scheme of things. Careers are made, sleep is lost, indeed, sometimes lives are lost trying to bring it all into focus. History is being made, the course of world events is being irrevocably altered, and more often than not, inside of a week we're all sick to death of hearing about it. Now, imagine the challenge of doing the same kind of in-depth historical coverage almost five hundred years ago. Not only that, but having as your goal, the coverage of a major historic conflict that happened some 2,000 years before that.

Sebastian Altar, 1509-16,
Albrecht Altdorfer, human anatomy
was not his strong suit.
The artist/historian was Albrecht Altdorfer (above, right). If you've never heard of him, don't feel bad, what most people, even artists, know about the Northern Renaissance can be summed up in the work of Albrecht Durer (above, left). Likewise, it's easy to get them confused. They both lived about the same time though Altdorfer was some ten years younger than Durer and to further confuse the issue, borrowed his style from the older German master. Like Durer, Altdorfer was an engraver first, taking up painting only in the final eighteen years of his life. They both had a fine, engraver's eye for detail in their work and both had something of a messianic attitude. There the similarities ceased. Durer was a master at portraiture and the human anatomy. Altdorfer was master of the landscape, probably the first German landscape painter; while his figures, when he employed them in his numerous biblical paintings, were barely adequate at best, often downright amateurish and crude, at worst as seen in the Sebastian Altar (left),  of Linz, Austria.

Alexander's Victory, 1529, Albrecht Altdorfer
His great masterpiece was Alexander's Victory (above), sometimes called The Battle of Issus, painted in 1529.  The comparison between it and modern day news coverage is apt. It's a large work, some 62 inches tall and 48 inches wide, the lower half, covered with such minute detail the word breathtaking is hardly adequate. But equally breathtaking, is the upper half, wherein the landscape transitions from the warm colors of the embattled armies into radiant blues, depicting a sunset sprawled over the craggy landscape of the Red Sea, Egypt, Sinai, and the Persian Gulf. He took it upon himself to depict literally thousands of mounted warriors in full battle regalia with such detail we're tempted to count them as portraits, while at the same time trying to give us a sense of the monumental historic importance of Alexander the Great's victory over Darius III. It was a battle that literally change the course of Western history. Perhaps most unique in this work is the massive entablature seemingly suspended from heaven, inscribed in Latin, further pointing out the significance of the battle while a tassel and rope hang down from it, pointing to the center of the painting where a mounted Alexander, lance in hand, pursues a fleeing Darius. It's a little-known masterpiece that, despite it's heavy, historical content, is actually an exquisitely beautiful painting. CNN could take a lesson or two from Altdorfer.

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