Albrecht Altdorfer, grand master of engraving, at the Louvre

To say that Albrecht Altdorfer, a German Renaissance painter and printmaker, is unrecognized is an understatement. Rented therefore either the Louvre Museum, which is organizing the first major exhibition devoted to it in France. Until January 4, 2021, it brings together around a hundred works, paintings, drawings, engravings, which is no small feat. However, a feeling of frustration arises during the visit.

It is not due to the curators of the exhibition: Hélène Grollemund, Olivia Savatier Sjöholm, from the Louvre, and Séverine Lepape, from the Cluny Museum, did what they could, and in the delicate conditions due to the pandemic . But to exhibit an old master, especially if he painted on sensitive and fragile wooden panels, is to know that we are going to deprive ourselves of masterpieces. They assume it and compensate for it, however, thanks to an accumulation of works that deserve our attention.

Exhibiting an old master is knowing that we are going to deprive ourselves of masterpieces

The great absentees, therefore: Xavier Salmon, director of the graphic arts department of the Louvre, shares with us, in the exhibition catalog, his emotion at the discovery of the altarpiece of the convent of Saint-Florian, near Linz in Austria. A few weeks ago, our collaborator Philippe Dagen described his to us in front of The Battle of Alexander, kept in Munich. These paintings have remained on their respective walls.

Read the story (in the summer series “My cult works”): Albrecht Altdorfer’s Death Field

Fortunately, the Albertina Museum in Vienna, partner of the exhibition, was able to make up for these absences with generous loans. And above all, what made the success of Altdorfer, what contributed to the extraordinary dissemination of his work during his lifetime, engraving, is indeed present. There, the one who was considered a “little master” reveals himself to be a great artist. Of which very little is known.

Neither when he was born (probably around 1480), nor where (perhaps in Altdorf, perhaps in Amberg). He appears on the shelves of art history when he obtains the right of bourgeoisie in Regensburg, in 1505. In 1513, he worked so well that he was able to acquire a house there, then take on growing responsibilities in the management of city affairs. When he died in 1538, he left an important work of which 80 paintings, 250 prints and a hundred drawings remain today.

Triumphant nobles

It is on this graphic work that we must linger: Altdorfer with the haughty hand, the twirling pencil, the light pen. Nowhere can we see it better than in his engravings: those with the burin are, if not laborious, at least constrained by the instrument. The gesture must be controlled, mastered. Etching, on the contrary, makes it possible to sharply scratch the varnish covering the plate, where the acid will bite. The woods finally, allow all the fantasies: it is not he who cuts them, but specialized craftsmen. Some testify to lost talents and astounding precision. And a whole world is revealed in sometimes tiny formats.

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