WASHINGTON, D.C. — Is Albrecht Dürer's "The Great Piece of Turf" (1503) the greatest European drawing ever made?
A definitive answer would require comparison with pretty heady competition over many centuries. But there's no question that the astounding Dürer is right up there near the top.
Some of that competition even comes from the artist himself. At the National Gallery of Art, "The Great Piece of Turf" is installed in a stunning show of 118 Dürer works on paper from the incomparable collection of the Albertina in Vienna. (The show is on view through June 9.) But this humble, exquisitely rendered image in watercolor and gouache showing some dandelions, tangled grass, broadleaf plantain and mud still stands out — a modest sheet of paper as riveting in form and concept as any work of art I have ever seen.
Dürer made it in Nuremberg around the time that Leonardo da Vinci returned to Florence from Milan, where he had completed painting "The Last Supper" fresco. Michelangelo was in town chiseling away at "David," while Titian and Raphael, both under 20, were gearing up to take Venice and Rome by storm. The German artist's drawing, physically speaking, was hardly so grand as the monumental masterpieces of these Italian artists. ("Turf" is 16 inches high and just over a foot wide.) Yet conceptually it is immense.
The drawing's technical mastery is astounding. Watercolor can be an unforgiving medium, allowing for few mistakes. Yet even in the face of this complicated, seemingly chaotic tangle of plants, the 32-year-old artist made no evident missteps.
The viewpoint is head-on, seen from down in the weeds, where a small animal might burrow. We hug the ground. Since it's doubtful that Dürer executed it while lying in a field, he may well have dug up a clod and placed it on a pedestal or table for close observation.
The turf recedes diagonally in his composition, accentuating the spatial expanse. Watery dirt at the bottom partially reflects the stems rising above, further opening up a surprising illusion of open space.
Before now, I hadn't noticed something that suddenly seems crucial: Dürer carves a subtle envelope of interior space within the plants, framed within their natural tracery. Many stems are separated at the bottom but lean toward one another at the top. The grasses rise to a long, asymmetrical peak toward the far end and then briefly descend.
Overall, in other words, the shape suggests a Gothic cathedral. A cathedral made of weeds.
It isn't exactly the Gothic Frauenkirche in Nuremberg, the imposing medieval hall-church in the artist's hometown, but the construction of "The Great Piece of Turf" is virtually architectural. Dürer is celebrating the most humble bits of the natural world, but he is also extolling the power of artistic creation — both human and divine.
That includes his own magnificent drawing. For all the brilliant precision in its objective illusion of real plants, real mud and real water, the ensemble is not set against a realistic backdrop of green fields or blue sky. Instead, Dürer left the surrounding sheet of paper blank. Art is nature's environment. His "church" rises in a place where art and nature are joined in equal measure.
I first saw "The Great Piece of Turf" in the flesh in 1992. The late scholar of drawings Konrad Oberhuber, then director of the Albertina, had generously invited me to come in when I happened to be in town on a day that the museum was closed. "What would you like to see?" he asked.
"Dürer and Schiele," was my no-brainer reply. The Albertina is one of the world's premier collections of European works on paper, first assembled from the 18th century Habsburg collections of Duke Albert von Sachsen-Teschen. Amid the riches, extensive holdings in prints and drawings by German Renaissance master Dürer (1471-1528) and Austrian modern marvel Egon Schiele (1890-1918) are especially noteworthy.
"Follow me," Oberhuber said, and we went into the vault.
He gave me a pair of white gloves, climbed up on a stepstool, reached into a shelf and pulled out a picture frame. Handing "The Great Piece of Turf" down to me, he instructed that I take it into the next room and put it on the viewing easel.
The trip was short, but it may have been the longest walk of my life, convinced as I was that I would stumble, drop the modest-sized drawing and amid the sound of shattering glass, prepare for arrest by the authorities. Seeing the intact watercolor again recently in Washington reminded me of exactly why I was so flustered.
Dürer, as befits a Renaissance polymath in eager pursuit of knowledge, assiduously studied art, science and engineering throughout his life. Unified and inseparable, all commingle in "The Great Piece of Turf." What a great drawing!