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This article is taken from PN Review 215, Volume 40 Number 3, January - February 2014.

Pictures from a Library 12: Burgkmair
Prefiguring in Print: Burgkmair's Experiments in Etching
Stella Halkyard
Hans Burgkmair Venus and Mercury etched on paper

Hans Burgkmair, Venus and Mercury, etched on paper, c.1520, Holtorp Collection. Reproduced by courtesy of the University Librarian and Director, The John Rylands Library, The University of Manchester.

Set within a sylvan glade, the foreground of this scene is conjured from myth. The Roman goddess of love, Venus, voluptuous and naked, is pictured prodding, with some force, the chest of the sleeping Mercury with the butt of one of her son Cupid's arrows of desire. Feathered and blindfolded, Cupid's corpulent form dangles above her head, his quiver empty. Caught in an uncharacteristically indolent moment, Mercury, the messenger of the gods, sleeps soundly, his arm resting on the stump of a tree, his winged sandals stilled, his caduceus limp.

The composition of these figures, drawn as they are from classical antiquity, reveals a closely observed knowledge of anatomy and gesture in an almost mannered style. They carry the hallmarks of a work by an Italian master of the High Renaissance. They have, however, been produced by the painter and virtuoso printmaker Hans Burgkmair, who, alongside Albrecht Dürer, Lucas Cranach, Albrecht Altdorfer and Matthias Grünewald, belongs to the highest echelons of the canon of early sixteenth-century German art. Burgkmair became a master in 1498 before travelling to Venice where he learned, and assimilated, the new Italian style, which he deployed through his artistic practice to create the kind of art which had not been seen in Germany before.

Yet it is perhaps the image of the tiny landscape that hovers in the middle distance, framed within the curve of Venus' left arm, that piques the curiosity most. With its minuscule turrets and towers, exactly delineated, this miniature place is readily recognisable as Burgkmair's home city of Augsburg. It forms the perfect setting for Burgkmair's experiment with etching. Originally, etching had been used as a technique to decorate iron or forged steel armour, but in the great arsenal of Augsburg it was transformed into a medium for making prints. This particular etching represents the one and only time Burgkmair used this technique. Moving from using steel plates to copper, it took the masters of Northern Europe a long time to understand all the possibilities etching had to offer as a medium. Depsite Burgkmair's seeming dissatisfaction with the new technique his instincts in experimenting with it were on the right lines, for it was through the emergence of the new genre of landscape that the full potential of etching was first realised.

stella halkyard

This article is taken from PN Review 215, Volume 40 Number 3, January - February 2014.

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