Tuesday, August 06, 2013

The ages of man

Let's look again at the self-portrait of the thirteen-year-old Albrecht Dürer. Thirteen years old. For a boy, an epic turning point, a hinge on which a life turns. The age of discovery. Not so much intellectual discovery as a physical awakening, a bodily insistence, an itch that needs to be scratched.

A confusing time. The end of innocence. From that point forward sex will color everything, from the loftiest aspirations of art to the basest expressions of selfishness. Look at the boy's eyes. He is looking at the future, for the first time with apprehension. He feels life pulling him forward with every fiber of his body. He is curious, uncertain.

Am I reading too much into the drawing? Here is another self-portrait, nine years later. The artist is twenty-two. The same eyes, the same mouth. But now his eyes are not averted in inchoate shame. He is handsome, virile, assured of his sexuality but still uncertain of its use. He is looking more directly at the viewer. Knowing, but defiant. He holds a thistle, beautiful but prickly.

And now, age 28, married, mature, successful as an artist. His simmering sensuality is fully on display. He looks directly into our eyes, as is to say "Take me as I am." It is not the artist's sexuality we are aware of, but our own. The thirteen-year-old boy has transformed a mysterious, disturbing urgency into a Godlike power.