What Durer Can Teach Us In the 21st Century About the Necessity and Nobility of Psychological Maturation

Albrecht Durer, Self-portrait at a Young Age
Albrecht Durer, “Self-Portrait”, 1498 (Self-portrait at a Young Age)

Durer was twenty seven when his self-reflective dialogue with himself found resolution in this self-portrait. For us who live in the 21st century in a condition of being completely engulfed by the external world – from childhood we learn how to function and be successful there, the rules of the social games (and strategies of using them for our own benefit) and how to detour these rules for the same reason – it is not easy to grasp the meaning of composition of this painting where the window (openness to the external world) occupies less than a quarter of the canvass. The rocky landscape emphasizes the relative non-importance of the external world as a periphery of human spiritual sensibility. The world for Durer existed for his anatomical studies-sketches, not for the living human being.

This “mannerist” portrait of himself is remarkable not only because of Durer’s neat hair style or elaborate attire emphasizing the border between the human personality and its surrounding, and hands gloved and occupied with one another to the neglect of the worldly things. The protagonist’s gaze meets the eyes of the world including that of the future without any appeal or even curiosity. We can read in his eyes a lofty narcissistic distance – Durer’s gaze blocks ours, as if, to make a point about the independence of his spirit and the absence of belief in importance of world and other people in the life of an individual.

Durer’s personality irradiates a refined – sublimated vitality which exists in constant rapport with his existential spirituality (containing human bodiliness and embellishing it with slightly auto-philic touch of self-taming). Durer’s face is a point of in-decidability between being handsome and being beautiful. But it’s its intelligence which “cools” the both characteristics and holds back the eroticism of Durer’s self-feeling from being recognized as such by the viewers.

Many, even quite ordinary young men are enveloped by transparent armor of their narcissistic irradiation (may be, as a kind of spontaneous psychologically protective cloud making it easier for the young to go through their youth, the dangerous and risky and, historically, very often, fatal period – the elder males in a position of social power “love” to sacrifice the young in order to upgrade their own power and build wealth and charismatic self-image). But in Durer’s case narcissism is sublimated and made independent from social context. It belongs to the intelligence and grace.

Durer-Self-Portrait, Allegory of a Psychological Maturity Built on the Energies of Youthful Narcissism
Albrecht Durer, “Self-Portrait as a Man of Sorrow”, 1522 (Allegory of a Psychological Maturity Built on the Energies of Youthful Narcissism)

Twenty four years separate and unite the two Durer’s self-portraits. And how drastically his perception of the human life has changed! Do we today know many elder men who can teach us sorrow? Most of them either brag about what they have reached in terms of influence, wealth or professional achievements or express hate for other people whom they see as obstacles for their moving upper in social status. Psychological maturity (of those who are able to reach it instead of continuing to stay childish into old age) is incredibly difficult direction to follow. In “Self-portrait as a Man of Sorrow” Durer is no longer interested in keeping himself well-attired. His hands no longer keep each other. His face expresses distress but of a contemplative nature, not as a personal reference. Durer’s sublime narcissism is completely spent on development of his critical ability to accept the truth about human world and suffer this truth in full.

Because the narcissistic energy of his youthful age was saved by his gracious holistic intelligence from investing itself into (de-sublimated) adventures in the world, it was capable of transubstantiating itself into meaningful grief pared with humility and modesty. While his body is still athletic he no longer has a need for his bodily vitality. But the spiritual energy of his intelligence and humility irradiates through Durer’s life and his art, making him not only an exceptional presence in the history of art but our spiritual teacher today.

*Essay analyzing Durer’s painting the   Albrecht Durer’s (1471 – 1528) “Old Woman With A Bag Of Coins (Greed)” (1507) – Wealthy Person As A Beggar  by Acting-Out Politics where these two self-portraits were used to make his presence more tangible for the reading viewers (but without their analysis), was posted on Aug. 22, 2013.