Diverse ages captured in one lively arena
It might seem a little inappropriate to claim that the artist who painted one of the most wholesale, relentless, multitudinously detailed battle pictures ever painted was a sublimely inspired visionary. Yet the rather few paintings by Altdorfer that have come down to us more than suggest that this Bavarian painter did have an intensely vivid and distinctive vision of the world -- and of humanity's place in it. He pictured the world, in a different way from any other artist -- as an infinitely extensive arena. Mankind's dramas were not so much diminished by this vastness as shown to be only one part of it. A visionary can perceive in nature something of the unspoiled essence of creation. Altdorfer evidently found himself unable to see human beings as egocentrically prominent because hill, sea, sky, forest, sun, moon and cloud were so much more overwhelming.
One of his pictures is called "Virgin amidst Angels" and it fancifully shows her "in glory" seated on a cloud surrounded by a host of angels. This musical crowd recedes into a magical distance where it becomes no more than hundreds of bright spots: figures merge into atmosphere. E. H. Gombrich has described the way Altdorfer ". . .leads the willing beholder from the charming angels in the foreground to more and more indistinct shapes and thus makes him project a vision of infinite multitudes. . . ."
"Infinite multitudes": it is the incalculable and numberless, the superabundant aspects of things, which must have struck Altdorfer with a force amounting to a revelation. He observed and painted, with great imagination, this countlessness in different forms: in the teeming angels, in the tremendous visual exploration of tree leafage in his "St. George in the Forest" where innumerable leaves, painted with meticulous and zealous delight, climb height upon height above the small horseman's serpent-killing exploit, in the fantastical profusion of architectural elements in a building that completely swamps the human story of his "Susannah at the Bath," and in the painting shown here, the "Victory of Alexander the Great over Darius, King of the Persians, at the Battle of Issus."
It is of course a picture that can be seen purely on the level of a celebration of heroism, valor and conquest. It is packed with color, spectacle and movement, sufficient to out-Hollywood Hollywood. The triumph of the Macedonian warrior is central to the drama, is in fact the climax of a battle narrative told in paint with inexhaustible thoroughness and undisguised excitement. There is little to suggest that the painter felt or wanted to express horror at the bloodletting and crude slaughter in a battle that traditionally is supposed to have disposed of over 110,000 men. Everything points to the enthusiasm with which he painted every possible detail of the battle. A measure of this enthusiasm is also shown in the fact that he rejected the honorable office of mayor of Augsburg specifically to paint the picture which had been commissioned to decorate a Bavarian Duke's "pleasure palace." It seems to have been painted with pleasure in order to give pleasure.
But this amazing, quivering masterpiece is considerably more than magnificent entertainment: it is above all impassioned painting.m I believe it can be seen -- in spite of the immense battle drama -- in terms of pure landscape painting. Altdorfer is often described as one of the earliest exponents of pure landscape in Western art, and "Alexander's Victory" shows how even this memorable clash of arms is dwarfed by a larger, more universal drama. The artist has miraculously perceived that this bristling tangle of charging and retreating soldiery is less significant in universal terms than the contending elements in the billowing and surging skyscape above, or the primitive mountainous land and seascape beyond (thrown up by a geological cataclysm that the viewer is made to feel can only have occurred recently).
Every detail in this painting seems an equal particle in the same grandiose conception. Everything feeds everything else. There are endless analogies to be found between different forms in it, producing emphasis in the same way that similes and metaphors echo and repeat in Shakespeare's verse: the pinnacles of the various buildings, the frequent banners lifted sharply above the sea of fighting men, the peaks of the mountains stretching away to the crack of doom, the piercing rays of the triumphant sun, even the tents clustered in the fields -- all seem to imitate each other, amounting to a strong visual intensity and unity.
The artist and the viewer are both placed in the elevated position of an overseeing commander. Perhaps this is why Napoleon so loved the painting. He could only have seen armies as pawns in a grand design, the glory of victory reverberating through the universe. The soldiers have no significance except en masse. The individual is lost in the whole. This, artistically, is Altdorfer's view as well, and his special vision. But it is a glory rather different from a military one. Three hundred years before Van Gogh, he glimpsed something of the ecstasy in landscape which the nineteenth century visionary was to express so explosively. The thousands of lances might just as easily have been blades of grass in a summer field, caught by the sudden ferment and perturbation of a thunderstorm.