Photo of Peter Milton, Frontispiece
The Primacy of Touch (1993)
Peter Milton's Homage
to Albrecht Dürer
in his Interiors I-VII
Etchings (1984-1991)

Peter Y. Chou

Albrecht Dürer

    Peter Milton studied at Yale School of Art & Architecture (1950-1954) under Josef Albers (1888-1976) who wrote Interaction of Color (1975), and painted the series Homage to the Square (1957-1971). In 1962, Milton learned he was color blind and ceased painting in color, and began working as a black & white printmaker. His Interiors I-VII print etchings (1984-1991) are rendered with architectural precision with multi-layered planes. Many are autobiographical, containing literary and allegorical references. Irving L. Finkelstein's article Peter Milton Revisited: A Decade of "Interiors" Prints noted that Milton's Interior V: Water Music (1988) shows the Mississippi Delta Blues band in front of the polyhedron from Dürer's Melencolia I engraving (1514), a delightful pun on "blues" and "melancholy". Finkelstein also observed that the equestrian warrior from Dürer's Knight, Death, and the Devil (1513) was depicted as a statue above the stairs in the upper right corner of Interior VII: The Train from Munich (1991). Since Dürer's Saint Jerome in His Study (1514) is part of his trilogy masterworks, I wondered whether Milton inserted any items from this engraving in his Interiors prints. While the enlarged images of Interiors IV prints from Peter Milton's web site are helpful, they are not as detailed as the printed versions in Peter Milton: Complete Prints 1960-1996 (1996) which I found a copy in Stanford's Cummings Art Library. I've scanned detailed images from this book as well as my copy of Albrecht Durer: Master Printmaker (Boston Fine Arts Museum, 1971) for comparative studies.

Albrecht Dürer
Knight, Death, and the Devil (1513)

Albrecht Dürer
Melencolia I (1514)

Albrecht Dürer
Saint Jerome in His Study (1514)

    In The Primacy of Touch: The Drawings of Peter Milton (1993), Milton talks about his drawings: "My last painting before I graduated [from Yale] took the entire term and resulted in a Kandinsky-in-1913 affair, finally arriving at what I took to be serenity through adversity. But [Josef] Albers came into my studio while I was in the middle of the muddle, studied my painting for a while, and said, "simpler, boy, simpler." I thought you liked Dürer," I said to him plaintively trying to win him back to complexity. But he had moved on." (p. 16). From this statement, we see that Milton liked Dürer's work early on when he got his BFA at Yale (1954). When Milton tested for color blindness at John Hopkins University (1962), he was shocked and quit painting— "Black-and-white prints from now on!" What better role model than Dürer to emulate as a printmaker. Milton's Daylilies (1975) shows watercress leaves from the angel's head of Dürer's Melencolia I around the cat in front. Since Milton has Dante references in Interiors IV: Hotel Paradise Cafe and Cafe Dante in Interiors VII: The Train from Munich, quotes from Dante's Paradiso are cited where appropriate.

Polyhedron in Dürer's Melencolia I

Polyhedron in Milton's Interiors V
In Interiors V: Water Music (1988), Milton places the polyhedron in Dürer's Melencolia I (1514) behind the Mississippi Delta Blues band. Pythagoras instructed a new disciple to count to four: "See, what you thought to be four was really ten and a complete triangle and our password." Dürer represents the Holy Tetraktys in the polyhedron's four faces and 10 corners: 1+2+3+4 = 10. There's a lake under the rainbow in Melencolia I that correponds to Interiors V: Water Music. Also Dürer stayed in the water city Venice in 1507 and bought a Latin edition of Euclid's Geometry for his perspective studies. The book itself, together with the record of the sale, has survived. (Peter Strieder, The Hidden Dürer, 1978, p. 17).

Knight in Dürer's Knight,
Death, and the Devil

Knight statue in Milton's
Interiors VII
In Interiors VII: The Train from Munich (1991), Milton has taken the knight from Dürer's Knight, Death, and the Devil engraving (1513) and transformed it into a statue high above the stairs in his last Interiors print. Since The Train from Munich refers to a dark time in history where six million Jews were exterminated in Nazi concentration camps, it was appropriate to quote Dürer's Knight, Death, and the Devil in this work. Amidst the death camps and devilish doings of the Nazis, Milton's rendering of Dürer's Knight as a statue high above everything else serves to remind us that the medieval knight is a symbol of the Grail and the quest for spiritual enlightenment. It is a reminder that human conscience must remain ever vigilant to prevent such holocaust from happening again.

Hat in Dürer's St. Jerome

Hat in Milton's Interiors IV
In Interiors IV: Hotel Paradise Cafe (1986), the man to the left of three figures watching the airship doffs off his hat which resembles the circular hat hanging to the right above Jerome in Dürer's engraving. The glow from a lamp behind the man may correspond to the halo on Saint Jerome's head. The grouping of one and three figures may refer to Augustine's treatise On the Trinity (419 AD) that Dante sings of the Trinity in Paradiso XIV.28-30:
That One and Two and Three who ever lives
and ever reigns in Three and Two and One,
not circumscribed and circumscribing all

Dog by Pillar in Dürer's St. Jerome

Dog by Pillar in Milton's Interiors VII
In Interiors VII: Train from Munich (1991), the dog sleeping by the pillar resembles the dog sleeping by the pillar in Dürer's engraving of Saint Jerome in His Study (1514). It is interesting that Milton has performed a horizontal flip of the dog near the pillar compared to Dürer's etching. Similar horizontal flips were done with the polyhedron from Dürer's Melencolia I and the knight from The Knight, Death, and the Devil artworks.

Window sunlight in Dürer's
Saint Jerome
in His Study

Window sunlight in Milton's
Interiors III: Time with Celia
In Interiors III: Time with Celia (1985), the sunlight from the window at left makes an array of parallelograms on the staircase wall. The apex of the diamond-shaped flood of light connects the cat at top of the staircase to Celia sitting on the sofa at the bottom. In Dürer's Saint Jerome in His Study engraving (1514) the sunlight from the window at left cast parallelogram patterns on the arched wall of Jerome's Study. Other similarities in these two prints are the books at the lower left, and the clock on the staircase wall that corresponds to the hourglass hanging on the wall above Saint Jerome. In Paradiso XIII.55-60, Dante is in the Fourth Heaven, the Sphere of the Sun, and sings of sunlight:
    because the living Light that pours out so
    from Its bright Source that It does not disjoin
    from It or from the Love intrined with them,
    through Its own goodness gathers up Its rays
    within nine essences, as in a mirror,
    Itself eternally remaining One.

In Paradiso XVII.121-123, (5th Heaven, Sphere of Mars) Dante writes:
    The light in which there smiled the treasure I
    had found within it, first began to dazzle,
    as would a golden mirror in the sun

Saint Jerome in Dürer's
Saint Jerome in His Study

Milton drawing in Milton's
Interiors VI: Soundings

    In Interiors VI: Soundings (1989), Peter Milton is drawing two figures, his eyes closed in meditation. In Dürer's Saint Jerome in His Study engraving (1514) Jerome (347-420 AD) is likewise occupied translating the Vulgate Bible from Greek & Hebrew into Latin (382-405 AD). Most of Dürer's work are connected to the Bible from his copper engraving Adam and Eve (1504) (Genesis III.1-7) to his famous woodcut The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1498) (Revelation VI.1-8). Irving L. Finkelstein's article Peter Milton Revisited: A Decade of "Interiors" Prints noted the choir boys behind Colette moving out from the scene and commented: "They are the only religious reference here, and it is as though religion were making an exit, disappearing from the contemporary secular world." However, a closer examination shows much religious references in this work that span the Bible from Genesis to the Book of Revelations. The five musicians could be playing Alan Hovhaness' And God Created Great Whales, since God created them on the fifth day (Genesis I.21-23), and we see whales swimming in the aquarium. God completing his creation in six days (Genesis, I.31) is reflected in the hexagonal beehive floor tiling in Hotel Ritz. The 17 fishes in the tank symbolizes the 153 fishes Jesus helped Peter catch in the Sea of Galilee (John, XXI.10-11). Saint Augustine discerned that 153 is the 17th triangular number, the sum of 1 through 17 (Tractates on the Gospel of John, 122). Finally, Peter Milton is drawing dark figures that may be the Two Witnesses in Book of Revelations at end times (Revelations, XI.3-4).

Photo of Peter Milton, Frontispiece
The Primacy of Touch (1993)

Albrecht Dürer
Melencolia I (1514)
A photograph of Peter Milton from the Frontispiece of The Primacy of Touch: The Drawings of Peter Milton (1993) reveals a pose similar to the Angel brooding over the polyhedron in Dürer's Melencolia. Both Milton and the Angel have their left hand on their left cheek. The Angel has a compass in her right hand while Milton mimicks the figure of a compass with his right hand with his index and middle fingers in the shape of the Greek letter lambda (Λ) which Plato calls "Soul of the Universe" (Timaeus 35b). In William Blake's The Ancient of Days (1794), a God-like figure is seen with a compass creating the world.
Milton performed horizontal flips of the polyhedron, knight, and dog in borrowing these Dürer's images in his Interiors prints. His mirror-like photo of the Angel symbolizes an artist seeking inspiration (Erwin Panofsky). The inscription over Plato's Academy in Athens is well known to students: "Let no one ignorant of Geometry enter here." In order to engage in Socratic dialogues of philosophy to discern mysteries of the soul, students need to cultivate a mind of mathematical precision and clarity. That's why Dürer travelled to Venice (1507) and purchased a copy of Euclid's Geometry and sought studies with Luca Pacioli. Peter Milton has followed Dürer's footsteps well as shown by his meticulous architectural drawings in tune with the ancient masters. Milton's compass mudra is a password that he'll be allowed entrance into the Platonic Academy

    Robert Flynn Johnson writes in "Choreography of Consciousness: The Prints of Peter Milton"— As Walt Whitman perceptively wrote [November Boughs], "I round and finish little, if anything, and could not, consistently with my scheme. The reader will always have his or her part to do, just as much as I have had mine. I seek less to state or display any theme or thought, and more to bring you, reader, into the atmosphere of the theme or thought— there to pursue your own flight." (Peter Milton: Complete Prints 1960-1996, pp. 6-7). In his homage to the great printmaker Albrecht Dürer, Peter Milton's artworks have flowered in the precision of perspectives of the German master as well as the visionary expansiveness of the American poet Whitman. Each of Milton's prints invites us to participate and explore the depth of his multi-layered choreography of consciousness, so we too can make new discoveries— leaping and dancing in flight.

                                — Peter Y. Chou, 8-28-2009
                                     on the 260th anniversary of Goethe's birth 8-28-1749

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© Peter Y. Chou,
P.O. Box 390707, Mountain View, CA 94039
email: (8-28-2009)