Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 7, 2016
Jeffrey Chipps Smith, ed. Visual Acuity and the Arts of Communication in Early Modern Germany Visual Culture in Early Modernity. Burlington: Ashgate, 2014. 244 pp.; 59 b/w ills. Cloth $104.95 (9781472435873)

Blind spots help define a period eye. That is, what one period seems to lack is precisely what distinguishes its conventions from those of other periods. Yet the blind spots are unstable. Given that examining textual documentation of a period for its conventional visual terms remains central to art-historical practice, such documents require interpretation and reinterpretation. Even the most self-conscious or straightforward document writers, announcing their own biases, are unaware of all the implications of their sociocultural conditioning. These implications themselves change with the sociocultural responsibilities of future readers. If art historiography charts this shift, wise art historians might as well enjoy—indeed like Michael Baxandall—their own inevitable creativity in describing a period and its eye.

Visual Acuity and the Arts of Communication in Early Modern Germany, edited by Jeffrey Chipps Smith, puts productive pressure on its period’s blind spots. Its essays consider German visual culture from the late fifteenth to early eighteenth centuries by means of healthy reliance on present-day creativity and hermeneutic skill. With varying degrees of attention to visuality, loosely construed (two chapters focus on music), the chronologically ordered essays derive from papers delivered at the 2012 meeting of Frühe Neuzeit Interdisziplinär at Duke University. Defining “visual acuity” as a particularly “keen awareness of the power of visualization,” Smith’s introduction provides a loose rubric for the essays’ ease with interpretation (1). Focused on the power of visualization, the authors use early modern objects and texts largely as a prompt for investigating aspects of visual culture that early modern people seem not to have written much about.

Ruth Slenczka’s essay on Georg Mylius’s under-examined Lutheran funeral sermon for Lucas Cranach the Younger would initially seem to resist this characterization. For Slenczka, the funeral oration “exemplifies . . . the period eye” (104). In other words, the sermon, as a form, maximizes conventionality in order to achieve its rhetorical goals. The fact that “sermons are highly unlikely to contain any original observations on art . . . is precisely why [sermons] are valuable: they reflect a view of art that the preacher believes to be generally accepted” (105). However, Slenczka ultimately reveals Mylius’s sermon to be, if not a blind spot, then a corrective to previous understandings of a Lutheran period eye. The massive corpus of sixteenth-century Lutheran documents emphasizes biblical exegesis, and the resulting art history has tended to interpret Lutheran visual culture as representations (direct or not) of these exegeses. By contrast, Slenczka argues that biblical iconography was irrelevant in this moment; Lutheran visual acuity focused instead on formal and technical properties such as palette and landscape techniques. Similarly, Susanne Meurer’s elegant essay on Johann Neudörffer’s 1547 Nachrichten (short biographical texts about artists and craftsmen in Nuremberg, antedating Vasari’s Lives by three years) points out that Neudörffer’s project may have showcased not the awareness of multiple visual modes one might have expected of a “Modist” (a master of calligraphic forms), but rather the variety of modes of production Neudörffer’s patron might have wanted to assemble in an ersatz collection. Texts here do not primarily provide an objective period-eye sensibility, but rather yield their meanings largely through Slenczka and Meurer’s strong readings.

Creative examination of understudied textual sources extends throughout the book. Volker Bauer’s wonderful “Dynastic Botany: Banyans, Cedars, and Palms as Visual Models in Seventeenth-Century Genealogy” describes, for probably the first time, the visuality of genealogies in a global, colonial context; ultimately the figured exotic trees about which he writes exceed their ostensibly historical or antiquarian texts and “neutraliz[e] time” (195). Anthony Mahler reads Jacob Bidermann’s play Cenodoxus (ca. 1600) anew for its vainglorious “enargeia”—the technique of “creating pathos-laden, vivid images in the mind” (146)—and shows that the text’s true antagonist was energized visuality itself. Throughout the book’s chapters, engagement with texts is often playful, giving a warm sense of what period life might have been like without over-reliance on that fiction. In “Seeing Christ: Visual Piety in Saxony’s Erzgebirge,” Bridget Heal draws from a biography of a mining-town minister not a stern admonition against belief in non-Christian spirits, but rather the minister’s warning that an effigy of the Virgin Mary would not save workers “from the kobold of the mine” (47). This haunting spirit, the kobold, presumably existed.

As the Reformation anniversary year of 2017 approaches, many of the essays, not just Slenczka’s and Heal’s, should contribute to reconsideration of shifts in visual culture due not only to the Reformation, but also to the subsequent complex history of confessional tensions in the region. In Heal’s essay, changes in confessional cultures over the course of about a century transform a mining-themed crucifix owned by the city council of Freiberg in Saxony into a syncretic compound object featuring multiple media, formats, and iconographies. Heal’s account should open up further study of visual contributions to Lutheran theologies of labor.

Scholars of confessional tension caught up in the affective turn will particularly appreciate the adroit, meticulous analysis of Alexander J. Fisher’s “A Musical Dialogue in Bronze: Gregor Aichinger’s Lacrumae (1604) and Hans Reichle’s Crucifixion Group for the Basilica of SS. Ulrich and Afra in Augsburg.” Here the tearful emotion of Catholic devotion in then-biconfessional Augsburg corresponds to Aichinger’s formal interventions in previous musical traditions. (It is admittedly left to the reader to pursue the visual treatment of Reichle’s sculpture group as thoroughly as Fisher treats Aichinger’s music.) Both Fisher, here, and Mahler on Cenodoxus present examples of cultural productions of the Counter Reformation that overtly aim for affective force and at the same time literally warn audiences away—in inscriptions and in dialogue, respectively—from becoming invested in materials rather than in meanings.

Another major theme in recent early modern art historiography, the copresence of multiple European visual idioms in the centuries before the advent of “style” as a discursive concept, finds ample treatment in this collection. Its focus on German “visual acuity” may complement relatively recent investigations of idiom in so-called “Antwerp mannerism”: Ethan Matt Kavaler’s Renaissance Gothic: Architecture and the Arts in Northern Europe, 1470–1540 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012) (click here for review) and its examination of the Gothic as a deliberate style, as well as the Netherlandish-, Dutch-, and Italian-oriented essays of The Transformation of Vernacular Expression in Early Modern Arts, edited by Joost Keizer and Todd M. Richardson (Leiden: Brill, 2012). The final essay of Visual Acuity, by Kristoffer Neville, puts the meaning of a “royal” style in eighteenth-century Berlin into a pan-European social context. Andrew Morrall’s study of the Universe Cup (1589) by Jonas Silber observes its fusion of stylistic sources from profane, learned, and sacred realms of production. The book’s first essay, by Allison Stielau, heralds a new genre, the object engraving, a printed composition presenting a metalwork object against a bare white background. Relating this particular format to others of the late fifteenth century, ultimately Stielau distinguishes the object engraving by theorizing its intriguing, portrait-like quality of “alienation.” Perhaps, though Stielau does not go this far, the engraving’s alienation of objects from surrounding narratives reflects the context-shedding practices of private collection emerging at the time.

Collecting and installation practices indeed comprise another subtheme of the collection. The most fun essay in the book may be Arne Spohr’s study of “concealed music” and its visual context at the court of Christian IV of Denmark. What would it have been like to see a painting of an actual musician at the court while hearing that musician’s playing emanate acousmatically, from concealed passages? More soberly, Meurer characterizes Neudörffer’s Nachrichten as a collection of the living luminaries among the makers in Nuremberg. When describing how the collection of visual sources in Silber’s Universe Cup turns it into a microcosm for its user, Morrall uses language akin to descriptions of Wunderkammern standard since Thomas Kaufmann’s landmark 1978 “Remarks on the Collections of Rudolf II: The Kunstkammer as a Form of Representatio” (Art Journal 38, no. 1 (1978): 22–28)—Rudolf II being Silber’s original patron.

Here Morrall is careful, though, to distinguish his work on complex artisanal objects from other scholarly treatments. His reading avoids “two strands of recent scholarship that have approached these pieces either as . . . assembled in the service of an ideal of universal knowledge or rulership, or that have emphasized the role of ‘embodied’ knowledge: the pre-literate, unarticulated knowledge base of artisanal practice” (83).

The book as a whole avoids the aspects of these scholarly “strands” that deny individual agency to makers. Even when Frederick I of Prussia insists on what he considers “royal forms” of architecture, it is deviation from continental norms that Neville, in his essay, finds of interest; a maker’s engagement with new forms need not come, say, from unstudied, literal experience cultivating banyan trees, but, as in Bauer’s essay, from interpreting books with banyan trees in them. Often, Visual Acuity recalls Kathleen Crowther and Peter Barker’s excellent “Training the Intelligent Eye: Understanding Illustrations in Early Modern Astronomy Texts” (Isis: A Journal of the History of Science Society 104, no. 3 [September 2013]: 429–70): visual makers operate by conditioning viewers’ visual acuity toward norms that make innovations legible.

Despite the lack of continuity typical of a volume of even well-selected conference proceedings, the notion of “visual acuity” here affirms a keenness of perception and interpretation on the parts of both maker and scholar, as it builds on the material, object, and social focuses of previous decades of art history.

Jennifer Nelson
Assistant Professor; Department of Art History, Theory, and Criticism; School of the Art Institute of Chicago