Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 24, 1999
Dagmar Eichberger and Charles Zika, eds. Dürer and His Culture New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. 255 pp.; 87 b/w ills. Cloth $64.95 (0521620376)

Those attempting to keep up with, let alone understand, the changing contexts of Dürer’s art are faced with a Sisyphean challenge. Over the years, the artist has been extolled as, among other things, the most German of artists, a leader of the frühbürgerliche Revolution, a proto-Nazi, and a hippie. Hallowed by Protestants and Catholics alike—and with no less enthusiasm, I should add, by those espousing the cults of artistic genius and a disinterested Kantian aesthetic—he has also been adopted (or rather co-opted) by such disparate groups as Weimar Demokraten and National Socialists for what they perceived to be his sympathetic social and political views. What is more, the very movements with which he has been associated—the Renaissance, Reformation, and German Peasants’ War, to name but a few—have themselves been subjected to new and sometimes contradictory interpretations, as has the notion of culture itself, at a time when the very roots and methods of our discipline have been subjected to rigorous and often polemicized analysis (not to mention the effects of such epochal historical events as the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989). We should thus be grateful for the appearance of the volume under review here, which grew out of a conference held by a group of distinguished scholars of sixteenth-century literature, art, history, and religion at the University of Melbourne in 1994 in connection with a major exhibition of Dürer’s prints at the National Gallery of Victoria (see Irena Zdanowicz, ed., Albrecht Dürer in the Collection of the National Gallery of Victoria, exh. cat. [Melbourne: Victoria: National Gallery, 1994]).

Aware of the tendency of the ground to shift beneath them, the volume’s editors are careful to outline, if not fully articulate, the terms of their collective investigation. “The theoretical assumption underlying this collection,” they write, “is that contemporary cultural practices and discourses, rather than Dürer’s evolutionary development as an artist, offer the key to the understanding of much of Dürer’s artistic work” (p. 1). “Culture is meant here in its broadest sense to refer to the myriad of communicative processes by which different members of a society make meaning of their experiences” (p. 2). In terms of method, then, the volume falls somewhere between an older, artist-centered approach that sought to reconstruct a single “context,” based on the notion of an enduring “high” literary culture (represented, say, by Erwin Panofsky’s The Life and Art of Albrecht Dürer, [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1955]), and more recent ones, under the spell of Poststructuralism, focusing on issues of gender, class, ideology, and power, and suggesting that there is no single truth or context, but merely the illusion of such—an illusion shaped more than anything else by our own mores and values (witness the assertion on the dust-cover of Joseph Koerner’s The Moment of Self-Portraiture in German Renaissance Art [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994, 1996], that Dürer’s Münich Self-Portrait “becomes legible less through a history leading up to it, or through a sum of contexts that occasion it, than through its historical sight-line to the present”). Recognizing that their approach is not new, the editors press the case for a re-examination of the contexts of Dürer’s art heretofore neglected or given only scant attention from “different disciplinary viewpoints and theoretical positions,” (p. 2) framing their discussion under the rubrics of “Artist and Environment,” “Image and Audience,” “Communal Culture and Representation,” and “Dürer and the Canon.”

In “Artists and Environment,” Dagmar Eichberger examines Dürer’s drawings and watercolors of the natural world through the lens of contemporary collecting practices in a period of rapidly changing ideas about nature (the latter focusing on such categories as Naturalia and Artefacta). She also uses material (some of it new) culled from Dürer’s diaries, theoretical writings, evidence of his commissions and contacts with humanists, artists, merchants, courtiers, and diplomats, focused on the artist’s own neglected role as a collector. Demonstrating that Dürer’s interest in nature was not just “proto-scientific . . . but [full of the] wonder of God-given order and harmony in the universe” (p. 6), she is deftly able to counter earlier “trigger-happy” iconographic interpretations of such works as the Madonna with a Multitude of Animals, ca. 1503, in which the animals have tended to be read as a veritable catalogue of late medieval symbols, based on the Physiologus. Instead, she argues in favor of a scene in which “all animals now peacefully coexist in an environment which recalls life before the Fall” (p. 36), and a more open-ended meditation on one’s own place in what John Donne would later name “a little world made cunningly.” And yet there was more to the category of “wonder” in this period than meets the eye, so to speak, as evidenced by the recent study by Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park, Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150-1750 (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1998), which demonstrates, among other things, that natural phenomena were often harnessed in the service of “princely power” (Eichberger does note, p. 26, that the Habsburgs used their collections as “part of the[ir] public image,” representing their holdings in such places as the Americas).

Princely power takes center stage in the essay of Larry Silver, which examines the double-edged sword of the revival around 1500 of a distant, yet great German past, newly-discovered and disseminated in such works as Celtis’s Germania, along with the apocalyptic fervor of a people expecting the end times, both aspects of a nascent “national” identity and collective act of “self-fashioning.” Through rich interpretations of images both familiar and unfamiliar, Silver builds on his earlier work on themes of the celebration not only of the German Emperor and military power but also of a distinctly wild German topography, demonstrating in the process how sophisticated was the visual culture of Dürer’s time—the princely counterpart to R. W. Scribner’s For the Sake of Simple Folk: Popular Propaganda for the German Reformation (Oxford: Clarendon, 1981) and Keith Moxey’s Peasants, Warriors, and Wives: Popular Imagery in the Reformation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989). Soon Luther would rail at the German people for having missed their chance for translatio imperii—the chance to rise up and fulfill their destiny not only as the true bearers of Christ’s message, but also the last exponents of the Roman imperium on earth. Yet, as Silver demonstrates, there was a final translatio of sorts, in that these ideas, although languishing for the next couple of centuries, “can be said to have provided much of the foundation for later romantic German nationalism and its delight in indigenous German landscape”(p. 68).

Awkwardly placed in this same section under the rubric of “moral environment,” (p. 6) Wim Hüsken’s essay (indeed many of the essays in this volume could fit into more than one category, revealing a vagueness of structure) nonetheless offers an interesting case study in how ideologically-charged ideas of context have colored interpretations of the Michenfeldt tapestry: for Scribner, an “expression of moral stricture;” for Fraenger, an example of the genre of Gerechtigkeitsbilder; and for the East German Ingrid Schulze a kind of diagram of class struggle. Along with the works of the humanists Sebastian Brant, Thomas More, and Erasmus of Rotterdam, Hüsken argues, Dürer’s (or whoever’s) print articulated a moralizing language about the rule of deceit, which is in turn part of a larger discourse that sought more to educate than to delight its viewers. This early sixteenth-century development is usually seen in scholarship to be an outgrowth of the Reformation. Future studies of the “moral environment” of sixteenth-century art would do well to pay more attention to art’s formal aspects, using as their guide the article by Peter Parshall, “Albrecht Dürer and the Axis of Meaning,” (Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 50 1997, 5-31), in which Dürer’s meditations on symmetry are revealed to have the effect of “undermining the moral order.”

In “Image and Audience,” Robert Scribner—one of the few scholars who can be said to have anticipated the “anthropological turn” of recent scholarship—demonstrates just how powerful images were in the age of Dürer—that “they were laden with sacred power, that they could exemplify an indwelling personality and that they could enter into an affective personal relationship with the viewer” (p. 103). Using the metaphor of “seeing,” an expression often referring to the “rationalisation of sight” associated with such figures as Alberti, Scribner recounts such gripping episodes as the whipping of a crucifix (the result of a particularly poor harvest) in a village just south of Danzig, which resulted in cosmic discord in the form of a rain of blood, a terrible thunderstorm, and the destruction of a schoolhouse. Scribner thus articulates a “cosmic order” best known to us through his own singular explorations of the world view(s) of early modern Germans. Such a study not only builds usefully on the work of James Marrow, Joseph Koerner, Jeffrey Hamburger, and others into questions of “how art works,” as opposed to merely what it depicts, but also lends credence to the thesis of Jean Delumeau, that Europe had at best but a veneer of Christianity in the early modern period.

Charles Zika, for his part, offers an interesting case study in the reception of images, the focus of much recent art-historical scholarship. While he adduces an uncommon array of evidence in his consideration of the image, Zika refuses to pin any single meaning on Dürer’s Witch Riding Backwards on a Goat, but rather demonstrates how it would have been perceived by a number of different groups and how in turn it became inextricably linked with the emerging discourse on witchcraft in the sixteenth century. Zika’s supple analysis centers on the artist’s use of the motif of riding backwards, which had a number of powerful cultural associations in the early modern period, including those of Aphrodite Pandemos, Phyllis, and the Whore of Babylon, articulating as it did the fear of any woman who was thought to have upset the prevailing order (the effects of which, similar to what we saw in Scribner’s essay, included catastrophic weather). His essay forms a nice complement to Koerner’s work on Baldung’s images of witches, with their debasement of Dürer’s classicism.

In “Communal Culture and Representation,” Lyndal Roper presents one of the most methodologically interesting essays, in which she openly refutes the results of her earlier work and that of others, which saw in early modern culture clear expressions of opposing ideals of gender in the age “when fathers ruled.” Such clarity, she has come to realize, fails to take into account “subjectivity” and the fact that “gender identity can never be satisfactorily understood if we conceive of it as a set of discourses about masculinity or femininity:” “I wonder whether in looking at Dürer’s works and trying to relate them to ideas about sexuality, we might not need to entertain the possibility that images of sexual difference do not straightforwardly depict a clear set of gendered ideals” (p. 162). The complex culture of courting in early modern Germany, she argues, lay at the nexus of public and private, individual and collective, passion and ambivalence, and should be treated not as something fixed, but rather as fluid, often being articulated through imagery of the body. As with Hüsken’s article, we are confronted here with a clear case of how recent (here feminist) discourse has shaped our views of early modern culture.

Christiane Andersson tackles the issue of censorship, a phenomenon running counter to notions of freedom of conscience engendered by typical Reformation scholarship. Various constituencies, she shows, were vigilant in their suppression of images and text alike, realizing just how high were the stakes if the “simple” folk were allowed to consume such things unfiltered. And yet things were not clear, Andersson argues, as evidenced by the fact that Luther’s images were carefully monitored by Nuremberg’s council, or by the case of Osiander’s A Wondrous Prophecy of the Papacy (1527), which was censored to omit overtly anti-Catholic tendencies even after the victory of the Reformation in that same city by a council not wanting to raise the ire of the Emperor, while appeasing evangelical interests within its borders. But such attempts, whether initiated by the Emperor, Catholic princes, or local councillors, often encountered strong opposition, in the form of sympathetic censors, cheap paper, convenient trade routes, and the relative ease of smuggling. Andersson’s essay comes in the wake of the work of Gerald Strauss and others (including Scribner), who, suspicious of teleological scholarship, have sought to assess the actual impact of the Reformation.

The final section, “Dürer and the Canon,” is comprised of two interesting studies in Dürerrezeption, one by Paul Münch, tracing the artist’s consumption in Germany (quite literally in some instances!), from the sixteenth century until the present, the other by Irena Zdanowicz, surveying the collecting habits of the National Gallery in Victoria, from its colonial beginnings, when photographic reproductions were considered sufficient, to the present, when that institution can claim one of the finest collections of its kind. The volume ends with a bibliography of post-1971 material (compiled by Eichberger and Zika), that is, material appearing after the quincentenary of Dürer’s birth.

In its probing analyses of what Oleg Grabar recently termed the “pre-history” and “post-history” of images, this volume is a fitting tribute to the much-lamented Robert Scribner (to whose memory the book is dedicated), whose work best heeded the call of the church historian Bernd Moeller as early as 1965 to articulate the social and political contexts of the Reformation, in order to counter the image of Luther as “a great sage, a kind of spiritual colossus, who attains his Reformation breakthrough, draws the broad consequences, and then drags people with him as he strides through history handing out his truths right and left” (“Problems for Reformation Research,” in Imperial Cities and the Reformation [Philadelphia: 1972], p. 13). And yet it would be premature to proclaim that a similar contextualization had been achieved in the case of Dürer, when important aspects of his work either need re-examining or remain all but ignored (a situation ameliorated in this instance by the authors’ avowed concentration on print culture).

Among the topics that need re-examining, in my view, are the Central European (especially Hungarian) and Italian contexts of Dürer’s art, recently problematized by Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann (Court, Cloister, and City: The Art and Culture of Central Europe, 1450-1800 [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995], 107ff.) and part of the larger project of redressing national biases in scholarship on the Renaissance. A related issue is that of the “decline” of German art, long thought to have begun with the artist’s death but recently given a decidedly positive reading in Jeffrey Chipps Smith, German Sculpture of the Later Renaissance, ca. 1520-1580: Art in an Age of Uncertainty (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994). Among the more neglected of Dürer’s works, I would suggest, are his Treatise on Fortification (ca. 1527), which held sway in the German military until the dawn of World War I (while also being seen by certain East German scholars as proof of Dürer’s early bourgeois attitude, in that the artist saw the fortifying of cities as a kind of “make-work” project for peasants), which could profitably be analyzed along the lines of recent studies of the late medieval and early modern city. Also warranting further attention are the role of women, particularly Agnes Frey and Barbara Dürer, in the marketing of Dürer’s art (see Corinne Schleif, “The Many Wives of Adam Kraft: Early Modern Workshop Wives in Legal Documents, Art-Historical Scholarship and Historical Fiction,” Georges-Bloch-Jahrbuch des Kunsthistorischen Instituts der Universität Zürich 5 1998, 63-4); and his images of fools, the insane (see H. C. Erik Midelfort, A History of Madness in Sixteenth-Century Germany [Stanford: 1999], 254ff.), the colonized, and/or enslaved.

Still, as a result of this volume, it should no longer be possible to write, as did Wolfgang Stechow in 1974, of art historians’ “clouded vistas of Dürer’s art, with their correspondingly messy methods. . . .” (Art Bulletin 56 1974, 267).

Donald A. McColl
Washington College