Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 7, 2018
Shira Brisman Albrecht Dürer and the Epistolary Mode of Address Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017. 320 pp.; 49 color ills.; 86 b/w ills. Hardcover $55.00 (9780226354750)

Albrecht Dürer’s importance rests on many factors besides artistry. His capabilities as draftsman and storyteller, his gift for absorbing foreign artistic styles, and all the ineffables he termed ingenium: these would have been capabilities appreciated only in Nuremberg and the vicinity had there not been a new technology for broadcasting talent. It was perhaps market saturation that led Dürer to printing. Nuremberg had enough painters to meet its needs. But already in Michael Wolgemut’s shop, where as painter’s apprentice he made book illustrations, and through the achievements of Martin Schongauer and Andrea Mantegna, Dürer recognized how printing could multiply production a thousandfold, and how its feather-light products could be appreciated by a hitherto unimaginably large and diverse audience. The first major artist to bet his career on mechanical reproduction, Dürer became history’s first world-famous living artist. The implications of this unprecedented reach—a person without special rank projected globally—reverberates even today.

Dürer signed his prints with the “A.D.” monogram so that, wherever an individual sheet ended up, there its maker was, in name. Dürer’s father was a goldsmith, and goldsmiths hallmarked their products to certify their gold.  Schongauer—also a goldsmith’s son—signed his engravings with initials and a goldsmith-like mark, so it was a small step to Dürer’s initialing woodcuts. But Dürer’s global reach took more than branding, printing, and talent to achieve. Almost virtual—lines that conjure worlds—printed images are, nonetheless, material things; for them to be widely received, they must enter the circulation of commodities. It is this factor of distribution that Shira Brisman brilliantly explores, rethinking what it was that Dürer sent out.

Woodcuts on single sheets were called Flugblätter. In Dürer’s time, these were not the most important information-bearing pages tossed by the winds of commerce. Prints depended on the book trade for circulation. But much earlier, letters (as old as writing itself) traveled great distances to enable communication between an author and a receiver. During Dürer’s lifetime, among centers of the Holy Roman Empire—Nuremberg was one—the movement of letters increased through Maximilian I’s establishment in 1490 of Europe’s first official postal system: the Habsburg-Taxis relay. Dürer commenced his Wanderjahre in that year. His proximity to the dawn of what Bernhard Siegert termed “the epoch of the postal system” causes letters to stand in an uncannily productive analogy to the artworks he produced.

Brisman demonstrates how letters served as paradigms for communication by printed images, which shared the same material substratum as letters and used the same distribution systems. Adding to Brisman’s perfect storm are the facts that Dürer was a prodigious letter writer, that he added inscriptions to many of his works, treating them like letters, and that couriers, letters, and other written communiqués feature prominently in his art. These adjacencies and others support the thesis that letters—“uniquely” combining “urgency, privacy, and the awareness of its own inevitable delay” (1)—modeled a new form of artistic address, the “epistolary mode.”

The phrase echoes Svetlana Alpers, with her proposal of a descriptive mode in Dutch art; Michael Fried, who explored theatrical and absorptive modes of address; and Northrop Frye’s theory of modes, which treated different author-reader relationships as literature’s ethical core. Long before, academic art theory had borrowed the word mode from ancient Greek musical theory to explain how a fit between subject matter and the emotion could be achieved through line and color. For Brisman, the epistolary mode does not arouse any specific emotion except perhaps a “sense of loss” (2) felt in the transfer of data from world to work and from author to audience. A pathos of “Only connect!” fuels Dürer’s art and Brisman’s book, which speaks to the general reader with flair. Brisman’s opening chapters are masterpieces of synthesis. Weaving histories of letter writing and print culture with key aspects of Dürer’s practice, they allow us to see the artist’s oeuvre from a new perspective, that of the postal system.

In a letter to Milena Jesenskà, Franz Kafka wrote that what distinguished this system is the idea “that people can communicate with one another by letter!” Kafka perceived something disruptive about letter writing and, by extension, about literature: “The easy possibility of writing letters must . . . have brought into the world a terrible disintegration of souls. It is . . . an intercourse with ghosts, and not only the ghost of the recipient but also with one’s own ghost which develops between the lines of the letter one is writing.” Kafka’s astonishment brings to a close an epoch marked by the simultaneous emergence of the postal system and “literature.” Taking us back to the dawn of this epoch, Brisman outlines the historical emergence of the “artwork.”

Dürer understood art as a form by which people in general, without narrower classification, communicate with one another over distances. This affected his images at every level. Remarkable pages of Brisman’s book are devoted to two of Dürer’s understudied prints: The Small Courier and The Standard Bearer. Whereas prints like Melencolia I have generated libraries of commentary, these two small engravings seem mere slices of life: a horseback rider gallops through a landscape, and a man waves a flag before a harbor view. The questions they raise are chiefly functional. What did people do with such sheets? Did they admire their artistry, how well Dürer got that bolting steed, and so forth? Some recipients might have been craftsmen and could have put these images to use. A good portrayal of a horse is easier to draw than the real animal. But Dürer’s audience consisted mostly of nonspecialists. What did they get from black-and-white portrayals of things they could glimpse in full color in life? What “people in general” did with these sheets is a difficult question, harder than the ones raised by the Melencolia. It probes the enigma of the modern artwork as something made and consumed for its own sake.

Dürer’s horseback rider gallops into Brisman’s book lit by the context of epistolary exchange. Identified as a postal envoy in 1808, the mounted “courier” does not openly reveal that identity. Riding away, he conceals the badge he would have worn, yet this absence makes The Small Courier itself letter-like. Glimpsed in transit, with its contents sealed away, the sheet would seem bound not for a general public, but for the single recipient to which it is addressed. All of Dürer’s prints share this kinship with letters. By Brisman’s account, The Standard Bearer exemplifies the function of crafted images: to show.  Frontal where the courier is turned away, the flag bearer wears a costume similar to that of his mounted counterpart, and although he has arrived openly to display what he has traveled to reveal, Dürer indicates, in the windswept hair and twisted torso, and in the ships at sea, the movement that brought the messenger here. I tested the book under review in the classroom and can report that not just these two sheets but all of Dürer’s prints looked different after reading Brisman. The best monograph on the artist to have appeared in many years, it is also exemplary art history for its vivid writing, expositional clarity, and balance between historical context and close analysis of individual works.

Brisman’s chapters follow the trajectory of letters from composing through sending to receiving. Key works by Dürer are introduced to emblematize the vicissitudes of epistolary exchange, such as loss, delay, interception, and sanctioned and unsanctioned publication. To reconstruct how these works were originally understood, Brisman makes good use of their reception by other German masters. In Brisman’s later chapters, the epistolary becomes less a mode than a set of themes illustrated by specific works. Her most original contribution, though, concerns Dürer’s prints in general, especially ones he created in the first decade of his career. Thematically enigmatic, these were made without any fixed expectation about how they would be received. This constitutive open-endedness would become a model of artistic depth. Dürer engineered his prints to grab people’s attention, and doing so he helped create a certain type of person: the art historian.

This book reflects the current fascination with materiality. Its analogy between the artwork and the letter rests on their shared substratum, paper, which previous histories overlooked. Although it is nowhere mentioned, Friedrich Kittler’s work on writing technologies hovers behind the argument, partly by way of Siegert, who studied with Kittler and whom Brisman does cite. However, both Brisman and the artworks she treats try to reach beyond materiality toward communication’s least substantial element: subjectivity addressed and constituted in the mobile now of aesthetic experience. Siegert recalls how, near the beginning of the epoch of the postal system, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz imagined reason to be something “delivered” (zugestellt), like a letter to human beings. Without the “delivery of mail” (according to Heidegger) objects would not achieve their modern objectivity. Today’s material turn is subject to a postal a priori. Iconic works by Dürer rush to mind. The Great Turf, the Rhinoceros, and the stubbornly elusive Monstrous Sow of Landser are suddenly illuminated by this founding of the object on epistolary exchange. We will be thinking with Brisman for a long time to come. 

Joseph Leo Koerner
Thomas Professor of History of Art and Architecture, Harvard University