Book Reviews: Peter Parshall / The Art Bulletin

Book reviews -- The Moment of Self-Portraiture in German Renaissance Art by Joseph Leo Koerner

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JOSEPH LEO KOERNER, The Moment of Self-Portraiture in German Renaissance Art. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993. 564 pp.; 1 color ill., 223 b/w. $60.00

This challenging and consequential book explores the realization and reception of Albrecht Durer`s art as a declaration of individual and historical self-consciousness. Koerner builds his account around the Self-Portrait of 1500 (Munich), a masterstroke that has long been taken to be Durer`s most extravagant claim to artistic genius. However, Koerner`s perspective is not a conventional one, and being scrupulously aware of his position as interpreter he devotes much space to the complexities of his own historical stance. In this respect the book is, historiographically speaking, as much about the present moment as it is about the "moment of self-portraiture" the author sets out to define.

In evaluating Durer`s accomplishment Koerner grants the essential validity of what he terms "the Romantic myth of self-conscious genius," a myth rooted in Durer`s actual and recoverable achievements (pp. 9, 33-34, 55). Koerner understands him to have constructed, indeed determined the very conditions for interpreting his art. Thus, Durer becomes what Michel Foucault terms "an initiator of discourse," an artist who single-handedly effected a paradigm shift in the status and evaluation of Renaissance art (p. 39). The potential circularity of this hypothesis is evident, and being fully aware of it Koerner gives considerable space to clarifying his position, an aspect of the book that can be vexing but is invariably pursued with conviction and integrity.

The ambiguity of Koerner`s thesis is embedded in the very title of his book, for the "moment of self-portraiture" is variously construed. It is fixed diachronically in Durer`s formulation of an insight that marks the half-millennium. Yet it is also a suspended moment: a revelation gradually unveiled "by happenstance" through Durer`s early attempts at rendering (p. 17), a moment that is not only temporally protracted but also spatial, and one that is relived (and thus repeated) with each perceptive encounter on the part of the beholder. In this last sense it is a moment that retains a kind of immanence through the power of a work of art to establish the terms of its own reception.

In his prologue Koerner initiates his argument with an ingenious reading of Durer`s early self-portrait drawings. That in Erlangen shows Durer steadying his head against his hand in arrested self-contemplation, an image that transparently declares its status as self-portraiture: the artist`s reciprocal gaze closes a loop between observer and observed self, and the melancholy gesture offers a "premonition of romanticism`s myth of genius" (p. 55). A second drawing in New York plots a further transition from the medieval workshop practice of depicting objects to investing them with the artist`s own projected image (prosopopoeia). A near systematic, if intuitive progression toward self-realization is consummated in the 1500 Self-Portrait, a work that appropriates into portraiture both the form and the transcendental implication of the vera icon. For Koerner it is here that Durer seals a pact with the beholder by confirming the complete assimilation of his life into his art, forging a quintessentially modernist proposition that art is, by its very nature, the image of its maker (p. 55).

This premise is examined in elaborate detail in Part 1 of the book through a series of chapters on the context for Durer`s icon, centering initially on the problem of identity in portraiture as it relates to the formal and iconographic character of religious imagery. Koerner argues that religious controversy crisply focused the issue of identity in satirical portraits of Luther as an atomized personality caught up in multiple and conflicting roles. Against this figure of disintegration the image of Christ is reconceived as an integrated image of "all men." The Renaissance ideal of self-realization (self-fashioning in its lesser aspect) allows for the established concept of imitatio Christi to be transmuted into a humanistic identification with Christ as prototypical man. Koerner tracks this idea through formal nuances in representations of the sudarium and the Holy Face, showing how the "miraculous" image is gradually secularized into an artistic achievement that now bears the signature of its maker (van Eyck`s lost Holy Face of 1440). The ambiguous, preperspectival image of the sudarium with the Holy Face liberated from its ground is converted into portrait format, the figure resituated in a discrete and fictive space of its own. Eyckian realism thereby emerges as the modern analogue to an acheiropoetos (a miracle image made without hands), and in Durer`s choice of this Christ-type for his on portrait of 1500 these attributes of permanence are transferred to himself.

This is a problematic turn on reading illusionism, since we might better insist that Eyckian strategies of rendering suggest transience rather than permanence in a visual encounter. In contrast to Albertian perspective, Ernst Gombrich has argued that the Northern obsession with highlight is symptomatic of contingency rather than fixity, highlight serving as an index for the unstable position of the viewer.(1) This factor is raised to a still higher power in self-portraiture where the very act of rendering must constantly remind the artist of his own furtive presence. In this respect the ambition to fix an image beyond the reach of the immediate history of its making is quixotic. Later, Koerner acknowledges this problem, and in a characteristically deft move attempts to absorb the conflict by suggesting that evidence of ephemeral experience only serves to "subsume the self under a technique of total representation from which there is no escape" (p. 121).

In his sixth chapter Koerner turns to Nicholas of Cusa`s concept of self-love as an act of devotion, an idea that helps to cleanse Durer`s motives of narcissism. Yet earlier on, when he first considers the intended placement of the 1500 Self-Portrait, Koerner speculates that it may have been retained in a cabinet for occasional viewing, a cult practice that suggests more the status of a relic. Although such paradoxes haunt the interpretation throughout, plausible analogies in pre-Reformation mysticism and related Protestant conundrums of a similar breed are adduced to account for them: Luther`s idea of absolute freedom through total subjugation of the will; Durer`s confidence in absolute beauty through its complete unknowability. In such a dialectical framework pride becomes humility, and hyperbole its own denial. In the seventh and eighth chapters the particulars of the 1500 Self-Portrait are subjected to close analysis: the revelation of texture, the wildness of the hair, the fixity of the gaze, and the hands. Koerner points out how the mirrored right hand (Durer`s left in the painting) slips under the frame, suggesting both motion and stasis, human agency and divine miracle--different realizations of that spontaneous creativity for which Durer was praised by his contemporaries. Meanwhile, the visible hand flirts with a gesture of benediction, while also affirming through touch the artist`s bodily nature. The painting teeters between the material and the sublime, idolatry and apparition.

Over the next three chapters Koerner explores the significance of Durer`s printmaking: how the Fall of Man (1504) offers a perfect, prelapsarian figure of generalized man appropriate to a medium of replication; ho Durer`s monogram suspended in Eden makes a bid for spiritual and artistic immortality; and yet (citing alter Benjamin), how mechanical reproduction results in the loss of aura and the "elision of the artist" through another mode of miraculous image making. Certainly Durer`s obsession with his signature is inseparable from his activity as a printmaker, and some of Koerner`s most revealing passages have to do with the practice of signing. Durer`s monogram acknowledges the initiation of collecting and an open market where works of art escape the maker`s control, resulting in legal problems and an eventual redefinition of authorship. No doubt there is a premonition of aura and its vulnerabilitv in Durer`s sense of his work. But Benjamin`s thesis is set significantly in the post-Romantic period, and his definition of "mechanical" is tied to the Industrial Revolution with its full social and economic consequences. Though the conditions for this eventual shift were surely being formed in the Renaissance, one must be cautious about extending Benjamin`s proposition to 1500.

Koerner concludes the first half of his book with a series of images in which the body of the artist and his surrogates are mortified, Durer`s partial retreat from the underlying hubris of self-portraiture. This caveat introduces Part 2, a lengthy investigation of one particular response to Durer`s challenge. Here the central actor is Hans Baldung, Durer`s most brilliant pupil and an artist whose career is interpreted as entirely compelled by reaction. Thus, Baldung serves as an agent in deconstructing Durer`s self-image. Baldung`s skeptical attack establishes a further dialectic between perfection and degeneration, the one confirming the historical significance of the other, and both together setting the epistemological terms for our interpretation of each.(2) Durer`s rational/humanist idealism has long been taken to characterize the Renaissance, and one of the great virtues of Koerner`s book is its adjustment of a persistent imbalance in Renaissance art history by a full examination of how Baldung undermines this very ideal. The optimism of first-generation humanists lasted only a short time before being replaced by philosophical stoicism, and eventually scientific skepticism. In Baldung`s compromising revelations of mortality, the autonomous perfection of Durer`s self-portraiture is broken to expose a grotesque and fallen state. Before Baldung`s images of Death and the Maiden, sexual arousal, damnation, and self-knowledge occur simultaneously, all meaning is made relative, and images are rendered mere "signs pointing beyond themselves" (p. 316). Thus Baldung puts the (male) beholder on the spot, condemning himself through the exercise of his own prurience. This reading is convincing in that it assimilates the erotic and misogynist appeal of these subjects into a moralizing intent. And, as is true of Koerner` s thesis in general, it is more convincing on ideological than affective grounds, a distinction often blurred in poststructural analyses of response. At whatever level we choose to acknowledge the impact of these works, there was, after all, some market for them. And like the underpinning of Durer`s commercial independence through the print trade, the fatalism of Baldung`s death image can be related to more mundane realities, for example, social disruption and religious violence. But Koerner sees the imperatives that drive this dialectic of beauty and decay as more internal to artistic and psychological progressions.

In the penultimate chapter Koerner takes his problem fully into Reformation theology, a presence that hovers over the entire thesis of the book. Here the argument centers on variations of Lucas Cranach`s programmatic image of Lutheran eschatology, the Allegory of the Law and the Gospel that positions the Christian soul at the moment of choice between damnation and salvation, an iconography that defines for Koerner the problematic condition of the will in Reformation thought. Once again the locus of meaning lies in the connection established between viewer and object, one that unveils the state of the soul. Like our own encounter with the image, the passage from Law to the Gospel occurs in the very apprehension of meaning, a passage to truth that occurs, in Koerner`s terms, through exegesis rather than through history (p. 368). Luther`s doctrine of freedom attained through subjugation therefore becomes a check against the moral hubris and interpretive autonomy of the Renaissance. The Lutheran strategy is as liberating as it is binding, and the moment of understanding is not an act of choice or a freely willed good work but a revelation and potentially a discharge of anxiety. The special interdependence of knowledge with sin, of individuality with damnation, constitutes the theme of Koerner`s final chapter in which he brilliantly explicates the deployment of artists` signatures variously as signs of self-promotion and self-denial.

With its preference for a close association between text and image, its use of antithetical juxtapositions to construct meaning, and its ambivalence about the suitability of images in general, the Reformation is a powerful arena for exploring the claims and complications of Renaissance art. There are certain difficulties with Koerner`s reading of the Lutheran use of images in that they were meant to be reminiscent, instructive, and perhaps admonitory, but not direct vehicles of revelation. The disposition of the soul was deemed a personal matter and ultimately unknowable. In principle, the priority given to individual interpretation of scripture in the Reformation might also be extended to its image theology; however, the prevailing characteristic of doctrinaire Reformation art is its overdetermined message, a reminder that the priesthood of all believers includes true believers alone. If one thinks of this iconography more as propaganda for the community than an object of self-reflection, then its implications are very different. Representations of the Allegory of Law and the Gospel no longer empower us to discover the condition of our soul but deliver a judgment on the correctness of our belief, a sermon to the converted. From this perspective we are witnessing what Donald Kelley has termed the "beginning of ideology," the emergence of an intensely partisan climate in which the concession to individual interpretation is an empty gesture.(3)

At one point in discussing Cranach`s resistance to "the peril of the overfilled Renaissance self," Koerner observes that the artist "restores a stricter, though more artificial symmetry," and (citing Georg Simmel), that such "symmetry relieves the pressure of the unfamiliar by controlling it within a closed and balanced system" (p. 405). Here one has the sense that the author may also be describing his on project. Throughout its complex argument this book sustains a nuanced thesis about our uniquely unstable relation to the core of German Renaissance art and, to a degree, our necessary relationship to images ever after the experience of it. In this regard Koerner defines his approach not as an analysis of what images mean, but "how they mean," in other words a location of meaning that is constantly mobile, inseparable from the very strategy of its construction, but continually reinvented according to the artist`s initiating principle. This alone is not an altogether new proposition, but it is taken to epistemological and ontological depths that are not only original but also provocative and revealing.

Koerner`s account of the "moment of self-portraiture" is founded on reception theory, most notably Hans-Georg Gadamer`s concept of the "hermeneutic horizon," an analysis of the limits and the sweep of our vision as interpreters of the past. For Koerner historical positivism can succeed at best in establishing a set of differences between ourselves and our object of inquiry, a knowledge gained at the cost of what gives the artifact meaning for us. Rather, we should attend to unveiling the "prehistory" of our response and a reading of the past that locates us within an interpretive continuum. Few will disagree that historical interpretation is unavoidably conditioned by the present, and that historical positivism, rather bluntly defined by Koerner (pp. 40-42), does indeed make for a bloodless form of history. And yet, as with Koerner`s study, most fine historical and critical writing navigates somewhere between the extremes.

Nevertheless, Koerner`s exercise of the hermeneutic principle is at points radical and perhaps contradictory, particularly in the neatness of the proposition that Durer foresaw and predestined the modern view of his art, and that his modernity is historical and not merely a projection of our own.(4) This somewhat startling conjunction of relativity and historical certainty is (implicitly) grounded in the fact that the occasion of Durer`s achievement was coincident with a major historical shift in hermeneutic perspective, namely the granting among Reformation theologians of individual priority in the interpretation of scripture. Thus, the critical method Koerner employs declares its own indebtedness to the Reformation itself, approximately that "moment" when self-portraiture is seen to emerge. This, along with the deconstructive dialectic provided by Koerner`s understanding of Baldung, creates an interpretive vortex that is both compelling and unsettling, for we seem to concede a proposition and are then, as willing collaborators, folded into its ineluctable demonstration. Yet in another way Koerner`s is a more revealing, rigorously self-conscious, and examined analysis of Northern Renaissance art than we have seen for a very long time.

A brief word on the book`s production and scholarly apparatus. Its pages are generous in format and highly legible, with wide margins for annotation. The illustrations are generally good, though often lacking in definition. Given the importance granted to the physical presence of images, however, the absence of measurements is serious. We need to have at hand the fact that Baldung`s Death and the Woman (Basel) is a mere 29.5 centimeters high, whereas the Adam and Eve (Budapest) is an imposing 208.5 centimeters. There is no bibliography, a feature that is reasonable since this book is written to be read, nor mined, and its extensive use of sources is judicious, synthetic, and never gratuitous. However, the use of abbreviated references in the endnotes, which must be traced back to the first reference in each chapter (some exceeding 140 notes) and from there to a complete citation, makes for a cumbersome and frustrating apparatus.

The richness of Koerner`s approach to his subject is likely to affect our understanding of the Northern Renaissance in profound and important ways, and given the evident strengths of his reading one is obliged to ask what might be absent from it. For one, the emphasis on Durer`s modernism threatens to understate the constructive importance of craft as a contribution to the separation of art from other modes of speculative thought in the Renaissance, a point subtly demonstrated in Michael Baxandall`s study of German sculpture.(5) Furthermore, Baldung`s misogynist polemics might be differently construed as an aristocratic response to an encroaching bourgeois ethic, a reactionary stance that promoted superstition and prejudice more than it portended a modern existential crisis. Likewise, Cranach`s schematic definition of the human dilemma can be seen as an authoritarian denial of the modernist notion of the ego rather than an assertion of it. Historiographically one might also ask why Durer`s accomplishment was first idolized by the hermetically inclined and reactionary court of Rudolf II, and later celebrated by the conservative academies and the National Socialists, whereas it was Grunewald and a perceived Gothic spirit that initially drew the attention of Expressionists seeking to define modernism in opposition to the classical.

Over the last forty years, since Erwin Panofsky`s major contributions to the study of Northern Renaissance art, scholarly attention has gradually shifted from the study of meaning invested in objects to the study of response to them, a direction fraught with possibilities and perils of its own. Yet until now this pursuit has suffered from the absence of a rigorous reflection on critical method and a concentrated demonstration of the ways in which the response to images can presently be reconstructed. Koerner`s book engages these complex matters with an acute and discriminating sense for the visual and intellectual subtleties of his subject. This is also a deeply felt book written not only with conviction and learning, but with an admirable intellectual generosity as well.

PETER PARSHALL Reed College Portland, Or. 97202

This review was commissioned by Richard Brilliant, the previous editor-in-chief of the Art Bulletin.--ed.

1. E. H. Gombrich, "Light, Form and Texture in Fifteenth-century Painting," in W. E. Kleinbauer, ed., Modern Perspectives in Western Art History, New York, 1971, 271-84.

2. Chaps. 12-15 are an extended elaboration of Koerner`s article in Representations, x, 1985, 52-101, allowing a briefer account of this portion of the book.

3. D. Kelley, The Beginning of Ideology, Cambridge, 1981.

4. In my (uncertain) reading, Koerner is closer here to Gadamer than, e.g., to Jauss. See H.-G. Gadamer, Truth and Method, 2nd rev. ed., New York, 1994, 285-307, for his view of the persistence of the classical. Gadamer`s confidence in the historical transcendence of certain aesthetic values is critiqued by H. R. Jauss, Toward an Aesthetic of Reception, Minneapolis, 1982, esp. 28-32.

5. M. Baxandall, The Limewood Sculptors of Renaissance Germany, New Haven, 1980.

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