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Ah, Wilderness

Albrecht Altdorfer and the Origins of Landscape

by Christopher S. Wood
University of Chicago Press, 323 pp., $65.00

No two centers of urban civilization could be less alike than the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris and the Kupferstichkabinett in Berlin. The formal, handsome French library stands in a charming neighborhood, next to a pretty square with a fountain. The blindingly white, austerely modern German collection of graphics squats in a wilderness, surrounded by powerful, clashing modern buildings, the eroding hulks of Nazi Berlin’s Embassy Row, and scraggy fields full of parked cars. And their intellectual styles differ as sharply as their architecture.

At the Paris library, a recent exhibit celebrated the discovery of the countryside. A millennium of rural life lined the walls and filled the cabinets of a series of rooms. Tiny, glowing manuscript illuminations and huge, charming tapestries, vast cows painted with hypnotically minute detail by nineteenth-century hyperrealists and sleeping peasants painted with evocative power by van Gogh illustrated the creation of landscape. The images and explanatory texts told and analyzed two parallel stories: the artistic and intellectual invention of a coherent sphere of existence in which groves and fields, rippling grain and wind-mills play the central roles and the technical exploitation of that landscape by human effort. As always in Paris, articulate visitors scrutinized and discussed the works on view; one often had to wait or peer over elegant shoulders to see a particular picture.1

In Berlin, a recent exhibition celebrated the opening of a comprehensive graphics collection, one of the richest in the world. Pinned against white partitions or propped up in transparent boxes, manuscripts, drawings, woodcuts, and engravings from ten centuries celebrated medieval artists’ fantastic imagery, Renaissance artists’ conquest of the visual world, and modern artists’ abandonment of both. Landscape formed only one theme, but a central one. The closed in countryside through which Dürer’s knight rides, resisting the threats and temptations of Death and the Devil; the mountainous island surrealistically rendered as a human face by Niklaus Manuel Deutsch; the cheerfully minute detail of Sanraedam’s city views, and the expressionistic wastes surrounding Piranesi’s ruins framed the world as cultivated land and as desert, as promise but also as threat. Visitors, though intense (and dressed in intense Berlin black), were sparse, and neither explanatory texts nor eloquent shrugs interfered with the visual experience.2

The two exhibitions not only lay at the center of two radically different urban spaces but offered two radically different visions of museumship and public culture. Still, they were linked at their chronological midpoints, the beginning of the sixteenth century. Both contained central works of German Renaissance art, works that marked something radically new in the Western tradition: tiny images by the two great Albrechts, Dürer and Altdorfer, in which the human being was pushed to the side or entirely out of the picture and, for the first time, landscape itself formed the artist’s subject. Under the cobblestones, the beach: in the centers of these two radically different cities, mills and streams, mountains and forests.

The works in question are dissimilar in many ways. Dürer’s landscapes document identifiable spaces, in detail. Though small, they address precise, complex technical problems: for example, how to represent, in detail, the leaves of a tree whipped by wind, taking account of the way the light shone on a particular day, the way in which light strikes leaves, and the full complexity, as hard to plot as that of an animal’s fur, of the patterns that the leaves form as they move. The natural lines of rocks and the artificial ones of half-timbered walls, the graceful shapes of mountain valleys and long German roofs preoccupied Dürer, and he drew and painted them with a delicately precise line and transparent colors that seem more reminiscent of Japanese than of Western visual art.

For all their vividness and grace, Dürer apparently saw his landscapes as preparatory sketches. For one thing, they lack the monogram or signature with which he advertised finished work as his own—not to mention the written legends with which he commented on other paintings and drawings, as with his searingly precise, Kollwitz-like sketch of his aging mother, also on display in Berlin. A diary rather than a publication, Dürer’s landscapes apparently record his travels and certainly respond, in two dimensions, to the light, color, and shapes of the three-dimensional world.

Altdorfer, by contrast, appeared in Berlin as the maker of one of the most curious—but also the most haunting—images in Western art. On a small sheet with a wide black rim, rapidly drawn outlines and washes of color that do not exactly correspond to them pick out an enormous, swaying tree in a clearing. Shades of blue suggest a threatening sky. A structure shaped like a house hangs from one branch. At first this looks tiny, like a birdhouse; but a human figure, a woodcutter who sits by the enormous roots, puts it in scale, showing that it represents a large roadside shrine, of a sort common in late medieval Germany. Everything is vague, suggestive, imprecise: nothing could contrast more sharply with Dürer’s geographical and meteorological precision. Yet high up on Altdorfer’s tree appears the monogram that shows his authorship and expresses his claim that this muddy little sheet is a full-scale, finished work. Many other works—from woodcuts, some of them colored, and engravings to drawings on colored grounds—tell us how much such themes fascinated Altdorfer. The very large number of copies and imitations that survive indicate, even more revealingly, that gifted contemporaries like Deutsch and Wolf Huber found his versions of pastoral captivating.

Altdorfer’s moment, rather than Dürer’s, provides Christopher Wood, a Yale professor of art history, with his subject. His book begins from Altdorfer’s tree and woodcutter—an image which is unaccountably reproduced without the black border of the original, and in somewhat inaccurate color (but these tiny landscapes present formidable problems to the photographer and printer). Wood offers a challenging interpretation of what he calls the invention of landscape in Renaissance Germany. His readers have the chance to confront one of the most original of northern Renaissance artists and one of the most creative young art historians currently at work in America. Both experiences prove rewarding.

Altdorfer’s reputation in the English-speaking world does justice neither to his position in European culture nor to the fantastic variety and quality of his work. His career culminated, as Wood points out early on, in a historical painting of overarching ambition: the Battle of Alexander and Darius now in Munich. On this one panel of modest size he managed to combine approaches and subjects of astonishing diversity into a complex but intensely dramatic vision. The painting evoked world history, as taught in medieval and Renaissance Germany. Though it represented a battle described in a classical text, it also illustrated biblical doctrine: more particularly, the vision of history as a great statue composed of four materials, gold, silver, bronze, and iron offered in the book of Daniel. The theologians and historians who wrote or taught about the history of the world in sixteenth-century Germany tirelessly repeated that these layers represented four empires, Assyrian, Persian, Greek (Macedonian), and Roman, which must dominate the world in succession. At the end of the last empire—not the ancient one, but the Holy Roman Empire of medieval Europe, which continued it—the world itself would come to an end, as Daniel’s statue was destroyed in the vision by a stone.

In Altdorfer’s painting, history reaches halftime. The Macedonian empire destroys—and replaces—the Persian. A sharp phalanx of Macedonian horsemen, headed by Alexander, cuts through the Persians, heading for Darius (who waits, pathetically, on a golden chariot, the wheel of which bears a label with his name). A classical inscription, floating above the scene, names and describes it and makes clear its historical importance. But the soldiers, their weapons, and their tactics are anything but classical. In the bottom half of the picture, Renaissance knights and spearmen tumble and shove, their tangled bodies and massed spears reminiscent of the trees and lances of Paolo Uccello’s Hunt and Battle of San Romano. In the top half, by contrast, cosmology dwarfs history: a fantastic land- and seascape and a lurid sky, seen from a viewpoint dizzyingly high in the air, seem to comment on the world-historical meaning of the human events below. But what do they say? What is the painting about? History or nature, the battle or the landscape?

No wonder that these mysteries tempted later German critics to a long series of debates about whether the painting was a history painting or a landscape. No wonder either that Napoleon had no doubts on the point. He took the painting with him after his own imperial passage through Germany. After his defeat, French soldiers found it in his bathroom, where it had hung as a perpetual reminder of his own intended role as world emperor—a wonderful illustration of Marx’s argument, in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, that historical repetition makes tragedy into farce. No wonder, finally, that Altdorfer himself—like Dürer—ceremoniously folded the work into a self-created vision of an ambitious artist’s career. He refused his chance to serve as Burgermeister of his city, Regensburg, a high honor even for a successful artist, to carry out this culminating commission, in which world history provided the capstone of personal history, and all his resources of draftsmanship and palette came into play—or so it seems to the modern reader, ever prone to the temptations of teleology.

Christopher Wood approaches Altdorfer with open eyes and great reluctance to impose a modern scheme of development on his subject’s career. He puts the artist into his social and intellectual setting: first of all, into the life of Regensburg, a south German city of about ten thousand inhabitants in a bend of the Danube between Nuremberg and Munich.3 Juridically Regensburg was a free imperial city, which owed allegiance to no lesser prince, but only to the emperor himself. Culturally it could boast of great traditions, and in Altdorfer’s time of high connections: the official historian of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, Johann Stabius, an expert in genealogy who traced the pedigree of the Habsburgs back to ancient Rome and beyond, settled there. Wood carefully sets out the evidence for Altdorfer’s artistic origins and development. Particularly difficult questions of attribution arise in his case: a number of pictures have traditionally been ascribed to Albrecht’s brother Erhard, also an artist. He turns out to be in part a shadowy figure assembled by modern connoisseurs reluctant to confront and accept as the work of one person the astonishing variety of Altdorfer’s own production. Like the compilers of the 1988 Berlin Altdorfer exhibition, Wood accepts that his artist produced a relatively expansive and ambitious group of works. His method and arguments seem highly convincing.4

Wood follows the artist through early travels and apprentice work, participation in collective projects, his imitation of the great Cranach, and others’ imitation of him. He leads us into the middle of one of the liveliest imaginable artistic scenes, in which sketches and engravings, woodcuts and paintings, traveling more rapidly than their makers, inspired imitation, provoked parody, and won the mixed tributes of admiration and emulation. No nineteenth-century studio ever witnessed more vigorous or better-humored contests among artists than did the workshops of Renaissance Germany.

  1. 1

    The published catalog gives a good idea of the visual content and historical themes of the exhibit: Paysages, paysans. L’art et la terre en Europe du moyen âge au XXe siècle, edited by E. Le Roy Ladurie (Paris: Bibliothèque Nationale de France and Editions de la Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 1994).

  2. 2

    For an erudite and fascinating overview of the treasures of the reunified Berlin collections, see Das Berliner Kupferstichkabinbett. Ein Handbuch zur Sammlung, edited by Alexander Dückers (Berlin: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin Preussischer Kulturbesitz, 1994).

  3. 3

    See the important book of Kristin Zapalac, ‘In his Image and Likeness’: Political Iconography and Religious Change in Regensburg, 1500–1600 (Cornell University Press, 1990).

  4. 4

    See H. Mielke et all., Albrecht Altdorfer: Zeichnungen, Deckfarbenmalerei, Druckgraphik (Berlin: Kupferstichkabinett Berlin; Staatliche Museen Preussischer Kulturbesitz; Museen der Stadt Regensburg, 1988).

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