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.

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.

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 …

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