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German Art: The Return of the Repressed

What was repressed in the perfect self-portrait of 1500 here returns to take its revenge; the image of the “imperfect, vulnerable, mortal body” emerges much like the dead man on the floor beneath the splendid portrait in Wilde’s novel. Koerner’s Freudian analysis of Dürer’s nude self-portrait may not be to everyone’s taste, but it permits him to explore some of the darker aspects of individualism in German Renaissance art.

In his discussion of Hans Baldung Grien, Koerner believes he has discovered the artist who consciously distorted and even mocked Dürer’s idealized self-constructions. Baldung (1484/85-1545) may be called the only true intellectual among the painters of the German Renaissance. Partly for this reason he has until recently been much less popular than Altdorfer or Cranach. He spent most of his life in Strasbourg, where his father, a jurist, worked for the bishop, and where his brother Casper served as city advocate from 1521 to 1532. At a time when artists in Germany were still mostly regarded as simple craftsmen, Baldung could frequent the milieu of lawyers and humanists, and this clearly influenced his art. Classical subjects are rare in his work, but his disturbing images of love and death, of witches and their mysterious sorceries, reflect the interests and themes characteristic of the peculiar forms of humanism practiced in Strasbourg.

Little is known about Baldung’s early career. Although there is no documentary evidence that he did so, most historians assume that he spent a number of years in Dürer’s workshop in Nuremberg. There are many signs of a close connection with Dürer, especially in his early work, but this was not the usual relation between master and pupil. From the beginning Baldung’s work with its grotesque figures seemed intended to distort Dürer’s forms and models, which served him as an idealized canon to be undermined. It is this seemingly willful disfiguring of the master that attracts Koerner’s curiosity. He discovers in the relation between Dürer and Baldung something similar to a nineteenth-century conflict between father and son, and it is apparently for this reason that he puts on the title page of the second part of his book the following citation from Nietzsche’s Zarathustra: “Was der Vater schwieg, das kommt im Sohne zum Reden; und oft fand ich den Sohn als des Vaters entblösstes Geheimnis.” (“The son says what the father does not, and I often found that the son revealed the father’s secrets.”)

The chapters on Baldung, in which he has plenty of scope for his sophisticated voyeurism, seem to me the most brilliant and original part of Koerner’s book. Baldung’s interest in magic, the macabre, the pornographic, and the destructive effects of eroticism appeals in many ways to a late-twentieth-century sensibility. Koerner takes up the question of Baldung’s modern affinities with great intelligence and much imagination, dealing thoroughly with the troubling, twisted, often sinister aspects of the painter’s imagery. He has thereby given us a new view of Baldung’s art.

The theme of love and death—Eros and Thanatos—that recurs in several of Baldung’s paintings and woodcuts had longstanding medieval antecedents and lived on into nineteenth-century poetry, as in Goethe’s famous poem “Die Braut von Korinth” or in the verses of Swinburne’s “Dolores”:

Death laughs, breathing close and relentless In the nostrils and eyelids of lust,
With a pinch in his fingers of scentless And delicate dust.

In a painting like Baldung’s Death and the Woman (Kunstmuseum, Basel) from about 1518-1519, a skeleton—death—embraces and bites a seductive nude female, who seems to stand on a tomb. Traditionally minded iconographers have thought the skeleton was either a vampire or a spirit reawakening a woman who had died. But this is just the kind of learned iconographic domestication of the image that Koerner wants to challenge in calling his two main chapters on Baldung “Death and Experience” and “Death as Hermeneutic.” He writes that the painting

situates us at the moment when Eros and Thanatos merge: sex, expressed in the woman’s concealed/revealed flesh and in the corpse’s act (for its bite is also a lipless kiss), becomes identical to death, expressed in the garments as funeral shroud and in the bite as putrefaction. And all around, opening up with the woman’s clothes, the beholder’s eyes, and the jaws of Death, are yawning graves, cemetery versions of the bridal bed.

This takes us as far as a reading of the picture based on the literary tradition of love and death might go. But in Koerner’s interpretation, the disturbing message becomes clear only if one pays attention to the way the artist uses the image’s various allusions to manipulate the reactions of the person seeing the painting, the “implied beholder,” as Koerner puts it.

Nothing in this painting is quite as sensual, in the sense of strongly felt, as this meeting of opposites, where the soft, warm, and living flesh of the woman meets the hard, cold teeth of Death. Surely the corpse’s gesture is linked to the position of the picture’s implied male beholder: where he can only look, the cadaver can touch and taste. This grotesque tableau of almost fulfilled desire links sexuality to repulsion within the experience of the painting. Death is the viewer’s doppelgänger within the painted world. Nibbling at the bait, it expresses male erotic desire at the very instant it annihilates that desire.

The true meaning of the image, Koerner argues, begins to emerge only when the viewer becomes part of it. At the same time sexually aroused and fatally disillusioned, the person seeing the picture may identify with the fallen Adam, punished with expulsion from paradise. Baldung has thus radically disfigured Dürer’s idealized construction of the perfect male—Adam portrayed like Apollo. Koerner calls on Luther for help in supporting his interpretation of the picture.

Luther, too, speaks of the “bite” of death. In his Ascension sermon of 1527, he writes that “Death fastens his grip on Christ, wanting to eat for once a dainty morsel; Death opens his jaws wide and eats him up like all other people.” Elsewhere Luther prays for death not to “bite” him. And surely Luther and Baldung could not have been unaware of the close proximity in Latin between “death” (mors) and “bite” (morsus).

Not everyone will be immediately seduced by the swift connection Koerner draws here between visual and verbal metaphors. Once more the author’s argument, or part of it, may sound all too clever. But Koerner’s analysis of Baldung’s Death and the Woman remains an astonishing and illuminating performance.

Baldung’s well-known representations of witches—a painting, a woodcut, and a number of drawings—all date from the 1520s. The belief that witches practiced magic during their nightly gatherings was widespread in Germany until the seventeenth century; so were the witch hunts that were the gruesome consequence of such superstitions. Although actual witch trials seem to have been rare in Strasbourg, the city was one of the most virulent intellectual centers of this misogynistic mania. The Witches’ Hammer, a kind of handbook for the identification and persecution of witches, was published in Strasbourg in 1482. In 1508 Geiler von Kaysersberg, one of the most famous preachers of his time, delivered, in the Strasbourg cathedral, twenty-six of his forty-six Lenten sermons on witches. Baldung’s images of witches belong to this sinister local tradition.

Koerner’s discussion of Baldung’s pictures of witches follows much the same line as his analysis of Death and the Woman. He again makes much of the reaction of the putative viewer who, while regarding these disturbing images, becomes the passionate and horrified voyeur of the witches’ illicit sexual practices. In reading Koerner’s flowing descriptions of these erotic scenes, one can sometimes not help being reminded of the Sadian intermixture of cruautée and délice. “At once grotesque and erotic,” he writes, Baldung’s pictures “cause in their male viewer alternately disgust and excitement, impotence and erection, abjection and onanism.” But Koerner is of course well aware that Baldung’s images of witches, as lecherous as they may be, have nothing to do with the eighteenth-century tradition of the “philosophy of the boudoir”; they belong to a sixteenth-century world of self-reflection, confession, and sin. “Baldung’s witches,” he writes, “dedicate their sabbath to the male onlooker, disclosing within his heart the corruption they themselves parade.” The evil the beholder watches is his own. The image stands before him like his confessor, revealing and punishing his own inescapable sinfulness.

But this is not Koerner’s last word on Baldung. In a final chapter with the perhaps too-fashionable title “The Death of the Artist,” the painter himself becomes the symbol of the fallen state of man. Dürer, Baldung’s master, had used a tablet with his monogram as proof of his undisputed authorship. In a woodcut of 1519 representing the Fall, Baldung puts a similar tablet with his own initials beneath the foot of Eve,

in the place of the serpent, thus associating himself at once with the devil as original instigator of the Fall and with the continuing symptom of fallenness: carnal lust…. By transforming the artist’s monogram, proof of authorship and emblem of artistic originality, into the malevolent instigator of evil, Baldung also constructs an audacious analogy between fallenness and the originary power of the individual artistic self.

When the argument has come this far, the next step, the last twist of the plot, can only be the annihilation of the artist’s own narcissistic self—at least the self as Dürer had splendidly presented it in his own portrait of 1500. That is just what happens in the Bewitched Stable Groom, a woodcut dated 1544, one year before Baldung’s death. In Koerner’s interpretation, the “radically foreshortened figure” of the groom lying stretched out on the floor of a stable, with a horse in the background and a witch looking in the window, is Baldung’s—and German Renaissance art’s—last self-portrait:

There lies the artist himself, unthroned from his upright and godlike place as measurer and measurement of the world.

In Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus, Fitelberg, a Jew from Lublin living in Paris, says to Leverkühn, the German composer: “You probably do not realize, cher Maître, how German is your répugnance, which…I find characteristically made up of arrogance and a sense of inferiority….”3 Like Mann’s novel, Koerner’s discussion of the tension between the godlike self-elevation and the sinful fallen state of the artist is a commentary on the intellectual and spiritual turmoil of German art. One certainly cannot imagine a similar book being written on Venetian or Florentine art of the same period. And in a curious way Koerner himself seems deeply—or should we say narcissistically?—involved in the ambivalences of the obscure topic he has chosen for his remarkable book. It is this involvement which makes one think not only of Leverkühn but also of Thomas Mann.

Koerner’s book is difficult to argue with. It is enormously learned but it proceeds less by arguments than through the use of an evocative rhetoric and ingeniously chosen associations. Koerner himself is well aware of his own suggestive technique and illuminates it with a telling biblical metaphor:

Does not the whole character of our interpretation represent the kind of knowledge precipitated by the bite into the apple: fallen knowledge as the advent of a plethora of meanings without the authority of a meaning, and as the loss of an unequivocal and “natural” access to things and to the meaning of things?

The loss of stable meanings and established authority, and the resulting uncertainties about truth and falsehood, according to Koerner, are thus not simply the product of our postmodern and poststructuralist age, but have been with us since the Fall. Against “a plethora of meanings,” arguments are of little help. But Koerner is much too intelligent and self-conscious a writer not to see the traps in which fallen knowledge may be caught. “One sometimes wonders,” he writes, “whether what art historians discover as the implied beholder is not really a reflection of themselves transposed in the historical material.” Turning narcissism into a method of interpretation was perhaps the price he has had to pay for writing a stimulating book that offers deeper and more disturbing insights into German Renaissance art than most earlier scholarship.

  1. 3

    Sie wissen wohl gar nicht, Maître, wie deutsch Ihre répugnance ist, die sich… aus Hochmut und Inferioritätsgefühlen charakteristisch zusammensetzt….”

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