German Art: The Return of the Repressed

During the last two decades, English and, above all, American art historians have been taking a somewhat surprising interest in German art. Fifteen years ago Michael Baxandall published his book The Limewood Sculptors of Renaissance Germany, a study of such artists as Tilman Riemenschneider and Veit Stoss, which remains the most penetrating investigation of a particularly idiosyncratic chapter of German late medieval art. Two years ago Christopher Wood took readers into the German forests in a remarkable book, Albrecht Altdorfer and the Origins of Landscape, and Joseph Koerner explored a similar subject in his thoughtful study Caspar David Friedrich and the Subject of Landscape of 1990. More than a few other studies of German art history have since appeared.

How can one explain this unexpected shift in taste? In the past American art historians had been predominantly interested in French and Italian art. Does German art, with its often mysterious, introverted, even tormented aspects, appeal to a curiosity about societies in turmoil characteristic of our own fin de siècle, in which many scholars have become tired of norms and perfection? Did the surprising success of such mystically inclined German artists as Joseph Beuys and Anselm Kiefer in the United States during the Eighties result from some nostalgia for the magic of Romanticism?

Joseph Koerner’s The Moment of Self-Portraiture in German Renaissance Art may be the most ambitious of recent American reflections on the mysteries of German art. His elegantly written book deals with the fateful period in the history of German art when it reached its highest point in the works of Albrecht Dürer, the German Apelles, and then sank into deep, even self-destructive crises in the aftermath of the Reformation. The first part of the book contains a lengthy discussion of Dürer’s self-portraits, especially of the famous one in the Alte Pinakothek at Munich showing Dürer as a wonderfully handsome young man. The second part has the portentous title “The Mortification of the Image” and is largely dedicated to Dürer’s most gifted—but also his most independent—pupil and follower, the painter Hans Baldung Grien, who was mainly active in Strasbourg. Koerner, who concludes his book with a short chapter on Cranach, has evidently struggled to give it a cohesive structure, but the chapters on Dürer, Baldung, and Cranach all stand somewhat apart from one another, as if they had first been written as independent pieces and collected into a book at a later period.

The twenty-eight-year old Albrecht Dürer was already a famous artist in 1500, the year he painted his great half-length self-portrait with “proper colors,” as the inscription proudly proclaims. The painting’s high artistic quality quickly won praise, but for German humanists such as Conrad Celtis and Christoph Scheurl and the Dutch art historian Carel van Mander, it was the portrait’s astonishing resemblance to Dürer …

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