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.
Altdorfer’s own continuous development mirrors the larger story in little. His work includes not only haunting landscapes and ambitiously complex paintings of biblical and mythological scenes, but works of high political and historical art. Like Dürer, he worked extensively for one of the most intriguing patrons of Renaissance art, the Emperor Maximilian I, whom subsequent generations have seen both as the last knight of the German Middle Ages and, more recently, as the first German prince of the Renaissance: as a romantic, dedicated to the dead arts of chivalry, and as a modern master of that central art of the Renaissance prince, the manipulation of public opinion to enhance his contemporary reputation and establish his place in history. Maximilian was a literally oversized figure (his arms, Dürer noted, were as thick as his thighs). He won every tournament he took part in, outshot his best archer with the crossbow, brought down a hundred ducks with a hundred and four shots, and showed passionate interest in such up-to-date Renaissance pursuits as cannon-founding and patronage of the arts.5
Maximilian, though a capable ruler with ambitious plans for reform, lacked the military and economic power that would have enabled him to rebuild the weak central institutions of the Holy Roman Empire and impose his authority on Germany’s rich cities and powerful territorial princes. Accordingly, he assembled literary and artistic talents to spread his image, if not his authority, throughout the land. A huge and magnificent Ehrenpforte or triumphal arch on paper, created by Dürer, Altdorfer, and others, recorded his battles and celebrated his majesty in what were taken, at the time, to be Egyptian hieroglyphs. So did a long and fascinating Triumphal Procession, again a collaborative work, which conjured up a jubilant court and army carrying banners that luridly recorded Maximilian’s campaigns. A series of strange illustrated books by and about the king was aimed at a tiny audience of princes and nobles. Graphic works, unlike paintings, could be multiplied and distributed: they provided a portable version of the claim to authority that the Medici and other Renaissance princes staked with massive city palaces and country houses.
Altdorfer took an active part in this extensive literary and artistic propaganda campaign. He produced delicate creatures and plants for the collaborative, hand-executed illustration of Maximilian’s prayer book. He recorded the travails and triumphs of the emperor and his father, in a series of drawings, only recently attributed to him, whose nervous, rapid draughtsmanship recalls nothing so much as twentieth-century comic art at its best: Altdorfer meets Tintin. 6 No one brought out more vividly Maximilian’s combination of devotion to the old virtues of chivalry and fascination with the new powers of military technology.
Altdorfer lived at the epicenter of an intellectual earthquake. Around 1500 northern scholars desperately wanted to write the smooth, classical Latin recently revived in Italy as well as the Italians did. But they also reveled in the discovery of the Roman historian Tacitus’ ethnology of Germania. This offered an attractive picture of the virtuous, hard-living ancient Germans, whom Tacitus contrasted with the Romans, fatally corrupted by the terrors and temptations of life in the new imperial system. German humanists scoured the monasteries for classics of their own tradition—like the Latin comedies, modeled on the ancient ones by Terence, of the nun Hroswitha of Gandersheim, which Conrad Celtis enthusiastically published. They also trawled the written sources for medieval German history, conjuring up, not for the last time, a noble, northern past.
If the sages of ancient Egypt had invented philosophy, the medieval German Albertus Magnus had given it new depth and range. Rome could boast of the ruins of its Forum, where wise orators had raised rhetoric to new heights; but Germany could show (or at least remember) its forests, in which wise Druids had laid open all the secrets of nature. The year 1500 took on for many of these intellectuals a mystical power: they hoped that it would mark the start of a new era, in which a reunited German Empire would reestablish its claims to political, moral, and intellectual supremacy.7
Altdorfer rode these waves of social and intellectual change with dazzling ease. He could master the difficulties of any medium: he could also appropriate and alter to fit ends of his own the work of radically different artists. Mantegna, the Italian master of perspective and architectural detail, stood for exactly the nostalgic Italian classicism that the German humanists ostensibly rejected. He reconstructed with a watchmaker’s patience the fragments of Roman antiquity, and moved his icy, poised figures—often described as looking more like statues than people—through marble mazes that re-created the power and perfection of the lost Roman world. No one could have been farther than Mantegna from the forest virtues German humanists admired. But no one taught Altdorfer more, as is shown by a number of his prints and the fantastic architecture by which his absorbing Susanna and the Elders is set.
Dürer followed the theological and scholarly debates of his time with absorbed, almost neurotic attention: he recorded frightening rumors and portents in sketches and diary entries. Altdorfer too could respond with great immediacy to his political environment. None of his works makes this clearer than two bizarre, coordinated etchings in Berlin. In one of these he showed Jews moving, rapidly, through the porch of Regensburg’s Gothic synagogue; in the other, he showed the empty interior. These dark images have the strange power—and something of the alien look—of frames from a silent movie. They record not only a scene but also an event, and a shattering one: the destruction of the synagogue, by Regensburg’s Christian citizens, in 1519, which formed part of a wave of anti-Jewish action in the Holy Roman Empire. The Regensburg pogrom was followed—and celebrated—by the construction of a church to the Virgin Mary. This in turn, became the site of miracles. Hundreds of Regensburg women and girls helped to construct the building, which rose with superhuman speed. A worker injured in its construction was healed immediately. In 1522 more than 110,000 pilgrims bought badges for their hats to show they had visited the church, where a famous outdoor statue of the Virgin Mary presided over miraculous cures.8
Altdorfer’s carefully labeled and dated images make the emotional quality of his response anything but clear. But he certainly devised a unique, and unforgettable, artistic form to match a unique and terrible event: he represented action as well as place, the destroyed community as well as the smashed building, the tearing of a hole in his city’s traditional urban fabric. Like Freud, whose Civilization and its Discontents would begin with an elaborate effort to envision all the historical strata of Rome’s past as occupying the same physical space, Altdorfer showed how lost or destroyed structures still haunt and dominate a city, as the Wall still haunts Berlin. No Renaissance artist seems more anchored in place and time, in the tradition and history of the town he served, than the Altdorfer of these works.
It strikes us as paradoxical, then, that Altdorfer also expended great efforts and exerted great influence as a recorder of scenes that seem to take place literally nowhere. The images of landscape on which Wood concentrates refuse at first to be located in a time, in a place, or in a plot. True, Altdorfer’s landscapes take many forms and are to be found in many media, and some of them, at least formally speaking, illustrate stories rather than countrysides. One of the most absorbing of his drawings on colored paper represents a man lying on his back in a forest clearing. One leg is raised and bent at the knee, and a knife protrudes from his chest. It seems certain that he is Pyramus—the Greek who killed himself because he thought, mistakenly, that his lover Thisbe was dead. But it seems equally certain that the real subject of the image is not the flattened Pyramus or the mythological tale but the fantastic trees and tunnel that loom above and behind him.
Other images apparently began, like Dürer’s, as records of places, visual diary entries—for example, the dazzling pen drawings, many of them colored, that captured mountain landscapes and, in one case, an identifiable settlement on a river. Here too, however, as Wood elegantly argues, Altdorfer’s intentions are more complex and his techniques more double-edged than they appear at first: his “calligraphic” line, rapid and uneven, continually calls attention to itself and, by implication, to Altdorfer. The loops and jags which he uses as an elegant shorthand for mountains and forests continually remind viewers that they face not reality but an image: that a picture is not only a reproduction of an external reality but also the record of human work. To create the tree from which Wood begins—with its deliberate violations of expectation, its great size and strange isolation, its colors that fall outside its outlines, and its huge artist’s monogram, placed bizarrely high on the trunk—Altdorfer uses different techniques and materials. But he had similar ends in view.
The generally excellent illustrations that adorn the book and Wood’s own detailed, exuberant comments leave the reader in no doubt about Altdorfer’s brilliance and originality. Wood shows impressive expert knowledge of the various techniques Altdorfer employed, from oil painting through woodcut and engraving to drawing on colored paper and etching. He lays out the difficulties each form presented, the conventions they fostered, and the precedents they boasted. He writes well about pictures—a rare gift:
The fundamental formal unit of the St. George is this overlaying of light strokes upon a dark ground to describe the body of a branch. Then the units multiply, so that the picture space realizes natural disorder. It does not merely offer a parcel of disorder embedded within order—it lets disorder become the ordering principle of the entire picture. Individual trees are hardly to be distinguished from one another. A cluster of slender trunks emerges at the left; a more bulky trunk gleams forth at dead centre; the two trunks at the right disappear into the swarm of green. The rest is a conversation among branches.
Prose like this both invites and excites the reader to explore details of draftsmanship and color, line and shadow.
Wood uses visual evidence imaginatively to overcome the considerable technical difficulties that beset any interpreter of Altdorfer: above all, that no written account of a contemporary response to Altdorfer’s work survives. Naturally, the presence of a written response does not guarantee the accuracy of a historical interpretation. Dürer’s work, for example, stimulated Erasmus and many other articulate amateurs as well as his professional colleagues and rivals to formulate lively and perceptive responses. Modern art historians have found some of them immensely suggestive—for example, Erasmus’s delicate evaluation of Dürer’s ability to render such ephemeral phenomena as “clouds on a wall” with plain black lines on a white ground. Admittedly, the artist himself mocked these efforts of intellectuals to grasp what he insisted was the entirely different “Sprache” of the visual arts, and the experts remain at odds about the interpretation of many of Dürer’s images. Still, the situation of Altdorfer’s interpreters seems even more difficult than that of Dürer’s. They must find a setting for works that seem to lack one, must talk convincingly about an artist whose contemporaries were silent about him.
Wood insists that “Altdorfer’s landscapes were indoor affairs”: and he explains them, first of all, as responses to a social situation. Throughout the fifteenth century, as he shows, drawing on Otto Pächt and others, artists had developed a new interest in landscapes. New techniques were developed in the ateliers of miniaturists. Dazzling re-creations of fruits and insects, monsters and landscapes spilled down the margins and glowed from the centers of French and Flemish Books of Hours landscapes without human characters or action appeared in some of them. Painters also took more interest in the shapes and colors of outdoor backgrounds, which became a Venetian and north European specialty. By the 1510s Gerard David could decorate the cover of a nativity altarpiece with an astonishing pair of forest landscapes, whose towering trees shelter no human being. But landscape always depended, for its theoretical justification, on something else: landscape images illustrated a particular scene or framed a “real” story.
True, landscape afforded recreation, in painting as in life. Just as the jaded Florentine businessman found pleasure, or the eager antiquary reminders of a classic past, in the Italian countryside, so the painter could find a pleasant respite—as Paolo Glovio remarked in a famous passage about Dosso Dossi—in depicting rocks, trees, and rivers in an individual and stylish way. But pleasure had perils as well as rewards: Michelangelo supposedly criticized the Flemish painters who overindulged in such cheap treats, at the expense of systematic storytelling.
It is just here—at the intersection between the critical language of the period and the artist’s career—that Wood finds his Archimedean point. Why did Altdorfer spend so much time and effort on landscapes that curiously remained “indoor affairs”? Because in doing so, he found a way to insist that his own style was novel and individual: to develop a technique absolutely of his own, which insisted, over and over again, on its presence in the work. By employing these techniques in tiny, eminently portable works, which traveled roads and rivers with great ease and rapidity, Altdorfer could win more than regional prominence. This was particularly difficult in Germany, where the huge altarpieces that conveyed high artistic prestige took endless years of work to complete and were then visible only to a local audience. Unlike Dürer, moreover, Altdorfer lacked the backing of a humanist “propaganda machine.” Nonetheless, he matched Dürer in his ability to impose a method and a vision on his contemporaries—and by doing so, to win a widely known name and capture a strategic position in the market in which he competed.
Wood deftly explains Altdorfer’s brilliant but previously sometimes baffling artistic tactics in light of his strategic situation. Landscapes in Altdorfer’s environment had previously played subsidiary roles. Artists might, like Dürer, sketch a mountain or river landscape to record an impression, as the poet records “a gesture and a pose.” Artists might also introduce fully worked landscapes, detailed and fascinating, into normal figure paintings or prints, framing and defining them by a window which set them apart from the action of the work. But their sketches of mountains, rivers, and mills remained just that: unsigned, rapid records, probably designed for artistic re-use rather than sale. And the framed landscape remained part of the scenery it enlivened: safe, domesticated, subsidiary to the action which high images should relate.
In Altdorfer, by contrast, landscape takes center stage: the scenery pushes the actors into the wings. In many of his early images, a story from classical myth, Roman history, or the Bible still provides the ostensible subject matter. But Altdorfer’s pictorial means challenge his rhetorical ends. The forest rises above human actors who have neither its complexity nor its individuality. Stories become almost indecipherable, human actors more and more insignificant; finally, they leave the stage, and an independent landscape emerges, one characterized by its assertive replacement of characters by scenery, as well as replacement of the central image by the scene that surrounds it. Artistic convention is replaced by the artist’s style and coherent action by an obsessively elaborated ornament.
This effort Wood traces through Altdorfer’s fascinatingly protean corpus. At every step he sheds illuminating technical light. One of Altdorfer’s most astounding re-creations of a forest, overwhelming, oppressive, meticulous, is his painting of Saint George, now in Munich, executed in oil on parchment—normally the material on which fine manuscripts were written, and which miniaturists decorated. Wood elegantly shows how Altdorfer took advantage of the material—and of “the miniaturist’s technique of pyramidal layering, from dark to light, from deepest green to brightest yellow”—to create the dense forest scene in which straight and curved trunks and leaves endlessly varied in grouping, shape, and lighting cover most of the picture space; only one small gap allows a glimpse of sky and a distant mountain. Green and yellow nature encloses and dwarfs both the saint, on his white horse, and the dragon who confronts him. The new drama of Altdorfer’s forest overshadows the traditional sacred drama that he stages within it.
Miniatures were meant to be studied lovingly, slowly, minutely: Raphael shows Leo X, in his great portrait, studying an illuminated manuscript through a magnifying glass. As much in his anticipation of such scrutiny as in his dedicated creation of this bizarrely glamorous, self-replicating wilderness, Altdorfer emerges as a convincing figure, ambitious both for his own career and for the perfection of his highly idiosyncratic vision and technique. Particularly enlightening are Wood’s many demonstrations—based entirely on visual evidence—that Altdorfer carried on a perpetual dialogue with his contemporaries. Wood conjures up a forgotten story of artistic and intellectual exchange, of rivalry and admiration, as he follows other artists’ efforts to copy and respond to Altdorfer and his similar responses to them. A generation ago, Michael Baxandall used a wide range of written documents to reconstruct the social relationships that underlay the production of fifteenth-century Italian painting.9 Wood now uses the images themselves to re-create a perceptive and convincing social history of northern art.
The incorrigible historian—that’s me—naturally comes back at the end to his naive and sentimental question: What does it all mean? And here, it seems to me, Wood is less convincing than he is on questions of technique. He surrounds Altdorfer’s landscapes with an intricate garland of related materials, visual and written. German woods and landscapes, as he shows, had profound symbolic meanings for the scholars, as well as the artists, of Altdorfer’s day. They stood for the forest virtues of the ancient Germans, for a national identity; they represented the place of outdoor worship once employed by wise Druids who shunned the corruption of cities. But they also harbored wild men, those strange, fierce beings who peer out from stylized, curling branches in so many German decorative images and who could themselves be interpreted in more than one way, as Larry Silver has shown in a classic article.10
Forests protected not only saints, but also robbers—whom Altdorfer showed at work in one drawing, now in Berlin. The forest could be tame, a settled, cultivated resource—as a nice image from Nuremberg suggests. But one should not exaggerate the civility of the German woods. They could also threaten and terrify. Sebastian Münster, the great Swiss geographer whose efforts to record the details of German cities and landscapes are recorded in his Cosmography, found it possible to become entirely lost and very frightened in the forest. Like the woods of the New World, those of the Old could remind the cultivated Renaissance onlooker of pagan totems and frightening beings. Wood brings these points out well, though his readings of texts lack the microscopic precision of his explications of images.
But which of these ideas and images find expression in—for example—Altdorfer’s Landscape with Woodcutter? Wood makes an impressive effort to find out. He reads the image with verve and precision, inspecting every tiny clue with energy and precision and surrounding the little sheet with an immense corpus of possibly relevant images and facts. Does the huge, twisting tree in the center recall a Crucifix? Or the Virgin? Does its position in the forest imply holiness—or the isolation of the tree from its surroundings the isolation of a pagan idol? What saint (or totem) inhabits the huge hanging shrine, beneath which Altdorfer’s woodcutter rests? What does the power of Altdorfer’s line, insisting on its own presence, mean about the experience he wished the image to generate?
At this point, the absence of direct verbal evidence begins to tell. We have no way of knowing exactly what a contemporary would have seen in Altdorfer’s tree. Wood’s own interpretation, reminiscent in its proliferating attention to apparently insignificant details of a Renaissance commentary on Dante or Virgil, squeezes every imaginable ounce of signification from line and color. But he nowhere shows that the image actually meant any of the things that, he suggests, it might have meant. More seriously, he cannot show that any contemporary would have tried to read it with his deeply scrupulous curiosity, or with the wide cultural and religious questions that he brings to it in view. He lacks either a verbal or a pictorial commentary that would show in this case—as artistic adaptations of Altdorfer enable him to in so many other cases—what a contemporary eye found in the image. In the end, his interpretation seems to find everything in the picture—and thus to risk finding nothing—or nothing convincing—in it.
For all their sparseness, classical and modern Italian comments on the perils and profits of landscape enabled E.H. Gombrich to devise a detailed and still convincing history of intellectual and aesthetic impulses that Wood simply cannot match. By contrast Wood may be right to insist that Altdorfer’s landscapes did not derive from the discovery of German towns and lands carried out in his day, and after, by historians, geographers, and artists who drew up elaborate city views. He may also be right when he argues that many of the landscapes owe little to Altdorfer’s own preparations for the Battle of Alexander and Darius and other works in which landscape reverted to its supporting role—and in which his own techniques did less to call attention to themselves. But his arguments remain more suggestive than conclusive.
Wood brings his readers into a strange culture, visual and verbal: he guides them, ever helpful (if sometimes overly talkative), through a glowing gallery of unfamiliar images: he leaves them stimulated, if occasionally querulous. His ability to re-create networks of artistic communication by following the exchange of techniques and images among artists offers a particularly impressive model of a social history of art, one that rests on visual, rather than verbal, evidence. Altdorfer remains strange: his work in part eludes the interpreter, and by no means everyone will be convinced by Wood’s argument that his landscapes are best understood as the head of a truncated genealogy—as part of an alternate history of a European art, an art that refused the ambitions of Altdorfer’s own Alexander picture in favor of other meanings and satisfactions. But the results of the strange voyage into the wilderness that he made within the walls of his studio challenge and fascinate the onlooker as they engaged his fellow artists. The path to the northern Renaissance undoubtedly lies, in part, where Wood has traced it: through Altdorfer’s forest.
October 20, 1994
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). ↩
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). ↩
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). ↩
See H. Mielke et all., Albrecht Altdorfer: Zeichnungen, Deckfarbenmalerei, Druckgraphik (Berlin: Kupferstichkabinett Berlin; Staatliche Museen Preussischer Kulturbesitz; Museen der Stadt Regensburg, 1988). ↩
See the classic study of Jan-Dirk Müller, Gedächtnis, Literatur und Hofgesellschaft um Maximilian I (Munich: Wilhelm Fink, 1982). ↩
See Mielke, pp. 68–83. ↩
See e.g. Michael Werner, “La Germanie de Tacite et l’originalité allemande,” Le Débat, No. 78 (January–February 1994), pp. 42–61. ↩
See Bernd Moeller, Reichsstadt und Reformation (Gütersloh: Gerd Mohn, 1962), pp. 23–24. ↩
Michael Baxandall, Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy (Oxford University Press, 1972). ↩
Larry Silver, “Forest Primeval: Albrecht Altdorfer and the German Wilderness Landscape,” Simiolus, No. 13 (1983), pp. 5–53. ↩