Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 30, 2014
Andrea Bubenik Reframing Albrecht Dürer: The Appropriation of Art, 1528–1700 Burlington: Ashgate, 2013. 282 pp.; 13 color ills.; 81 b/w ills. Cloth $104.95 (9781409438472)

Of the relationship of Albrecht Dürer to his artistic sources it might be said: “Weaker talents idealize; figures of capable imagination appropriate for themselves” (Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry, New York: Oxford University Press, 1973, 5). The images produced by the first generation of printmakers to respond to Dürer also did well to demonstrate this dictum. Hans Sebald and Barthel Beham, Hans Baldung Grien, and Urs Graf seized Dürer’s compositions, toppling their precursor’s equilibrium and tearing through his restraint to expose the rawness of sexuality and the garishness of death. That his unique presence can be detected in the work of his immediate successors is one reason among others—e.g., his activities as a self-portraitist, his philographic tendency toward monograms and signatures, the disproportionate number of surviving texts written by his hand—that Dürer’s name prominently attaches itself to the concept of artistic authorship.

Unlike literary critics such as Bloom, who has long wished that responses to poetry were measured without information external to the text in the consideration of its meaning, the historian of art cannot analogously confine her or his study of reception if she or he considers what is distinctive about the visual medium: the existence of an original object, and the location of that object in a specific place at a particular time. It is in regard to the collecting of Dürer’s art, its transference from site to site, and the control of its documentation by its owners that Andrea Bubenik’s book makes an important contribution to the study of the reception of Dürer’s work.

It should be clarified that reception refers in this volume to the activities of artists who made compositions based upon Dürer’s originals (and not the beholders who may have kissed, prayed before, colored, cut, or pasted his images, as scholarship on the interactive practices of response has recently employed the term). Bubenik moves quickly past the first generation of Dürer protégés mentioned above. Her brief discussion of Baldung (78–81) attributes his subversive imagery to socio-political factors rather than understanding it as a deeply indebted form of creative interpretation, a reading promoted in a (Bloomian-inflected) essay by Joseph Leo Koerner (“The Mortification of the Image: Death as a Hermeneutic in Hans Baldung Grien,” Representations 10 [Spring 1985]: 52–101). Instead, Bubenik calibrates the “Dürer Renaissance” from the end of the artist’s death in 1528 through 1700, with the highest activity of imitative works swelling around 1600. In her preliminary chapter she builds on Jan Bialostocki’s Dürer and his Critics, 1500–1971: Chapters in the History of Ideas (Baden-Baden: Valentin Koerner, 1986) to establish Dürer’s reputation in early modern literature, and describes the circulation of his likeness in commemorative prints and copies after his self-portraits. In the second chapter on collecting, and the third chapter on copying, she turns to her main focus, which is to establish the courts of Archduke Ferdinand in Tyrol, Rudolf II in Prague, Archduke Maximilian I in Munich, and (to a lesser extent) Archduke Leopold Wilhelm in Brussels as centers of the collecting and commissioning of copies.

This approach to tracking the princely taste for Dürer originals and their derivatives introduces a large cast of characters to the study of replicative images. The book expands the dialectic between author and imitator to include political sovereigns, earlier collectors (such as Willibald Imhoff and Paulus Praun), and diplomats who brokered the removal of Dürer’s in situ paintings from the ecclesiastical and civic locales for which they were initially intended. Joachim König, unable to persuade the Nuremberg council to agree to the sale of the Adoration of the Trinity (1511), eventually resorted to political threats. Bernardo Rosso purchased the Feast of the Rosegarlands (1506) for Rudolf’s collection in 1606, one hundred years after Dürer had completed it for San Bartolomeo in Venice. The opinion of Maximilian’s envoy to Nuremberg, that the side panels of the Paumgartner altarpiece were not authentic, led to their being overpainted with motifs from the artist’s prints in an effort to render the appearance more “Dürerish” (Bubenik’s term) (121). Sometimes copies were made as replacements after the acquisition, such as Jobst Harrich’s version of the Heller Altar, which was sent to occupy the vacant spot in the Dominican church in Frankfurt. Other times the substitute was sent back. Georg Vischer’s Four Apostles (1627) today can be found in the Albrecht-Dürer-Haus in Nuremberg, whereas its prototype, a gift from the artist to the city council, hangs in the Alte Pinakothek. Its displacement is due to Maximilian’s taste for the original.

The activities documented in Reframing Albrecht Dürer not only give historical explanations for why the best examples of Dürer’s painting are found in Vienna and Munich, not in the artist’s native Nuremberg. They also position collectors as participants in the development of a discourse on the relationship of originator to imitator. The Imhoff family inventory records the presence of copies, suspicions concerning falsified Dürer signatures, and a confessed forgery: “My father had Albrecht Dürer’s mark painted underneath, but for all that one could not really believe that Albrecht Dürer painted it” (48). Drawing upon archival evidence, Bubenik sorts between copies that were collected and copies commissioned, adding texture to an understanding of the careers of the court artists Daniel Fröschl, Georg Hoefnagel, and the most prolific imitator of Dürer’s compositions, Hans Hoffmann. Bubenik’s boldest claim is that Dürer’s admiring sovereigns, at the same time that they patronized faithful renderings as stand-ins for the originals they (forcibly) purchased, may have spawned creative emulations of the master’s compositions. This claim splits Hoffmann’s career between a more intentionally deceptive form of forgery practiced in Nuremberg and a more inspired form of imitation after his 1585 arrival at Rudolf’s court.

Rather than frame her discussion with a theoretical discourse on imitation, Bubenik presents as a summary (84–88) her engagement with texts beyond the immediately pertinent Dürer bibliography. Although it does not announce itself with this formulation, her study contributes to models of anti-agonistic dynamics that have been recently put forth, albeit with very different aims, by Maria Loh (Titian Remade: Repetition and the Transformation of Early Modern Italian Art, Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2007) and Christopher Wood (Forgery, Replica, Fiction: Temporalities of German Renaissance Art, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008). Both are absent from Bubenik’s bibliography.

In the third chapter Bubenik introduces a series of terms that are meant to differentiate between the various intentions behind copying. Forgery deliberately deceives; pedagogy replicates in order to improve technique; retrospection involves the coloring of prints to imitate the manuscript tradition (which Bubenik positions as preceding, rather than overlapping with, print culture). The category most excitingly suggestive of further research is transformation, defined as Dürer’s compositions reworked in media—sculpture, enamel, maiolica—in which he never experimented. Lastly, Bubenik defines emulation as an artistic tribute that endeavors to improve upon the predecessor’s model. (Readers wishing to understand how early modern print culture began to develop a language for distinguishing the roles of artist and copyists will want to attend to the Latinate vocabulary on the borders of reproductive prints: fecit, pinxit, invenit, and the like). Bubenik uses the term emulation, an important concept for her study, interchangeably with the word appropriation (76), which appears in the subtitle of the book. “What does an appropriation do?” she asks. “It makes the past patently and brazenly evident to us as a past” (80).

This claim would serve well to structure Bubenik’s readings of individual works of art, but her book does not venture to define the pictorial conditions that differentiate the contrivances of late sixteenth- and seventeenth-century pictures from Dürer’s early sixteenth-century art. A blind spot of the study is that it does not explain the suitability of its title, Reframing Albrecht Dürer. For it is precisely with the device of the frame that Melchior Lorck distances Dürer’s Self-Portrait of 1500, or Georg Vischer surrounds the artist’s quoted visage with flanking figures, or Aegidius Sadeler nests Dürer’s studies of heads within a commemorative tablet structure. Hoefnagel circumscribes his copies of Dürer’s animal studies within an oval and Hoffmann sets his version of Christ among the Doctors (ca.1580–85) behind a parapet ledge because a new idiom had developed, reflexively containing within compositions references to “the work of art.” Dürer, with all of his written annotations and self-placements on the periphery of his altarpieces, authored a prequel to this idea. His successors, having received it, built architectural devices within their pictures, imbedding his art within their own.

At the end of reading Reframing Albrecht Dürer, one is left wanting more authorship from the author. If Dürer’s age was marked by a lack of clarity about the relationship of artist to copyist and publisher, ours is fraught with an uncertainty about the distribution of tasks between the writer and editor of an academic text. (For this reason it is difficult to pronounce one party guilty for the book’s mistakes. Although David Freedberg is credited elsewhere for his Power of Images: Studies in the History and Theory of Response [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989], John Shearman erroneously appears as the author on page 80 and in the bibliography. The charming quotation by Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel, lamenting that there are not more original Dürers for sale in the artist’s native Nuremberg, is repeated verbatim on pages 28, 39, and 51, a redundancy the author, editor, or indexer might have caught.) Whether it was the author herself or someone else who restricted the description of the images reproduced in the book’s pages to a paragraph, the reader wishes to afford Bubenik more creative freedom to explore interpretations of Dürer’s copyists’ work. A scrupulous comparison of an original to its descendent might yield new ways of perceiving Dürer’s pictorial strategies. It may be remembered that Leo Steinberg found in the omissions and misprisions of copyists precisely what was distinctive and daring about Renaissance art. There could be no better way to test whether Dürer’s descendents are truly emulators, figures of “capable imagination” (Bloom’s term is itself a borrowing from Wallace Stevens), than to award their compositions with more speculative thought about their meanings and effects.

Shira Brisman
Assistant Professor, History of Art, University of Pennsylvania

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