Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 7, 2016
Gregory Jecmen and Freyda Spira Imperial Augsburg: Renaissance Prints and Drawings, 1475–1540 Exh. cat. Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art in association with Lund Humphries, 2012. 120 pp.; 48 color ills. Cloth $36.00 (9781848221222)
Exhibition schedule: National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, September 30–December 31, 2012; Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas, Austin, October 5, 2013–January 5, 2014; Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, September 19–December 14, 2014
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The Imperial Augsburg: Renaissance Prints and Drawings, 1475–1540 catalogue accompanied the first exhibition staged outside Germany focusing entirely on Renaissance art in Augsburg. It is a handsome, small-format hardcover, beautifully designed and illustrated with superb color reproductions. It contains three essays and a checklist of the 102 objects exhibited—of which, regrettably, fewer than half are illustrated. The vast majority of these are prints, complemented by a few drawings and medals, slightly compromising the title of the publication which seems to imply a more balanced selection. The core of the exhibits is drawn from the rich holdings at the National Gallery of Art, particularly the Rosenwald Collection, with additional loans from the Metropolitan Museum, New York, and private collections.

Publications on Augsburg have a longstanding tradition in German art history but are scarce elsewhere, particularly if compared with the rich non-German literature on Nuremberg, Albrecht Dürer’s hometown. This is somewhat surprising, as the arts flourished for centuries in the imperial city of Augsburg, a Roman foundation and one of the oldest cities in Germany. The decades around 1500 saw a remarkably fertile environment for the arts, created by the colossal wealth of merchant-banker families such as the Fugger and Welser, the Holy Roman Emperors Maximilian I and Charles V, and humanists such as Conrad Celtis and Conrad Peutinger. The first essay, co-authored by the curators of the show, Gregory Jecmen (National Gallery of Art) and Freyda Spira (Metropolitan Museum), provides a concise and informative introduction to the history of Augsburg from the late fifteenth century until about 1537, when the city council instituted the Reformation. It describes the political and economic as well as the social and religious context in the free imperial city.

The close ties between patrons, humanists, and artists are mentioned in the first chapter and further elaborated upon in the second, by Spira, on artistic production in the city. She discusses a wide range of objects—from armor and medals to prints and book illustrations, drawings and illuminated manuscripts—successfully combining general aspects with the analysis of individual objects. However, it is here that the slightly ambiguous character of this publication is most strongly felt; it is neither a fully fledged academic book nor a traditional exhibition catalogue with entries for individual objects. Understandably, the emphasis lies on artists and their activities in Augsburg, and on objects that were exhibited. As a result, Augsburg’s role beyond the city’s boundaries is not always fully acknowledged. Its importance for introducing Italian Renaissance ornament and architectural forms into Central Europe and, in particular, for their dissemination through prints published in the city would have deserved more attention. Likewise, collaborative imperial projects in which Dürer played a major part, such as the Triumphal Arch (1515), receive less attention than one might expect. The importance of Augsburg would have become even more obvious if Dürer’s close relationship with the city’s patrons as well as humanists had been given more emphasis. The absence from the bibliography of a few significant German publications may explain some of these omissions (Claudia Baer-Schneider, Die italienischen Bau- und Ornamentformen in der Augsburger Kunst zu Beginn des 16. Jahrhunderts, Frankfurt: Lang, 1993; Thomas Schauerte, Die Ehrenpforte für Kaiser Maximilian I: Dürer und Altdorfer im Dienst des Herrschers, Munich: Deutscher Kunstverlag, 2001; Schauerte, Dürer: Das ferne Genie. Eine Biografie, Stuttgart: Reclam, 2012).

In the third chapter, Jecmen discusses the important contributions of Augsburg printmakers to color woodcutting and etching. In both techniques, local artists were avant-garde, excelling in innovative and experimental approaches. For color printmaking, Erhard Ratdolt’s return to Augsburg in 1486 was crucial (see on this subject most recently Ad Stijnman and Elizabeth Savage, eds., Printing Colour: History, Techniques, Functions and Receptions, Leiden: Brill, 2015). Ratdolt, a printer and publisher, had spent almost ten years in the famous press of Aldus Manutius in Venice, then Europe’s center of book publishing. There, he was involved in the earliest woodcut book illustrations printed in three colors. Back in Augsburg he embarked on even more challenging projects, using up to six different wood blocks. Hans Burgkmair trained with Ratdolt and collaborated on several of the latter’s projects from about 1493 on. Only after returning from a brief stint in Italy in 1507 did Burgkmair start producing woodcuts under his own name. The year after, he embarked on complex prints, creating the first chiaroscuro woodcuts combining a line block with tone blocks. The thorny issue of Cranach’s chiaroscuros of 1506, which the artist probably predated, is only mentioned in a footnote. Likewise, the assumption that the “Formschneider” Jost de Negker collaborated with Burgkmair in Augsburg as early as 1508 is controversial, as he is only documented securely in the city in 1512.

While Burgkmair was the crucial figure in the development of the chiaroscuro woodcut technique, the same can be said of Daniel Hopfer for etching. He had settled in Augsburg in 1493, and, as Christof Metzger has argued convincingly, probably started printing etchings very soon afterwards—and not as late as about 1500. Although Jecmen refers to Metzger’s research, he seems to prefer the traditional chronology. This implies the equally traditional view that Hopfer’s printmaking started as a by-product of etched metalwork, in particular for arms and armor, while it seems more likely that Hopfer worked in both fields at the same time from early in his career. Catering for different markets, Hopfer’s oeuvre encompasses a wide range of subjects and sizes: mythological and religious themes, ornament prints and portraits, and copies after prints by other masters. Jecmen carefully describes Hopfer’s innovative etching techniques, adding important new observations. Hopfer not only experimented with needles of different sizes, multiple and open-biting, but possibly also with corrosive pastes to achieve various tones. Moreover, he used different types of ink to achieve tonal effects. It is in this section that the details illustrated on double-spread sheets are not only decorative but immensely useful and, in fact, essential to understanding Hopfer’s sophisticated technique. It remains astonishing that the artist who first employed this technique for printmaking also explored the subtleties of the medium in a way that would only be surpassed by Hercules Segers and Rembrandt.

Christian Tico Seifert
Senior Curator (Northern European Art), Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh

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