'For truly art is embedded in nature, and he who can extract it, has it.'
- Albrecht Dürer
Albrecht Dürer, Willow Mill, 1496-8
A view from the north bank of the River Pegnitz on the outskirts of Nuremburg
The latest LRB carries a piece on Dürer by Christopher S. Wood, who twenty years ago published possibly my favourite work of art history, Albrecht Altdorfer and the Origins of Landscape. This new article is a review of The Early Dürer, an exhibition catalogue edited by Daniel Hess and Thomas Eser. What he says about their self-imposed academic caution made me reflect on the freedom that blogs provide to break rules and go off on unusual tangents. 'The professional habitus of many art historians is negative, debunking, normalising,' he writes. On Dürer's sexuality, 'the catalogue simply cuts short any inquiry by invoking a normalising historical context. A drawn profile portrait of a laughing Pirckheimer, for example, signed by Dürer, is supplemented by a Greek phrase, written in Pirckheimer’s own hand: ‘with a cock up the ass’. The exhibition catalogue approvingly cites two scholars who tried to explain this inscription either as an erudite comment on the unflattering likeness or as a parody of conventional humanist epigrams. But there is surely more to be said. The catalogue comes across as pedantic if not priggish when it dismisses other scholars’ attempts to relate the inscription to Dürer’s and Pirckheimer’s sexuality as ‘methodologically problematic’'.
Albrecht Dürer, Pond in the Woods, c. 1496
Probably depicting a view of the sandy heathland near Nuremburg
When it comes to landscape, the catalogue's contributors are 'unwilling to read Dürer’s works as directly registering his experience. The watercolour landscapes, for example, have traditionally been seen as impressions of real places created on site during day trips or longer journeys. Rather, it is argued here, the landscapes were carefully contrived exempla or demonstration pieces, designed to establish their maker as an authority or to provide evidence of his travels: they functioned as tokens in a social game. According to the catalogue, we should not read the watercolours as engagements with the natural world because there is no evidence in written sources that artists in this period thought about landscape in such terms. One might well wonder why the authors don’t have more confidence in the drawings themselves as sources. The catalogue frequently strikes such notes of caution, as if there were a danger that the public might succumb to a thoughtless cult of genius.' Wood, on the contrary, concludes that 'Dürer’s landscape watercolours remain emblems of a new concept of artistic authorship grounded in curiosity, desire and attentiveness to the real.'
Albrecht Dürer, Pine, 1495-7