Hand and Mind

Michael Baxandall

Both these books are art books in the particular sense that the main reason for paying quite large sums for them would be their illustrations. This is not to say their texts are bad. Both are by distinguished Dürer scholars and both offer tidy brief versions of the academic consensus without any eccentricities. Anzelewsky proceeds chronologically: after a first short chapter on Nuremberg he works through Dürer’s career in ten uncontroversial phases, Strieder goes by topic: ‘personality’, writings, ambience, influences, subject-matters, techniques – he was director of the great quincentenary Dürer exhibition in Nuremberg in 1971, and the arrangement reminds one a little of that. Anzelewsky has the more enterprising bibliography. Strieder offers two appendices by other hands, one a short technical analysis of the facture of the Four Apostles in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, the other a good explanation of Dürer’s use of systematic linear perspective. Both Anzelewsky and Strieder are quite all right, but neither is comparable – for fullness, denseness and communicated struggle to engage and fathom – with Erwin Panofsky’s Albrecht Dürer of 1943, still the best book.

What one would mainly be buying are the illustrations, 240 (60 in colour) in Anzelewsky or 455 (140 in colour) in Strieder, both reproducing many of the same works. Anzelewsky is printed in Switzerland, Strieder in Belgium: these books are of the international kind in which the plates and printing go with the deal. The Anzelewsky illustrations are consistently sharper and greener, the Strieders tend to be bigger and browner and/or bluer. Strieder crops edges rather more, sometimes destructively. Anzelewsky copes better with the copper engravings, which, as usual, are the things that suffer most in offset reproduction: for any sense at all of their fine bloom some sort of gravure reproduction seems necessary. I regularly preferred the Anzelewsky illustrations, but then each Anzelewsky costs about twice as much as a Strieder.

At an uncontrolled guess, there must be as many books for the general reader on Dürer as on Michelangelo and Raphael put together. The fascination is many-sided. One is the range of media, and the immediate accessibility of the watercolours and copper engravings, if not always of the woodcuts and oil paintings. Another is Dürer the open but real German, moving between Nuremberg and Europe. A third is the Dürer of the exhaustive self-documentation, letters, diaries, books and odd notes, as well as stunning self-portraits at most ages. But there is also something mythic about the man, in that he seems to play a Shakespeareanly fraught role, a role representative of tensions: a man trying to find his position between opposed principles – North and South, line and tone, theory and practice, or claims of hand and claims of mind, workroom and marketplace, real and idea, acculturation and self-assertion, the attractions of simplicity and of complexity, and more. He seems to lay it all out, in images and sometimes also in words. In fact, he resonates like some tautly tuned and centrally European instrument. Much of this is intrinsic to Dürer’s work, but much of it has been brought out in the course of five hundred years of collective mythopoeic activity. It is as if the European mind needed and worked on the figure of Dürer rather as it has worked on Faust or Don Juan, and with a lot more to go on.

The process began slowly, in his youth. Nuremberg was not really quite sure about Dürer. On the one hand, he was clearly one of their many superior metal craftsmen. In 1512 a Nuremberg schoolmaster, writing a piece on Nuremberg for his pupils, still saw him specifically as a copper engraver and put him in a group of five fine craftsmen – the others being a bronze-founder, a trumpet-maker, a clock-maker and a maker of scientific instruments – who represented the city’s preeminence and reputation in the metal crafts. This was how he best fitted into the general picture in Nuremberg, as a virtuoso on copper. Yet there was also the odd but pleasing fact that the man was being taken very seriously outside the city, and even in Italy, as an exponent of, roughly, ‘art’. This had been recognised while Dürer was in his thirties. Dürer the Northern champion, the man who was acknowledged by Italians as being able to hold his own with them on their own ground, was the first component of the public myth. It is a coarse national motif, often put very coarsely, but was important to the immediate pre-Reformation moment in Germany and, it looks from Dürer’s letters from Venice in 1506, important to him too.

In the last ten years of his life, 1518-1528, the intrinsic Dürer became very much more complex – producing his theoretical books, experiencing the Lutheran revolution, beginning to feel his way towards questions about the moral implications of art. The actual pictures and prints of this period may not make one’s mouth water as the earlier work does, but this sober and reflective and perplexed late Dürer is essential to the whole. It is also the starting-point of the first great episode of mythopoeic thinking about him, which took place during the 16th-century German Reformation.

A capital figure here is the reformer Philipp Melanchthon. Melanchthon had met Dürer and is the subject of surely the finest of all Dürer’s portrait copper engravings – also one of the great images of an intellectual. (It is inadequately reproduced in both Anzelewsky and Strieder.) Characteristically, the inscription – ‘Dürer has been able to depict Philipp’s countenance, but his skilled hand has not been able to depict his mind’ – plays on two of the overlapping Dürerian oppositions, mind and face, hand and mind. In his book Strieder gives a couple of Melanchthon’s remarks on Dürer, but if one goes to the third volume of Hans Rupprich’s marvellous edition of Dürer’s writings, Dürer: Schriftlicher Nachlass, the finest production of Dürer scholarship of the last thirty years, one finds that there are more. It is possible to watch the mythopoeic mind at work.

Here are five of Melanchthon’s remarks.

1. In 1531, three years after Dürer died, Melanchthon apropos of the three levels of literary style, grand, plain and middle:

You can see a similar thing to these three levels of style in pictures. Dürer depicted everything more grand, and diversified his pictures with very many and closely spaced lines. Cranach’s pictures on the other hand are simple, and though attractive, comparison shows how different they are from Dürer. Grünewald kept a middle between Dürer and Cranach.

2. Undated table-talk:

An example of modesty ... I once heard Dürer say he took huge delight in pictures he had just made; when he saw them later, after an interval of three years or so, he felt very ashamed of them.

3. Letter of 1546 recommending simple exposition of Christian doctrine:

I remember Dürer saying that when he was young he liked elaborate and very variegated pictures and that he much enjoyed looking at these qualities in his own pictures. Later, when older, he began to contemplate Nature ... and realised simplicity was the highest beauty of art.

4. Letter of 1555 recommending simplicity of speech:

I remember Dürer saying that when he was young he liked depicting monstrous and extraordinary figures; but that now he was old he looked at Nature and tried his best to imitate it.

5. One of a collection of dicta printed in 1556:

Dürer once said that when he was young he had a taste for prodigious lines in pictures, but that now he was old he sought the simplicity of Nature.

What is going on here? Roughly, 1. and 2. are conflated and fertilised with the art-nature opposition in 3., which is then given two alternative special accents – ‘figures’ and ‘lines’ – in 4. and 5. More generally, what Melanchthon seems to be doing is using Dürer and a remark of Dürer’s as a kind of matrix in which he tries out cognate but different notions, for shape and size. The figure and also the art of Dürer are becoming an intellectual tool, a point of reference and aid to thinking. This process went on, often in very different ways, through the following centuries.

In time there came straight fiction. The best of the Dürer novels is Ludwig Tieck’s unfinished The Wanderings of Franz Sternbald: A Story of Old Germany, published in 1798. Its underlying theme is tension between simplicity and complexity again, art and morality, and some other pairs, subsumed under an overarching polarity of North and South – represented in painting by Dürer and Raphael. North is not better than South, but different, and one must accept not just the geographical accident of where one was born and brought up but also one’s temperament. The only real villain in the book is a German sculptor whose flaw is to deny his Germanness without having the temperamental resources to be a good Italian. The contrast is realised in, for instance, eating places. In Nuremberg, Sternbald sits and eats at Dürer’s big round kitchen table with Dürer, his journeymen and apprentices, the wife, Agnes, cooking for them all in the background: in Florence Sternbald goes to artists’ parties in Gianfrancesco Rustici’s garden, free and socially unstructured meetings full of music and liberated women. Both scenes represent goods: Sternbald appreciates both.

Dürer may suffer from aspects of the ‘Northern’ craftsman’s lot. One evening, leaning pensively against a tree, his Christ-like face in shadow as the moonlight slants through almost but not quite leafless branches, he tells Franz Sternbald that his wife drives him on to work for money, more than he should for the good of his art: but the point is that though he often sets to work without joy in his heart, ‘joy does come in the course of working.’ The strength of the Northern craft tradition is that its cult of manual skill enables the craftsman to be excited and indeed uplifted by his own skill as he works. Dürer recognises this in himself, and values it for what it is. As he says to Lucas van Leyden:

It is as if the human spirit struggles out of human beings, and aspires to show itself in a thousand different ways. It seeks about ... and in the visual artist what it happens on is five fingers and some pigments. It tries out these clumsy tools and they never suit, and yet it has nothing better. Now, heaven gave me an even temper and I don’t lose patience. I am always trying to make something new, and when I have done that I am always turning back to something old. If I paint a big picture, then afterwards I usually want to engrave something small and meticulous on wood, and I can sit over it for a whole day ... Assiduousness, laboriousness is something innate in us Germans: it is our element, we feel at ease in it.

In Tieck’s Dürer the contrariety of hand and mind, North and South, craft and art, is complicated into something very interesting and enjoyable, saturated with the philosophical issues and concepts of Tieck’s moment. It is in terms of this vision of Dürer that Franz Stern-bald thinks out his own course, as often as not when on a mountain at sunrise. (Goethe complained that there were too many sunrises in the book, but he was wrong.) It is paracritcism of a high order.

Melanchthon and Tieck, Reformation and Romanticism, are two particularly good moments in the development of the mythic Dürer, but the process has been nearly continuous. Layer after layer of intellectual history is in it. Nowadays it is mainly offered to us as art history or criticism. That is not to say that art historians remodel Dürer’s remarks or make up imaginary monologues, but that the myth is in the mental structure with which they approach the pictures. It is expressed in selectiveness, emphasis and exegetical colouring. It is certainly not to be sneered at: it provides the benign energy behind the existence of the two books under review. The figure of Dürer offers a way of thinking and also feeling about important things.

Both Anzelewsky and Strider offer in their texts accurate and compact versions of the current balance in Dürer scholarship – Anzelewsky, as I have said, chronologically and Strieder topically disposed. Neither would claim to be doing more, though Anzelewsky’s blurb-writer was rather feeling his oats.