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Reframing Albrecht Dürer: The Appropriation of Art, 1528-1700 by Andrea Bubenik (review)

From: Parergon
Volume 30, Number 2, 2013
pp. 168-170 | 10.1353/pgn.2013.0123

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

The immense volume of scholarship on Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) written and published over the last five-hundred-odd years is a testament to the lasting importance of his standing as a key artist on the threshold of Modernity. And yet, this is the first book devoted entirely to Dürer's reception in early modern Europe. There are several reasons for this gap: some have to do with the intrinsic difficulty of dealing with such a looming figure, while others concern matters of periodisation, historicisation, or method. It is, after all, undoubtedly difficult to find an approach or a common narrative that could be true to both Dürer's own practice and to the extraordinarily diverse range of artistic responses to his work. Indeed, different authors respond in different ways to different models.

Nevertheless, Andrea Bubenik's new book sets out on the difficult task of finding that common narrative, and it does so with sharp focus, a keen analytical eye, and great examples throughout. Bubenik starts by looking at early critical perceptions of Dürer, with particular attention to his influence in Renaissance portraiture, and then embarks on an exploration of the role played by collectors beyond the realm of their personal influence. This is further illustrated in the third and lengthier section of the book through a detailed analysis of different artistic practices (forgery, copy, emulation, imitation) that could be included within the seemingly anachronistic term 'appropriation'. The scope, structure, and approach of the book help the reader examine how the relationship between individual artists and their artistic tradition was articulated during the early modern period. It does so, not only through institutions (such as courtly patronage or the Church), but also through the building of an intellectual discourse on the visual arts that bears fascinating parallels with the development of other discursive disciplines, such as literary theory (an appropriation itself of Aristotle), and the budding national historiographies (also informed by rhetorical notions of imitation, emulation, and appropriation).

The mention of Erasmus, Melanchthon, and Lomazzo in Chapter 1 is particularly useful to illustrate the continuous link between art practice and scholarly/authorial activity. This link furnished the basis for Dürer's unique authority as an artist, and as a learned man of science that, in turn, explained the widespread transmission of Dürer's features in graphic reproductions and his enormous influence in portraiture. Bubenik illustrates the point using an extraordinary variety of media and formats that reflect the vitality of different material cultures in early modern Europe: coins, medals, casts in wood and metal, woodcuts and engravings, and drawings in different techniques are lavishly printed as an appendix, and serve to engage the reader in a rich inter-textual dialogue across different images, authors, techniques, and media.

Chapter 2 explores in detail the political nature of art collecting, and its aesthetic and philosophical implications over time. Being a keen collector himself, Dürer employed very early on his own agents, and discussed at some length their contractual conditions, to ensure maximum dissemination and impact of his work. This chapter also shows an alternative perspective to the appropriation of Dürer's work, as it traces shifts in both the main centres for collecting Dürer, the types of work collected, the changing profiles of collections, and the challenges posed in the organisation of these ever-growing collections. The cases examined throw significant light onto different social profiles, ranging from professionals of the emerging bourgeoisie to courtiers and diplomats, from the academic and the scholar to the great Habsburg collections of Emperor Rudolf II or Archduke Maximilian I of Bavaria. Finally, Chapter 3 examines the artistic outcomes and consequences of the constitution of these larger collections of Dürer's work by the Imperial Courts in Munich and Prague.

Perhaps the most contentious point of this book is the term'appropriation' itself, normally associated with contemporary art production and hermeneutics. How much of that postmodern (or over-modern) term can be applied to a pre-modern (or early modern) context? To my understanding, it is precisely this new focus on the nature of artistic appropriation which helps Bubenik to successfully re-frame Renaissance ideas...

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