Printer Friendly

Albrecht Altdorfer and the Origins of Landscape.

Christopher Wood has written one of the most thought-provoking books about German art to appear in recent years. Working from the premise that "the first independent landscapes in the history of European art were painted by Albrecht Altdorfer" (9), the author attempts to define the salient characteristics of this new mode of landscape in five lengthy chapters. In each, Wood weaves a compelling if not always convincing argument. Yet even when the reader might disagree, he or she will admire Wood's beautifully worded text. Each sentence is loaded, and sometimes overloaded, with meaning. Repeatedly he forces the reader to consider Altdorfer's landscapes in a new way. Indeed much of the success of this book will be due to the adroit questions posed by Wood rather than individual answers.

This book is a revision of the author's Harvard dissertation. His intellectual and methodological debts to his mentors are clearly evident. His literary approach, notably for issues such as the principle of exclusion and the notion of the frame, recalls the writings of Norman Bryson. The authorial presence owes much to Joseph Koerner. The relation between landscapes and the tradition and reading of icons points back to Hans Belting. His close scrutiny of the art evokes the lessons of Konrad Oberhuber and Henri Zerner. And the search for significant meanings in landscape was influenced by Simon Schama. While these scholars may have helped to shape Wood's thoughts, his resulting reading of Altdorfer's landscapes is highly original and often brilliant.

In Chapter 1, Wood attempts to define what he means by independent landscape. Most earlier landscapes are dismissed as having preconceived function. Indeed, the author argues that Altdorfer abandoned "any presumption of a pre-existent idea about nature" (23). He removed landscape from the tradition of narrative. No longer must setting merely serve subject. According to Wood, Altdorfer, perhaps influenced by Venetian art, recognized that landscape was an ideal means for introducing his personal authority, that is, his hand, into his art. As he says later (266), "in 1520 there were still no rules" about the representation of landscape. Thus Altdorfer seized the opportunity to shape the future dialogue about landscape. Highly questionable and ultimately unnecessary for the author's thesis is his discussion of parergon or by-work in which he attempts to set Altdorfer's landscapes into a historical tradition of marginalization. Did the Altdorfer of about 1510 really conceive of his newly found fascination of portraying countryside as a diversion, a "respite from his proper tasks"? Although the notion is mentioned by Pliny and some Italian writers, Wood offers neither textual nor artistic proof that this provided a central basis for Altdorfer's art.

In Chapter 2, entitled "Frame and Work," Wood argues rather passionately that "the independent landscape is an object defined by what it includes and excludes, and it is the frame that performs that selection" (66). His stimulating discussion, however, is not without problems. Often what constitutes a "pure" landscape is rather subjectively presented by the author. For instance, his summary dismissal of Durer's early landscapes, specifically his Pond in the Woods of c. 1495-97 in London, just because it might have served as a model for a subsequent work, is too arbitrary. It displays, albeit at an earlier date, many of the traits that Wood praises Altdorfer for developing. Similarly, Wood's notion of the frame is occasionally contradictory. Are Altdorfer's framing devices really so unique? And does Altdorfer consciously exclude these elements from his narrative landscapes?

The longest and, for me, most fascinating chapter is the next on the German forest. Wood deftly explores the symbolic character of the "vast Hercynian forest" for Altdorfer's contemporaries. Some of this terrain had been tread by other scholars. For instance, it is not clear how different the core of this discussion is from Larry Silver's marvelous "Forest Primeval" article (Simiolus 13 [1983]). One paradox of this chapter, as specifically seen in the problematic reading of the Landscape with Woodcutter drawing in Berlin, is Wood's insistence on finding a complicated narrative here. Traits that elsewhere are extolled as signs of the independent landscape are interpreted suddenly in a diametrically opposite manner. If Altdorfer now was articulating a "personal narrative structure" then the author needs to explain how this transformation occurred and how it might call into question some of the book's fundamental methodological assertions.

In the final two chapters, "Topography and Fiction" and "The Published Landscape," Wood nicely contrasts the landscapes of Altdorfer and his peers. Particularly sensitive is his discussion of Altdorfer's authorial hand as expressed in the unique gestural quality of his line. The seeming randomness of pen and brush strokes, as in the scribbled grasses or tree branches, define Altdorfer's presence. Of his contemporaries, only Wolf Huber fully comprehended Altdorfer's intentions. Wood's treatment of Huber's landscapes is especially rewarding; however, I might question the basic assumption that Huber is always the less inventive, "more stubbornly literal" artist. Where Altdorfer did clearly excel was in the evolution of landscape etchings, which occasionally are beautifully hand tinted. These would have a great impact upon later landscapists such as Augustin Hirschvogel and Hans Lautensack of Nuremberg.

Wood's book is highly recommended to all scholars of this period. It is not really a monographic study of Altdorfer. The reader should not expect to find a comprehensive discussion of Altdorfer's stylistic development or how the "independent" landscapes fit into the rest of the master's oeuvre. In fact the distinctions between "independent" and narrative landscape are often difficult to discern since the seemingly precise criteria shift and begin to intertwine in the later chapters. Wood does offer a highly original and thoroughly stimulating argument about the characteristics of the artistic landscape, as well as its intellectual underpinnings, in early modern Germany. I guarantee that the reader will never again perceive these marvelous landscapes in quite the same way.

COPYRIGHT 1995 Renaissance Society of America
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1995, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Smith, Jeffrey Chipps
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1995
Previous Article:Our Accustomed Discourse on the Antique: Cesare Gonzaga and Gerolamo Garimberto, Two Renaissance Collectors of Greco-Roman Art.
Next Article:The Palladian Landscape: Geographical Change and its Cultural Representation in Sixteenth Century Italy.

Related Articles
Landscape and Memory.
Art and Politics in Early Modern Germany: Jorg Breu the Elder and the Fashioning of Political Identify ca. 1475-1536.
Made in Flanders: The Master of the Ghent Privileges and Manuscript Painting in the Southern Netherlands in the Time of Philip the Good & Painting on...
Economizing Family Values. (Books).
Tropical Flowering Plants: A Guide to Identification and Cultivation.
The Intimate Landscape.
Rebel with a cause.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |