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The Moment of Self-Portraiture in German Renaissance Art.

This book is a shimmering piece of art history. Learned, provocative, responsive - Koerner's work will make a prominent place for itself in Direr studies as well as in Renaissance art criticism. At various points, Koerner makes what will first strike the reader as outrageous claims and generalizations, only to back them up in the pages that follow, ultimately offering a vivid, compelling view of the material.

New Historicism has a new standard to meet with the appearance of this book. Koerner's text is a reworking of his dissertation at Berkeley, and the influence of Greenblatt is blatant, but certainly not damaging, and I do not mean to suggest that this book falls easily under the heading of New Historicism. The influence is undeniable, but the result is something else. This book's treasures exceed any facile categorization.

Clearly, self-portraiture is a mode that appeals to the concerns and debates of the moment, since it brings to the surface issues of subjectivity, self-reflexivity, self-conceptions, inversion, framing, perception, and what New Historicists call "self-fashioning." Richard Brilliant's Portraiture (1991) maps out some of this territory. In addition, there is the concern with identity and the signature of the author, especially with Direr's famous stamp which, for instance, easily permits art collectors to catalogue works by authorship. As Koerner puts it, "Every signed work is in some sense a self-portrait" (xviii).

Durer is the centerpiece and frontispiece in Koerner's book, for, as Koerner says, "German Renaissance art can be understood, to a surprising extent, as a reception of Durer's project of self-portraiture" (xvi). For us, Durer's self-portrait can be seen as a marker for the "dawn of self-consciousness" (8), a moment that can be figured into the history of the self, a history given in Charles Taylor's Sources of the Self (1989), which Koerner finds helpful. On this line of thinking, Durer's works can be seen not only as the result of social movements or earlier economic and psychological forces, but also as catalysts for new ways of conceiving the self, among other things.

One way of conceiving the self is as god-like, and Koerner says it is no accident that a viewer could easily mistake Direr's self-portrait in 1500 for a representation of Christ. The anonymous medieval artisans who might have worked for the greater glory of Christ, or perhaps seen themselves as conduits of Christ's creativity, are replaced by some Renaissance artists who deify themselves in their works. In his discussion of the specular situation of a believer before an icon, Koerner reads this as an example of the self's reinvention within the changing paradigms of religious experience (137), as well as an example of self-love that was partially sanctioned by Nicholas of Cusa, with one foot in the Middle Ages and the other in the Renaissance. The believer takes the icon as looking at no one but the believer, thereby confirming God's love for each individual (131). From his reading of Blumenberg, Koerner knows the importance of Nicholas of Cusa as a liminal figure for modernity.

The second half of the book places Durer's work in the immediate reception history, namely, next to the work of Hans Baldung Grien, who turns Direr both upside down and inside out. Baldung gives us new versions of Durer's images. In place of depictions of healthy figures, Baldung "disfigures", highlighting instead cadavers, skeletons, and nightmarish images which often play off his teacher's famous paintings and drawings. Baldung is Durer's Swift. For instance, Koerner informs us that Baldung's Bewitched Stable Groom is a direct response to Durer's Large Horse engraving of 1505. "In Baldung, however, the animal does not stand harnessed and docile beside its rider, with its tail in a tight knot, but turns toward the viewer with an evil eye and, swishing its flamelike tail, reveals its anus' (440). In short, Koerner sees Baldung as attempting to undermine the elevation of the self that goes on in Durer, and the publisher has echoed this by placing Durer's 1500 self-portrait on the front and Baldung's fallen artist on the back of the dust jacket.

Objections are minor. Koerner does not seem to have a fully developed appreciation for Neoplatonism. Also, like a few other people who write about the visual arts (e.g., Mieke Bal), Koerner seems to generalize about what heterosexual male viewers desire to see in the illustrations under discussion, and he says almost nothing about the scopophilia of heterosexual females who might encounter the same illustrations.

The significance of this book exceeds the category of art history. Copia is a word that comes to mind about this book, a word to be taken in its fully positive Renaissance sense.

BRUCE KRAJEWSKI Laurentian University
COPYRIGHT 1996 Renaissance Society of America
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Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Krajewski, Bruce
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1996
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