Erwin Panofsky: Life and Art of Albrecht Durer
The focus of Panofsky resides in the fact that his brilliance has connoted the interpretation and analysis of Albrecht Durer’s work, Life and Art of Albrecht Durer. Panofsky maintains the Italian Renaissance was preceded by two earlier renascences, the first, the short-lived Carolingian revival of Classical images in the 9th century, and the second, a 12th-century revitalization of Classical art forms and literature, neither of which, in his view, brought about a total reintegration of Classical form and Classical content (Buchanan, 12). His focus had centralized mainly on these aspects of classicism and literary renaissance. Since there was a new historical consciousness during that time, a different trend toward individualism, an increasing preoccupation with a scientific approach to nature, and a dissolution of the compartmentalization characteristic of the later Middle Ages, the Italian Renaissance was able to achieve such a reintegration of form and content, and one that was “total and permanent.” To buttress his interpretation of the Renaissance, Panofsky cites relevant works of art and literature, and one of the most prominent of all is his “Life and Art of Albrecht Durer.” The study focuses in the study of Erwin Panofsky wherein the prime persona of study is Albrecht Durer, and further compares Panofsky’s methodology to other scholarly studies that have analyzed the works of Durer.
Northern Renaissance: Panofsky’s Analysis of Durer’s Piece
For many centuries the history of Europe has been divided into three periods: Antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the Modern Era, the latter ushered in by the Italian Renaissance. This scheme determines the curricula of our colleges and universities: it underlies the organization of our museums and Learned Societies; it plays a part in our everyday speech and thought. The term Renaissance — Wiedererwa chsung, as Albrecht Durer translated it as early as about 1525—implies two apparently different Ideas (Elkins 273). In a wider sense, it denotes a rebirth of higher culture in general, presupposing, of course, that higher culture in general had been dead, or nearly dead, in the preceding period (“renatae literae, renata ars”). In a narrower sense, it denotes a rebirth of classical Antiquity following a complete, or nearly complete, breakdown of classical traditions. In the first or wider sense, Renaissance means a universal efflorescence of art, literature, philosophy, science and social accomplishments after a period of decay and stagnation; in the second or narrower sense, it means a creative form of classicism (Buchanan, 12).
The hall-consciousness that engenders such a motion is what permits Panofsky both to expose the life and art of Albrecht Durer and also to exemplify it in his own writing, both to understand it and to ignore it, to be immersed in it and to emerge from it. Panofsky treats Durer’s work to a characteristically wide range of analyses (Panofsky, 1955; cited from Buchanan, 12). There are discussions of formal elements such as composition, unity, and recession; excurses on hagiography and church doctrine; parallels in the history of ideas; questions of patronage; chapters from the history of German language and writing; publishing histories; medical developments; social and economic influences; observations on the uses of color, the psychological content of portraits, the peculiarities of the engraving burin, and the development of hatching in woodcuts; and botanical, cartological, entomological, and even “hippological facts. These fall into groups in accordance with art historical practice (Elkins 274). Discussions of line and color are instances of formal analysis, sometimes following Wölfflin’s analysis, which Panofsky admired. When he speaks of the limitations and potential of etching, dry point, or engraving, he sounds like Semper mapping the influence of tools and methods on creative freedom (Panofsky, 1955; cited from Elkins 274). Passages on iconology stand out by their relative purity and freedom from eclecticism. Most of the rest of the analyses are studies of patronage, philosophy, or social history. In a wider and vaguer sense, all the subjects can be said to belong to formal analysis, iconology, or social history; and much of contemporary scholarship makes use of these convenient categories (Elkins 274).
From Panofsky’s perspective, Durer’s drawings should not be judged by naturalistic standards. They can never be viewed fairly if their fundamentally different intention is not understood: Durer strives everywhere for a linear organism that is both decorative and independent, and the drawing consciously departs from natural appearances, sometimes more, sometimes less. There are flourishes and coloratura passages in this art, heightenings and sharpenings of the line that serve only to give the needy linear system a value of its own in confrontation with nature. Yet the beauty of the whole is not in the figure alone, but in the network of lines in which the figure is, to an extent, enmeshed (Buchanan, 12).
Durer’s style is therefore composed of topics, although in any given case it may be formed of an amalgamation of so many topics that it may seem holistic or indeterminate. The guiding idea, the theme of the text, is sketched in the last two sections of the introduction (Elkins 274).
Panofsky initially calls it “an innate conflict in Dürer’s mind, a principle of ‘tension” galvanizing all of Durer’s ideas and achievements (Elkins 274). This style is not present at the outset. The fifteenth century did not yet possess it, and there arc early drawings of Durer which have a more “painterly” appearance than his later classic drawings. It is conceivable that modern sympathies may even lie more with those youthful works, but this does not alter the fact that it was the pure linear style that made Dürer’s draftsmanship the cornerstone of sixteenth-century art (Panofsky, 1955; cited from Elkins 274). There are no lines in nature . Any beginner can learn this if he sits down in front of his house with a pencil and tries to reduce what he sees to a series of Lines. Everything opposes this task: the foliage on the trees, the waves in the water, and the clouds in the sky. Panofsky has noted the presence of extreme individuality on Albrecht Durer’s work of art wherein the concept of classicism as well as the idea of northern renaissance is very much embedded (Panofsky, 1955).
Continuing this aspect, the individual manifestation of Albrecht Durer’s works of art, as noted from Panofsky’s analysis, has evidently provided an accurate conceptual frame wherein the medieval period and enlightenment greatly occurs. Considering the artistic deviation occurring in the idea of Panofsky, the presence of natural concept, medieval instinct and the ideas of classicism have been perfectly embedded in the arts of Albrecht Durer (Elkins 274).
The Life and Art Painting by Albrecht Durer vs. Barbara Freedman
Albrecht Durer, the great German artist, was one of Antwerp’s most frequent visitor: in the years of its greatest glory. He traveled in the Low Countries during his time; his diary contains numerous references to his activities there and imparts a genuine sense of the personal exultation he felt in being a part of Antwerp’s rich and bustling Life. Durer met the Portuguese and became so friendly with them that he did a portrait drawing of Fernandez d’ Almada and gave him as a gift the famous painting called “St. Jerome in Meditation.” He also sold, bartered, and gave as presents an almost incredible number of woodcuts and engravings by himself and his fellow German artists. From his Portuguese and Flemish friends and acquaintances, Durer, fascinated as he always was with new ideas and objects, acquired a collection of curios (Lach 18).
Erwin Panofsky points to “a curious inward correspondence between perspective and what may be called the general mental attitude of the Renaissance”; he maintains that “the process of projecting an object on a plane in such a way that the resulting image is determined by the distance and location of a ‘point of vision’ symbolized . . . a period which had inserted an historical distance—quite comparable to the perspective one—between itself and the classical past (Panofsky, 1955; cited from Lach 18).” Rereading Panofsky today, we may question the extent to which perspective conventions have shaped Western models of historical inquiry. The precautions required to see the perspective picture correctly—a careful control over distance and location, a clearly delineated position of mastery for the individual viewer, a privileged single eye, and above all, a blinded eye—are the same rituals observed in historical practice (Lach 18).
The historical significance of Durer as a draftsman lies in his construction of a purely linear style on the foundation of the modern three-dimensional representation of the real world. All drawing moves between the two poles of expression by line and expression by tone areas or masses (Freedman 31). In the Latter, of course, line need not be wholly absent, but it does not become important for its own sake. Rembrandt used the pen, too, yet the individual pen stroke is not present as a final end operative in its own right, but as an element incorporated into the impression made by the drawing as a whole (Lach 18). The viewer does not follow the course of the individual line, and cannot do so, because the line stops every moment, shifting his attention, or else becomes complicated to the point of inextricability: the masses are to convey the message, not the framework of lines itself. With Durer it is just the opposite; the drawing is a crystal-clear configuration in which even stroke, rendered pure and perspicuous, not only has the function of defining forms, but possesses its own ornamental beauty (Lach 19). It is not enough to praise the power of Dürer’s line and to ascertain that the expression is entirely entrusted to the interconnection of the major lines and the even flow of their directionality: there is, beyond this, the development of the stroke as an element in a decorative overall figure (Freedman 31).
From the perspective of Barbara Freedman, nudity as her point of view has been greatly embedded in Albrecht Durer’s art. According to Freedman, Albrecht’s arts have also the side of psychoanalytic composition more patterned or can be compared to the medieval quality of Shakespearean motive (Freedman 32). She focused mainly on woodcut of the painter’s works, which somehow complicates the stand of the arts themselves. Freedman also point out the significant patterns of multiplicity in Durer’s art. She noted that even with the concise individuality of the character in the paintings, the presence of multiple beings, look-a-like individuals, and multiplications of pictures create the very theatrical character of Durer’s paintings. Freedman had exemplified the character and behavior of the portraits of Durer, which somehow agrees to the concept of naturalism and individuality of Panofsky (Freedman 31). Considering Panofsky’s perspective, Albrecht has indeed placed the core of individualism to his paintings as seen to his works, such as in his self portrait, the hand, etc. Panofsky also mentioned that the naturalistic perspective of Albrecht has captivated more of the natural schemes, yet hidden in a deeper sense. More evidently, Albrecht Durer combined Italian theory with northern naturalism to form a distinct new style, introducing the concept of the artist to northern Europe, and elevating the visual arts to a new status. Freedman added that his work was highly considered by both German humanists and Italian scholars (Freedman 31).
Freedman had considered Albrecht’s talent as a printmaker, which somehow elevated the craft to a new level in the visual arts. Moreover, he was the first northern artist to make himself a celebrity to later generations through self-portraits, diary entries and correspondence. Freedman observed that Durer’s mastery relies on his own individuality, which somehow considers the dramatic portraits of his own self (Freedman 31). Between 1570 and 1630 interest in Durer’s work rose dramatically, producing a phenomenon known as the Durer Renaissance. In Italy, Durer’s work was analyzed and criticized by important artists, including Caravaggio. Durer’s religious works were sought out by the devout as well as by connoisseurs. Even without considering style and without knowing a work’s maker, informed viewers can determine much about the work’s period and provenance by iconographical and subject analysis alone. In his self-portraits, however, Durer’s body has been reversed in the mirror, and his real right side will face on the right angle. Such exposure reflects Durer’s relaxed pose in the Prado panel (Freedman 33). Leaning his arm on the foreground parapet and clasping his hand with another hand emerging unceasingly at the panel’s lower left, Durer appears at rest, complete, and elevated above the manual labor of painting. This particular inflection of the non manufactum serves well the social pretensions of this image. Freedman have noticed the installation of Durer himself as patron of a portraitist as great as he- a man who can employ rather than himself supply artistic talent. Considering in one sense the 1500 Self portrait, in its stillness and formality, its evocation of the acheiropoetos, and its self-comparison to higher beings, should represent the apotheosis of the artist freed from servile labor. Yet Durer insists on complicating the picture. He purposely lets his likeness vanish precisely at the point where his active right hand should be. This elision is neither casual nor in any way concealed, but is rather fully represented (Freedman 33).
More importantly, within the study, the main conclusion of studying Albrecht Durer’s life and works through the perspectives of Erwin Panofsky and Barbara Freedman involves the character of individuality and classicism in reflection of the renaissance perspective of Panofsky and in consideration of his time as well. On the other hand, Freedman’s analysis had primarily based its perspective on individuality and ease of the painter himself much seen through the self-portraits of Albrecht.
Elkins, James. Our Beautiful, Dry and Distant Texts: Art History as Writing. Routledge, 2000.
Buchanan, Edward. Parent/Teacher Handbook: Teaching Older Children Everything They Need. Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2006.
Lack, F. Asia in the Making of Europe. University of Chicago Press, 1977.
Freedman, Barbara. Staging the Gaze: Postmodernism, Psychoanalysis, and Shakespearean. Cornell University Press, 1991.
Panofsky, Erwin. The Life and art of Albrecht Durer. Princeton Eniversity Press, 1955.