Afternoon Coffee Break: The Essential Dürer edited by Larry Silver and Jeffrey Chipps Smith

This blog post comes from Penn Press's Direct Mail and Advertising Manager, Tracy Kellmer, continuing the Afternoon Coffee Break series, in which Tracy shares her reflections and observations about a different Penn Press book that she has read. Enjoy!

Just about every weekday afternoon you’ll find me at a coffee shop drinking a latte and reading a Penn Press book. There are many good reasons for wanting to work at a scholarly press, but my favorite one is that I get to read the books. I am not a scholar, and this is not a review.

14750This week's book:

The Essential Dürer edited by Larry Silver and Jeffrey Chipps Smith

Why I picked it:

Throughout my career, I have been employed in roles that involve putting ink on paper. Whether I was creating newspaper ads on Mac SE using Pagemaker, or executing typographic layouts for books on MS DOS, or even running high-speed digital copiers and making plates for offset four-color printers, I have always been drawn to the process by which a thought or an image becomes a tangible reality. In other words, printing is my life. At some point, I must have come across Albrecht Dürer, in my imagination the printer par excellence, but I can’t recall the exact moment or circumstance—he’s just always “been there.” When the Philadelphia Museum of Art had an exhibition of his prints, I had to go, and when I saw this book in the Penn Press archive, I had to read it.

What I discovered:

I have never taken an Art History class, and this book felt like I was getting a crash course on how to look at an artist and his works. Some chapters focused on technical concerns, which illuminated the processes and tools behind Dürer’s drawings, paintings, and prints. Others related how his travels to Italy and the Netherlands simultaneously furthered his knowledge and artistic education, burnished his reputation, and fostered jealousies among rival artists and displays of national pride. And still others focused on the day-to-day struggles Dürer had: from preventing the piracy of his works to negotiating his relationships with his patron and his wife.

But there were two chapters that really piqued my interest, and I think it’s because they showed quite effectively how artistic technique and aesthetic decisions can be influenced by the time in which one lives. The first was Pia F. Cuneo’s chapter titled “The Artist, His Horse, a Print, and Its Audience: Producing and Viewing the Ideal in Dürer’s Knight, Death, and the Devil.” The title just about says it all: by choosing to represent a horse in a print Durer managed to accomplish a few things: prove that he could master the theoretical concept of proportion; demonstrate the idealistic realization of this most difficult subject in the form of the print; and distribute the image to those men with means who, as result of chivalric or other reasons, also idealized horses. (I couldn’t help remembering myself as a young girl, drawing horses, and nothing but horses, and being utterly convinced that if only I could get a horse right on paper, then I could be considered a “talented” artist.)

I also found Donald McCall’s appreciation of Dürer’s Self-Portrait as the Man of Sorrows in his chapter titled “Agony in the Garden: Dürer’s ‘Crisis of the Image’” particularly moving. Situating this work in the context of the religious conflicts of Dürer’s time, I felt like I could see the crisis of conscience in the face of the man in the drawing, and how it truly weighed on him in an earnest and very personal way. Although McCall explains how the Reformation may have practical effects on Dürer’s artistic and pecuniary fortunes, these matters seemed to pale in comparison to the internal struggle that may have been hidden on the artist’s face in life, but was revealed by the artistic work.

Favorite bit:

Charles Talbot relates how Dürer accepted a commission from Jakob Heller, a rich merchant in Frankfurt, with the idea that a major painting in Frankfurt would stimulate the demand for his prints. It took two years, and Talbot quotes a letter of Dürer’s in which he complains that he could have been a richer man by 1,000 florins if he had spent the time making prints instead. I imagine 1,000 florins was a lot of money in the sixteenth century, and it strikes me that over 500 years later, artists still struggle to balance the need for building a reputation with a need to pay the rent.