Book Reviews -- the Moment of Self-Portraiture in German Renaissance Art by Joseph Leo Koerner

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JOSEPH LEO KOERNER, The Moment of Self-Portraiture in German Renaissance Art. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993. 564 pp.; 1 color ill., 223 b/w. $60.00

This challenging and consequential book explores the realization and reception of Albrecht Durer's art as a declaration of individual and historical self-consciousness. Koerner builds his account around the Self-Portrait of 1500 (Munich), a masterstroke that has long been taken to be Durer's most extravagant claim to artistic genius. However, Koerner's perspective is not a conventional one, and being scrupulously aware of his position as interpreter he devotes much space to the complexities of his own historical stance. In this respect the book is, historiographically speaking, as much about the present moment as it is about the "moment of self-portraiture" the author sets out to define.

In evaluating Durer's accomplishment Koerner grants the essential validity of what he terms "the Romantic myth of self-conscious genius," a myth rooted in Durer's actual and recoverable achievements (pp. 9, 33-34, 55). Koerner understands him to have constructed, indeed determined the very conditions for interpreting his art. Thus, Durer becomes what Michel Foucault terms "an initiator of discourse," an artist who single-handedly effected a paradigm shift in the status and evaluation of Renaissance art (p. 39). The potential circularity of this hypothesis is evident, and being fully aware of it Koerner gives considerable space to clarifying his position, an aspect of the book that can be vexing but is invariably pursued with conviction and integrity.

The ambiguity of Koerner's thesis is embedded in the very title of his book, for the "moment of self-portraiture" is variously construed. It is fixed diachronically in Durer's formulation of an insight that marks the half-millennium. Yet it is also a suspended moment: a revelation gradually unveiled "by happenstance" through Durer's early attempts at rendering (p. 17), a moment that is not only temporally protracted but also spatial, and one that is relived (and thus repeated) with each perceptive encounter on the part of the beholder. In this last sense it is a moment that retains a kind of immanence through the power of a work of art to establish the terms of its own reception.

In his prologue Koerner initiates his argument with an ingenious reading of Durer's early self-portrait drawings. That in Erlangen shows Durer steadying his head against his hand in arrested self-contemplation, an image that transparently declares its status as self-portraiture: the artist's reciprocal gaze closes a loop between observer and observed self, and the melancholy gesture offers a "premonition of romanticism's myth of genius" (p. 55). A second drawing in New York plots a further transition from the medieval workshop practice of depicting objects to investing them with the artist's own projected image (prosopopoeia). A near systematic, if intuitive progression toward self-realization is consummated in the 1500 Self-Portrait, a work that appropriates into portraiture both the form and the transcendental implication of the vera icon. For Koerner it is here that Durer seals a pact with the beholder by confirming the complete assimilation of his life into his art, forging a quintessentially modernist proposition that art is, by its very nature, the image of its maker (p. 55).

This premise is examined in elaborate detail in Part 1 of the book through a series of chapters on the context for Durer's icon, centering initially on the problem of identity in portraiture as it relates to the formal and iconographic character of religious imagery. Koerner argues that religious controversy crisply focused the issue of identity in satirical portraits of Luther as an atomized personality caught up in multiple and conflicting roles. Against this figure of disintegration the image of Christ is reconceived as an integrated image of "all men. …