This intriguing and ambitious book seeks to make a major contribution to the field by proposing the existence and importance of an “epistolary mode of artistic address,” which Dürer “played a large role in advancing”. Brisman’s study is inspired by the communication sociologist Bernhard Siegert’s influential work on the relationship of literature and the postal system. She wants to demonstrate that one type of artistic address was rooted in letter-writing and in the kinds of relationships that letters established, the functions they served, and the ways they were transmitted. Art could serve an agent of communication.
Such a strong argument in relation to Dürer might seem tenuous. If we follow Heike Sahm’s authoritative study, Dürers kleinere Texte, which Brisman does not discuss, Albrecht Dürer took part in a culture of letter-writing common in his Nuremberg milieu, and twenty-six full letters he wrote between 1506 and 1525 are extant. This qualifies Rupprich’s estimate, which included formulaic addresses and repeat invoices to the Nuremberg council. It is a small corpus compared to Michelangelo`s 500 letters exchanged with 225 correspondents, but still unique among artists in the German lands, especially as ten letters from Venice to Willibald Pirckheimer and nine letters to the Frankfurt merchant Jacob Heller tell us much about Dürer’s self-perception and artistic practise. Most of these letters hence date from up to 1509 and provide us with little sense of Dürer’s letter-writing during the last decades of his life. It is difficult to be certain about how widely he corresponded throughout his career, but doubtful that he cultivated an extensive network of contacts in that way. Hence it is problematic to argue that “he corresponded with some of the most influential political figures, scientists, humanists, and religious leaders of his day.” Indeed, the statement only makes sense through its sub-clause – “and was written about in the correspondence of” – but surely the difference in whether he was mentioned in important people’s letters or himself chose to cultivate contacts in that manner should be acknowledged in relation to the wider thesis.
Yet what matters for Brisman is the fact that defining elements of a culture of letter-writing in which Dürer took part inflected some of his artistic production. Brisman defines the concept of an “epistolary mode of address” through “an appeal from artist to viewer that is direct and intimate at the same time that it acknowledges the distance that defers its message.” It is crucial to take in the complexity of this concept before asking how art historians might then be able to see it at work. Brisman explains that images made in this mode “refuse a certain confidence about the ability to transfer data from the physical world to the medium in which they are made without a sense of loss or intervention”. There is no bibliography (nor list of primary sources consulted, such as Nuremberg letters) in the book, and the list of references in the footnotes is very limited, but this emphasis on the uncertainty of communication or identification reminds a historian instantly of Valentin Groebner’s important work on how a city like Nuremberg itself must be understood as a world of competing signs and tactical duplicities. Brisman’s point is that such uncertainties as well as different modalities of communication, influenced by the printing press and the Reformation, were now acknowledged by some artists in their work, and by Dürer in particular. These works, in short, called attention to the mobility of images or their message-bearing qualities.
Dürer additionally stood out for “using text to communicate reliability” in writing on and in his pictures in different scripts which themselves appealed to different audiences with particular messages, as studies on the 1500 self-portrait often highlight. Since Dürer extensively dealt with printed images, moreover, he knew that he could not control the reception or appropriation of his images – although it is debatable whether this was so different in the case of paintings. Yet one of Brisman´s central claims turns on this proposition and a definition of the epistolary mode: as he could not control his work’s reception, he encoded it paradoxically with direct messages as well as with constraints or even illegibility as well as with what Brisman thinks of as shyness, ducking, and elusiveness. Materializing Dürer’s art through a context of letter-writing as well as drawing attention to the historical contexts of the advent of print and the Reformation show why Dürer began to reflect differently on audiences and implicate as well as repel or fear them in complex ways.
Brisman’s study falls into three parts with an arithmetically increasing number of chapters. A very brief conclusion underlines the strong connection of her concept with propositions about psychic effects – anxiety, loss, and fear are highlighted, but without any discussion of the history of emotions or uses of psychoanalysis by historians of the period, so the tricky question arises about how we know what affects might have been involved and when, interrelated with specific materialities and their meaning.
The book is beautifully produced by Chicago University Press and provides an uncommonly “edited” look and read – every word is carefully weighted and chosen, every analysis tight and supportive of the wider proposition, although some crucial conceptual imprecision remains: does letter-writing, for instance, shape aspects of his work, or does it share traits with Dürer’s work? If anything, it would have seemed advantageous to frame claims in a greater discussions of what makes them suggestive but also at points difficult to sustain, and to open up alternative and competing readings. Some interpretations appear forced to fit the argument rather than allowing for play with different propositions on Dürer’s part, and there is much less emphasis on visual humour than certainly the Pirckheimer correspondence would suggest to be an absolutely essential element of their communication. Does the monumental Varnbühler woodcut, for example, really show a “torn, curling” page? In this, as in many other cases, it is eye-opening to read Brisman’s shrewd interpretations and see selected images in the letter-writing context, but surely the interplay with other pictorial devices needs to be thought through at every step.
The book, in sum, is an impressive achievement, but also a study that invites productive argument, and thus is ideal for advanced classroom discussions for visual historians more generally. It will be interesting to see to what extent others will find the concept of the epistolary mode and thus the sociology of communication convincing in relation to their own material. One result of this re-reading certainly is that chronologies do not seem to matter very much any more in relation to Dürer’s oeuvre, nor biography or the notion of development. Modes of communication – for instance letters (rather than emails) and their transmission and reception – structure relationships and in turn psychic effects as well as powerful aspects of artistic expression.
Cambridge University and St John´s College