In many ways Stewart’s book is suggestive and ambitious. Revisiting the subject of her 1986 Columbia dissertation, Stewart deftly inserts her material into a number of significant art historical and interdisciplinary debates while making a series of clearly articulated and interrelated arguments pertaining especially to the reception of Sebald Beham’s peasant festival woodcuts. In so doing, Stewart offers her work as a corrective to a host of issues she presents as in need of redressing, ranging from art historical attributions to present-day cultural assumptions.
The book is organized in the following manner. The project’s six themes are set out in the introductory section: (1) Sebald Beham invented the subject of peasant festivals in the visual arts; (2) the technique of woodcut played an important role for the peasant festival topic; (3) adoption of Lutheran reform in Nuremberg was essential for the production and meaning of the peasant festivals prints; (4) associations bound up with and meanings generated by Beham’s peasant images were complex and varied; (5) the peasant festival prints provided a meeting ground for both learned/elite and vernacular/popular cultures; and (6) the audience for these prints was a broad one. The first chapter deals with the life and career of Sebald Beham as well as with Nuremberg and the Reformation. Next, the various woodcuts involved are discussed in the following order: the Large Kermis (1535); Kermis (ca. 1535, in Erlangen, with variants in Oxford and Gotha) as well as Kermis at Mögelsdorf (with the collaboration of Erhard Schön, two versions ca. 1528 and ca. 1534); the Nose Dance (ca. 1534); the Peasant Wedding Celebration (by Erhard Schön, 1527); and theSpinning Bee (ca. 1524). Following this examination of the prints is a chapter on the distribution of and audience for woodcuts, and a final chapter tracing a trajectory from festive peasant imagery from Beham to Bruegel. A brief conclusion reiterates the main points.
It is not clear why the prints are discussed in the order they appear (seeming to move backwards chronologically), and it is also puzzling why there is no discussion of Erhard Schön even though one of his prints is the subject of an entire chapter. Inclusion of the Spinning Beeprint fits in less organically with the others; although it does seem to feature peasants, there is no ritual festival taking place, and the subject falls away when the discussion turns to consider what happens to Beham’s imagery after his death and in the works of Flemish artists, including Bruegel. Issues pertaining especially to contemporaneous understanding of female gender raised in this chapter find no echo in any other, further serving to isolate the analysis of this particular print.
Stewart is certainly right to maintain that the responses to Beham’s peasant imagery must have been varied, complex, and audience-specific. This constitutes one of the book’s key insights. In order to make this case, Stewart marshals a fascinating and wide array of evidence, ranging from civic legislation aimed at controlling peasant festivities to tracts on the evils of excessive drinking. Quotations from this legislation and illustrations from these tracts make welcome contributions to our understanding of and familiarity with early modern German attitudes and cultural production. Stewart’s argument should also raise productive discussion about the nature of evidence. For example, it is far easier for historians to argue that particular actions/customs were condemned than that they were condoned or even celebrated. The one side of the argument – that images of the vomiting, defecating, and violence occurring at peasant festivals would be regarded by some with disgust or at least as a warning to avoid such excesses – is not difficult to make because the evidence for such attitudes (legislation, sermons, etiquette books, etc.) is ready to hand. But to make the other side of the argument – that viewing representations of these same activities brought ” delight” to others – is substantially more difficult to make. For this, Stewart suggests “reinstating the importance of emotion as part of cognition or perceiving images” (p.159), and – like Svetlana Alpers and Margaret Carroll before her – points to an understanding of peasant customs as positive, linked to a burgeoning field of folklore (p.64). More needs to be done in this regard, however, to make this part of the argument convincing. In her vigorous championing of the prints’ multivalency, Stewart is at times too quick to take some earlier scholarship to task, particularly nuances within the work of Keith Moxey, who does not always receive a fair read at Stewart’s hands (cf. her remarks in footnote 111 of chapter 7 with the actual text by Moxey beyond the single page she cites).
As is the case for us all, Stewart’s project no doubt has had to come to terms with the exigencies and increasing limitations of publication. Some of the reproductions are too small for the reader to follow along much less to verify discussion of particular details. Publishers also increasingly demand of their scholarly authors that their work address not only fellow scholars but also non-specialists and (like Beham’s prints!) as wide an audience as possible. This is a nearly impossible demand to meet. Thus there will be some scholars who find irksome the occasional passages of repetitive writing and argument that were perhaps intended for a general reader who, it was assumed, (1) needs to be reminded of what the point is, and (2) will not read the book from start to finish and from cover to cover. A similar reaction might greet the chastisement for disciplinary sins we do not (or no longer) commit, such as supposedly not understanding that the term ‘ audience’ includes more than the person who purchased a work of art (p. 266), or having a “knee-jerk preference for sixteenth-century paintings over prints” (p. 310). But in drawing our attention once again to Sebald Beham and in contextualizing his work in new ways, Stewart makes a convincing case, especially for her colleagues, that the career and production of this artist and entrepreneur are worthy of further analysis.
University of Arizona-Tucson