Christa Grössinger will probably be best known to readers of thisReview of Books for her very useful introduction to gender issues in early northern imagery , Picturing Women in Late Medieval and Renaissance Art (Manchester, 1997), a book that many of us doubtless have used in teaching. She has also published extensively on English misericords. This book seems to be an outgrowth of both interests. It focuses on a single medium, prints, as it combines the wider social concerns and the humor, often vulgar, of the carvings with cultural issues, often rooted in gender roles. Some of this material has already been presented in studies such as Keith Moxey’s Peasants, Warriors, and Wives (Chicago, 1989) or in a comparable study, Michael Camille’sImage on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art (London, 1992), whose images she sees as a precedent; however, this book covers a wider range of subjects than the former and also takes note of the tone of presentation in ways that are not always evident in studies of northern art. That latter emphasis on the kind of humor in the images is one of the book’s chief strengths. But there are no comparanda adduced from either German or Dutch literature of the period to offer a verbal tone or corroboration of the conclusions drawn from looking at the images out of context.
After a pair of introductory chapters, the first on scatological and genital aspects of late medieval imagery and the second on prints as patterns (whose purpose here is not clear), subject-matter chiefly defines the remaining topics. Sometimes the groupings seem arbitrary, as in the broad notion of “Standards of Morality” (Chapter Three). That northern art is “moralizing” has been one of the standard tropes of scholarship for a generation now, though sometimes nuanced or criticized in more recent studies. Grössinger applies a rather blunt instrument to her objects of study, which mismatch the Children of the Planets tradition (as if this were a book on secular subjects rather than of humor) and proverb images along with tavern scenes and the Ill-Matched Pairs (perhaps she wants to construct her own Ill-Matched Pairs?). Her examples come chiefly from German artists, but she also freely mixes in Netherlandish examples. The resulting confusion or homogenization actually raises an interesting question, posed for peasant studies by Raupp as well as in those Bruegel studies that take account of German print sources: how much did later Netherlandish artists, including painters, know and draw upon German print precedents? But this is not the book to seek answers for such questions.
In effect, this is a primer – really useful in teaching topics that are well represented in prints but less well in paintings. While it includes the biggest names, especially the Housebook Master and Dürer, it also revels in less familiar artists who took up the topics that unfold in successive chapters: peasants (slim, especially in light of Raupp, Moxey, and other scholarship), warriors (ditto), women, wild men (and a single image of witches – for which there is a large and insightful literature), and grotesques (a surprisingly short chapter in light of the emphasis at the outset on low humor). In general, this book can be used only as an introduction, useful for its imagery and bibliography but not really positing new insights or studies in depth. Like Paul Barolsky’s Infinite Jest: Wit and Humor in Italian Renaissance Art(Columbia, Mo., 1978), Christa Grössinger raises a most important subject and offers an approach to it. But at 80 euros in cost, the readership of this book is severely limited and cannot possibly fill a teaching purpose, unlike the paperback on women. Both the wide scope of this book and its relative lack of analysis leaves the reader wondering who used these images and whether one can really discern their level or tone of humor. After all, as with the celebrated debate over Bruegel peasants between Alpers and Miedema, one could either laugh at the depicted figures or, alternatively, sometimes actually laugh with them at the shared follies of the world.
University of Pennsylvania