Text copyright © Aug 13, 2012 Dr. Elizabeth A. Garner, All Rights Reserved
BUY THE BOOK! CRIMES IN THE ART: THE SECRET CIPHER OF ALBRECHT DÜRER
In the early part of his career, from 1495 until late 1500, Albrecht Dürer was an artist of only regional importance, whose market was primarily the south-central Bavarian German cities of Nuremberg, his birthplace, Regensberg, Augsburg, and Frankfurt. He gained widespread fame with his 1498 publication of fifteen prints based on the New Testament book of Revelations, released in two versions, with either Latin or German text printed on the reverse of the prints. This was the first time in Europe an artist himself had published his own works in the vernacular.
The Latin version was titled simply The Apocalypse with Illustrations (in Latin, Apocalypsis cum Figuris) because the market for the Latin version was the Church, schools and Latin speaking locales outside of Germany, such as Italy. For the German text edition, where the customers were the German-speaking peoples of the Holy Roman Empire, the Balkans and the Kingdom of Hungary, Dürer shrewdly titled it The Secret Revelation of St. John (in German, Die Heimlich Offenbarung Johanis) ostensibly to increase market share. Who doesn’t love learning about secrets? And yet no scholar to date has speculated on what these secrets might be.
Both the German and the Latin versions of this crucial work became European sensations within a three-year period, and Dürer’s printed version of the Apocalypse remains the most famous artistic interpretation of the Book of Revelations even today.
For a Renaissance artist to effectively market a composition at the city fairs, the symbols used, known as iconography, needed to be something that the customer recognized almost instantly, because there was much competition among artists.
What was perplexing to me was that Dürer’s images seemed to be economically astonishing for his customer base. Dürer was a merchant whose business was to make money by manufacturing and selling painted and printed images. Graphic prints were considered “product” more so than art. The skill and creativity that a print craftsman used to differentiate his product was subordinated to marketing efforts.
Renaissance print craftsmen did not have the luxury of creating images that would not produce income. They either worked for commissions (typically from the church, the state, or wealthy patrons) or they made works they knew their customers would buy. The cost of materials and labor to produce prints was not inexpensive (wood for woodblocks and the labor needed to create a block, paper, copper plates, tools, ink created from handmade pigments, etc.). Production cycles were long and needed to be synchronized with city fair schedules where the prints were mostly sold (fairs occurred a few times each year for three weeks in each city). Artists didn’t stray much from proven income-producing motifs, except to add their special flair to the subject. Yet early in his career Dürer risked creating so many strange images of such apparently low commercial appeal, the economic impact of such actions demanded scrutiny.
I quickly became even more perplexed. Here’s a link to the latest speculation on Dürer’s motivation:
Consider Dürer’s 1496 engraving of The Prodigal Son, which depicts the man on his knees among swine, begging for forgiveness. This was not the common imagery that made money for artists. The proven motifs that sold well were scenes of the man reveling or in compromising situations. Dürer took a radical economic risk with this version before he was famous, an unusual move for a young merchant who could not yet support a workshop with apprentices.
Another example is Dürer’s 1498 Sea Monster image. This engraving features an elaborate composition for which the iconography has yet to be satisfactorily explained. It’s odd for its time, and even stranger as a product offered by a burgeoning artist who needed to sell in volume in order to be profitable. Although printmakers in Dürer’s period frequently copied each other in their attempts to cut into each other’s market, no other artists attempted to duplicate this strange and seemingly unmarketable subject matter.
One more example to consider is the 1515 etching of the Desperate Man, created late in Dürer’s career when he was exceptionally famous. The artist had been working at his own expense for the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian for three years, supervising the production of his Triumphal Arch, a monumental woodcut print measuring close to ten feet high and nearly twelve feet wide, printed from 192 separate wood blocks. During this period, Dürer had almost no time to create independent prints for sale on the open market. Yet it was at this moment that Dürer switched to the untried (for him) technique of etching, and of the six such works he made from 1515 to 1518, one was the seemingly unsellable Desperate Man, an image of a man tearing off his own face. Who would spend money for such a grotesque print?
I had to ask myself “Why would customers buy these strange pictures?” And why was the demand for these products sufficient enough that Dürer printed these strange images in quantity?
No one had ever asked these questions except me. Fame and talent were not sufficient to explain this phenomenon in his society. But even stranger was the fact that Durer died one of the top 100 wealthiest men in Nuremberg.
Why did these prints sell? The answer is secrets, secrets embedded in Durer’s art.
More to come!