Letter Writing and Art Making in the Age of Albrecht Dürer


A review of Briefkultur: Art and the Epistolary Mode of Address in the Age of Albrecht Dürer, by Shira Brisman.

This dissertation by Shira Brisman explores the modes and circulation of the early modern letter as a model for reexamining the work of Albrecht Dürer and his contemporaries. She proposes that the “epistolary mode” is a kind of picture-making formed by the experience of writing, sending, and receiving letters, which thus inscribes an artwork with a capacity for mobility and interpretation. She proposes this mode as a powerful model for understanding how a work of art operates not just as the expression of an individual artist or the reception of a designated audience, but also as a potentially mutable, social experience of communication.

The introduction defines the epistolary mode as one model for the understanding of German art produced around 1500, describing it as “an appeal from an artist to a viewer that is direct and intimate while at the same time acknowledging the distance and delay that defer the message before it reaches its recipient” (p. 2). Brisman offers several reasons for which she has selected Dürer as her central case study: more of his letters survive than is true for any other contemporary artist; he had a tracking system for his letters; he wrote in and on his pictures; and finally, this artist uniquely exploited print media. She identifies three overarching themes in her study of art’s engagement with the epistolary mode: transit, delay/slowness, and social awareness. Methodologically, Brisman positions her study as a tertium quid: neither a study of the artist’s creative identity nor a reconstruction of an original beholder response. Instead, her aim is to explore how “the sixteenth-century work of art already began to predict the transitions it would face, the different kinds of audiences who would come to know it, and all that would be lost and gained in the relay of encounters” (p. 8). The second half of the introduction provides a contextual introduction to the letter in Dürer’s lifetime, describing the terminology, physical appearance, and format of both private and public letters (with close attention to the material evidence of surviving early modern letters), and the development of the imperial postal system; she also briefly introduces the new genre of “the open letter” made possible by the spread of printing technology.

The first part of Brisman’s dissertation, “The Private Letter,” contains three chapters assessing the different kinds of letters written around 1500 and their delivery systems, proposing analogous approaches to the art of the period. Chapter 1, “The Handwritten Letter and the Work of Art in the Age of the Printing Press,” focuses on the ten letters exchanged between Dürer and Willibald Pirckheimer when the former was in Venice in 1506. Brisman proposes five analogies between these letters and the ways in which Dürer’s works relate to their audience. First, she relates the “double address” of early modern letters (to both the named addressee and other named parties) to Dürer’s printed portraits, as a balancing act between intimacy and public address. Second, she connects the artist’s many written ellipses to his ability to create pictorial intrigue that calls for a “perceptual filling in” (p. 50) by the reader/viewer. Third, she relates the letter as a means of recording economic exchanges to Dürer’s demand that his printed work be valued as a commodity. Fourth, she compares the anxiety about letters being intercepted, lost, or delayed to the artist’s uncertainty about a work of art’s ultimate use and/or location. Brisman singles out prints in particular as offering “new kinds of social experiences because they were both intimate, in the sense of being small in format and ownable by an individual, and public, in that they could transmit information to wide audiences” (p. 70). Finally, Brisman suggests that the way Dürer’s letters include instructions for reading the text, for example through the use of terms like “Item” to transition between topics, draw attention to similar mechanisms within his artworks that also structure and guide the viewer’s reception.

Chapter 2, “The Message in Transit,” uses Dürer’s engraving The Small Courier as an entry point to discuss the shared dynamic between letters and artworks in relation to perceptions of momentum and meaning. Dürer’s figure of the rider establishes a sense of urgency but also avoids easy interpretation. Brisman turns from the print to a description of Maximilian I’s courier relay system operated by the Taxis family, established at roughly the same time as the ca. 1490 print. These couriers are referenced in the woodcuts for the Weisskunig, and the emerging iconography of the relayed message is transferred to images of saints and miraculous statues. Brisman links this iconography with the migration of individual artistic motifs, such as Dürer’s numerous studies of horses culminating in his 1514 Knight, Death and the Devil, arguing that here the artist creates a “friction between acceleration and obstruction that inflects the print with both urgency and arrest” (p. 119). Her final example is the famous drawing and resultant print of the Rhinoceros; Brisman focuses on the shift from the I/you construction of the drawing’s inscription to the print’s wide circulation. For the author, this exemplifies the way Dürer moves from the epistolary to the prototypical mode of image making. Letters and prints were both susceptible to appropriation, and Brisman argues that an artist like Dürer was increasingly aware of the diverse trajectories that an image may take after its creation.

The third chapter, “The Image That Wants to Be Read,” is focused on a single sheet, Dürer’s Mass of Angels, now in the Musée des Beaux Arts, Rennes. Brisman emphasizes the foreground inscription’s use of the second person (“Here write what you wish”), suggesting that the sheet is a personal message to Lazarus Spengler, chief secretary of Nuremberg. Brisman relates the drawing, which depicts the innermost thoughts of those attending a mass, to the artist’s and political advisor’s playful exchange of couplets in some surviving letters and in a 1511 drawing that served as a new year’s card to Spengler. However, the author also contends that the lack of specific addressee in the Rennes sheet allows for the possibility of a wider audience, welcoming any “willing beholder to the hermeneutic project that it invites” (p. 158). The second half of the chapter broadens this argument, exploring how prints created their viewers and enabled these new consumers to mark and use images in an individual fashion. Here, Brisman explicitly connects Dürer’s provocative inscription on the Rennes sheet to the blank scrolls included in contemporary prints, intended as similar invitations to interpretation.

The second part of the dissertation, “The Open Letter in Print,” specifically addresses the open letter as a topos in a series of shorter iconographic studies. The fourth chapter, “Annunciations,” explores the local German history of an epistolary variant of the Annunciation iconography, in which the angel is shown delivering a sealed document to the Virgin. Dürer, Brisman argues, responds to this tradition in his design for the woodcut of the Annunciation to Joachim in his 1511 Life of the Virgin. Chapter 5, “Privileged Mediators,” similarly focuses on the pictorial tradition of saints and evangelists writing letters, focusing on Dürer’s 1514 Saint Jerome.

Chapter 6, “Interception,” returns to the broader historical context of Dürer’s day, describing the parallels between the new genre of humanist printed letters and Dürer’s printed portraits (an analogy first proposed in the first chapter), in particular that of Erasmus. Brisman describes the printing of letters as dedicatory texts, and she frames the threat that private letters might be published as a consequence of the increasing partisan nature of the Reformation. She connects this to Dürer’s use of the inscribed tablet to “establish a particular relationship between the information the image could record and that required by writing” (p. 278). These prints shifted in address and function, as they circulated in ever-wider circles, even converting to a commemorative function after the sitter’s death. Brisman argues that in his portrait of Erasmus, Dürer included both legible and illegible texts, insisting on the pictorial insufficiency of the portrait (an inadequacy famously noted by Erasmus himself) in order to engage the reader in the sustained process of decoding/looking.

Chapter 7, “Albrecht Dürer’s Open Letter,” analyses the artist’s 1526 Four Apostles as an open letter addressed to the Nuremberg council and the Christian community at large. The artist includes a quotation from the epistle of John that was also used by Luther in his open letter to the princes of Saxony in 1524. Ultimately, despite this quotation and the artist’s use of a scribe to write the text on the painted surface, Brisman concludes that the artist here speaks “in his own voice” to describe “vision directed towards something not immediately perceptible on the surface” (p. 312).

In these final case studies, then, Brisman proposes that Dürer “built reception theory into his images” (p. 290) and that the artist was aware of art’s mobility, its temporal endurance, and its capability for diverse interpretations. This is not so much a new understanding of Dürer’s creative vision as a reminder of its social dimension, so that the artwork is the product not of a single artist but of an audience and a market for self-conscious artworks. In her brief conclusion, Brisman states, “The epistolary is the name I have suggested for a mode of picture-making that offers communicative signals within and across the frame, and also safeguards portions within the image from wholly offering content” (p. 322); for the author, then, the epistolary mode produces the conditions for art historians’ own writing about art. Brisman is an eloquent correspondent, and whether or not one views the “epistolary mode” as a necessary or sufficient category, her dissertation raises intriguing questions about the analogies of art and writing as well as the impact of print culture on artistic reception.

Stephanie Porras
Newcomb Art Department
Tulane University

Primary Sources
See the images and letters cited in the review above.

Dissertation Information
Yale University. 2012. 2 vols. 374 + 69 pp. Primary Advisor: Christopher Wood.

Image: Rhinocerus, by Albrecht Dürer (woodcut, 1515). From Wikipedia.

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