The Dürer Woodcut: Postmodernism

"Man Drawing a Reclining Woman." From the second edition of Dürer's Underweysung der Messung or Work about the Art of Drawing (Nuremberg, 1538). Reprinted in and courtesy of The Complete Woodcuts of Albrecht Dürer, ed. Willi Kurth (New York: Dover, 1963).
THERE ARE obvious problems of anachronism in using a Dürer woodcut from 1538 to exemplify issues of postmodernism; nonetheless, of all Dürer's work, this image may well be the most postmodern, however impossible such a statement may seem at first blush. The image has been analyzed in detail by theorists because of its supreme self-consciousness. Since it lays bare man's reliance on prosthetic instruments for representation, the image could be said to anticipate a number of issues important to postmodern theorists, particularly the extent to which humans are separated from the real because of tools like language, science, and artistic conventions of representation. That separation is literalized here by the screen separating the woodcut into two halves and it is underscored by the "real world" outside the window that the artist does not see. The artist here can only "see" by way of his grid, which could be read as a commentary on science's tendency to dissect, disinfect, and thus destroy the natural world of creation, sexuality, and reproduction. The woman and the natural world are here intimately aligned: they are both presented to the viewer as flowing horizontal lines that suggest a "natural" alignment. Creation here is taken away from the female or the natural and bestowed to the tool-laden man, here equipped with not one but three phallic devices designed for representation. The right half of the canvas, by contrast, is decidedly vertical (the man, the plant, the phallic pen and viewpiece, the containers). The power of the male creator over nature is further underlined here by the potted tree to the artist's right as well as the fact that the woman is made to lie in an apparently uncomfortable, constricted position; she is made to conform to the left-hand space of the canvas just as the artist here seeks to make the female form (with its curved lines and sensual corporeality) conform to the straight lines of a grid. The image also thus deconstructs the myth that visual representation somehow gives us a more direct access to the thing represented than does language. In fact, as Dürer makes clear here, the art work itself is necessarily separated from the real world because of its means of representation; indeed, by arming the artist with a tool that most resembles a pen (with ink well), Dürer suggests an alignment between textuality and pictoriality (for lack of a better word). Literate culture's move into the conventions of science thus clearly has an effect on man's very perception of the world, a transition that I discuss in the General Intro to Postmodernism under "Oral Culture." What is underlined in this woodcut is the fact that painting, like writing, is a system of representation, an interpretive process that does not have a closer connection to the real world than any other form of representation. The representation may try to fool the viewer into thinking that s/he is seeing the real thing, but an interpretive screen always by necessity intervenes. That screen could be said to represent all the semiotic elements that divorce us from direct experience (language, prostheses, science, writing, civilization, and convention; e.g. conventions of gender, which are very much at work here). In other words, the image underscores our reliance on the simulacrum avant la lettre of postmodernism. Like a good postmodernist, Dürer is here less interested in a mimetic representation of the objective world than he is in the frames and structures by which we perceive (and thus necessarily distort) the world "out there." As Bryan Wolf puts it in an article that examines this woodcut, "seeing occurs within frames: how we see is a function of what our culture allows. Vision always carries with it a historical dimension. Though we may set ourselves within nature, we do not see 'naturally'" (195). The woodcut is supremely self-reflexive since one must conclude that the woodcut you are seeing was itself constructed using similar prosthetic and framing aids. The image thus encodes its own act of production.

By the same token, as Bryan Wolf goes on to argue in that article, Dürer clearly appears here to identify with the right-hand frame and the represented artist's claim to scientific, empirical objectivity in pictorial representation. In this, Dürer contributes to the Renaissance movement away from the symbolist, religious painting of the medieval period to the mimetic realism of the next few centuries of art history, a mimetic realism that would come to its final apogée in Victorian art (before a subsequent turn to the radical and often anti-mimetic experimentation of the modern period).note As Wolf explains,

the grid is not placed, as we might expect, equidistant between artist and model. It angles back into the picture space from left to right, like a door aslant, placing us as viewers on his side of the room. The result confirms our suspicion that vision exists in Dürer's image as the scene of sexual possession. Dürer's engraving presents us with a specular economy that sublimates touch into sight and dominance into art. And we, by implication, are present as a third party to these events....

The work of the grid, then, is to close off her space, forcing us to see her through his eyes at the same time as it helps create the illusion that we are seeing her directly. (197)

The fact that Dürer finds himself at a moment of transition (from religious symbolism to mimetic realism) may help to explain how a woodcut artist from the sixteenth century could be able to anticipate many elements of postmodernity. We should also recall that Dürer found himself at the beginning of a revolution in technology, the Gutenberg revolution (which I discuss briefly in the General Intro to Postmodernism under "Oral Culture"). Indeed, his illustrations for Sebastian Brant's Narrenschiff of Sebastian Brant (one of which is featured in the Marxism section) helped to make that volume one of the first proto-mass-market phenomena, in so far as it was quickly translated into all of the leading European languages, thus making it one of the most successful published works of its age.note The very technology of the woodcut, we should recall, evolved because of the still-very-new technology of printing. It is often the case that, when it is completely new, a technology tends to be used in highly experimental, self-conscious ways, even among mainstream or otherwise conservative users (eg. the early experimentation with the internet that has now given way to a principle of usability or the innovative film techniques of Hollywood film in the 30s and 40s). Given the importance of literacy to the culture that followed the Renaissance, Dürer's own unique relation to print technology may have provided him with a certain degree of self-consciousness even as he clearly identifies with the empirically-minded artist in the woodcut. Over the next three centuries, the tools of realism merely become invisible. The next great revolutions in representational technology—sound recording, photography, film, digitality—would each similarly inspire highly self-conscious forms of experimentation.

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Proper Citation of this Page:

Felluga, Dino. "The Dürer Woodcut: Postmodernism." Introductory Guide to Critical Theory.[date of last update, which you can find on the home page]. Purdue U. [date you accessed the site]. <>.






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