Self Portrait

The self-portrait has become a model of what art is: the artwork is the image of its maker, and understanding the work means recovering from it an original vision of the artist. In this ground-breaking work, Joseph Leo Koerner analyzes the historical origin of this model in the art of Albrecht Durer and Hans Baldung Grien, the first modern self-portraitist and his principal disciple. By doing so, he develops new approaches to the visual image and to its history in early modern European culture. Koerner establishes the character of German Renaissance art by considering how Durer's and Baldung's pictures register changes in the status of the self during the sixteenth century. He contends that Durer's self-portrait of 1500, modeled after icons of Christ, reinvented art for new conditions of piety, labor, patronage, and self-understanding at the eve of the Reformation. So foundational is this invention to modern aesthetics, Koerner argues, that interpreting it takes us to the limits of traditional art-historical method. Self-portraiture becomes legible less through a history leading up to it, or through a sum of contexts that occasion it, than through its historical sight-line to the present. After a thorough examination of Durer's startlingly new self-portraits, the author turns to the work of Baldung, Durer's most gifted pupil, and demonstrates how the apprentice willfully disfigured Durer's vision. Baldung replaced the master's self-portraits with some of the most obscene and bizarre pictures in the history of art. In images of nude witches, animated cadavers, and copulating horses, Baldung portrays the debased self of the viewer as the true subject of art. The Moment of Self-Portraiture thus unfolds as passages from teacher to student, artist to viewer, reception, all within a culture that at once deified and abhorred originality. Koerner writes a new, philosophical art history in which the visual image is both document of history and living vehicle of thought. He demonstrates the extent to which novel ideas about self and interpretation invented by Renaissance artists and Reformation thinkers informed modern hermeneutics and helped to found our deepest assumptions about art and its messages.