Review of Perfection's Therapy: An Essay on Albrecht Durer's Melencolia I
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2018
360 pp., illus. 92 b&w. Trade, $32.95 T, £26.00
Peter Anders, architect and cyber-arts activist, reported to this reviewer in early 2018 that he'd been puzzled about the polygonal shape in Albrecht Durer's "Melencolia I", so he recreated it with 3D software and a 3D printer. He realized the model, viewed from above, formed a six-pointed star—the hexagram or Star of Solomon, a symbol used (both with and without its Jewish associations) in Renaissance magic. Consequently, I was curious to learn of Perfection's Therapy: An Essay on Albrecht Durer's Melencolia I by Mitchell B. Merback, its dissection of an artwork I've long admired. Durer (1471-1528) was a master of the woodcut (collected by Willi Kurth, in a great book from Dover Publications).
Durer's biographer Erwin Panofsky wrote that, unlike the artist's blissful, God-serving "Saint Jerome", "Melencolia I" showed "a life in competition with God . . . the tragic unrest of human creation." Walter Benjamin wrote in 1925 that this print "anticipated the Baroque in many respects," then Benjamin's admirer Susan Sontag wrote of him as the embodiment of melancholy, born "Under the Sign of Saturn". Merback now asserts the print "Melencolia I" is both a diagnosis and "therapeutic artifact" in its context. Durer, like the poet Petrarch, set himself up as a "physician of the soul".
The prescription? In the print, there's the weird little banner MELANCOLIA I on a bat, or perhaps tattooed on its shaved or flattened wings, who dodges a shooting star, while a sullen angel with compass (female, or a longhaired male like Durer?), a bellows concealed by her robe, ignores a putto doing something atop a stone wheel, with a sleeping hound, all amongst the polygonal object, a sphere, woodworking tools, an hourglass and bell, plus a Magic Square of numbers. Panofsky wrote the angel's "fixed stare is one of intent through fruitless searching."
Merback says Durer subscribed to the Ciceronian idea of philosophy as the "art of healing the soul". Durer claimed to be its physician, proud of his eloquence too. So, was "Melencolia I" Durer's spiritual self-portrait? This was an era of "therapies of the Image" that included ancient amulets, prints, imagery of the stages of a Christian's life for contemplation of a prayer. Durer gave the public ethical and spiritual training in visual form. Durer depicted Christ as the Man of Sorrows. Other artists, including Cranach (1528), created representations of melancholy; in his, four toddlers torment a dog, and nude riders fill the sky, witches atop horses, bulls, a stag, a boar. This reminded me of the dream drawings of contemporary surrealist Jim Shaw.
The Magic Square in it, an invention of 7th century Arabs, has each row or column, or the four corners, adding up to 34, coincidentally the number of years Christ (almost) lived on earth. Durer's mother, whom he had drawn on occasion, died when Durer was 43, in 1514. "Melencolia I" was created that year; was the square an emblem of consolation for the bereaved artist? About a year before, he had drawn a self-portrait pointing out the location of an abdominal pain. Durer had boasted in a poem to his chubby and lusty friend Willibald Pirckheimer of his healing skills.
Merback calls Durer the first modern Christian artist, for his "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" were issued in 1500 to take commercial advantage of end-of-the-world fears among the pious—perhaps comparable to the worries about infrastructure failure as Y2K approached. Durer was successful, ambitious, and overworked. Like Petrarch, Durer mused on the sadness of the yet unachieved, and on the sorrows that can accompany fortune (I write this shortly after designer Kate Spade and chef Anthony Bourdain's suicides). In various prints, Durer showed Fortuna upon a wheel, a ball, a sea horse, where she represented chance, wealth, and vital energy. Merback cites Petrarch's popular book On the Remedy of Two Kinds of Fortune, though admits there is no evidence Durer ever read Petrarch. The artist did depict Erasmus, author of the similarly prescriptive Manual of the Christian Knight, a work that may have inspired Durer's "Knight, Death and the Devil".
Durer's career as a painter was certainly dwarfed by his printmaking excellence, yet there are some motifs in his paintings that may help illuminate the mystery of "Melencolia I". One panel of the Jalbach altarpiece depicts Job, his wife pouring soothing cold water on his skin affliction. The other panel features musicians, one with a characteristic rock star's curly locks (think Robert Plant or Roger Daltrey), but with a wandering lazy eye afflicting a handsome face. Durer recommended, notes Panofsky, "cheerful tunes of the lute" in case "a young painter should overwork, from which his melancholy might exceed." Might cheerful music here be a symbolic representation of healing, perhaps an allusion to the curative baths nearby?
Perfection's Therapy is highly speculative, and often left this reader with some skepticism, yet is erudite and informed in its arguments. Merback calls "Melencolia I" "a perfect work of art" . . . but then turns around and asks: Why the number "I"? Was a number II and III planned, which events kept Durer from completing? Perhaps the challenge for Anders, Shaw, other or saturnine artists of today is to visualize exactly what those images might have been.