Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and raised there and in Vienna, Joseph Leo Koerner studied at Yale University (B.A.), Cambridge University (M.A.), University of Heidelberg, and University of California at Berkeley (M.A. and Ph.D.). After three years at the Society of Fellows, Harvard University, he joined the Harvard faculty, where he was Professor of History of Art and Architecture until 1999. After holding professorships at the University of Frankfurt and University College London, he moved to the Courtauld Institute of Art, where he has been Professor in the History of Art since 2004.
Professor Koerner has written extensively on German art, including the trilogy The Moment of Self-portraiture in German Renaissance Art, Caspar David Friedrich and the Subject of Landscape and The Reformation of the Image.
Mark Thwaite: Simply because of the huge reach of television, many readers may know your name from your excellent BBC TV programme The Northern Renaissance. How much of that programme came from your own research and how much was based on say the work of Jeffrey Chipps Smith? And how did you find doing television!?
Joseph Koerner: The ideas I presented in the programme were generally ones I had developed earlier in books and in teaching. The series didn’t survey Northern Renaissance art but instead explored, in a somewhat personal way, four pivotal artists and the revolutions they launched. Bringing my thoughts to television was an interesting challenge because the time allotted is absurdly narrow. Arguments that, in my books, took me chapters to work out had to be compressed into two or three sentences.
Also, the show’s three directors wanted more historical background than I tend to give in my writing. For this I re-read good general histories, for example, Wim Blockmans and Walter Prevenier on the Burgundian Netherlands and Steven Ozment on Germany. And Smith's fine book helped here, too. My wife Meg Koster is an expert on early Netherlandish painting, so I learned a lot from her, especially about Van Eyck, relations between Italy and the north, and oil paint technique.
Working for television forced me to focus more on what – besides the artists – spurred on revolutions in art. Making my own ideas more public turned my attention naturally to the public, to the people who paid for and used the masterpieces in the first place. Filming on location is also a crash-course in context. I improvised most of the script there on the spot. The business of travelling to a place, setting up equipment there, dealing with the imperfect conditions of noise and light – even finding a good cup of coffee: all the mundane stuff thrusts you to into the painters’ lifeworld. You are more like an artisan, less like a tourist or scholar. Meanwhile, the particular artists I treated were masters of painting the concrete world around them. So in the programs I tried physically to touch that material world and to display that touch: to handle soil from the vineyard of Jan van Eyck’s patron, to finger a surviving lock of Albrecht Dürer’s hair, to lift the heavy cellar door to Hieronymus Bosch’s house, still extant in Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands. You can’t do these things in writing. They compensate for the simplification television demands.
MT: Your first book was The Moment of Self-portraiture in German Renaissance Art. What was it that was so uniquely important about that "moment"? What does the creation of self-portraits tell us about society and the individuals that make it up?
JK: Oddly, if you go back to the moment – the actual historical instant – when the first modern self- portraitist looked at himself and decided to depict what he saw, you find it was not a particularly “momentous” event, at least not for a history of the “self” or of modern subjectivity. Around 1490, the young Albrecht Dürer sketched his hands and fingers because they posed a special challenge to him as a budding draughtsman, and because they were simply there: available models he could pose as he wished. Dürer’s first true nature study is in fact a drawing he did of his left hand just lying there. It’s a little sketch on a spare bit of paper in a sheet now preserved in London, in the British Museum. But almost immediately, sometimes within a single drawing, you find Dürer discovering something bigger: his whole person out there in the world, which is an immensity that is both everything to him and strangely inaccessible even to his gaze: he cannot even see himself except by using a mirror.
The moment of self-portraiture, that instant in history when a painter resolved to make himself the sole subject of his art, happens accidentally. But when you analyze all the things that caused the event to occur and consider the history of art—even the history of Europe itself—that followed from that moment, it turns out to have been hugely important, or at the very least hugely representative. After all, don’t we nowadays think of art as a form of self-expression, and don’t we identify and value paintings in terms of the person who made them? The reflective turn to the self, which discovers at the origin the self (the painter making the painting we see), looks forward to most everything we think is “modern” about us: our individualism, our Cartesian self-reliance, the whole heroic and melancholy burden of our subjectivity.
MT: What made Albrecht Dürer so special, so revolutionary, and what keeps his art so compelling today?
JK: Dürer had a prodigious appetite for the visual world. Everything he saw interested him (including—again—his own body). Everything made him want to have it, visually, that is, to master it with his pen or brush. And Dürer was also a true wunderkind with the pen and brush: through an athletic hand-eye coordination, he could transform whatever he saw “out there” into legible, beautiful, memorable image on the page or panel. Irreducible inborn talent also made him able immediately to absorb the artistic achievements of other talented artists. Almost immediately he beat out his greatest German predecessor, the painter and print-maker Martin Schongauer, and his shift over to a more “Italian” style was almost instantaneous and totally unique: no one had ever learned another visual language as quickly as Dürer did when he first sketched a nude in an antique style he had observed in Italian prints.
Dürer was also fortunate to have been born into a culture with huge ambitions—much larger ones than the most fame-hungry artists have today. His mentors in his hometown of Nuremberg were learning to think that their work might live on not just scores or hundreds of years, but thousands of years. When Dürer dates his most important self-portrait “1500,” he expects that it will be a famous painting in the year 2000 — as indeed it was. The names of those fame-hungry Nuremberg intellectuals are now (paradoxically) almost forgotten – people like Hartman Schedel and Willibald Pirckheimer. But with Dürer you have a creative individual with the ambition and skill actually to become world-historical. Scorcese’s film about Bob Dylan documents a recent instance of something similar: by a mysterious conjunction of a personality, historical events, and developments in the music industry, one person (in Dylan’s case, someone without great vocal or instrumental skill) was able to sing the unarticulated, innermost feelings of an entire generation.
With Dürer, skill and ambition also needed a medium and a strategy. His new medium was printing. Powerful and relatively untapped, it was all around him in Nuremberg, which, as home to northern Europe’s first paper mill and having matchless metal-working industries, entered the book trade early. By investing all his efforts in cheap, woodcut prints (he was the first major artist to do this), Dürer was able to multiply his products a thousand-fold and to disseminate them worldwide: no artist before Dürer had had his global reach. Add to this one key ingredient: from his goldsmith father, he learned the value of marking products with the sign of their maker. Dürer’s famous AD monogram is on every one of his prints, and on most of his thousands of drawings and paintings, as well. Because of this not only his images but his name, too, was potentially everywhere. Dürer strategy was to make own his person the centre of his endeavours. And in uncanny ways, he predicted—and made possible—our fascination with him, not only through signing his works, but by painting self-portraits, writing testaments about his person and his art, and (perhaps most crucially) teaching his culture how to understand and collect him.
Most of the important drawings by Dürer come to us from his own collection, which descended, via his heirs and local admirers, to the collection in the Albertina in Vienna. Dürer’s was not just a casual gathering of unsold works or preparatory material; it was one of the first drawings collection in a modern sense, with each item dated and attributed and with the whole focussed on showcasing the singular genius of the great artist—in his case, himself. In other words, long before people collected art in the way we do today, Dürer set the pattern.
In the final analysis, though, people continue to be drawn to his images for reasons that are very hard to describe. Partly it has to do with Dürer’s mastery of design: you can read his picture-stories of the Apocalypse, the Life of Mary, the Passion of Christ, and you can take pleasure in everything he shows you along the way, because his lines, his structures, are at once so beautiful and so legible and robust. Partly Dürer’s greatness has to do with something unique and characteristic about each of his images, as if in addition to the monogram they bear, they were somehow nothing but Dürer’s signature. His woodcut of the rhino captivated viewers for centuries—more so, even, than the real rhinos standing about—mundane and seemingly docile—in European zoos—because of the total image Dürer created of it: how the beast stands on the page, the conviction and certitude of the lines, the playful, unmotivated, and mesmerizing details that abound, and so forth.
MT: You have written beautifully about the German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich. What is it about his work that so interests you? Why do you think he is such a key figure in understanding subjectivity and the wider Romantic movement in art, literature, and society?
JK: So many things! Friedrich makes us feel that the paintings he has made represent the natural world as a sublime inner experience. We as viewers, of course, encounter his paintings as part of our experience: we see one hanging, say, in the museum in Hamburg or reproduced in a book on our desk, and that’s going to be our experience of his picture. But through how Friedrich structures and paints his images, we feel we have instead entered into, or belatedly returned to someone else’s experience—a deeply personal one—which we perhaps imagine to have been the artist’s. This feeling has a strange time element to it: everything looks oddly past, like a memory. But it can be intensely physical and immediate: in Friedrich the travellers who, shown from behind, often stand before us in a view become like shadows of ourselves on the painting, making us enter not only the view, but also our own body.
Once inside this experience, though, something more amazing confronts us. Somehow, Friedrich’s massively subjective landscapes are epiphanies of the object. Every stone visible on a mountain, each twig of a tree in a forest, the smallest clod of earth on a field has a unique shape or signature. In actual fact, these details were transcribed by Friedrich in pencil drawings done from nature; these have an almost photographic quality in their transcription of specific outlines, and Friedrich transferred those outlines mechanically to his canvases. You might think this procedure is trouble for nothing, that, say, just by changing how his brush paints a branch Friedrich could create the same effects, producing branches that each look unique. But this is not the case. Somehow when we look at the singular objects in Friedrich’s paintings, we (correctly) recognize them as not a subjective imagining or gestural variation, but that one real thing out there. As “paintings of experience,” Friedrich’s landscapes take us outside of the self to find the stubborn, irreducible strangeness of objects; and these singular things (the one twig, stone, etc.) in turn makes the experience singular like itself. What I have said here sounds abstract and philosophical—less about art than about ideas. But the culture Friedrich worked for, the writers and art lovers who appreciated his work, approached art in an intensely philosophical way. Romantic critics like Friedrich Schlegel wrote that Friedrich painted “their ideas,” by which they meant those intensely complex abstractions that formed the core of German “idealism” (the term itself derives from the word “idea”). When, for example, the philosopher Schelling, writing at the same time as Friedrich was emerging as a painter, starts his Philosophy of Art, his text is a simply baffling display of abstraction in which the “subject” and “object” are placed in fiendishly difficult combinations. Schelling makes today’s difficult philosophers—Derrida, Deleuze, Zizek—sound like Fox News.
Having said this, there are pictorial values in Friedrich’s work that are unique and remarkable. It’s not simply that he transcribes his pencil notations into paint. His painting is of such a meticulous kind, his layering of transparent glasses so seamless and consistent, that one feels not only the object there before us, but also the intervening atmosphere, the in- between medium of air, or mist, or light. The dark bits of Friedrich’s paintings (for example, his foregrounds) are in fact filled with objects that only come into view when you adjust your eyes to the darkness of that bit of panel. That’s really entering experience! And to this is added perhaps the most important ingredient: Friedrich’s abstraction. His landscapes are often almost completely symmetrical, like diagrams, even though when closely observed they are built up of nothing but asymmetrical anomalous details. The abstraction looks forward to non-representational art: it leapfrogs over the whole nineteenth-century, Impressionism included, to join up with Malevich and Mondrian. Yet modern abstraction does not have those other values—absolute subjectivity and the illusion of real objects. And they are rarely as emotional as Friedrich, who at his worst looks forward not to Modernism but to Kitsch. I like that trajectory, too, since it keeps Friedrich relevant for contemporary art, too, with its irony and sense of belatedness.
MT: Your book The Reformation of the Image counter-intuitively argues that idolatry was actually the core-belief of the early iconoclasts? Can you briefly sketch your argument here for us Joseph?
JK: According to the iconoclasts, idolaters believe that a statue or painting of, say, Christ, is Christ. They mistake the mere humanly-manufactured representation of the sacred person for that person himself. This is the iconoclasts’ firmly held conviction about idolatry, and why their fury against it knows no bounds, since what can be more godless than venerating mere things. But of course (think about it!) no one in the real world actually believes what the iconoclasts said idolaters believed. As Catholic and even Lutheran defenders of images said time and time again, ‘we are not so stupid as to worship the statue itself; we can perfectly well distinguish between it and the person indicated by it.’ The iconoclasts, however, did not, or could not, believe these more reasonable (and what we would call “native”) descriptions of what putative idolater’s believe. For the image-breakers, idolaters were either fools (holding naïve, ridiculous convictions) or knaves (forcing ridiculous convictions on other for financial profit, or dissembling their own heinous beliefs by pretending not to hold them).
But what if—as I believe is indeed the case—there in fact there never was an idolater? What is idolatry, then? It is nothing but the iconoclasts’ own fiction, their own most firmly-based belief about what their enemy firmly believes. And it had terrible consequences over the centuries, not least of all targeting the wooden and stone images for physical destruction. No one understood images more literally than the image-breakers. It’s tempting to say that idolatry—the existence of naïve belief—itself is iconoclasm’s central creed.
MT: In your work you have focussed princiapally on the Reformation. I have a friend who argues that all art after the 16th Century is rubbish. Do you share that belief!?
JK: There were a few known artists who became iconoclasts, and I suppose after their conversion, when the broke images, they produced rubbish rather than art. But seriously, even Protestant Germany, where art quantitatively and qualitatively declined as a result of iconoclasm and religious warfare, produced wonderful objects, like the portraits of Holbein and the Lutheran allegories of Cranach the young, or like the small-scale sculptures and golden treasures made by masters like Wenzel Jamnitzer. And in the much longer run, painters of the Dutch golden age (Rembrandt!), the northern German Romantic painters Friedrich and Philipp Otto Runge, plus a huge segment of modern art, with its distinctly “iconoclastic” bent, are unthinkable without Protestant iconoclasm.
However, it is true that the Reformation changed art forever, and not only for Protestant regions. After Luther, a certain powerful bond between visual images and the sacred was broken. What this bond was, and whether it was an illusion or a profound truth, depends on your religious point of view. And anyone who laments modernity, whether from the Left or from the Right of the political spectrum, tends to mourn the passing of a certain (perhaps mythical) fusion of artistry and faith such as seems to have existed in the Middle Ages. Some take the view that “art” itself, as a distinctive sphere of experience called “aesthetic”, arose as one consequence of iconoclasm: individual paintings and sculpture were sometimes rescued from iconoclasts by being placed in the new secular space of the private collection; and it is for that new, morally and theologically neutral space, that art as we know it came to be made. To say that Protestantism was a tragedy for art is therefore a bit off the mark, since the category “art” is itself partly a consequence of Protestantism—one way of re-describing certain things (images) in order to ensure their survival. To call Protestantism an aesthetic tragedy has to do less with one’s understanding of art than with one’s understanding of modernity.
MT: Which modern artists do you rate? (And you can interpret “modern” however you please!?)
JK: If I take “modern” art to mean the “Modernist” tradition—that is, art produced in an often self-conscious genealogy reaching back, roughly, to Manet, and proceeding forward, through canonical twentieth-century advances (Cézanne, Cubism, Dada, Abstract Expressionism, etc.), up to the contemporary avant-garde (meanwhile defining itself throughout precisely by rejecting its being a tradition, ie, always defining its achievement in terms of its radically newness, hence “modern”-ism) — if I take “modern” in this sense, then I would have to confess I am unsuited to rating modern artists. I’m the son of a painter, Henry Koerner. Born in Vienna and trained there as a graphic designer, he emigrated to America in 1938 and became a painter while serving in the propaganda offices of the US army. Over his long career, he was massively productive and absurdly ambitious, yet except for a few years of international success in 1947-1950, he worked completely apart from the mainstream. He began as a sort of Magic Realist or late Surrealist painter of wartime themes, and then spent four decades painting surreal subjects in a curious Impressionist style he developed around 1953. Doing this in America during the era of Pollock and Newman meant he exiled himself completely from the rating system. My rating system is coloured by that upbringing: I have inherited these prejudices and at the same time try to purge them. In the end, the fact of my being born to a virulently anti-modernist painter has caused me to mistrust my judgements about twentieth-century and contemporary art. Of course, many champions of recent art complain about the rigidity of the Modernist canon, and historians of twentieth and twenty-first century art have documented how “greatness” in modern art has little to do with traditional skills and much to do with the skill of the critics who champion that art. Still, I was raised in a household that confessed the heretical creed that nothing of enduring value would ever be produced under the banner of Modernism. And I became an art historian partly as a response to (or as Freud might say, as repression of) this primal critical scene; I therefore place little weight on my personal judgements on modern art, though that does not keep me from eclectically loving many contemporary painters — Gerhard Richter, Anselm Kiefer, Ed Ruscha, and Francesco Clemente are all figures who have meant a lot to me.
I feel much freer approaching contemporary photographers. I am a huge admirer of Jeff Wall, and hearing him explain his procedures made me even more fascinated by his example. I enjoy the big photos of Andreas Gursky, partly because I find the modern spaces he photographs naturally beautiful to begin with—similarly the coal mines shot by the Bechers. Having spent much of my life in Vienna, I am fascinated by the nostalgic element of early photographs (Atget) and by the magical photograms made by Adam Fuss. I was bowled over by the first installation I visted by Ilya Kabakov. I am especially intrigued by the installations that feature deliberately obsolete oil paintings; they’re painted by Kabakov, but purport to be by some unknown artist working without a public somewhere in Russia. These, together with the particular apartment house interiors Kabakov creates, transport me back to my childhood in Vienna, where my father was took us every year, and where he painted his peculiar canvases often without any public to see them.
MT: Which art theorists/critics do you rate most highly? Which writers, theorists, philosopers have influenced you most?
JK: Michael Baxandall’s The Limewood Sculptors of Renaissance Germany remains a model of historical exposition. Michael Fried’s has been personally important to me, and I feel especially in tune with his new book on Menzel. I studied with Svetlana Alpers, and I read everything she writes with pleasure. Hans Belting’s Likeness and Presence is an amazing book—in precision and scope absolutely comparable with “classic” art historical texts by Erwin Panofsky and Alois Riegl. Although I did not read his work until recently, Leo Steinberg remains a remarkable figure: his early criticism remains completely fresh today, and his Leonardo’s Incessant Last Supper book should replace the Da Vinci Code as the true “thriller” about that artist. The two works of art history with which I have been most critically engaged are Panofsky’s Perspective as Symbolic Form and Aby Warburg’s lecture on the Serpent Ritual. Art history is a collective enterprise, and with new projects, I get to discover interesting predecessors. Just recently I finished reading just about everything written about Hieronymus Bosch by the Antwerp scholar Paul Vandenbroeck.
These days the books currently on my shelf that I reach for most often are ones by Bruno Latour, Michael Taussig, Valentin Groebner, and Miguel Tamen. The authors I return to, again and again over the years, and with changing responses, are Martin Heidegger, Hans Blumenberg, Carl Schmitt, and Paul de Man. When I feel I am losing my voice and need to find it again, I read Wallace Stevens, Sigmund Freud, and Franz Kafka—I listen to their cadences and how they reason about completely unreasonable or unspeakable things. When I feel I am losing my intellectual energy, I try to write something about my father. Ambivalence is a great energizer, I think.
MT: Who are your favourite poets and writers? And your favourite novel?
JK: My favourite poets are Wordsworth, Hölderlin, and Stevens. I suppose my favourite writers are Freud and Kafka, although my favourite novel currently is Robert Musil’s Man Without Qualities. I confess my most meaningful reading experiences occur when I am reading in order to write.
MT: What are you working on now?
JK: I am right now mired in the secondary literature on Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. Having worked on Bosch for many years, and in the midst of writing a book on him and Pieter Bruegel (a sort of “parallel lives” of these two Netherlandish masters), I decided it was time to confront the perennially impenetrable masterpiece.
MT: Anything else that you'd like to say?
JK: Bosch is calling me back to my desk.