112th: Mitchell Merback on Perfection's Therapy
Join us on Thursday, March 8th at 7pm as Mitchell Merback discusses Perfection's Therapy: An Essay on Albrecht Durer's Melancholia I at Book Culture on 112th! Jonathan Crary will introduce the event, and Colin Eisler will join Mitchell in discussion.
A deft reinterpretation of the most zealously interpreted picture in the Western canon as a therapeutic artifact.
Albrecht Durer's famous portrayal of creative effort in paralysis, the unsurpassed masterpiece of copperplate engraving titled Melencolia I, has stood for centuries as a pictorial summa of knowledge about the melancholic temperament, a dense allegory of the limits of earthbound arts and sciences and the impossibility of attaining perfection. Dubbed the "image of images" for being the most zealously interpreted picture in the Western canon, Melencolia I also presides over the origins of modern iconology, art history's own science of meaning. Yet we are left with a clutter of mutually contradictory theories, a historiographic ruin that confirms the mood of its object. In Perfection's Therapy, Mitchell Merback reopens the case file and argues for a hidden intentionality in Melencolia's opacity, its structural "chaos," and its resistance to allegorical closure. That intentionality, he argues, points toward a fascinating possibility never before considered: that Durer's masterpiece is not only an arresting diagnosis of melancholic distress, but an innovative instrument for its undoing.
Merback deftly resituates Durer's image within the long history of the therapeutic artifact. Placing Durer's therapeutic project in dialogue with that of humanism's founder, Francesco Petrarch, Merback also unearths Durer's ambition to act as a physician of the soul. Celebrated as the "Apelles of the black line" in his own day, and ever since as Germany's first Renaissance painter-theorist, the Durer we encounter here is also the first modern Christian artist, addressing himself to the distress of souls, including his own. Melencolia thus emerges as a key reference point in a venture of spiritual-ethical therapy, a work designed to exercise the mind, restore the body's equilibrium, and help in getting on with the undertaking of perfection.
Mitchell Merback received his PhD from the University of Chicago in 1995, and is currently Professor of History of Art at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. Specializing in northern European Art of the later Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Reformation periods, he is the author of The Thief, the Cross and the Wheel: Pain and the Spectacle of Punishment in Medieval and Renaissance Europe (Reaktion Books, 1999); Pilgrimage and Pogrom: Violence, Memory and Visual Culture at the Host-Miracle Shrines of Germany and Austria (University of Chicago Press, 2013); and Perfection's Therapy: An Essay on Albrecht Dürer's Melencolia I (Zone Books, 2017), as well as articles in journals such as The Art Bulletin, Art History, and Renaissance Quarterly. A recipient of fellowships from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies, the Clark Art Institute, the American Academy in Berlin, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, he is currently investigating the role of recognition as a motif and metatheme in Christian narrative imagery. Another book in development, Radical German Renaissance: Art, Dissent, and Freedom in the Era of Reform, examines the work of painter-printmakers whose lives intersected with the radical religious movements of the early Reformation.
Jonathan Crary is Meyer Schapiro Professor of Modern Art and Theory at Columbia University. His books include 24/7, Techniques of the Observer, and Suspensions of Perception.
Colin Eisler is an art historian, Robert Lehman Professor of Fine Arts at New York University's Institute of Fine Arts, and a widely published expert on early Netherlandish art.