In 1520, the nearly-50-year-old German artist Albrecht Dürer travelled to the Low Countries. The Holy Roman Emperor Maximillian I had just died, and his grandson Charles V was about to be crowed in Aachen as his successor. Dürer, both fleeing plague in his hometown of Nuremberg and seeking to confirm with the new emperor the continuation of his pension, roamed widely for more than a year throughout what is now the Netherlands and Belgium. Dürer meticulously recorded his experience and observations in a journal that miraculously (and fortunately for us) has survived. As memorialized in the journal, the curiosity that guided Dürer’s path was frequently rewarded; among other things, he was among the first to see the incredible first shipment of Aztec treasures that Hernán Cortés shipped back to Europe from his first voyage to Mexico as they were unloaded in Antwerp.
There was one occasion on his journey when Dürer’s curiosity was not immediately rewarded. When Dürer heard that high tides and a strong wind had stranded a whale on the shore of Zeeland, Dürer set out by ship with friends to see it. He endured near shipwreck along the way, and upon arrival learned that the same storm that had beached the whale had washed it back out to sea.
This anecdote about the whale Dürer sought but never saw is the subject of an interesting and imaginative — but also challenging — new book by Philip Hoare, Albert and the Whale: Albrecht Dürer and How Art Imagines Our World (here). The book is essentially an extended meditation on what might have happened if Dürer had succeeded in seeing the whale. Using a discursive method that matches close study of Dürer’s fabulous artistic legacy with a sort of free association that roams extravagantly over the last five centuries of art, literature and history, Hoare – with the absconded whale never far from the center of his thoughts — deeply considers the relationship between art and nature, and how art illuminates the world in which we live.
Dürer was born in Nuremberg in 1471, the son of a goldsmith of Hungarian descent. Dürer’s father initially intended for Dürer to take up the family trade, but after his artistic abilities became apparent, Dürer was apprenticed to a local artist named Michael Wolgemut. To broaden his artistic horizon and repertoire, Durer made two trips in the 1490s, one to the North of Europe and another to Italy. The Italian trip, where he saw the works of Montegna, Bellini, Raphael, and Leonardo, was transformational. When he returned home, Dürer brought the South to the North, including among other things a detailed understanding of the uses of perspectives and proportions.
Throughout his artistic career, Dürer was known for the precision of his execution. Some of his earliest paintings, even though familiar today, continue to astonish for their mastery and meticulousness. Dürer wrote “I have begun to see the native countenance of nature and come to understand that this simplicity is the ultimate goal of art.” Hoare writes of this aspect of Dürer’s artistry that “He looks so we can see.”
Another important artistic insight Dürer brought back with him from Italy was a deep appreciation for and understanding of the use of color. The colorful brilliance of many of his paintings continues to dazzle.
Given Dürer’s mastery of the use of color, there is some irony that some of his best-known and highly revered works were created only in black and white. The series of woodblock prints he created in 1498 contains some of the most indelible images in Western Art.
The 1498 woodcuts would make Dürer famous throughout Europe. As Hoare put it, Dürer’s woodcuts were “like ships of a great merchant; they carried Durer’s flag all over the world.” He became “the first genuinely international artist.” As his career progressed, he continued to make memorable, indelible images. In 1513 and 1514, he made a series of etchings that are among the most important of Dürer’s works.
By the time Dürer traveled to the Low Countries in 1520, he was a renowned artist. Yet he seems to have lost none of his youthful curiosity, a curiosity that throughout his career extended to both animal and plant life. Even before he left on his journey, he had executed a fanciful but nonetheless interesting attempt to draw a rhinoceros, an animal he had never seen. And after his travels in the Low Countries, he executed a memorable drawing of a walrus.
This lifelong fascination with animal life helps explain the curiosity that drove Dürer to brave stormy seas to try to see the beached whale in Zeeland. As Hoare writes, “Dürer was stirred by such wonders; for an artist, they presented a great challenge and allure, since they were so difficult to comprehend.” Sadly, the whale that Dürer so badly wanted to see had “fled of its own accord.”
Almost immediately after the failed trip to see the whale, Dürer began to feel unwell, due to a condition that is now suspected to have been malaria. The failed expedition would, as Hoare writes, “shorten Dürer’s life, from a condition he couldn’t name, because of an animal he did not see.” The “extraordinary irony” is that Dürer had “fled the plague at home for a healthier place, only to catch an infection on an infested shore.”
The failure to see the whale, though, had, according to Hoare, an “unexpected effect. It gave him new inspiration.” His “sense of mortality” allowed him “to see, anew, even more clearly.” Dürer’s sketchbooks from 1519, Hoare writes, “are more like those of an artist from 1919, filled with figures reduced to their essence.” They are “governed by a rectangularity which made them abrupt, now frozen, now at times almost contorted.” Dürer, Hoare writes, was “redesigning the human form for the final renaissance, of our selves.”
Time was running out for Dürer. He would create one last masterpiece, a “sacra conversazione,” that incorporated all of his animals and angels in one monumental altarpiece. His elaborate descriptions in his notebook laid out every detail, even the colors he would use – with which we must make do, as the painting was never completed, “just as,” Hoare writes, “he never saw the whale.”
Hoare writes beautifully and perceptively about Dürer’s art. He also entertainingly describes his extensive efforts to see Dürer’s major works himself, in person. These descriptions often transform into elaborate asides; it isn’t always clear where Hoare is going.
One detour that initially seemed particularly inexplicable is Hoare’s detailed description of an unusual medical condition from which he suffers, Dupuytren’s contracture, a malady that causes the fingers to turn inward into the palm in a progressive degeneration that starts with the little finger. It is only after Hoare describes the surgery he endured to correct the condition that he explains how his close observation of Dürer’s hands in his several self-portraits, and even of some of the figures in Dürer’s paintings, led Hoare to conclude that Dürer himself may have suffered with the same condition. Hoare’s description of his own affliction is an elaborate effort to try to explain, in part, the connection he feels to Dürer.
Hoare’s sense of connection with Dürer recurs throughout the book. Indeed, Hoare’s choice to center his book on Dürer’s efforts to see the elusive whale derived from an obsession Hoare himself has with cetaceans. Hoare, it turns out, has himself previously written a book about whales. (Indeed, the obligatory author’s photo on the end-page of the book about Dürer shows Hoare holding up a preserved whale’s eye to his own eye, as if trying to see things from the whale’s perspective.)
Hoare’s sense of connection with Dürer runs deep. When Hoare finally succeeds in seeing the original of the self-portrait Dürer drew when he was only 13, Hoare’s reaction is almost irresistibly self-referential: “His face is chubby and pouting, his eyes almond-shaped, guilty of long nights. He looks as I did as a boy, too scared to go in the water, diving under the covers to read superhero comics by torchlight. He was bullied by other students.”
The thread of Hoare’s book is, candidly, hard to follow. There are numerous asides, many of them with little discernable connection the book’s central themes. The book does, despite its meanderings, ultimately get to what seems like its culmination, even though the apparently culminating incident is described well before the book’s ending.
During a visit to Nuremberg, Hoare is able to see the original of Dürer’s self-portrait painted in 1500, when Dürer was 28 years old. The painting is a mysterious gift to us; during his lifetime, the painting never left Dürer’s room, yet it clearly communicates Dürer’s desire for us to see his image and contemplate who he was. Hoare observes that the self-portrait is “probably the most unusual in the history of art due to its immediate frontality and its meticulous execution.” Hoare quotes the 20th century American painter and critic Marsden Hartley as saying that, with respect to the Dürer self-portrait, “It’s all around the best portrait that has ever been done by anyone at any time.”
Despite (or perhaps because of) its many meanderings, I enjoyed Hoare’s book. I feel as if, having read the book, I now have a much greater appreciation for Dürer, an artist I have always admired. I liked the book so much that after finishing it, I immediately started re-reading it again. There is so much in this book; it is so rich and detailed, it is possible to miss some of its treasures in a single go-through. To be honest, I also had to re-read the book because there was so much I didn’t understand on the first pass.
All of that said, for those with no prior experience becoming acquainted with Dürer, I can’t recommend starting with Hoare’s book. It is just too multi-layered for someone who simply wants to become acquainted with the artist and his work. For the novitiate, I recommend a more conventional biography of the artist, such as Norbert Wolf’s Albrecht Durer (here), a huge volume with beautiful reproductions of Durer’s art, including many tight-focus images of detailed sections of Durer’s work. (Wolf’s book reproduces Durer’s 1500 self-portrait on the cover.)
The British travel writer, editor, and critic Simon Winder described Dürer as “my favorite German.” I have always felt the same way myself. Hoare’s book reminded me why.
I hope readers have been enjoying my Sunday Arts series. I am very interested in readers’ thoughts and perspectives on the Sunday Arts columns. I also remain hopeful that some readers will be motivated to write and submit for possible publication their own Sunday Arts columns. I would be particularly interested in columns dealing with art, music, or literature from outside of Europe; involving other genres; or discussion artists or authors from outside the core Western canon. If you have given some thought to the column you might like to write, I encourage you to please go ahead and write it up and send it in.