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.
Continue Reading Sunday Arts: Albert and the Whale