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

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is of course one of the great authors of World literature. His oeuvre is vast, varied, and enduring. But during his long lifetime he accomplished so much more beyond mere literary output. Goethe not only wrote such classic works as The Sorrows of Young Werther and Faust, but he also published books and articles on botany, minerology, anatomy, chromatics, and optics. And, while in the service of Duke Karl August of Saxe-Weimar, he acted variously as diplomat, finance minister, military reformer, theater director, road commissioner, university administrator – and perhaps, most importantly, as a collaborator, inspiration, and friend to a long list of the leading authors of the age.
Continue Reading Sunday Arts: Life as a Work of Art

I have always felt an aversion to the works of Richard Wagner; his massive and melodramatic style, his well-known antisemitism, and the association of many of his operas with Nazi culture, have always seemed reasons enough to avoid his music. It was with some surprise then that, after hearing a fascinating radio interview of The New Yorker’s music critic Alex Ross, I found myself reading with interest and even enthusiasm Ross’s thought-provoking recent book, Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music. In his book, Ross makes the convincing case that Wagner was and is one of the most important and influential artists of the modern Western era, even if many of his legacies and the use to which his art has been put are malignant. In this vast, intelligent book, Ross demonstrates that the works of a wide array of artists and writers reflect Wagner’s influence. Ross also makes the case that, regardless of how your feel about Wagner, he cannot simply be ignored.
Continue Reading Sunday Arts: Wagnerism

For a time in the late 18th century, a group of men met weekly in a London pub for dinner and conversation. In and of itself, this may seem unremarkable. What is remarkable is that the group included among its members some of the most extraordinary individuals of the age – or indeed, of any age. The group included Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, Edmund Burke, Edward Gibbon, and Adam Smith; arguably, the greatest British critic, biographer, political philosopher, historian, and economist of all time. Others in the group included others equally famous at the time, including the painter Joshua Reynolds, the playwrights Richard Sheridan and Oliver Goldsmith, and David Garrick, the greatest actor of the century. The group called itself The Literary Club, but it came to be known simply as The Club. Harvard University Literature Professor Leo Damrosch tells the group’s fascinating story in his excellent and entertaining book, The Club: Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends Who Shaped an Age.
Continue Reading Sunday Arts: The Club

Museo del Prado

The Museo del Prado in Madrid is one of the world’s great art museums. Its walls are lined with the works of some of the world’s best known and most revered painters, including not only the works of Spanish masters such as Valasquez, Goya, Tiepolo, and El Greco, but others of the great artists, including Raphael, Titian, and Bosch. Even amongst all the other works of the great masters the most interesting art in the museum is in a small gallery on the ground floor containing the collection of 14 paintings by Francisco Goya now known as the Pinturas Negras (Black Paintings). These fascinating paintings, some disturbing and all uniquely compelling, are among the most arresting art works I have ever seen. The inevitable question for anyone who sees them is what they mean, a question that has drawn me in since my first visit to the Prado many years ago.
Continue Reading Sunday Arts: Pinturas Negras

La Sonate à Krutzer by René François Xavier Prinet

There is a natural tendency to think of musical compositions as autobiographical vehicles – that is, as expressions whose meanings can only be fully appreciated through an understanding of the composer him- or herself and of their lives. (My post last week about Chopin reflected this perspective.) Nowhere is this tendency more evident than with respect to the music of Ludwig van Beethoven; it is a common assumption that the drama and passion of his music can only be fully understood in the context of, say, his deafness, or his unrequited love for his “immortal beloved,” or even his never-ending financial woes.
Continue Reading Sunday Arts: The Kreutzer Sonata

The Chopin Monument in Łazienki Park, Warsaw (the statue depicts Chopin under a willow tree)

Welcome to the inaugural installment of the new Sunday Arts series, which I previewed in a recent post. It seemed appropriate to me to devote the first post in this series to my favorite composer, Frédéric Chopin, and to my favorite of all of Chopin’s compositions, his Polonaise in A-Flat Major (Opus 53), written in 1842. It is a great piece of music, and it is also a piece of music with a distinctive connection to the composer’s personal history.
Continue Reading Sunday Arts: Chopin’s Heart       

The Tower of Babel by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

The purpose of this post is to announce a new feature I will be introducing to this site in September. The reason I am announcing the new feature in advance is to try to make the intention of the new feature clear from the outset, and also to let readers know that the new feature – which I am calling “Sunday Arts” – is open to all for readers’ own contributions, as I explain below.
Continue Reading Coming Soon: Sunday Arts