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Dürer’s Whale

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Dürer’s Whale

Philip Hoare’s new book presents a haunting portrait of the Renaissance artist. June 25, 2021
Arts and Culture

Albert and the Whale: Albrecht Dürer and How Art Imagines Our World, by Philip Hoare (Pegasus Books, 304 pp., $28.95)

In 1519, Albrecht Dürer was the most famous artist in northern Europe. But that year marked a turning point in his life. Not only had his patron, the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian, died, but the artist also feared that he was physically declining. He complained of losing his sight and mobility in his hands. His spirit unsettled, Dürer decided to go on a journey, the last major one of his life. Fleeing the plague ravaging his native Nuremberg, Dürer traveled across Europe with his wife and maid, looking for artistic inspiration and patronage. Heading west toward the low countries, he heard about a beached whale in the Dutch province of Zeeland. Having never seen a whale, he set off for the coast.

For Dürer, as for so many artists and seekers of his time, whales were a source of awe and wonder, explains Philip Hoare in his new book Albert and the Whale: Albrecht Dürer and How Art Imagines Our World. To Michelangelo, they were a symbol of restored life; to Luther, an omen from God. “For an artist,” Hoare writes, “they presented a great challenge and allure, since they were so difficult to comprehend.” But the whale eluded Dürer. A storm had washed it out to sea before the artist had a chance to see it.

The most important figure of German Renaissance art, Dürer was in his mid-forties when he set off on that final journey. By that point in his life, he had produced his most celebrated works of art, including Adam and Eve, Knight, Death, and the Devil, and Melencolia I. His prints of the plague-infested Apocalypse, the first mass-produced works by an artist, circulated widely throughout Europe—and his depictions of animals, like Young Hare and Rhinoceros, radiated with as much life as his images of holy men and women. The realism of his work was stunning and utterly new. Dürer, Hoare writes, was the first artist to paint dirt.

He was also the first artist to paint a self-portrait for its own sake, a feat that led art historian Kenneth Clark to call Dürer highly self-conscious and vain in his 1968 television series Civilisation. But Hoare sees things differently. Certainly, the individualism and naturalism of Dürer’s work reflected a fascination with the self and material world. And his art seems to reflect and anticipate the major cultural and historical currents that would ignite a new understanding of man and his relation to the universe. During Dürer’s lifetime, Columbus discovered the New World, Cortés returned to Europe with Montezuma’s gold, Luther posted his 95 Theses, and Copernicus was working out his heliocentric model of the universe. History seemed to be breaking in two, the old order rapidly giving way to the new.

But Dürer’s hyperrealism was not a rejection of that old order and the transcendence that permeated its art, Hoare insists; it was an affirmation of it. Dürer saw connection and continuity between the physical and spiritual realms. “He painted God in dirt and blood,” writes Hoare. His self-portraits may have reflected vanity—or they may have been reaching for something higher. As Hoare writes, “You use works of art to see your soul”—to see it and to soothe it.

The title of Hoare’s book suggests an epic journey, calling to mind figures like Ishmael (who likewise set off to sea during the “damp, drizzly November” in his soul), Jonah (who shirked his duty to God and was swallowed by a whale), and even Dante (who also set out in the middle of life’s journey symbolically into the belly of the whale). But Dürer’s journey to Zeeland occupies only a small portion of Albert and the Whale. Hoare uses the story to launch into a greater exploration of Dürer’s work and the relationship between art and life.

Dürer is not the only seeker covered in these pages. Hoare frequently interrupts the narrative with stories of such disparate figures as the medieval monk and scholar Albertus Magnus, who we learn was the first modern thinker to document and describe whales; the German novelist Thomas Mann; and the American poet Marianne Moore, both of whom turned to Dürer for inspiration in their writing.

To Hoare, these seekers were driven by the same impulse that set Dürer off to the coast: a spiritual yearning to comprehend and make contact with the sacred and sublime. We learn, for example, that Moore described her first independent trip to New York City as the “Sojourn in the Whale.” In one poem, she writes:

Dürer would have seen a reason for living
in a town like this, with eight stranded whales
on a fine day, from water etches
with waves as formal as the scales
on a fish.

Hoare weaves his own story throughout these pages as well. As author of the celebrated book The Whale, Hoare, too, is a seeker. Albert and the Whale opens with a description of his encountering Dürer’s works at an unnamed art museum in New England and becoming transfixed by them. Hoare writes that, as he moved through the gallery of Dürer’s work, “the engravings seemed intensely familiar and utterly strange.” He describes the art vividly:

Their stark spaces drew me into a world full of animals. Monkeys and parrots scampered and flew about; a saint sat with his pet lion at his feet, on the floor, having taken a thorn from his paw, and a dog dozed cosily. I heard the rise and fall of their breath. I almost felt it on my face.

Hoare did not understand why these images moved him so deeply. “Why were they made at all? For love or money? To ease someone’s soul?” The book is an effort to answer these questions.

Albert and the Whale is a captivating read, but it demands patience. It has the fragmented quality of a dream, jumping from one anecdote to another. But as the book progresses, the connections between various stories and figures reveal themselves more clearly. The pieces of biography, memoir, and history come together into a coherent whole bound by the existential themes in Dürer’s life and art. Sometimes it’s hard to follow, but other times it’s utterly engrossing, as when Hoare ecstatically describes a stand-off he observed at sea between a group of sperm whales and orcas—perhaps the most memorable and awe-inspiring moment in his book.

A tragic sensibility permeates Albert and the Whale. Hoare writes hauntingly about the death of his mother and about Dürer’s death, too. Hoare presents Dürer as a seeker—but did he ever find what he was searching for? On his trip to the Low Countries, he didn’t see the whale, but he did contract a disease, possibly malaria, that sapped his energy for the remaining years of his life. He produced relatively little art in this period and died in 1528 at 56. By then, he was “withered like a bundle of straw,” writes Hoare. Because Dürer had no descendants, his tomb was eventually emptied and his bones lost to time, in accordance with prevailing custom.

His art remains, of course, but even that legacy raises some uncomfortable questions. His most enigmatic work, Melencolia I, remains one of the most analyzed and debated objects in art history, as Hoare points out. One critic claimed that this engraving of a gloomy angel constituted Dürer’s spiritual self-portrait. What does that self-portrait reveal? The angel’s “fixed stare,” writes Hoare, “is one of intent though fruitless searching.”

Photo by Archiv Gerstenberg/ullstein bild via Getty Images

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