Review of “Albert and the Whale” by Philip Hoare


Albert and the whale: Albrecht Dürer and how art imagines our world, by Philip Hoare (Pegasus Books, 304 pages, $ 28.95)

In 1519, Albrecht Dürer was the most famous artist in Northern Europe. But this year marks a turning point in his life. Not only was his patron, the Germanic Roman Emperor Maximilian, dead, but the artist was also concerned that he was in physical decline. He complained of losing his sight and the mobility of his hands. With a troubled mind, Dürer decides to go on a trip, the last great of his life. Fleeing the plague that ravaged his native Nuremberg, Dürer traveled across Europe with his wife and servant, in search of artistic inspiration and patronage. Heading west towards the Netherlands, he heard of a stranded whale in the Dutch province of Zeeland. Never having seen a whale, he left for the coast.

For Dürer, as for so many artists and researchers of his time, whales were a source of wonder and wonder, explains Philip Hoare in his new book Albert and the whale: Albrecht Dürer and how art imagines our world. For Michelangelo, they were the symbol of a restored life; to Luther, an omen from God. “For an artist,” writes Hoare, “they presented a great challenge and a great appeal, because they were so difficult to understand. But the whale escaped Dürer. A storm had swept him into the sea before the artist had a chance to see it.

The most important figure in German Renaissance art, Dürer was in his mid-forties when he embarked on this last voyage. By this point in his life he had produced his most famous works of art, including Adam and eve, Knight, Death and the Devil, and Melancholy I. His plague footprints apocalypse, the first works produced in series by an artist, circulated widely throughout Europe and his representations of animals, such as Young hare and Rhinoceros, radiated as much life as his images of holy men and women. The realism of his work was breathtaking and totally new. Dürer, writes Hoare, was the first artist to paint dirt.

He was also the first artist to paint a self-portrait for himself, a feat that led art historian Kenneth Clark to label Dürer very self-conscious and conceited in his 1968 television series. Civilization. But Hoare sees it differently. Certainly, the individualism and naturalism of Dürer’s work reflected a fascination with the self and the material world. And his art seems to reflect and anticipate the great cultural and historical currents that would ignite a new understanding of man and his relationship to the universe. During Dürer’s lifetime, Columbus discovered the New World, Cortés returned to Europe with Montezuma’s gold, Luther published his 95 theses, and Copernicus developed his heliocentric model of the universe. The story seemed to be breaking in two, the old order quickly giving way to the new.

But Dürer’s hyperrealism was not a rejection of this ancient order and the transcendence that permeated his art, insists Hoare; that was an assertion. Dürer saw the connection and continuity between the physical and spiritual realms. “He painted God with dirt and blood,” Hoare writes. Her self-portraits may have reflected vanity – or they may have achieved something higher. As Hoare writes, “you use works of art to see your soul” – to see it and soothe it.

The title of Hoare’s book suggests an epic journey, evoking such figures as Ishmael (who also took to sea during the “wet and misty November” in his soul), Jonah (who escaped his duty to God and was swallowed up by a whale), and even Dante (who also embarked on the middle of the journey of life symbolically in the whale’s belly). But Dürer’s trip to Zeeland only takes up a small part of Albert and the whale. Hoare uses the story to embark on a greater exploration of Dürer’s work and the relationship between art and life.

Dürer is not the only researcher covered in these pages. Hoare frequently interrupts the narrative with tales of characters as disparate 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 American poet Marianne Moore, both of whom turned to Dürer for inspiration from their writings.

For Hoare, these seekers were driven by the same impulse that drove Dürer to the coast: a spiritual desire to understand and come into contact with the sacred and the sublime. We learn, for example, that Moore described his first independent trip to New York as the “Stay in the Whale.” In a poem, she writes:

Dürer would have seen a reason to live
in a town like this, with eight stranded whales
one fine day, etchings
with waves as formal as scales
on a fish.

Hoare also weaves his own story throughout these pages. As the author of the famous book The whale, Hoare is also a researcher. Albert and the whale opens with a description of his encounter with Dürer’s works in an unnamed New England art museum and his fascination with them. Hoare writes that, as he moved through Dürer’s gallery, “the engravings seemed intensely familiar and utterly strange.” He describes art vividly:

Their austere spaces led me into a world full of animals. Monkeys and parrots scampered and flew; a saint was seated with his companion lion at his feet, on the ground, having taken a thorn from his paw, and a dog was dozing comfortably. 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? For love or for money? To relieve someone’s soul? The book is an effort to answer these questions.

Albert and the whale is a captivating read, but one that takes patience. It has the fragmented quality of a dream, jumping from one anecdote to another. But as the book progresses, the connections between the different stories and characters come to light more clearly. The pieces of biography, memory and history come together in a cohesive whole linked to the existential themes of Dürer’s life and art. Sometimes it’s hard to follow, but other times it’s quite captivating, like when Hoare ecstatically describes a dead end he observed at sea between a group of sperm whales and orcas – maybe to be the most memorable and awesome moment in his book.

A tragic sensitivity permeates Albert and the whale. Hoare hauntingly writes about his mother’s death and Dürer’s death too. Hoare presents Dürer as a seeker, but has he already found what he was looking for? On his trip to the Netherlands, he did not see the whale, but he contracted a disease, possibly malaria, which sapped his energy for the remaining years of his life. He produced relatively little art during this time and died in 1528 at age 56. By this time he was “withered like a bale of straw,” Hoare writes. Because Dürer had no descendants, his grave was eventually emptied and his bones lost over time, in accordance with current custom.

His art remains, of course, but even that legacy raises uncomfortable questions. His most enigmatic work, Melancholy I, remains one of the most analyzed and debated objects in the history of art, as Hoare emphasizes. One reviewer claimed that this engraving of a dark angel constituted Dürer’s spiritual self-portrait. What does this self-portrait reveal? The angel’s “gaze”, Hoare writes, “is an intentional but unsuccessful search.”

Photo by Archiv Gerstenberg / ullstein bild via Getty Images

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