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How Dürer shaped the modern world

Philip Hoare explores how the artist’s obsession with science, magic and self-promotion paved the way for our existential age. 

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In 1520 Albrecht Dürer travelled to Zeeland to see a whale stranded on the sands. A storm drove back his boat and by the following morning it had also blown the fabulous creature back out to sea. The artist never saw his whale, so instead he drew sea monsters, putting them together like Frankenstein out of bits of this and that: eel, unicorn, dolphin, crocodile, mermaid. The year before, Pope Leo X had received a Rosmer – a walrus – from a Norwegian bishop; not the entire creature, just its head, salted in a barrel like a dead naval hero. Dürer imagined the entire walrus and made a picture of it. The disconnect between the pickled head and imagined body parts lends Dürer’s creation the tragic pathos of Hans Christian Andersen’s little mermaid, who sells her soul to swap her tail for legs – the price of human love.

Dürer never saw a rhino either, though his famous woodcut stood as rhinoceros-truth for 200 years. Like the walrus, the model for Dürer’s rhino was sent from India by the sultan of Cambaia to Portugal, where the king swiftly moved the animal on, as one does with unwanted gifts, to Pope Leo X. The poor rhino died in a shipwreck on the way, but during its brief Lisbon stopover an artist made a sketch, and it is on this sketch that Dürer based his legendary woodcut: animal as armoured tank, moss-grown and barnacled, unstoppable, probably eternal.

Dürer’s fascination with exotic animals began with his reading of Albertus Magnus, the ur-alchemist whose apprentice was Saint Thomas Aquinas. Albertus claimed to have witnessed the transmutation of gold. He probably met the Devil, too. He inspired the Faust legend, and his mechanical dolls leave their mark on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Albertus’s major work, De animalibus, was written in 1250 but published in 1478, when Dürer was seven years old. It was the first book to describe the appearance and behaviour of whales, and its publication introduced a new spirit of investigation into the natural world.

Victor Frankenstein says Isaac Newton – scientist-alchemist-magician – described himself as feeling like a child picking up shells along the shore of the great unexplained sea of truth. Philip Hoare’s new book is about the intersection of truths of science and vision through time, centring on Dürer, the first Northern Renaissance artist to balance those uneasy bifocals on the bony bridge of his nose. John Ruskin’s religious faith was shaken by Darwin’s fossils, Dürer’s by holy relics. Dürer’s father had designed reliquaries to display the supposed fragments of the True Cross – the height of which, when pieced together, would have rivalled the Empire State Building (as you would work out had you, like Dürer, a sceptical, mathematical mind).

Albert and the Whale is a book made up of scraps of this and that, connected by a skein of links with just one degree of separation between subjects. Neither straight art history nor a preachy eco-Doomsday book, it contains elements of both, and a lot more besides. It both echoes and emulates Dürer, whose modernity as a pioneer of the Northern Renaissance relied on a stubborn welding together of the world as Gesamtkunstwerk – a unity of perception, art, science and history. No easy task this, when the world is still flat, and your red paint is said to be made from “dragon’s blood” (in fact, it was plant resin, but Dürer was not to know that). In his mind, dragons still flew about in the same cloudy, invisible realm of possibilities as the new scientific theories and discoveries.

Dürer’s diary of 1520 records the display of treasure sent back from South America by Cortés during his conquest of the New World. Six years earlier, Copernicus had proposed a heliocentric universe in his Commentariolus. Maybe the Earth wasn’t flat after all? Dürer saw the New World treasure in Brussels and was enchanted by the strange artefacts that had come from the other side of the globe. He made a careful record and incorporated bits into his design for Emperor Maximilian’s triumphal arch and procession, a mixed-up cultural cocktail of crocodiles, saints, slaves, harpies, parrots, dragons, giant snails and, of course, mermaids. Nothing like this was imagined until Liz Taylor’s entry into Rome in Cleopatra (1963). The illogic of Dürer’s imagery, abolishing the distinction between hallucination and reality, prompted his reputation as the father of surrealism. But his importance, surely, reaches much further than Dalí’s sterile cul-de-sac. Dürer anticipates the modern artist in two ways: one, as maniacally self-publicising; two (intimately related to one), as giving first voice to existentialism.

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Dürer was obsessed with self-portraiture and self-promotion. While his paintings were acknowledged as astonishingly skilful, they could only be seen by the few. And so he made himself the master of engravings and woodcuts that could pour off the press by the hundred. He sent his mother out to sell them in a booth in the town square, and his reps he sent into the wide world. His engraving, Melencolia, is one of the most analysed images in the history of art, along with Munch’s The Scream. A winged angel, a made-up concept, sits with a dragon, another made-up concept, at her feet. She looks grumpy and fed up. Is God, too, a made-up concept, a chimera like the dragon and herself? Jean-Paul Sartre originally called his first existentialist novel Melancholia, after this engraving, then changed it to Nausea. The grumpy angel is where we enter the godless existential meaninglessness that Munch calls the razor’s edge and Nietzsche calls the abyss.

Man’s ambition is the Devil’s pandemonium. It is possible that in 1520, when they were both in Bamberg, Dürer met the man who gave his name to the Faust legend, Johann Georg Faust, a black magician and alchemist who had reputedly sold his soul to the Devil. Goethe drew on Dürer’s woodcuts for his Faust. The idea that you might trade Heaven for genius comes down from Goethe to the Romantic writers such as Coleridge, who was called a “German” poet for his surreal imaginings and who was engaged to translate Goethe’s Faust. From there, the Faustian thread leads to Thomas Mann and his Doctor Faustus, a fictionalised biography of Nietzsche which relies heavily on Dürer’s woodcut Knight, Death and the Devil and has the philosopher weirdly (and quite untruthfully) obsessed with Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” before his descent into Hell.

It is through Mann, and his compatriots who fled Germany in the 1930s, that this book connects to the 20th-century significance of Dürer. Mann taught at Princeton alongside Albert Einstein and the art historian Erwin Panofsky, whose biography of Dürer runs through Albert and the Whale.

At Princeton, Mann, Panofsky and Einstein re-examined Dürer’s idea of the unity of perception, debating the correspondence between ancient mysticism and modern science. Mann lectured on Faust, Panofsky lectured on Dürer, Einstein wrote “Why War?”. Panofsky’s son was recruited by Robert Oppenheimer to the Manhattan Project to photograph the first detonation of a nuclear device, which Oppenheimer named the Trinity Test, in reference to John Donne’s line: “Batter my heart, three-person’d God.” Poor Donne. Physicists know sin, said Oppenheimer, and this is a knowledge they cannot lose. He spent the test reading Baudelaire.

During the war, Mann was writing The Holy Sinner about his children, Erika and Klaus, who were sexually fluid, painted their nails green and lived, Hoare writes, “in a tumult of alcohol and incest”. Erika later returned to Germany to report on the Nuremberg trials, but in the build-up to the war she was living in the same house as Christopher Isherwood, in Amsterdam, while he was writing Goodbye to Berlin. Perhaps, they observed, this is how people felt in the Middle Ages, when they believed themselves to have sold their soul to the Devil. Erika married WH Auden for a British passport. After all, said Auden, what are buggers for?

Auden was another obsessed by whales. Horrified and fascinated to see one butchered, he told Erika that it looked like a dignified duchess being got ready for the ball by beetles. There are two kinds of whale, his editor observed, those classified as cetaceans and those enlarged into ideas.

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Hoare is an ideas man. He grew up in Southampton, where he now teaches creative writing. As a boy he was terrified of water, but everything changed when he saw a whale. The great creature wobbled his perception of the world; he became obsessed by whales and his book Leviathan or, The Whale was a worthy winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize in 2009. During his childhood, his father worked on a new weapon to kill whales quickly. Previously, it had taken nine grenade harpoons and five hours, but the new electric harpoon his dad helped to perfect took two minutes. Between 1914 and 1917, 175,000 whales were killed to provide glycerine for British bombs, and oil to stop soldiers’ feet from rotting. In 1924, HG Wells pleaded for protection of whales, elephants and gorillas. In Ulysses, James Joyce wrote a furious passage describing a school of turlehide whales killed by a horde of “jerkined dwarfs, my people, with flayers’ knives”.

Brutality knows no bounds, greed no limits. To solve the world shortage of edible oil after the war, three amphibious reconnaissance biplanes were built in Southampton, named Snark, Boojum and Moby Dick. They took off from the decks of ships to spot whale pods – particularly sperm whales, which were useful in the production of soaps, cosmetics, steaks, edible oil and whalebone for corsets. Our arrogance in the face of other living creatures is limitless. All this destruction for the sake of margarine, lipstick and hourglass figures.

In Dürer’s day, the arrival of a whale was an augury as significant as an eclipse. Its great mouth symbolised the open jaws of Hell, ready to swallow up sinners. Whales signify a different kind of hell today: our lost beatitude; the great environmental disaster that is the result of our Faustian pact against nature.

If Albert and the Whale were a room, it would be an alchemist’s laboratory with a stuffed crocodile suspended from the ceiling, full of freaks and fascinations, reef-encrusted in time. More prose poem than straight prose, its language is intoxicated: houses are tiled like pangolins and dormer windows are compared to the eyes of sea hyenas. Sometimes all this creative writing goes a bit far, and you balk at sentences such as: “Leonardo liked young men with long curly hair, and was beautiful with his own, and a faraway look like the sea,” or when a dog “barks out of fear and his own inexactitude”.

Another problem is that while the author weaves a huge number of quotations into the text, he puts nothing in quotation marks. There are no footnotes, so if you want to check his facts and sources you have to go to a referencing web page set up by the publisher which, when I was writing this review, was not up.

But I quibble. If you are prepared to enter the dream and leave drear nit-picking behind, Hoare’s lush imaginings sweep you through 500 years on a sea of connections. Be warned – it’s a depressing ride. Love of the sea is nothing else than love of death, said Thomas Mann, who loved to quote Prospero: “My ending is despair.” You understand why Dürer’s angel looks so grumpy.

Sue Prideaux is the author of “I Am Dynamite! A Life of Friedrich Nietzsche” (Faber & Faber)

Albert and the Whale 
Philip Hoare
Fourth Estate, 304pp, £16.99

Sue Prideaux is an Anglo-Norwegian writer. Her latest book is I Am Dynamite! A Life of Nietzsche (Faber & Faber).

This article appears in the 14 April 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Careless people