Albert and the Whale: Albrecht Dürer and How Art Imagines Our World by Philip Hoare

Five hundred years ago a whale was washed up on the waterlogged fringes of Zeeland. Never, said the people who lived there, had they seen anything so big. It would take six months to butcher it and boil down the blubber. They dreaded the “great stink” that would emanate from its corpse.

Yet where the locals saw only a rotting mountain, a great Renaissance painter spotted a summit of ambition. Albrecht Dürer, by then the most famous artist north of Italy, was entering his fifties. He was at a point of crisis. His patron, the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian, had just died. His physical strength was failing. Submerged by a melancholy that had lapped at his spirit all his life, Dürer was wandering, driftless, when he heard of the beached whale.

What greater wonder could set his heart beating? He had never seen anything more than the bones of these monsters. What greater challenge than to depict this marvel, as vast as a god and as difficult to comprehend?

Dürer set off on an amphibious adventure, crossing half-drowned flatlands and braving sea storms, only to find on arrival that the carcass had been carried off by the tides. He never got to see a whale. What’s more, while he was there he contracted the fever from which he would later die in 1528 at the age of 56.

Yet still the adventure felt worth it for this artist. In failure he discovered a fresh inspiration; in illness, an attunement to mortality that left his vision clear. A fruitless trip to find a dead leviathan marked a momentous turning point in Dürer’s career.

It also marks the starting point of Philip Hoare’s latest book, Albert and the Whale. Hoare can perfectly understand the profound lure of the whale. His 2008 book Leviathan, which won the Samuel Johnson prize, was a paean to the massive creatures that have cruised through his mind from earliest childhood. Now, in Albert and the Whale, leads his readers off on a marvelously varied, vividly imaginative, seductively digressive adventure that traces the path of another colossus.

Medieval to Modern

The career of Dürer, the German-born painter and printmaker, represents a moment of revolution in our human story. Here is an artist whose vision was forged in the medieval world, in the domain of myths, monsters and miracles, which he captured in all the crinkle-crankle intricacy of the gothic style. But, at the same time, he was treading the very brink of the future, looking forwards into the new realm of scientific revelations and discoveries, the era of Columbus, Copernicus and Galileo. Janus-faced Dürer, perhaps more acutely than any other artist, captured the drama of this cultural equinox. Dürer, a sorcerer, a scientist, a seer, turns the medieval modern with his work.

This is the story that Hoare tells us, roving freely across time and place, reveling in all the wonder and weirdness of nature, poring over the facts and the freaks of science, riveted by the range and diversity of culture. An exhibition, “Dürer’s Journeys: Travels of a Renaissance Artist,”was scheduled to come to the National Gallery in London recently. It has been postponed because of Covid. Luckily, this book arrives as a rich consolation.

For those who feel safest in the harbor of facts, Hoare goes over the familiar lineaments of Dürer’s life: his birth in 1471 in Nuremberg; his training as, first, a goldsmith, then a painter who, having imbibed the examples of his northern predecessors, traveled twice to Italy to study the work of Renaissance contemporaries. Carrying their rich lessons in classicism, color, perspective and oil painting home, he produced a succession of now world-famous images, which Hoare brings to fresh life with his vividly imaginative responses — not to mention a host of more unusual pieces.

Have you ever seen Dürer’s sketch for an altarpiece to St Margaret of Antioch, for example: the one in which the head of a walrus pops up, as if from some secret ice hole, in the foreground of an otherwise conventional religious scene? It may sound improbable, but is a walrus really any more unlikely than the lute-strumming angels who hang about at the back?

A fruitless trip to find a dead leviathan marked a momentous turning point in Dürer’s career.

Albert and the Whale is entertainingly far from a conventional art history. It reconnects the dusty bones of academic investigation, clothes them with sinew, nerve and muscle, brings them dancing back to life. Hoare, finding himself standing in a natural history museum amid the osseous thicket of a cetacean display, writes: “I couldn’t help but see the owners of those bones not dead but alive, stretching and growing and replacing themselves in unrendered flesh. Specimens so big they’d burst their articulations, strain at the restraining screws.”

Hoare brings this sense of animation — physical, mental and spiritual — bursting into his new book. Dürer is no taxidermal relic, stuffed with the dry straw of facts. He is a lithe complex being, “flesh, bone and mind all in one”, with ” tumbling, waterfall locks”, “his fringe sticking up like he went mad with the scissors”, and “eyes that seem to roll from side to side as you look at them”.

Hoare has a biologist’s eye for the defining detail. He studies, for instance, Dürer’s engraving Melencolia: “the most analysed object in the history of art”. It is so intricate that, when John Ruskin asked his apprentices to copy half an inch, he knew that it would be beyond their capacities. The little instrument tucked behind the angel’s gown, Hoare informs us, is a clyster, a piece of equipment designed to deliver an enema. “After his attempt to see the whale, Dürer had to resort to the apothecary in Antwerp, paying fifteen stivers for a prescription and a further fourteen for the apothecary’s wife to administer it. It can’t have been a dignified scene.” From the minutiae erupts a vision of the living being.

Dürer’s engraving Melencolia is so intricate that, when John Ruskin asked his apprentices to copy half an inch, he knew that it would be beyond their capacities.

Hoare’s narrative moves like the sea. It swirls times and places and people and disciplines together. A picture of human society across history builds up. The reader will meet many characters such as the insatiably curious 13th-century monk Albertus, who, tramping across Europe examining everything along the way — “ancient seabeds on mountain tops, errant stars in the sky, squirrels in dark forests” — compiled a great compendium of creatures.

Or the 19th-century Parisian baron-turned-surgeon Guillaume Dupuytren, a medical dandy who, quite apart from being fascinated by the artificial anus (an unfortunate by-product of a hernia) and the self-castration of the insane, endowed a finger-curling affliction with his name (Dupuytren’s contracture). He would prepare his genteel female patients for the surgery that would cure this deformity by whispering into their ears remarks of such obscenity that they would swoon away and so, in that era before anesthetic, be insensible to pain.

At one moment you may be sitting with a smartly suited Robert Oppenheimer, the Manhattan Project physicist, as he reads Baudelaire and waits for his bomb “to turn night into day” in a New Mexican desert. At the next you will be sitting beside the writer watching him blowing wet shoes with a hair dryer in a Bavarian hotel room.

Nature writing, travelogue, biography and personal memoir; literature, visual arts, philosophy and music (Bowie may not be named, but “the starman” regularly pops up) are all swept together by the flow of Hoare’s prose, which frequently rises to the level of poetry. The history of art is dotted with volumes that tower above their academic rivals to become artworks in their own right. Think of Julia Blackburn’s Old Man Goya, Francis Bacon’s interviews recorded by David Sylvester, or What Painting Is by James Elkins. Albert and the Whale joins their ranks.

This is a book to immerse you. Like the sea in which its author swims daily, it braces and embraces. It beckons us ever on. Dürer never quite saw the dead whale. It pervaded his imagination all the more powerfully for that. I am not sure that we ever quite meet Dürer in this book. But we sense him all around us. We are swilled about in his world.

Rachel Campbell-Johnston is the author of Mysterious Wisdom: The Life and Work of Samuel Palmer and the novel The Child’s Elephant