It is a sad fact that artists’ lives are often nowhere near as interesting as their work. That’s because, in some ways, they’re just like the rest of us. Even the most talented biographers find themselves beleaguered in the face of an artistic giant like, say, Albrecht Dürer, perhaps the most famous artist of the Northern Renaissance. A case in point: In 1913, when critic Robert Fry edited Dürer’s journals, he thought he would obtain grand insights into Dürer’s art. Instead, he found something like a bland travelogue. He discovered that Dürer traded a print for dried fishes and coral, as well as some other trinkets, and that he once gave a prince some engravings in exchange for a coconut, two parrots, a fur coat, and more. He also learned that Dürer bought a pair of socks.
The tale of Fry’s disappointment is included in Albert and the Whale: Albrecht Dürer and How Art Imagines Our World (Pegasus), a new book by Philip Hoare. Hoare did not set out to write out a biography of Dürer, though he probably could have, given that he penned the definitive tome about the life of playwright Noël Coward back in 1995. Instead, Hoare offers up a text that is something closer to a book of essays. Its focus is less on the Renaissance artist than on his continued allure today. Why, Hoare wonders, do we still care about an artist who lived and died centuries ago? Was Dürer a genius, and does that matter, anyway?
The central event in this fascinating book involves a missed connection between Dürer and a dead whale. In 1520, while attempting to run away from a plague that was sweeping through Europe, Dürer set sail for the Netherlands’ Zeeland region, where he was told there was a beached whale washed ashore. Dürer had a knack for etching almost impossibly detailed images of animals—he was exceptionally good at lending them the kind of psychology typically only afforded to humans in portraits at the time—and so he simply had to see the creature for himself. Dürer’s ship just barely made it there in one piece, and the artist caught malaria in the process. When he got there, he never even saw the whale—the canals were covered in an ooze that made them impassable, so he never got to see the maritime beast.
“Dürer’s own abortive, amphibious expedition would shorten his life, from a condition he couldn’t name, because of an animal he didn’t see,” Hoare writes. And yet, good art resulted: Dürer developed a fascination with sea creatures, and he wound up making work about them. In 1521, for one pen drawing now in the British Museum’s collection, Dürer made an image of a walrus, its skin flecked with spiky-looking hairs. The walrus appears to seethe with rage—its eyes seem to pop out of its skull. The image is so exacting that it’s hard to believe that historians don’t even know for sure that Dürer ever saw a walrus up close.
Mulling a skeleton of a walrus, Hoare marvels at Dürer’s abilities. “We cannot capture living, quivering creatures, their flesh and bone, tusks and fur, instincts and apprehensions,” he writes. “Yet Dürer got close, even when he didn’t see the real thing.”
Hoare is hardly alone in finding himself awed by Dürer’s craft. A range of figures throughout history have similarly fallen under the artist’s spell, from the writer Herman Melville (who himself created the ultimate artwork about whales, Moby-Dick) to the essayist W. G. Sebald, whose influence on Albert and the Whale is palpable.
A lengthy digression focused on the life of novelist Thomas Mann forms the book’s centerpiece. Mann was also a big Dürer fan, as Hoare continuously points out—his novels are laced with allusions to the artist. The protagonist of Mann’s 1943 novel Doctor Faustus, a doctor named Adrian Leverkühn, has a passion for Dürer, and at one point in Mann’s revision of the Faust tale, Adrian begins to look disheveled, growing a beard. Hoare claims this is an allusion to Dürer’s own 1500 self-portrait, in which the artist’s piercing gaze meets the viewer’s. “He has become Dürer,” Hoare writes.
Albert and the Whale nearly spins out of control as Hoare delves into the history of Marianne Moore, an eccentric poet who loved Dürer and who, like the artist, found herself entranced when standing before monumental creatures hauled out of the ocean and onto land. But the story snaps back into place in its own idiosyncratic way.
This is a whirlwind book, filled with people, places, and things that are often deliberately left blurry. The text is dotted with images without captions to identify them, and the prose is interspersed with unmarked quotations from writings of all kinds. (For those unwilling to surrender to the book’s controlled chaos, there’s a source list on Hoare’s website.) It’s all a bit confounding—but it has a mesmerizing effect.
Toward the end of Albert and the Whale, Hoare finds himself in a Vienna library, holding a small piece of glass that contains what may be a wisp of Dürer’s hair. “I’m holding Dürer,” Hoare remarks. A 1550 note from a merchant certifies that this is Dürer’s hair, though for all we know it could just as well belong to anyone. Hoare seems convinced, however, and he’s concocted a whole story in his head about how valuable it is. “Dürer was raised on relics,” he writes. “Now he is one.”