Albert & the Whale by Philip Hoare

 

Albert & the Whale by Philip Hoare

In the freezing winter of 1520, Albrecht Dürer set off from Antwerp to a remote part of the Netherlands to paint a beached whale, The German artist (pictured, in a 1498 selfportrait) travelled for six days; his ship was nearly wrecked. Upon reaching the shore, he found it deserted: “the great creature had sailed away”. 

In his magnificent new book, Philip Hoare uses this episode as a jumping-off point for “a trip of another kind entirely” – a “captivating journey” spanning centuries and genres, blending biography, art history, nature writing and memoir. Although it centres on Dürer’s life and work, Hoare summons up numerous other figures – from Luther and Shakespeare to David Bowie – and somehow makes them relevant to the Renaissance painter. A book of dazzling insight and “liquid beauty”, Albert & the Whale is Hoare’s “greatest work yet” – surpassing even the whale-focused Leviathan, for which he won the 2009 Samuel Johnson Prize. Hoare presents Dürer as a “Janus-faced” figure whose career “represents a moment of revolution in our human story”, Though his was a vision “forged in the medieval world, in the domain of myths, monsters and miracles”, his work looked forward to a “new realm of scientific revelations and discoveries, the era of Columbus, Copernicus and Galileo”. An incessant traveller, Dürer was insatiably curious, he painted plants in greater detail than anyone had done previously, and his studies of animals were uncannily life-like. He documented beings he hadn’t laid eyes on – such as his unerringly accurate woodcut of a rhinoceros, which Hoare depicts as a turning point in art history, symbolising the “transition from fantasy to science”. In its readiness to “accommodate whatever disparate stuff comes its way”, Albert & the Whale often resembles a whale’s stomach, Its pages are packed with people, artworks and objects, and Hoare lengthily paraphrases other works of literature – from Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus to W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn (a strong influence on his book). 

This “scavenging” is a risky tactic, but it is in keeping with one of Hoare’s larger points, which is to remind us that “works are made from other matter”. In the Renaissance, he points out, the “tools of art and writing were goose quills, squid ink, rabbit-skin glue, ermine brushes”. In this “marvellous, unaccountable book”, Hoare continues this tradition.

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