Home Books Albert and the Whale: by Philip Hoare

Albert and the Whale: by Philip Hoare

Near the beginning of this unusual and almost unclassifiable book, Albert and the Whale, Philip Hoare describes how, to the consternation of some high-minded writers on art, the German Renaissance master Albrecht Dürer was drawn, in what could inaccurately be called a magpie-like way, to the unusual, the interesting, the novel. While art historians and critics might prefer their geniuses (and Dürer was certainly that) to be seriously scientific and philosophical, Dürer was a man who would trade treasures for trinkets and coconut shells, and while other Renaissance artists might dissect corpses in the spirit of intellectual and artistic enquiry, Dürer would journey hundreds of miles for the chance of seeing a rhinoceros or – as the title suggests – a whale. Although he slightly pre-dates them, Dürer was the kind of man for whom the cabinet of curiosities – or more properly wunderkammer could have been invented and so it’s only fitting that Hoare’s book is something of a wunderkammer itself.

Dürer, and the author’s relationship with his art, is at the centre of the book, but it’s as much natural history, travelogue and autobiography as it is biography or art criticism. The title refers to the middle aged, anxious Dürer’s 1520 trip to the Netherlands, an unsuccessful attempt to see in person a beached whale. It was one of several such trips the artist took, risking his health and even his life in search of – well, what exactly is never clear. Fuel for his work, certainly – but more than that too; after all, his most famous nature studies; the wing of a European Roller, the young hare, the ‘Great Piece of Turf’ were both practical – reference works to be used for bigger, commercial paintings – and also a kind of test of his artistic skills and powers of observation. But in the absence of real specimens, the artist did the best he could with the information that he could glean from others, and his own knowledge and imagination. His rhinoceros – almost as famous as his hare – is as fanciful as the hare is realistic, although it seems to contain the creature’s essence nonetheless. If that seems like the clumsy setup for an analogy, that’s because it is; although he is at the heart of the book, Dürer is sometimes as elusive in Albert & the Whale as the whale was to be in his own life.

Taking Dürer’s quest as his starting point, Hoare takes the reader on a journey that balances an interest in nature – especially, but not only, whales – with an interest in art, and the ways in which the two intersect, taking in a range of other fascinating figures in whose lives Dürer and/or whales also played a part. One of the abiding impressions the book leaves behind is the melancholy one of just how badly the human race has treated, and continues to treat the creatures we share the earth with. Without being polemical or indulging in self-righteous anger, Albert & the Whale, among many other things, reads as a plea for compassion, for both animal and human alike. Among its varied human cast are the medieval zoologist and astronomer Albertus Magnus, Herman Melville, the poets WH Auden and Marianne Moore, the art historian Erwin Panofsky, Carl Jung, Klaus and Erika Mann and above all, their father, the novelist and critic Thomas Mann. Less prominent, but mentioned significantly in passing are Ruskin, Hitler, David Bowie and WG Sebald – the latter perhaps being the most telling, as the structure and nature of Albert & the Whale is quite Sebaldian.

Hoare’s writing is free-flowing and frankly personal. Often written in the present tense, the book has the immediacy of conversation, but that ends up being both a strength and a weakness. It means that, despite its loose, not always discernible structure – historical figures and the author’s personal acquaintances come and go in no particularly obvious order – the book feels coherent and right. The author is at his best when talking about the sea, and those liminal spaces where the land meets the sea, where humans come face to face with nature and are shaped by it as it is shaped by them. Similarly, he’s strong on our not-quite-two-way relationship with art, where, through art itself, we come face to face with its creator. On the other hand, like good conversation, Hoare’s writing can occasionally wander a little too much. When discussing Dürer and analysing his work, he is sharp and incisive, perhaps because at a distance of 500 years a certain amount of speculation and imagination is necessary to fill the gaps in our knowledge. But dealing with more recent figures, he can occasionally get bogged down in detail in a less gripping way. This is most noticeable in the part of the book dealing with Thomas Mann. Though the author and his life and work are undeniably fascinating, and mostly tie in beautifully with the themes of the book, Mann’s life in exile and his relationship with his children is discussed in such detail that by the time the author gets to an unnecessarily extended synopsis of Mann’s novel Doctor Faustus it starts to feel like perhaps he should have just written a book about Mann instead; and it’s a relief when, much later, Dürer finally reappears.

This caveat aside, Albert & the Whale is an absorbing read, and one which skilfully evokes the artist’s restless nature, his unsettled life and preoccupations. In Hoare’s book, Dürer is the whale, and the author’s travels; to locations that the artist visited, to galleries and museums and archives to see his work and even to see relics of Dürer himself – mirror the artist’s travels in search of the wonders of the natural world. And, as with Dürer, Philip Hoare both does and doesn’t reach his goal. Dürer, unable to come face to face with the animals of his dreams, fashioned them from the traces they left behind and from his own prodigious imagination, and Hoare does something similar. Albrecht Dürer, product of a distant age and a different and in many ways alien world, is ultimately unknowable; but the Dürer that Hoare presents us with, built from the artist’s self-portraits and his drawings and writings and the author’s empathy and warmth, feels as alive and as instinctively right as Dürer’s own fantastical rhinoceros.

Summary
Occasionally diffuse but always rewarding, Albert & the Whale is a rich and poetic study of Renaissance man Albrecht Dürer that’s as much meditation, travelogue, nature study and autobiography as it is art history.
78 %
Cabinet of Curiosities

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