By Emily Leisz Carr, student in the Clark/Williams Graduate Program in the History of Art
I’ve always loved Dürer’s drawings and watercolors of animals: the beautifully lifelike Hare, the creepy Crab, the silly, Dr. Seuss-ish Walrus, the adorable Little Owl (a copy of the latter even hangs in my bedroom). These beautiful images are elaborately and elegantly rendered, and at the same time imbued with a sense of playfulness by their singular compositions and simple subject matter. My fascination with Dürer’s depictions of animals might only be eclipsed by his own interest in depicting them; he allegedly died of malaria he contracted while journeying to see a beached whale.
Needless to say, I was dismayed upon learning that The Strange World of Albrecht Dürer would not feature Dürer’s drawings. When I looked closely at the wonderful prints in the exhibition, however, my disappointment was quickly replaced by enthusiasm as I began to find my beloved beasts everywhere—cute, comical, and curious as ever. Whether they dominate as the center of a work’s artistic attention or add enigma and intrigue as peripheral elements, it’s clear that critters play a pervasive if peculiar role in Dürer’s works.
Although the print Adam and Eve is typically heralded as exemplary of Dürer’s preoccupation with classical human form and ideal proportion, it also features a veritable zoo of strange creatures. In the foreground, the curled cat seems enormously fat and spiny rather than furry, and the mouse’s tail looks impossibly straight and exceedingly long; its end disappears as it extends beneath Adam’s foot. In the distant background, a goat balances precariously on a mountain that seems too small to sustain it. If Dürer perfected the proportions of humans, he seems to have taken some liberties with those of animals.
Animals can offer levity in even in the most deadly serious narratives. While a bustling crowd fixates on the spectacle of someone being boiled alive in Torture of St. John the Evangelist from the Apocalypse series, I can’t help but notice an adorable little dog (or Ewok?) staring out at me. Perhaps I suffer from animal-oriented tunnel vision, or perhaps Dürer’s complex compositions lend themselves to a kind of visual treasure hunting in which animals are part of the booty.
Although it is not on display among the phenomenal prints in the exhibition, the Clark also houses one of my all-time favorite drawings, Sheet of Studies with Sketches of Animals and Landscapes. In it, Dürer juxtaposes big beasts with little landscapes, all in black-and-white except for one glorious, grumpy baboon colored brilliant blue with a marvelous red rump. He nearly pops off the page, unlike the animals hidden in the printed works. Still, in true Dürerian spirit, a little extra effort is required to see the Sheet of Studies itself, since it is only available for viewing by appointment in the Clark’s Manton Center for Prints, Drawings, and Photographs: (413) 458-0560 or [email protected].
Remarkable features and marvelous creatures run rampant in The Strange World of Albrecht Dürer. To find them for yourself, Dürer’s individual prints as well as the Clark’s larger collections are always worth a closer look.