Philip Hoare, Dürer, the whale, mortality and much more


Again with its particular style, connecting and linking experiences, travel notes, memories and sensations with natural history, from the art, science and culture, and pondering extinction, Hoare approaches Dürer (1471-1528), the brilliant modern German Renaissance artist, to swim again, literally next to the whale, as he explains at one point in the book. In it, he describes a scene in the Indian Ocean: dived and surrounded by 150 sperm whales while being attacked by a group of killer whales (Among the many images included in the book, there are not two photos of the episode missing). The thing did not end in drama, but the singular writer confesses that he did feel in danger at sea. “It was in Brighton, swimming off the south coast of England. I felt that I was losing control, that the sea was taking me away and I could not return to shore. There was a sign for a fish and chip shop and I thought how ironic it would be to die there. I am aware of my mortality when I enter the sea, that’s why I do it. I like to be reminded of my mortality, although I am not stupid or put myself in dangerous situations, but the sea is a dangerous element. For me, swimming is my art, it is not a sport, it has some meditation “.

Dürer’s engraving of a rhino, 1515.


Mother’s death

Listening to him, one can understand some of the most sincere pages that the reader will find in ‘Alberto y la ballena’, where Hoare connects Dürer’s story of the death of her mother in an inscription on one of her self-portraits, with his own, remembering how she had to ask the hospital to disconnect her from the machine. “I felt a great sorrow. Even today I don’t know if I did the right thing. Surely Dürer felt something similar. My mother was unconscious in the hospital for a week and woke up to die. She died in my arms. I felt then that she was being released from a weight. After her death I went to the sea and swam. It was a sunny October day, with a very beautiful sky, and I felt liberated. I had always thought about what it would feel like when my mother died and when it happened I felt that liberation. She taught me what it is like to die and It made me aware that it will happen to all of us, it reminded me that we will all go through it. As I experienced it, I laughed and was happy. ”

Melancholy I.


In the book, Hoare is able to draw links between cetaceans and Dürer not only with the essential Herman Melville and his ‘Moby Dick’, but also with Goethe, the poet Marianne Moore, the Nobel Prize winner Thomas Mann and his sons, Shakespeare, Luther, the medieval monk Albertus Magnus (the first to document whales) and even David Bowie, to name just a few illustrious ones.

Dürer’s Hare, 1502.


The whale and malaria

The connection of Dürer and the cetacean dates back to 1521, when the painter left his native Nuremberg to get away from Plague. He headed out to sea, to the Netherlands. His patron, the Emperor Maximilian I, had died, and he knew that his successor, Charles, would travel there, from whom he might be able to obtain further royal favors. He had heard that there were the remains of a whale off the coast of Zealand and he wanted to see it to paint it, as he would with his naturalist engravings and drawings of an armored rhinoceros, a hare or a walrus, away from the terrifying images that populated the Middle Ages. But the ship he was traveling on was about to be shipwrecked and he about to die. Upon arrival, the storm had returned the body of the cetacean to the sea. It was there that he probably contracted malaria. His health never recovered, dying seven years later, at 56.

“Already in 1500, with his works he also tells us about extinction due to the effect that human beings have on nature”

Philip Hoare


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Dürer suffered nightmares about the plague, comets and the flood -Large waterspouts falling from the sky, rain red as blood-. “Yes, he had dreams and visions. And he was worried about the future: the plague, the floods … things that also worry us today, with so many apocalyptic things. And, through the rhinoceros, the walrus, the hare … also speaks of extinction due to the effect that human beings have on nature. In the year 1500, in the Anthropocene, it is when human beings began to leave their mark on nature and Dürer was already aware of our predatory action. But he also believed that art could save us and in his works he imagines the future of that art, although he does not know what it will be like. And it captures those visions where art and science intertwine. Observe nature, animals and plants, and represent it. AND in his works he stops time and makes us face what human beings do to nature, we are killing it. The grass of 500 years ago makes us think about the climate of then and the climate change of today. The hare, in what has happened to this animal. It makes them immortal, it makes them survive us, but the irony is that many of the ones he drew will not survive us because they are becoming extinct.like the rhinoceros and the seal. ”

‘The knight, death and the devil’, by Dürer.


Dürer, who designed his own typeface, planned cities, designed jewelry, composed music and wrote poetry, created famous works such as ‘Melancholy’, ‘Adam and Eve’ or ‘The Knight, Death and the Devil’ and he was very visionary. “He was the first artist to use printmaking, knowing that they would be powerful images that would outlive him because they would continue to be printed after his death and that his art could travel all over the world. His woodcuts sold by the thousands and were a revolution that changed the conception of art in the West “.

Self-portrait of Dürer, 1500.


Their minds also leave their mark on the mind. self portraits. One of them, from 1500, which shows his contractured fingers, connects directly with Hoare, who shows his own hands, operated, as recorded in the book, for Dupuytren’s disease. “Dürer also suffered from it. His hands are an essential component that tells you ‘I am not a craftsman or a worker but an artist. With my hands I make art, I am God’. The hands are at the service of his imagination.”

‘Alberto and the whale’

Philip Hoare

Attic of the Books

357 p. € 21.50

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