Follow the whale: an encounter with Philip Hoare

'It’s all potentially disastrous. Perhaps humans shouldn’t live in Zeeland.'

AESTHETE. AUTHOR. PUNK. Winner of the prestigious BBC Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction. A salt water swimmer in all seasons. A man obsessed by whales.

British writer Philip Hoare is all these things, which begins to explain the motivation for his adventures in the Dutch province of Zeeland. Hoare’s new book, Albert and the Whale, is inspired in roughly equal measure by renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer and the sharp bite of regular ocean dips in winter waves.

In this interview for 2nd Opinion, I asked him to explain the Dutch influence on Dürer, a European aesthetic re-imagined by Hoare under the influence of David Bowie, pop art and the counter-culture.

What brought you to Zeeland?

Philip Hoare: I was visiting my friend Ellen Gallagher, an American artist in Rotterdam. Her partner is Edgar Clejine, an artist and adventurer, who wanted to show me the industrial sprawl outside Rotterdam. We all went for a drive through the industrial zone, between the oil refineries. Then we kept going, just choosing the route with an artist’s eye. After an hour or so we were in Zeeland. 

It felt such a sad place. What was odd, for me, is how the sea appeared very suddenly. I was very aware that the land is below sea level. It’s the first time I’ve had that sensation, as if my centre of gravity was falling. I had this sense that the land was floating, so that humanity is floating too. It’s all potentially disastrous. Perhaps humans shouldn’t live in Zeeland. 

We left the car and walked, cresting the dyke. Then we saw the sea. At the same time, we saw two hares in the dunes: that felt very mysterious if you know Dürer, because hares were his most famous artworks, after the rhinoceros.

I’d been talking about Dürer as we arrived. He painted incredibly realistic images. Every hair of Dürer’s Hare is painted with a single hair: a paintbrush with just one hair. At that point, I still had never actually seen these paintings. I’d only seen Dürer’s work in books. 

What happened next?

We came to the sea. So I went in for a swim: I always have to swim, wherever and whenever if I am at the sea. My mind was full of these apocalyptic ideas from the landscape, and images of people who are not people. It felt like a place dicing with apocalypse.

Ellen and Edgar were on the beach when suddenly this group of teenagers came onto the beach. I watched from the sea and I saw them talking to Ellen. It’s funny, but there’s something about teenagers. At our age, in that deserted landscape, I wondered if there might be some kind of trouble.

It turned out that because I was in the sea, these boys saw me and they told Ellen about how they sometimes saw seals - zeehonden - in that same stretch of ocean. Ellen told me that when the boy who was talking told her this, she noticed that his eyes filled with tears.

The whole scene was lit by this strange watery light which seems to be very Dutch. Later we went for dinner. I had fish. It arrived on the plate, looking up at me: there was a real otherness to it. I’ve written a lot about the sea. My three last books are about the sea, mainly influenced by Cape Cod on the eastern seaboard of the United States.

That landscape, like Zeeland, feels less tied to the land, less contained. I think it appeals to me because the spaces are larger. Somehow, the relationship of water to the land feels more ambiguous. It’s how the sea is presented, or represented, that inspires artists. 

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What about the whale?

In all the famous paintings of stranded whales, people are running away. If I think of these other Dutch beaches - at Beverwijk, for example, or Scheveningen near the Hague - where whales have stranded, these places feel dangerous. Whales have stranded here forever, for geological and cosmological reasons. 

The Dutch really started commercial whaling in Europe. It’s telling that Herman Melville, who wrote Moby-Dick, was half-Dutch. There’s a famous engraving by Jan Saenredam, from 1602, of a beached whale at Beverwijk. It’s very finely drawn: the whale is examined by a war hero, and in the tableau above are all these allegorical references to earthquakes and eclipses and the passing of time. 

The relationship of humans to the whale is not sentimentalised, although it is an omen. Saenredam’s engraving is surrounded by a cartouche, an image framed like a scroll. Underneath is a long Latin note recording the whale’s exact measurements (60 feet long, 14 feet high, 36 feet in circumference, 14-foot tail, 12-foot lower jaw).

Note to reader: Hoare switches in mid-conversation to the present tense, excited. The idea of Europe is powered by images, he says, often anthropogenic images

In the next image, this same whale is butchered for its meat, for its economic value. In the background is an angel with a bow and arrow, pointing a poisoned arrow towards Amsterdam. It’s the harbinger of the plague. Gases from its decomposing flesh actually caused the whale to explode, which is referenced in the figure of Death shooting Amsterdam with a plague arrow.

The whales are always sperm whales; males, generally. When they strand, their organs extrude. These animals already are a phallic shape. Then they have these disgorged organs, symbols of potency. It’s really evident in Dutch culture, and in how the whale was commemorated by artists. These are the images that end up on Delft china, co-opted into the domestic economy. 

What was Dürer doing in Zeeland?

Dürer had left Nuremberg, a hugely wealthy and important place in the 1520s. What we know now about Dürer relates mainly to his experiences in the Netherlands. The story is that he came to Zeeland after making a trip to Brussels to petition the Roman emperor Charles V for a higher stipend, a kind of state pension for artists. Nuremberg was at the centre in Europe, but Durer had left to flee from the plague.

He kept a diary crammed with bureaucratic details: his expenses, what he paid to the apothecary, the price for an enema and so on. He was based mainly in Antwerp, but while he was waiting for a response from Charles V, he heard about a whale stranded in Zeeland. 

So Dürer went looking for the whale, accompanied by his gang of mediaeval lords. They were drunk most of the time. They gambled and took all kinds of medicinal drugs. Dürer thought that if he saw a whale, he would make a sensational drawing: he was already famous for his ‘Rhinocerus’, a drawing which was reprinted again and again in eight editions.

In Zeeland, Dürer wrote a beautiful account of the journey. His wife was left behind, as she always was, while the men chartered a boat. A huge storm picked up just as they were nearing Middelburg. I always think of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The Bard could not have known about Dürer in Zeeland, but Shakespeare certainly would have seen Dürer’s most successful prints. Perhaps there are traces of Dürer in his plays.

What happened next?

Their ship comes into the harbour at Middelburg, but before all the passengers can disembark it gets pulled away again by the waves. Dürer is still on board, with the captain and four or five others. They’re all terrified and expect to die, but then the boat makes its way back into the harbour and they survive to tell the tale. By that time, the whale has gone. 

So Dürer never gets to see the whale and the great drawing never happens, but he is already a commercially successful artist. Also in a modern sense: he is always famous. His lifestyle is financed by princes and emperors, but Dürer prints his own work. So he owns the means of production.

To later generations, he became a kind of socialist hero to other artists in England: William Morris, John Ruskin, the Pre-Raphaelites. When the visionary artist Wiliam Blake (1757-1827) was bankrupt and forced to sell everything he owned, the one thing he kept was his print of Dürer’s portrait of Melencolia.

In the 20th century, George Bernard Shaw hung an entire wall of his apartment on Adelphi Terrace, next to the Savoy on the Thames Embankment in London, with Dürer prints. 

What if Durer had seen the whale? 

There’s no doubt that an image like that from Dürer would have influenced the way we see whales - just as his Rhinocerus changed forever how humans perceive the rhinoceros. We can know this even without a drawing, because Dürer made himself famous in ways that are unlike other artists. His reputation never takes a knock.

Prints from his woodcuts went up like posters. Printing was a technology that brought changes more profound than even the internet: Luther said that printing would drive people to the devil. Printing made the reformation happen. Dürer was a pop artist. Andy Warhol had Dürer’s praying hands carved on his gravestone. 

The importance of Dürer is very much about Europe. He forged a European aesthetic. He was the first artist to harness the printing press, which was a form of mass media, the means to achieve this huge power through art. The sense of Europe is powered by images made by humans, often anthropogenic images. This sensibility for me is very modern and very European. 

You recreate Dürer’s adventure as a kind of prequel to pop art, and other revolutions in faith and politics

Printing for Dürer wasn’t a speculative power to be realised at some point in the future. He may even have been complicit in promoting this new media technology because his godfather owned a hundred printing presses. Dürer’s most famous sequence of woodcuts in the 1500s were images of the apocalypse, keenly awaited like a CGI cinema spectacle might be today. 

Erasmus, who was living in Rotterdam, said that Dürer could do in black and white what other artists can only do in colour. Dürer knew his power. That’s why he grasped at the potency of the whale. Dürer’s own death is linked to his expedition in Zeeland: from that failure, his unfulfilled quest, comes another tragedy. In Zeeland, Dürer catches malaria. It’s that illness which eventually, very slowly, kills him.

Albert and the Whale by Philip Hoare is published on March 4. Pre-order a copy in the Netherlands here.

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