Sunday, May 26, 2013

Dürer’s Sea Monster

I can just see the headlines: "NOBLE LADY ABDUCTED BY SEA MONSTER – Authorities Baffled”! As well they might be, for as with those two fantastic figures of Death and the Devil which escort the fearless knight in Albrecht Dürer’s other masterpiece [1]engraving, the artist once more has provided us with a fantastic being so credible in his detail that we doubt his non-existence. This triton or merman, with his growth of horn, his turtle shell shield and his scaley tail, positively bristles with self-assured confidence. And he looks wily and sly enough to know exactly how to go about carrying off fair maidens to the depths of his watery realm.


The scene provides us with enough incidental detail for us to piece together what has taken place: a lady – her elaborate headdress (above) suggests her social status – while bathing in an estuary near the sea shore, is being abducted by the fish-tailed merman. To the left, three other bathing women (below) hastily retreat to the safety of dry land while a fourth woman swoons in horror on the shore. Next to them a running man in a [2]turban raises his hands in a gesture of startled helplessness. One feels nevertheless that given the chance of a face-to-face encounter, the man, even armed with his sword, would be no match for this cunning and grizzle-bearded hybrid, and the lady’s fate seems sealed.


What makes the scene so intriguing, so mischievous, are the conflicting signals which the lady is giving out. Dürer suggests little outward show of resistance by her to the astonishing fate which has overtaken her. Her vaguely anguished expression is, if anything, contradicted by her body language; her right hand rests languidly across her naked hip, while her left almost brushes the creature’s genitals, and she seems to recline at her ease on the back of her fantastic abductor with as much aplomb as she would were she safely at home relaxing on a chaise longue. It is this which makes us feel that the regret in her face is only token as she leaves the receding shore forever and rides off to her new life aquatic.


Dürer has divided his composition into two halves: the top half provides us with a classic landscape of a walled town dominated from the heights by a castle (above). In the distance a ship, its sails billowing, beats its way along the coast towards the horizon. This part of the scene seems peaceful enough, but it is the lower half of the composition that brims with action, and thrusts us into the centre of the drama which unfolds before us.


The pace of the monster’s progress is indicated by the foaming wake that streams away from himself and his human prize, and Dürer has used the line of the cliffs in the background to mirror this, creating a kind of left-to-right bow wave of motion (above) from the top to the bottom of the entire scene which gives the composition its tangible dynamism. We ourselves feel irresistibly swept along on this wave, with the creature’s shield forming the prow, and it is the artist’s genius which sets it all in motion.


Art critics usually cite The Knight, Death and the Devil, Saint Jerome in his Study and Melancholia as Dürer’s engraved masterpieces. But as an image of unexplained strangeness and power - and mischievous charm - [3]The Sea Monster resonates in the mind as surely as these.
Hawkwood


Artist: Albrecht Dürer
Work: The Sea Monster, 1498
Medium: Engraving
Location: San Francisco Museum of Fine Arts, and other collections housing this print.

Notes:
[1] Please see my post The Knight, Death and the Devil

[2] Just as all things Chinese became fashionable and influenced the arts in the 19th-century, fanciful and exotic Middle Eastern styles became the thing in Dürer’s day. The artist featured this influence several times in his work, as in this Turkish family (left).

[3] My blog aims to provide the best quality scans of the various artworks featured. Please note that this image of The Sea Monster is high resolution, and may take time to download with a slow connection. The second image from the top in this post is an actual size detail taken from this scan. For the same reason, wherever possible I include the borders (however irregular!) of the original engravings: borders which are almost always cropped off even in quality art books which feature such engravings. I like to 'do the right thing' by the artist, and if the border is a part of the engraving then it should be included.