Say “Hello” to a 517 year old Hare

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Boris Johnson’s decision to suspend Parliament for five weeks was unlawful, the UK highest court rules. Lady Hale says, “The prorogation was void and of no effect. Parliament has not been prorogued.” Parliament therefore is to sit on Wednesday.

Now, having got this exciting news out of the way I can assure you, apart from that Boris Johnson said he will (grudgingly) accept the judgment, you are not in the wrong movie like I felt for a brief moment last night at the exclusive tour through the Albrecht Dürer Exhibition at the Albertina, earpiece tucked to my left earlobe following the guide eagerly and wondering after a while why the voice I heard through the piece was not synchronised to the movements of her lips. That’s when I realised I was in the wrong group, the wrong film, so to speak. Indeed, things can happen.

It was an especially warm welcome for the Austro-British Society by Gunther Reimoser, Country Managing Partner EY Austria during a very generous cocktail reception which was followed by the aforementioned exclusive tour through the exhibition. With nearly 140 works, the Albertina owns the world's largest and most important collection of drawings by Albrecht Dürer. The exhibition, which has been supplemented by valuable international loans, presents Dürer's drawings, prints and paintings of an awe inspiring quality. Our guide, the one whose lip movements finally matched the voice in my earphone, took us through several rooms, explained enthusiastically the many drawings, prints and paintings by this genius from Nürnberg, allowing us to stand in front of them being simply spellbound. That brings me to the centrepiece of this exhibition, der Feldhase, the Young Hare, the most prominent object, the original that can only be shown twice within any five years.

Young Hare (German: Feldhase) is a 1502 watercolour and bodycolour painting by Albrecht Dürer. (Body Colour is also known as Gouache. Gouache is more opaque than watercolour. The opaque of gouache comes from the white pigment or chalk that is added along with the coloured pigment and binder to make it less transparent.) Painted in 1502 in his workshop, it is acknowledged as a masterpiece of observational art alongside his Great Piece of Turf from the following year. The subject is rendered with almost photographic accuracy, and although the piece is normally given the title Young Hare, the portrait is sufficiently detailed for the hare to be identified as a mature specimen — the German title translates as "Field Hare" and the work is often referred to in English as the Hare or Wild Hare.

The subject was particularly challenging: the hare's fur lay in different directions and the animal was mottled with lighter and darker patches all over, Dürer had to adapt the standard conventions of shading to indicate the outline of the subject by the fall of light across the figure. Despite the technical challenges presented in rendering the appearance of light with a multi-coloured, multi-textured subject, Dürer not only managed to create a detailed, almost scientific, study of the animal but also infuses the picture with a warm golden light that hits the hare from the left, highlighting the ears and the run of hair along the body, giving a spark of life to the eye, and casting a strange shadow to the right.

Dürer lightly sketched the image and underpainted it with some washes of brown watercolour. Then he patiently built up the texture of the fur with a variety of dark and light brushstrokes in both watercolour and bodycolour. Gradually, the painting was brought to completion with the addition of a few refined details such as the whiskers and the meticulous reflection of a window in the creature's eye.

There is some debate over how Dürer accurately captured the image of the hare: he may have sketched a hare in the wild and filled in the individual details from a dead animal, or captured one and held it alive in his studio while he worked on the painting. A reflection of the window frame in the hare's eye is often cited as evidence for the theory that Dürer copied the hare from life in his workshop, but this cross-barred reflection is a technique that Dürer frequently used to add vitality to the eyes of his subjects.

Dürer used his watercolour and bodycolour studies as source material for his prints, but in The Holy Family with Three Hares the hares are modestly rendered, and in the only of his other prints to feature a hare, the 1504 copperplate engraving Adam and Eve, the hare is turning away, half-hidden behind the legs of Eve. The prominent date and Dürer monogram on the Young Hare indicate that Dürer considered it a work in its own right rather than merely a preparatory sketch. The painting engendered numerous copies: at least twelve from contemporaries are known.

Suitably primed with knowledge, thus hungry and thirsty the magnificent flying buffet by Do & Co that followed spoiled us completely and the wine flowed liberally, attentively served by our pleasant waitresses. For how long I cannot say as I left around 9 pm.

Wolfgang Geissler


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