Edmund de Waal meets Albrecht Dürer
By Magdalena Polak
The Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna (KHM) started a new series of exhibitions in 2012 of internationally respected artists to curate an exhibition, selecting their personal favourites of the museum’s vast collection. This project allows the viewer to experience art from the artist’s point of view, and one will find the exhibition’s outlook to be slightly different from those curated by art historians.
This year the museum has invited Edmund de Waal, author of The Hare with the Amber Eyes, who, apart from having been awarded various prices for his books, is also a ceramist and artist. At the invitation of the museum, the author has borrowed from seven different collections of the KHM; the Picture Gallery, Greek and Roman Antiquities, the Kunstkammer, the Imperial Treasury, Historical Musical Instruments, the Library and the collection of Ambras Castle, former residence of Archduke Ferdinand II.
The exhibition is remarkable because he didn’t approach it as an art historian, identifying and presenting works of art that represent a specific period or style. Nor was it that of an artist who interrelated past and present. It seems de Waal’s purpose was to propose a new way of looking at these remarkable objects by presenting them out of context in which they are usually presented.
In doing so, de Waal offers a personal reinterpretation of the past, allowing the viewer to also get a glimpse into his own mind. After visiting the exhibition a couple of weeks ago, through some of De Waal’s selected work that I have found especially marking or where De Waal’s interpretation has offered me an entirely different insight into the works.
Dream of Vision by Albrecht Durer
On the night of 7 June 1525, Albrecht Dürer suffered a terrible nightmare. The next day, he attempted to record his nightmare in watercolour and added a detailed description of it. On the watercolour we can see a heavy rain descending upon a landscape that is almost completely void. This is a translation of what Dürer recorded on the bottom of the watercolour:
“I had this vision in my sleep, and saw how many great waters fell from heaven. The first struck the ground about four miles away from me with such a terrible force, enormous noise and splashing that it drowned the entire countryside. (…) And the ensuing downpour was huge. Some of the waters fell some distance away and some close by. And they came from such a height that they seemed to fall at an equally slow pace. But the very first water that hit the ground so suddenly had fallen at such velocity, and was accompanied by wind and roaring so frightening, that when I awoke my whole body trembled and I could not recover for a long time.”
And this is Edmund de Waal’s personal interpretation of the work:
“You wake up and don’t know where you are. A plain, low hills and fields. Somewhere from childhood. And the heavens have opened and the waters are coming down, the waters are coming towards YOU. It is the apocalypse. The world is turned upside down. You can hardly breathe. During the night you are exposed. In the Kunsthistorisches I feel exposed. These are the last days of mankind”.
This was the work which starts the exhibition. The link to childhood is especially interesting, I think. No matter your age (some might even say because of your age), childhood fears and traumas catch up with you. They never go away.
Portrait of a Lady by Lucas Cranach the Younger
Though the identity of the sitter is unknown, with a curtain added at a later date to hide the crest on the portrait, Cranach depicted the Lady with idealised features, as well as establishing a respectful distance between the viewer and the subject, created mainly through her formal posture, thus establishing her importance in 16th century society. While I was mesmerised by the embroidery of her sleeves upon looking at this painting, de Waal’s interpretation drew my attention to the shadow lurking behind her, which I had completely overlooked. Here is what he writes:
“Her hands are folded, just so. It has taken the maids several hours to dress her, arrange the folds and pleats, draw the sleeves over her arms, plait her hair, pin her hat. She sits and looks at us. Her shadow looks at her”
Memento mori. Death is imminent.
Devil in a Glass, German
This tiny artefact contains the figure of a devil enclosed in glass. It was added to the collection of Archduke Leopold Wilhelm in 1659. By 1720, it was in the Treasury in Vienna and described as “a spiritus familiaris in a glass that was driven out of one possessed and banned to this glass”. This artefact was therefore collected and regarded as evidence of a successful exorcism. My personal reaction was pure astonishment upon seeing this artefact. Why would anyone collect such a grotesque and morbid object and add it to a precious collection filled with the rarest gemstones and technical innovations? De Waal answered my question.
“As Sigmund Freud reflected, “No one who, like me, conjures up the most evil of those half-tamed demons that inhabit the human beast, and seeks to wrestle with them, can expect to come through the struggle unscathed.” Keep your devils in close sight”
De Waal’s interpretation offers an insight into the artist’s own personal reception of the most fascinating objects. Tracing new lines of thought around the context in which they were created, he also managed to bring back the feeling of uncanniness that a 16th century viewer would have felt upon viewing these artefacts. I left with goose bumps.
 Sharp Jasper, De Waal Edmund, Edmund de Waal meets Albrecht Dürer, Introduction to the Exhibition. Leaflet. 2016. KHM