Monday, August 03, 2009

Hare

Here is the most famous bunny in the Western World. No, not the most famous; that would be Peter Rabbit or Bugs. And it's not a bunny. It's a young hare. The most famous young hare in the Western World. Rendered in gouache and watercolor by Albrecht Durer in 1502.

A cusp of history, a watershed, a turning point.

Before the hare, representational art pointed to something beyond the thing depicted. The animals on the cave walls at Lascaux invoked the magical forces of the hunt. Classical sculpture depicted emperors and gods and famous battles; it was meant to inspire awe and civic virtue. Church art of the Middle Ages directed the viewer's attention to a supernatural realm. Medieval bestiaries were allegorical; the hare's alertness and speed were symbols of Christian vigilance and the need to flee from sin.

Durer's hare is a hare. It stands for nothing but itself. No allegories, no metaphors, no symbolism. Precise observation of a present natural reality.

Within decades, Vesalius would be dissecting the human body, Agricola dissecting the earth, Copernicus dissecting the sky. No longer was the natural world a glass through which one viewed a more resplendent supernatural world darkly. The natural world became itself a reality worthy of the artist's and scientist's full attention.