For a time, Albrecht leaves aside woodcuts and oils, saints and angels, and the body of the Christ. Fleeing plague in Nuremberg, the closed ghettoes, the cold Northern towns, a dour winter, he treks to Italy. Here is raw subject matter, he decides, the sort that exists outside the limits prescribed by patrons. And here the air is sultry, and the heat is sensual. What is matters here as much as what will be.
Crossing the Alps with a knapsack containing essentials—food, a notebook, parchment paper, his watercolour paints—Albrecht is astounded at what can be discovered outside a studio. Such vistas, such forests and lakes. Incandescent sunsets. Such blazing light.
He sketches as he walks, thinks as he sketches, his notes in ink and paint recording a greater range of the material world than he’d previously thought possible. There are the varieties of grass, weeds on the roadside, wild flowers, shrubs and trees accustomed to a warmer atmosphere. Altogether, without the eyes of the church spying over his shoulder, it feels as though he has been returned to how it was when he was a child, sketching on the run, anything, everything, the smallest seed, a fern curl, a pine cone, tree bark.
Later, after an apprenticeship in Venice, the rank scent of the canals in summer, the discipline of dry point, the inspiration of Bellini, the end of plague, he comes home, North, the fever of the south in his eye and brain and heart. This time, he begins commission work, the sort with pay attached, with respectability: a piece entitled Lamentation of Christ. The mountains he has travelled won’t be easily forgotten, the earth he tramped across is still stuck in his fingernails. The peasants and burghers of towns he has passed by crowd around his Gothic-pale mourners, his corpse-white Christ.
And indeed, it is like struggling with a corpse for three years, on and off. The sense of deprivation is magnified by the sense of having lost the scope and measure of distance and out-rolling land, the mesh and lace of grass rubbed between his fingers, the scent of the sun on the spongy earth. Instead, studio-bound, his days and nights are akin to the eye-splitting work of the artisan carpenter, etching wood after midnight to build the most elaborate coffin.
Sometimes he leaves off, takes to the forests, the open fields. He is like Orpheus or St. John the Baptist when he dozes under the trees. The birds and animals peep out, break cover, pose. He grows tired of crosses, robes, stigmata, the crown of thorns. His mind turns to the blue roll of sky, the knotted thickets of trees, the grass itself.
When he is outdoors he sketches to feel free again, and to rediscover ordinary things. A clod of earth, for instance. This, he decides, is something material, something that can be picked up and examined. It is as worthy of attention as anything else that might be painted.
He lugs the clod home, enjoys hefting the weight of it into his studio, not to mention the fact he dug it up himself. All flesh is grass. Studying it, paints laid alongside, he sees that this random clod may be the same as any other piece of earth, in any other place and any other time, but it will never come again, not quite like this one. And never with this particular intermingling of wild flowers, these clots of seed, this arrangement of grass stems, and never again with this subtle fibrous root system, and flaking, frangible species of soil.
When he turns to this, or later to his mythic rhinoceros, or to anything that is not mankind in his pain and his terror and his sadness, he is not thinking of himself, he is not thinking of anything except the shape and line and form of things as they are.
One morning in the woods, he is dozing, not thinking, not searching, content to just glide along in rhythm with the passing clouds above. A breeze blows through the trees, carrying the scent of wild things, of moss and bark and forest water. It chills him, but it also stirs his senses. He is content to be nowhere, see nothing.
But then it happens, his revelation, his Annunciation, call it what you like.
A slim-bodied hare emerges out of the underbrush and stops still. It looks young, almost a leveret. Its body is as delicate as rabbit.
He watches it, its stillness almost as good as a deliberate pose. Who would ever presume to describe such a thing? To draw it, to paint it? To render its flesh into a testimony. There is no way of explaining how light colours the filaments of the fur on its body. He recites the colours in a broken hymn—this hare is badious, castaneous, fuscous, melichous, burnet, luteous. This hare is white.
Each hair shaft would need to carry an under-colour of slate, a sense of dapple-grey, a wash of amber beneath the grey. He wonders if it is heresy to believe this, if it is ungodly, or worse still, the devil tempting him away from his true vocation: The Lamentation.
All the while, the creature stays still for him, whether paralysed by some trepidation, or docile and dazed, he cannot speculate. He sketches, attempting to capture some facsimile of its weight and texture, its hareness.
Soon, the air shifts, the hare stirs, scents the breeze, scurries off.
Albrecht walks back to the town as a blue, Northern dusk comes down. He will fold his sketch away, so out-of-fashion, so unsuitable for any possible commission. Who will buy this image of nothing unusual, nothing sacred? It is as commonplace and ordinary as any clod of earth you might tread upon. There will be a place someday for paintings displaying carcasses on banquet tables—swan and doe and duck and leveret will recline, the lustre of their eyes not dissimilar to the lustre of a glass decanter or silver tankard or porcelain bowl.
His sketch is too much a sketch, and too little a painting, to be a part of that just yet.
But in the midst of work for Maximilian, for Cardinals, for assorted patricians, of Triumphal Arches, of St Jerome, of the Crucifixion, the artist in Durer will tire and yawn and take out his sketch mentally, touchstone for quiet moments, created for no one else besides himself.
For it is something to see a hare just born out of the moment it was painted in.
From time to time, he lays his sketch of the hare out in front of him, as fresh as the day it was first seen, its whiskers almost twitching, as living as the breath that stirred them.
David Mohan has been published in PANK, Necessary Fiction, Word Riot, SmokeLong Quarterly, Matchbook, The Seneca Review, and The Chattahoochee Review. He has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.