A View of a View

Marina Warner

Melchior Lorck went to Turkey in 1555 at the height of Suleiman the Magnificent’s power, when the Ottoman Empire stretched from Algeria to the west, Mecca to the south, Baghdad to the east and the River Don to the north, adjoining – and often aggressing – the Habsburgs’ own colossal empire. Suleiman had besieged Vienna twice and, though he had retreated, the threat remained. No artist captured the awesome majesty of the Ottoman sultan as Lorck did in his portraits of Suleiman, while his panorama of the city of Constantinople, more than 11 metres long, remains a wonder of High Renaissance art, for its architectural detail, delicate graphic patterning and the graceful play of wind-filled sails in the Golden Horn.

Until the publication of this huge catalogue raisonné (there is a fifth and final volume to come), Lorck’s work remained in the drawers and cabinets of museum collections. There are very few surviving paintings and they are widely scattered; there has never been a major exhibition of or monograph about his work until now, and his own efforts to bring his graphic work into print failed and failed again. Few original drawings survive; instead they are reproduced in woodcuts for which Lorck did not do all the cutting or engraving. His work is wildly uneven, and so varied in manner that Erik Fischer, who has looked at it more assiduously than anyone alive, believes that nothing can be confidently attributed to Lorck unless it is signed. This doesn’t quite convince: whatever he looked at, Lorck looked at in a peculiar way.

One bundle of drawings, which the diarist John Evelyn owned, was split up and sold at auction in 1966 – the compilers of this catalogue have been advertising rather forlornly in the art trade press for news of their whereabouts. The catalogue is Fischer’s life’s work. Many have worried about what seemed to be a Casaubon-like operation, and tried to hurry him along – Fischer was born in 1920 – but finally, with the help of two younger art historians, Ernst Jonas Bencard and Mikael Bøgh Rasmussen, the work of this eclectic and eccentric artist can now be explored. These handsome volumes comprise every known print and every extant document related to Lorck’s wandering life. But there are some problems: the English renderings are often awkward, with bizarre choices of terminology throughout, and the documents are presented in ‘paraphrase’ rather than translated from the original languages. One crucial piece of evidence, Lorck’s so-called ‘autobiographical letter’, was much better translated 20 years ago by Fischer for a small booklet.

Tortoise above the Venetian lagoon, 1555
Tortoise above the Venetian lagoon, 1555

Lorck was born in Flensburg in Schleswig-Holstein, which was then under Danish control, in 1526 or 1527. Named by his well-to-do family after one of the Magi (his brothers were called Casper and Balthasar), Melchior was slender and angelic looking (if his self-portrait is accurate), well educated, peripatetic and versatile. He trained as a goldsmith in Lübeck, and was polished in Italy on a Grand Tour subsidised by the Danish king. He liked to turn his hand to all kinds of art: portraits, maps, prospects, engineering charts, medals, triumphal arches, emblems, calligraphy, heraldry, bestiaries, religious caricature and propaganda. In demand all over Europe, patronised by kings and emperors, he was a footloose cosmopolitan, anxious to advance: he enjoyed adding exquisite curlicues to his family coat of arms.

Born just before Dürer died, Lorck drew a severe portrait of his great predecessor. He emulated Dürer’s close scrutiny of his subjects, but he also had a quirky, even comic imagination and a taste for odd juxtapositions and discrepancies of scale. In a superb sketch in chalk on blue paper, held in the prints and drawings collection of the British Museum, a large tortoise is placed on the sheet as if paddling through the air above the Venetian lagoon. Lorck added the sly inscription, ‘Made in Venice from Life’, as if daring the viewer to see the colossal creature flying overhead, a reptilian version of the Rukh, the huge raptor from The Arabian Nights who lifts Sinbad, but is also capable of carrying off an elephant.

Gothic, baroque, Kafkaesque, surrealist: the terms are tied to certain makers and writers and apply to specific epochs and styles, making it possible to place their characteristic works – whether a rose window or a razored eye – within definite historical bounds. But the terms have also come to designate something far less chronologically precise; like other aesthetic categories – grotesque, macabre, carnivalesque, magical realist – they denote a mood, an approach to form and content. Sometimes an artist or writer will materialise out of the forgettings of the past and, like a figure walking towards us in a haze, begin to gain definition, subtly altering what seemed an established category. Once Kafka had appeared, his precursors fell into a recognisable family group across time and geography – as Borges proposes in his marvellous essay. Lorck is one of these oddities, with elective affinities to a Gothic sensibility like Henry Fuseli’s and to the shadowed empty spaces of de Chirico, and even the eerie objectivity of photographers like Atget and Sander.

In a rare essay on Lorck’s drawings from 1955, Peter Ward-Jackson noticed ‘the hallucinatory quality’ of his work, ‘the morbid trend of his imagination’ and ‘his predilection for the weird and the sinister’. Lorck practised bizarre conjunctions and often communicates a cold absorption in his subjects – they are accurate in every detail but rigid and puppet-like. Breton could well have installed him in Surrealism’s pantheon alongside the wild talents, child poets, Enlightenment libertines, Boschian drolleries and classical grotesques.

The first work by Lorck that caught my eye was a small print that shows an Oriental scene, with a tall young man seen in profile wrapped in a cloak and with a steepling turban on his head; behind him, drawn in such a way as to flatten depth and perspective, stands a ziggurat with curls of smoke billowing out, positioned to make a sly rhyme with the man’s towering headgear. He’s probably a Zoroastrian, like the dark magicians vilified for their worship of fire in The Arabian Nights, whose characteristic turbans may be an origin of the wizard’s hat in children’s books. Lorck likes treating the human subject as a form equal in interest to a building or some other inanimate object, and such juxtapositions run throughout his work. When I saw the print I found the unusual subject striking enough, but the proto-Surrealist joke was a real surprise.

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