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Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Taming the Wild Unicorn

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What springs from the imagination has wings, claws, feathers and tails. The fight with these beasts rages in the water, on the land and in the air. They don’t seem to have peaceful intentions most of the time. But does it really exist? Finely hatched muscles, gaping mouths, and three-dimensional shadowed bodies leave no doubt about their credibility.

When modern fantasy worlds are populated with digitally backed monsters, dragons, and magical beings, they are the heirs to a centuries-old tradition of growing wild animals. A cabinet of 31 etchings, woodcuts and copper engravings in the picture gallery shows which creatures flutter and crawl when the Kupferstichkabinett’s bestiarum opens its cages.

Dragon representation with shocker effect

The oldest blade from the time around 1460 works in full terrifying shock effect. The dragon, hand-colored in bilious green, stares at you with his giant eye, close-up. He has already caught the corner of Margarete’s robe with his teeth.

But the Blessed Virgin who wants to eat sits on her back as on a mountain: victorious with the help of God. In the atavistic struggle between good and evil, mythical beasts often take the negative side. The depictions leave no doubt that Saint George retains the upper hand and that Hercules naturally outmatches the many-headed Hydra.

Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” provided the script

But the result is not always so clear. Nightmarely drastic, the Mannerist Hendrick Goltzius describes how the teeth of a beast pierce the face of a companion of King Cadmos’s son. Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” provided the script. A pleasant chill was calculated for connoisseurs of art when contemplating the edifying representations in the virtuoso black and white of the prints. Bloody representations are not a privilege of modernity.

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The unicorn savagely bursts into Jean Duvet’s pictorial scene, which is full of fighters, around 1555. Many are already wounded, but no one can defeat him. A delicate representation of the Virgin shows that, according to legend, only a virgin can achieve this.

He holds the animal like a noble lapdog, tame despite his outstretched horn. The example of the griffin shows how ancient creatures spread in the pictorial fantasies of Christian times.

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The proud hybrid creature with the head of an eagle and the body of a lion comes from ancient Egyptian mythology. European rulers put it on their shields and coats of arms as a symbol of power. Dutchman Wenzel Hollar describes this species in a naturalistic way amid precisely labeled herbs and plants. It was still believed to exist in the 17th century.

The “Book of Nature” was simply – a thick 15th-century illustrated reference work you flip through – stocked with the most impossible creatures. In the woodcut there are also mermaids posing among all kinds of vipers and vipers, that is, hybrid creatures with the head of a woman, wings and the body of a snake.

Feminine power and demonism

The unholy alliance of sensual feminine power and diabolical demons intensifies in San Antonio’s dogfight against the forces of temptation. In a panoramic hidden object image from the Netherlands from 1522, the worst illusions come together. Discovering them all on the meticulously crafted sheet is not just a glance.

In the 18th century, the safari through the kingdom of imaginary animals ends. For Swiss graphic artist Johann Rudolf Schellenberg, they only serve as caricatures of human quirks and peculiarities. All the demons seem to have been expelled from them by enlightenment. But the offspring of fantasy are far from having exhaled their wild breath. Anyone who falls asleep can meet them.


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