The Beetle of Dürer


by Leslie Wexler

TORONTO – “Who am I?” inquires the beetle. Brain and eyes interpret pleasure and revulsion at once from unfelt textures that brush against and grip the surface. The mighty stag is delivered to the viewer out of seemingly nothing. It floats frozen in the element of air. You drift back and forth between the legs, the antennae and the “antlers.” Those hairy legs.

No one prior to Albrecht Dürer in our Western memory ever put a beetle before the viewer this way.

stick insect.jpg

Picture in your mind’s eye a canvas in which all of life’s diversity figures into the content on the canvas. If space on the canvas were devoted to each organism, 53% of the canvas would be covered with insects. As a point of comparison, 0.3% would be covered with mammals and 0.6% would represent birds. If we stop to consider the raw number of individual species of insects that are underfoot or in your space, we face a staggering estimate of about ten quintillion life forms. (1 followed by 30 zeros). Yet, in spite of this proliferation of life, in October 2017, The Guardian reported that an entire ecosystem of beetles is collapsing in Germany. Citing a research report by entomologists Caspar Hallmann and Martin Sorg and associates, they register a 75% decrease in flying insects since 1989. Does it even matter?

Surely, in the cultural memory insects have and continue to triumph as a species known for surviving for hundreds of millions of years in every habitat except the ocean. Their success at life is unparalleled. Ask any apocalyptic fan of dystopic futures, and they will say, “Insects will survive us,” which makes their disappearance all the more alarming. Insects evoke emotions, and Dürer’s beetle records an historical moment with a beetle, a now disappearing group in Germany.

It seems worthwhile to spend time focusing attention upon this how we celebrate and vilify insects in art. This article engages two experiences with insect art: Albrecht Dürer and Guillermo del Toro’s exhibit, At Home with Monsters with an eye, not towards critique, but from the sensory experience of the insect with an eye towards its disappearance from the planet.

Dürer’s Beetle 

The artist picked up a pencil and brought this life into a fine crosshatched shadow of existence. The viewer sits and watches. Segments of sensations are at a moment’s command are ready to spring into action. Ready and willing to exterminate. Desire without fear. But this life only gestures at movement. Sight, not life, springs into a palpable fragility – all the result of the thinnest brush; a single drop of inky water; the pencil’s shading.

Why does that underlying drop shadow so haunt this image for me? Could this beetle see us, it would surely blaze out the streak of a comet. But it faces away, never turning to “face down” in spite of its clutch of antlers, that crown of dominance leading you into the grips of its vagina teeth. In spite of it all there is a fragility in the body, its legs only the gentle stream of water and ink pulled into a hind leg. We watch from behind, from the shadows, watching unwatched. The observer and the shadow.

Dürer is credited with the quote: “It is indeed true that art is omnipresent in nature, and the true artist is he who can bring it out.” This is the beetle’s coming out. This is what it means to walk on air. The ground tantalizing beneath your six legs. Beetle as studio model; the nude, to be drawn – from life. The aliveness is absolutely necessary. Why must something be kept alive, drawn alive, even in death? The chord of desire is struck. I examine this specimen so as to bring out its life its art and refuse its death its life? From life but safely, not alive.

wall exhibit at at home with monsters

Wall from the AGO exhibition “At home with monsters”

It is no longer Dürer’s 1505. It is 2011, and I am the gaze. A familiar gaze. Observing pins and the shadow if the dead body of a once green (now golden) stick insect floats above nothing and spread eagle in its logic.
These were some of my thoughts as I viewed “At Home with Monsters – Guillermo del Toro” at the Art Gallery of Ontario in early December. I had recently completed an entire year of writing about little else besides insects in the sixteenth century.

This was the way I entered del Toro’s exhibit.

Libraries of ideas materialize in the exhibition space to show us the imaginative space of a creator, wrenched from circulation and put on view for the observer. The eye examining his collections as they grow into life-sized models of nightmares, scientific instruments displayed behind glass, a wall of gauche comic book covers, frightful sketches, “bursting” bodies captured on video, illuminated manuscripts, jarred specimens, crypts, and magic coffins. All spaces of creative generation, creepy horror of innocence locked in night terrors. It is the kind of shadow that lurks around hospital beds. The kind of death that haunts the back of your mind as you count back the years where you live and how many corpses the space of a house might witness. Del Toro is preternaturally attuned to that lurking specter embodied in physical structures. He asks us to contemplate “the vampire- like mosquito, its tube-like mouth parts perfectly and exclusively designed for piercing flesh, sucking blood.”

Del Toro demands my attention and directs it as often as possible toward this disarming life that will eat its young in a threatening instant. But I’m drifting and adrift amidst delicate contours, following the gestures of a wasp, my attention rapt and musing amongst its many hairy legs.

beast of burden                plodding hooves
Pre-Cambrian                   hairy legs
ice world                           face against                    a white storm
fur-lined                            between the lines
shoulders broad              ready to carry                its meaning


Those wonder-fully hairy legs, borne from fantasy into monsters; the brush and grip of the finest filaments of hair felt on the skin and registered as real as the threat of death – all the result of a pencil’s shading.

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