Possibly anticipating high demand, Dürer rendered the image as a woodcut rather than an engraving, which allowed for faster reproduction and distribution. A large edition of 4000-5000 prints was revolutionary at this time in print history.
In 2013 a copy of the woodcut was sold for $866,500 at Christie’s in New York today, setting an auction record for the print. In 2020 the sixth state of the print, was sold for $81,250.
From: Fritha Langerman. 2015. Durer’s rhino: five centuries of an elusive representation. In Impact 9 International Printmaking Conference. China Academy of Art Press: Hangzhou.
Just over five-hundred-years ago, Albrecht Dürer produced his famous woodcut of the rhino, Ganda. This narrative is one of surface and depth, of territories and conquest, borders and passage. Believed to be the most amphibious of all rhino species, the Indian rhino may have been better adjusted to its long sea journey than others. It arrived in Lisbon on 20 May 1515, the first of two aquatic voyages. In the first the animal was housed beneath the deck, hidden and weighty, while on the second – as a gift from Emmanuel I to Pope Leo X in Rome – it was strapped above the deck: a triumphal prow head. Its body is said to have washed ashore in January 1516 when, trapped by its chains as the boat sank near Porto Venere, it was unable to keep its head above water. Moving between oceans, through depths and layers of visibility, the rhinoceros emerges as an image. Just as the interruption of the surface is necessary for a relief print to become manifest – the submerged incisions holding agency and meaning, so too was Ganda consigned to aquatic depths only to emerge later as an image circulated throughout the world.
That Dürer’s image became so ubiquitous and so much sited as a typical specimen is ironic, given its fanciful nature. Scholars agree that it is unlikely that Durer ever saw the creature, and that his initial drawing was based on a sketch and description of an unknown Nuremberg artist. A rhino had not been encountered in Europe since the 4th century, and during this interim it had gained status as an imaginary beast – an image of invention. Associated with the unicorn of medieval bestiaries, it was interpreted as a symbol of sin and ferocity: a beast that could only be lured into submission by virgins, and yet able to be overcome by the power of the divine and thereby changed. As Dürer never actually saw the rhinoceros, his fantastical interpretation of the reinforced these perceptions, with its second dorsal horn and exaggerated plicae of the skin, the enduring image of the animal as transformative – between armoury and beast, between reality and invention – was established. As Susan Dackerman writes of Dürer’s engraving “the image embodies and enacts the pervasive tension between nascent developments in empirical investigation of subjects from nature and the emergence of artistic practices that articulate the nature of representation itself” (2011: 165) – the print as positioned between invention, imagination and observation.
Dackerman (2011: 170) calls Dürer’s print a “fantastical index” – an oxymoron that suggests order and control as well as inviting the imagination. Without direct observation the print relied on skill and technique, and as much as it was an image of a rhino it was also self-reflexively concerned with the nature of print. The embossed surface of the printed paper is akin to textured rhino hide; the rhino’s body is constructed from a series of plates, interrupted by deep fissures in the surface, thus evoking the wooden engraved matrix; the horn is a type of burin, a tool of incision, of marking, of implied violence to the surface. The composition of the print too is a constant reminder of its construction. The frame tightly crops the rhino’s form and the shallow perspective is enclosed by this constricted format. The scale of the animal is enhanced by its proximity to the frame – a window and measure of control and distance. Ropes and chains are ubiquitous in future representations based on Dürer’s print – tethered and tamed by print conventions the rhino is both a prisoner and sacrifice, celebratory and commemorative: a transitional animal, moving between states – water and land, knowledge and ingenuity.
Dackerman, S (ed). 2011. Prints and the pursuit of knowledge in early modern Europe. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard Art Museums.