Arts: Seeing Is Believing ; Albrecht Durer's Images Have a Rare Authority: They Inspire Their Viewers with Confidence in Their Reality. at the British Museum's New Exhibition, TOM LUBBOCK Admires the Work of One of the Renaissance's Most Powerful Imaginations

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Albrecht Durer never saw a rhinoceros. He never saw the Devil. He never saw the end of the world. But not having seen something never daunted his confidence that he could imagine what it looked like. His image of a rhino, made in 1515 and based on not much more than hearsay, shows the creature covered in articulated armour plating. But it is achieved with such anatomical confidence - the detail of the ridging along the back of the neck is the sort of thing you'd call closely observed, if you didn't know it was entirely fictitious - that disbelief can still easily be suspended.

And, in fact, Durer's print retained an authority, a zoological authority, for a long time after the true shape of the rhinoceros was known. Likewise, the seven-headed beast of The Apocalypse. Many people have pictured that monster, in rather similar ways. But it is Durer's version that has clearly been taken from the life.

The British Museum's show, "Albrecht Durer and his Legacy", has a good practical demonstration of these realising powers at work. Durer, like his contemporaries, was interested in marvels, whether natural or supernatural - rhinos, comets, beasties, etc. And there is a page here from a German broadsheet of 1512 announcing, and crudely illustrating, a strange birth, female conjoined twins, with one body, two heads and not quite two arms each. This is Durer's source, and his response is an ink drawing, whose subtext might be: but actually, what it would have looked like is this.

Durer lived from 1471-1528. Like Michelangelo, he was a famous master in his twenties. Like Michelangelo, his reputation has never subsequently flagged. The show is mostly prints, with a good few drawings, too. It emphasises the artist as career-manager, coining his distinctive AD monogram; going to law when somebody else used it; promoting himself through self- portraiture; concentrating on prints because that's where the money was. And Durer's posthumous career, his varied artistic influence; his standing as the German national artist; his appeal to the German Romantics, and then, later, to the Nazis.

And we all still like Durer today, I guess, because he is sharp and weird and a little bit surreal. He makes odd things feel actual, and actual things feel odd. He has a slightly excessive sense of detail. His compositions are tough but not harmonious, he puts things together rather awkwardly, incongruously. He is chilly. His passionate attention to the natural world can't quite be called a deep love of the natural world. Everything is a little estranged, a little alien - and having written that word, what fantastic things Durer would have done with extraterrestrials, piecing together witness statements and clumsy sketches into extraordinarily plausible visualisations - almost his ideal subject.

Of course, there is also a more soundly spiritual taste for Durer. People sometimes have the famous drawing of the disembodied praying hands hanging on their wall, an emblem of simple faith. The drawing is in this show, and it is a wonderful drawing. Modelling in both black and white ink strokes on a mid-toned blue paper, it makes you believe that the hands are somehow there prior to the drawing, and the lines are only drawn on to their already existing forms - a miraculous materialisation that chimes with the act of prayer portrayed, the hands praying themselves into being.

There is a scientific Durer, too, who studied human proportion, and made very objective images of his own naked body, and those other miraculous drawings of a hare and a clump of grass (not in the show). He invented machines for making perspective drawings, for transferring the world to paper with strings and meshes and measured co-ordinates - completely useless machines, very difficult if not impossible to operate, but that seems to be their point. …