RSS RSS feed | Atom Atom feed

Eye of the Beholder

The current issue of Zoo View, the Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens' membership magazine, includes an article by Paul Gachot about the history of animals in art. After I read this article, I found myself thinking again about Oudry's animal portraits and pondering why we humans make images of animals.

Long before copyright law and proprietary regulations, human cultures around the world imposed social taboos on creating certain images, and many of these still exist. Adherents of religions based on Old Testament laws are forbidden to make "graven images" of people, and in a wide range of non-industrial indigenous cultures around the world photographs and pictorial representations of people are taboo because it's believed that capturing the image also captures the essence or spirit of the individual. Often this extends to restrictions on using a person's name. One art professor I knew pointed out that writing is nothing more than a highly specialized form of drawing, so it follows that a name is as powerful as an image, and even in pre-literate cultures, naming something or someone carries the same symbolic meaning as creating an image.

In his Zoo View article, Paul Gachot traces the history of animals in art, beginning, naturally, with the famous cave paintings at Lascaux, France. According to his article, the images in the caves are carefully grouped: "Horses, bison, and the now-extinct aurochs (or "wild ox") appear in the greatest numbers and are always featured in the best viewing spots. Deer, mammoth, and ibex make up the next grouping and are situated near the first group. The final grouping—lions and rhinos and bears—is typically buried deep in the caves apart from the other imagery."

Thinking about the arrangement of these magical paintings in relation to the power of symbols in human culture made me wonder whether, in creating those haunting images, our distant ancestors were trying to capture the spirits of those animals. Perhaps they represent our earliest attempts to control the creatures around us? Those closest, in plain view, include the ancestors of some of our most valued domestic animals—horses and cows. The next grouping is comprised of animals that were probably valued in terms of food but remain wild. And the last group, dangerous animals that could easily kill or maim us, is the furthest away as if by placing these images in the remotest parts of the cave it would keep them at bay in the "real" world.

As you move through human history, the style of animal imagery and the media that conveys it changes, but the images still reflect our fundamental relationships with our fellow creatures. The impulse to capture the spirit of animals has never disappeared, and the history of art around the world is full of vibrant examples of images that convey the nature of the beasts around us, yet as the language of symbols became more complex we learned to manipulate these images to serve our own purposes. Over time people moved from making animal images that are about the animals to making images of animals that are really about us. This is clear if you explore the illuminated manuscripts that are part of the Medieval Beasts exhibit, but it's also true of the age of Enlightenment.

Demoiselle Crane, Toucan, Tufted Crane / Oudry Prince Friedrich von Mecklenburg-Schwerin / Oudry
Detail of Demoiselle Crane, Toucan, and Tufted Crane showing tufted crane, Jean-Baptiste Oudry, 1745, oil on canvas, Staatliches Museum Schwerin Crown Prince Friedrich von Mecklenburg-Schwerin, Jean-Baptiste Oudry, 1739, oil on canvas, Staatliches Museum Schwerin
Though Jean-Baptiste Oudry's Painted Menagerie offers a more naturalistic representation of the animals than the medieval manuscripts, the portraits (which follow all the conventions of the day for these types of paintings) subtly anthropomorphize the subjects. The African crowned crane (as it is know today) in Demoiselle Crane, Toucan, and Tufted Crane echoes the portrait of Crown Prince Friedrich von Mecklenburg-Schwerin.

Male Leopard / Oudry  
Male Leopard (detail), Jean-Baptiste Oudry, 1741, oil on canvas, Staatliches Museum Schwerin  

Likewise, the male and female leopards are rendered with stunning accuracy in terms of fur and claw and tooth, but the overall gestures are human. Note the coy lilt of the female's back foot and her softer, "feminine" (and oddly doe-eyed) expression versus the rippling, assertive "manliness" of the male. In actuality, (unlike lions) there is no notable sexual dimorphism in leopards. Rather than attempting to conjure up the wild essence of these creatures, these paintings ennoble them by humanizing them. This is admirable in that it attempts to present a more respectful view of the animals, but it does so only by diluting their animal nature. However, this is again part of the idiom. The static, idealized image of the Crown Prince is undoubtedly no more true to his nature than the menagerie.
Female Leopard / Oudry  
Female Leopard (detail), Jean-Baptiste Oudry, 1741, oil on canvas, Staatliches Museum Schwerin  

But if you venture into the collection of Oudry's drawings, you will see images that hearken back to the caves. Since many of these were studies made as preliminaries to paintings, they have a spontaneous feel and seem more devoted to capturing the fleeting essence of the creatures in their own "language" rather than translating that essence into formal gestures that communicate human values. In contemplating the last moments of the dying duck, the fierce emotion of the fearful fox, or the calm demeanor of the domestic horse casually regarding its human observer, we can commune with the primeval spirit inside us.

Re: Eye of the Beholder

The cave paintings were done with some artistic flair, draughtsmanship worthy of modern comparison, so we know that these people were just not some clumsy troglodytes. However, as to their level of conceptualization, I would consider that they lacked any sort of disinterested understanding of the forces around them. In a way, these cave paintings reified the deep fears about the capriciousness of nature. You may be correct in saying, that the visual-objectification of the animal images, helped shaped a visual vocabulary whereby the early people could symbolically govern their deep-seated fears. Calling forth for plentiful herds and cornering predators into the deepest parts of the cave may be an early form of magico-symbolic form of practice, which gave the hunters hope and dashed away the lingering fears in their unconscious.... I think we will really know- even if we were transported back into time and asked them.... "...if a lion had a language and could speak, I doubt we would even understand him...." Wittgenstein.

Add a comment | Send a TrackBack