The changing role of animals in art is the theme of the latest exhibition to open this weekend at Carnegie Museum of Art.
Titled “Fierce Friends,” it explores how the visual arts drew upon science, natural history and literature about animals in the 18th and 19th centuries, and how those fields, in turn, were shaped, inspired or influenced by the work of artists.
Featuring more than 200 animal-centric art objects such as paintings, sculptures, prints, porcelains, drawings, photographs and illustrated books, the exhibition is grouped loosely around five themes that explore the different roles traditionally held by animals in the eyes of man: “Property of the Human Race,” “Beauties of Nature,” “Mysteries of Life,” “Creatures of the Imagination” and “Mirrors.”
“They are themes that rose out of the art,” says Carnegie Museum of Art curator Louise Lippincott. “These were the themes that artists seemed to focus on.”
Five years in the making, the exhibition was co-organized by Lippincott and Andreas Bluhm, former head of exhibition and display for the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and current director of Wallraf-Richartz-Museum Cologne, Germany. The pair first worked together on the successful multidisciplinary exhibition “Light!” that went on display at the Carnegie in the spring of 2001.
The “Fierce Friends” exhibition initially was presented at the Van Gogh Museum in the fall, and Pittsburgh’s iteration will be its only other presentation. And although it is similar in many ways, having much of the same objects, here the show is augmented with more than 150 objects borrowed from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Many are fossils, skeletons and taxidermy specimens that have been in storage for decades and rarely seen by the public.
That means each of the many elaborately illustrated bird books on display will be accompanied by a taxidermic specimen for comparison.
Pointing to the 20 or so ornithological works from the 18th century on display, each with the appropriate bird next to the page that includes it, Lippincott says: “These are some of the most beautiful, lavish books ever made in which art and science are intertwined.”
She says there has long been a mutual interdependence between science and art, scientific investigation and artistic development.
“In the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, when scientists made a discovery, the only way for them to record that discovery was to have an artist draw it. Basically, even now science can’t develop without artists,” she says.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, the relationship between the human and animal kingdoms changed profoundly as a result of the Industrial Revolution, the discovery of dinosaur bones and fossils, and the spread of Darwin’s theory of evolution.
Thus, included among early depictions of dinosaurs are several drawings by British sporting artist George Stubbs (1724-1806) that offer an illustrative comparison between the skeleton of a man and that of a tiger. Although Stubbs’ observations obviously are a bit of a stretch, the drawings are accurate as evidenced by the tiger bones on display nearby.
However, not all of the animals depicted are exact. In fact, Lippincott says artists’ works often were based not on close personal observation but on the work of other artists that preceded them. For example, a study of a leopard painted by 18th-century French Baroque artist Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1686-1755), court painter to Louis XV, actually was painted from drawn studies by a 17th-century artist who was hired by the Gobelin tapestry works to create leopard designs for tapestries for the collection of Louis XIV.
Like that work, Lippincott says, “A great many of these 18th-century pictures found are not always based on the study of a live animal. They can be based on other drawings, or on skins or on conserved parts of the animal, because these animals were still so rare in Europe that most people had never seen them.”
One 18th-century work that stands out is very much an accurate depiction. Pietro Loghi’s (1702-1783) painting of “Clara,” a real rhinoceros who toured the capitals of Europe in the 1750s, depicts the famous beer-swilling rhino minus its horn, which it rubbed off during its travels. Lippincott says of Clara, “She was born in India, hand raised and then sold to a Dutch sea captain, who brought her to Europe and literally for 10 years traveled her all around Europe as a money-making curiosity.”
Unlike Clara, exotic animals shipped back to Europe at this time usually died in transit, if not shortly after arrival. This meant that, aside from early short-lived, straw-stuffed efforts of taxidermy — a practice that wasn’t really perfected until the 20th century — the average person had little opportunity to see exotic animals first hand until the establishment of the first zoos, such as one in Paris in 1793 and another in London in 1818.
Thus, many paintings were based only the skins of the animals or stories of the explorers who captured them. For example, an 18th-century unattributed oil painting of a giraffe depicts a gargantuan beast not unlike those of the Pleistocene era.
In fact, it wasn’t until 1827 and the arrival of the first living specimen — a Nubian giraffe sent to King George IV by the Ottoman Viceroy of Egypt — that Europeans had a real perception of what a giraffe was. A remarkably realistic painting of that animal by Swiss artist Jacques-Laurent Agasse (1767-1827) is on display here, hung opposite the former for comparison.
Curiously, the exhibition also includes the first painting of an underwater landscape, done in 1864 by Eugen Ransonnet-Villez (1838-1926). Lippincott surmises it was likely painted with the help of an early diving bell, whereby Ransonnet-Villez went underwater to sketch the subjects and later compose the painting on dry land.
Animals, of course, have many more associations to man than science, with humans often seeing themselves reflected in their furry brethren. Although interest in animal psychology began in the 18th century, by the 19th century there was a growing interest in the emotions of animals. Therefore, several works depict animals reflecting rather human characteristics, such as the painting “A Horse Frightened by Lightning” (circa 1813-1814) by French painter Theodore Gericault (1791-1824). A brilliant study of typical horse behavior, it features the steed in a back-up stance, saliva dripping from its lips below pricked ears and startled eyes.
“Dignity and Impudence” (circa 1839), a sentimental painting of two dogs by Sir Edwin Landseer (1802-73), is even more emotive. It’s just one of many paintings on display by this British animal artist who was well known for his moving images of animals.
“Someone like Landseer, for example, painted (animals) like they were human, which is why we can relate to them,” Lippincott says. “Landseer combines an acute observation of animal behavior with qualities more human in nature.”
But no matter how one relates to animals, this exhibition offers countless opportunities to visualize man’s relationship to beast through countless thought-provoking visual juxtapositions that surprise, delight and provoke, making for a complete exhibition unlike any that has come this way in quite a while.
Quite simply, it’s not to be missed.
This weekend, the worlds of art and science come together in “Fierce Friends: Artists and Animals, 1750-1900.”
The exhibition, which explores the relationships between humans — especially artists — and animals, marks the official opening of Pittsburgh Roars, a celebration involving more than 65 organizations, saluting the region’s arts, culture and family attractions.
On Sunday, these organizations join Carnegie Museums in Oakland to offer a lively, event-filled day of family fun, including the debut of the Giant Inflatable Art Project.
Commissioned by The Sprout Fund, these Giant Inflatables were designed by local artists and embody the spirit and themes of Pittsburgh Roars. Throughout 2006, these immense creations — most of which are nearly 30 feet high — will travel around Pittsburgh to mark different “Roars” venues. See them for the first time at Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History on Sunday.
All Pittsburgh Roars activities on Sunday are free with museum admission.
At 9:30 a.m., the public is invited to be a part of the official launch of Pittsburgh Roars. At the Forbes Avenue entrance of Carnegie Museum of Art, there will be live music, free coffee and donuts until supplies last, a welcome from local celebrities, family fun, and giant inflatable public art.
Inside, beginning at 10 a.m., participating organizations will offer exciting hands-on activities in the Hall of Sculpture, ranging from hands-on art-making to raffles for free and discounted event tickets. Free performances by area arts and cultural organizations, including a special Science on Stage production by Carnegie Museum of Natural History, will take place in the Hall of Architecture.
Highlights of the day:
Details: www.pittsburghroars.com . Additional Information:
‘Fierce Friends: Artists and Animals, 1750-1900’
When: Sunday through Aug. 27. Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; noon to 5 p.m. Sundays
Admission: $10; $7 for senior citizens; $6 for children and students; free for museum members and Pitt and CMU students with ID
Where: Carnegie Museum of Art, 4400 Forbes Ave., Oakland
Details: 412-622-3131 or www.cmoa.org
What: Join ‘Fierce Friends’ curators Louise Lippincott and Andreas Bluhm as they focus on the question that is at the heart of the exhibit: ‘When looking at animals, what do we see?’ Then stick around until 10 p.m. for a preview of the exhibition and reception with cash bar that follows the lecture.
When and where: 7 p.m. Friday at Carnegie Music Hall