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Beast in show: why animals rule the art world

Art began with animals – just look at Mayan jaguars, Egyptian cats and the painted bison in Lascaux. The particularly British love affair with the equestrian and canine is ingrained in its art history: see George Stubbs’ regal, romantic horses, Van Dyck’s painting of King Charles II as a child with his eponymous spaniel and Edwin Landseer’s portraits of Queen Victoria’s pets. Jacques Derrida wrote in The Animal That Therefore I Am that “the gaze called ‘animal’ offers to my sight the abyssal limit of the human”. Yet they can also be funny, satirical – cue the craze for images of dogs urinating in the corner of many 18th-century engravings. 

Cock, Interrupted, 2017, by Allison Katz © Courtesy Allison Katz and Luhring Augustine

Now creatures are taking centre stage once more, from Lydia Blakeley’s witty dogs to Allison Katz’s political cocks, passing by Dominique Knowles’ dreamy horses. Resisting kitsch, or playing with it, portrayals of animals have become a way of addressing ideas around dominance and oppression, environmental change or, simply, intimacy. And auction houses have noticed the increasing interest in painted, photographed and sculpted animals too. Sotheby’s in Paris held an animal art sale last weekend, featuring work by Peter Beard, Picasso and Francis Bacon (whose recent Man and Beast show at London’s Royal Academy also played into the theme).

Study For a Bullfight No 1, 1971 lithograph, by Francis Bacon, estimate €40,000–€60,000 © Sotheby’s/ArtDigital Studio
Giraffes in Mirage on the Taru Desert, Kenya, June 1960, 1977, by Peter Beard, sold on 22 April for €403,000 © Sotheby’s/ArtDigital Studio

“We thought it was a great opportunity to show the consistency and diversity of this iconography to our collectors,” Sotheby’s Pierre Mollfulleda explains. “From the poetic world of the Lalannes or César to the striking depictions of animals in Asian, Oceanic and African arts, to the importance of animal representations in classical art or the decorative arts of the 18th century, this sale pays tribute to the significance of animals in the global history of art.”

Untitled, 2011, by David Salle © David Salle/VAGA at ARS, NY and DACS London. Courtesy Maureen Paley, London, and Skarstedt, New York
Untitled, 2012, by David Salle © David Salle/VAGA at ARS, NY and DACS London. Courtesy Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London and Paris

American artist David Salle, who has just had a mini-retrospective of 40 years of work at The Brant Foundation in Connecticut, was first drawn to dogs as a subject by art history. “I think it was from looking at Courbet,” he recalls. “He put his dog in many of his paintings. You can tell it was a great love story.” Salle’s rectangular, stylised posed portraits of dogs sit like collage cut-outs within his compositions. “It’s like [there’s] a society of dogs that runs through the whole history of painting in the west,” he says. “After 100 years or so, portraits are just people in funny clothes, but the dogs always look like dogs, and we identify with them.”

Salle also created a series of drawings of his own adored Vizslas, Winnie and Dagmar. These sweet portraits were initially a way of preserving the dogs’ memory; they became a way to reflect the intimacy of his relationship with them (“I had to work fast – a dog will only hold still for so long”). The series is currently on hold – though that may change: “I’m debating whether or not to get another Vizsla.” 

The “dog trajectory” of emerging Yorkshire-based artist Lydia Blakeley “‘wasn’t ever intentional”, she says. For the painter, known for her works referencing contemporary internet culture, it “started out as an exercise to develop my painting, [a way to] try new techniques and to work on different scales”. Her dog pieces were initially inspired by the number of animals portrayed in London’s National Gallery: “dogs with bows, cows, horses, sheep, stags, rabbits, fish, angry cats…. I loved the character of these creatures, and it almost mirrored the way I felt I was consuming imagery of animals through the internet.” Blakeley, who is working towards solo shows at Southwark Park Galleries and Niru Ratnam Gallery, both in London, began to create studies of dogs at Crufts, inspired by Google image searches and social media. “I am drawn to the character and expressions of the dogs – each has such personality.” Her “pet project” grew from there, even appearing on a capsule collection for Acne Studios.

Blakeley’s influences range from #pettok – the online hashtag bringing together a flurry of animal videos on TikTok – to 1990s fashion photography, notably the stylised aesthetic of Elaine Constantine and David LaChapelle. But dogs are not the only animals in her figurative paintings – cats, pigeons and possums are all recent subjects. “In internet memes, animals can represent the human condition,” she says. “Different animals can really shift the meaning of the work: from the domestic to the wild animal, they are captivating in such different ways.”

Agneau, 2021, by Adrian Geller © Isabelle Arthuis, courtesy of the artist and Super Dakota, Brussels

This is something the Swiss-born, Paris-based artist Adrian Geller agrees with: his mysterious, fantastical paintings include figures riding geese, or hugging lambs. “I think animals are our entryway into the imagination,” he says. “I generally paint them quite differently to how they would look in a photo. They become hybrids and chimaeras so easily… The more exotic and bizarre, the better.”

Birds are also pecking into the conversation. Cocks, for instance, are a recurring subject in the work of Allison Katz, as seen in her recent exhibition at Camden Art Centre. The Canadian artist, who is showing at this year’s Venice Biennale, has painted a number of cockerels over the years. The pun is intentional. “The paintings are about masculinity, and about trying to work out the iconography of power, and the attraction to it,” Katz says. These animal portraits “are a way of acknowledging both the construction of gender, as much as about observing hormonal behaviour in the natural world; and about the manner in which that cocky behaviour has been co-opted by societies”. 

Sofia, 2020, by Paolo Salvador © Matthias Kolb, courtesy Peres Projects, berlin
Pumakunaq Kawsaynin, 2020, by Paolo Salvador © Matthias Kolb, courtesy Peres Projects, berlin

Wild animals are a recurring trope in the work of Peruvian artist Paolo Salvador, who has a solo booth with Peres Projects at Independent in New York this spring. His images offer a sense of utopian coexistence, with naked figures riding on white jaguars waving coloured banners, or white wolves howling alongside human singers. Having first studied animals’ anatomy, Salvador began making figurative work after his dog died – “the loss helped me to channel my grief into paintings”. Now his work explores his indigenous heritage. “Humans and animals have a long history of mutualism which I am always fascinated to learn more about,” he says, pointing out how ancient Peruvian cultures represented animals with anthropomorphic features. The creatures in his work reflect the deep biodiversity he grew up surrounded by – something that has become increasingly endangered. 

Stud Double, 2019, by Diedrick Brackens © Diedrick Brackens

Finally, one of the sexiest ways to get attention in the art world right now is to involve non-human partners in art-making. Pierre Huyghe’s video of a monkey wearing a human mask (inspired by those used in Japanese Noh theatre) and his sculptures covered in bees are some of the most innovative examples of the decade, while Philippe Parreno and Jenna Sutela’s use of bacteria and AI to determine an installation are more extreme examples. 

Drawing other living beings into the artist’s process – beyond just depicting them – has two functions, says curator and writer Filipa Ramos, the author of the Whitechapel Gallery Documents of Contemporary Art book Animals. First, it makes sense that hot-topic issues around biodiversity and climate have also made animals relevant. “We’re just more attuned and attentive to artistic practices that not only look at and represent nature but also find ways to express their interest, care and preoccupation with it,” Ramos observes. Secondly. collaborative projects such as Huyghe’s are helping to “expand the recognition of animals’ capacities, making us more aware of the humane and respectful manner in which they ought to be treated”, she says. We’ve come a long way from the kitsch ’90s bestseller Why Cats Paint – featuring “feline paintings [that] will make you ‘paws’”. 

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