Animal Stories, Groupon, the Gardiner and I
Good for Groupons
Several months ago I bought a Groupon voucher. Who could pass up an admittance to the Gardiner Museum of ceramics for only $5.00, so I bought two. The problem is that these Groupons have a shelf life and I knew that somewhere in November they would come due. I checked the programing for the museum and noticed that their yearly decoration of Twelve Christmas Trees by designers was beyond the date of my tickets. L What was on was “Animal Stories”.
Number #2 daughter has way too many cats and dogs for my liking, but I do enjoy reading my grandson’s stories that use animal personae in their themes. Just recently I’ve discovered “Pete the Cat” who sings in his school shoes, among other things. And do any of you remember that Beatrix Potter’s animal stories in tiny format, collectibles when you purchased gas! A small collection of those animal stories still lives in one of our children’s bedroom upstairs.
Thinking about animals prompts thoughts about Siegfried and Roy and the tiger attack that ended their career in 2003, Babar, dogs both big and small captured in family portraits with American presidents, zoo structures, circuses like Cirque de Soleil that does not use animals, alleycats…
Not really overwhelmed with the theme but refusing to forgo my coupon of $5 whole dollars ( perhaps a boomer trait?), I decided to invite a friend I hadn’t seen in quite a while and make a day of it.
Besides, this museum is a jewel and from time to time I do check it out – with or without coupons. The Gardiner’s promo read “ From household pets to mythical beasts, animals have forever been an active part of human existence, an inexhaustible trigger of the imagination.” And I, of course, am a big fan of imagination.
In the elevator en route up to the exhibit, a volunteer volunteered, “This is the best curated exhibit I’ve seen here and I’ve worked here for five years.” Her words were prophetic.
Quickly taking the exhibit in in one encompassing sweep, I note that besides gleamingly beautiful pieces artfully curated, the story of animals in art suggests an educational experience and the role of animals in research and society and how on our daily lives have been impacted by those trends over centuries.
At the entrance Five Liters—Avitus, Reptilis, Domesticus by Canadian artist Wendy Walgate initiates this idea as multicolored reptiles, farm animals and birds are contained in lab beakers, superficially looking like plastic toys that our children might arrange in play. Her message is anything but playful.
A small plate depicts the ordinance given man over animals in the Bible. This motif is subtly threaded throughout the show as an underlying message of societal relationship to animals.
Continuing on, the exhibit highlights the search for other worlds and discovery of new worlds by Europeans explorers like Columbus and Vasco da Gama who brought back strange fruits, wares, animals, but especially birds from the Asia and India.
Later in the 1700’s, the continued penchant to conquer and build power by empires fostered the wealthy’s fascination of the exotic along with the aristocrats’ delight in exhibiting precious objects, rivaling collection after collection with bizarre, colorful and intriguing animal representations in porcelain, ceramic and clay.
I gawk at a soup tureen of a perfect boar’s head, life-size and complete with nostril holes to expel the boiling soup. Our docent explains that the diners at the table would have become aware that their meal offered boar before they were served: not so subtle menu suggestions. On table, instead of melting wax figurines, marzipan delights and ice sculptures lit by candlelight at sumptuous dinners, ceramic leopards and wild animals were solidly incorporated into table designs.
Similarly the hunt played such a role in the lives of the rich that they would imbibe a hot drink from a rabbit or hound-shaped head vessel that required no handles as the servants would await their return with these drinking vessels, no doubt in their shivering hands . I think of the 15th Century Tres Riches Heures de Duc de Berry, the Limbourg Brothers, for example, but it is simple peasants and their domestic very un-exotic animals that I picture in my head.
I turn my attention back to the exhibit, but quick on the heels of the arrival of parrots and elephants to Europe are the observant naturalists such as George Edwards in the 18th Century revered as the father of British ornithology. As well Buffon’s Histoire Naturelle, Générale et Particulière establish a backdrop of illustrations that circumscribe these walls in the Gardiner : one of the most important works published in France in the 18th Century. These drawings while portraying animals in their natural habitats occasionally veer towards the designer’s imagination as we note that camels do not reside on grass with evergreen trees.
Not completely accurate, they, at least, describe an animal world emerging in its own right.
In the 19th Century, John James Audubon would also turn his desire for identifying and categorizing birds into illustrations, conducting the first known bird-banding and creating his own museum in the United States.
A black and white funeral urn inspired by Charles Darwin reminds the viewer of the connection between life and art. Complete with a brain as stopper that is surrounded by four forms that evolve from crouching monkey to upright moving man, this piece speaks to Darwin’s discoveries and theories that continue to be widely debated event today. Small tea paraphernalia set beside the urn play on these ideas as the handles are formed by monkey and the decoration is jungle-like. Where there is levity in the large urn, these pieces feel ironic and playful as social commentary.
The desire for the rich to create their own menageries and later zoos is again documented in clay and porcelain. There is Jumbo, the beloved elephant from the London Zoo sold to P.T. Barnum in 1882 and whose sad death struck by a train occurred near our own St. Thomas.
And Clara, one of three rinocheroses in Europe at the time, owned by Sichterman the director of the Dutch East India Company in Bengal, later toured many towns in Europe. She is immortalized in porcelain here, distorted with an added spine outcropping, and an armourlike covering based on a 1515 woodcut by Albrecht Durer. I am reminded of the Dutch’s love of the material, especially mercantile goods as loving displayed in the 17th Century portraits by Chardin, Vermeer, Rembrandt and Hals.
Clay depictions of bears whose noses were pierced and treated as oddities for exhibitions reinforces for the viewer man’s decision for dominance over animals that have been domesticated for profit and ridicule. In this way, the Gardiner museum chronicles the treatment of animals throughout time. Included in the exhibit is the taxidermy of a stuffed pug by a famous Englishman. Damien Hirst ironically gives us two large rabbit vases, again slyly commenting on what we transform into “cute” or kitsch, trivializing objects that have become mundane in our world.
Also on display to work with the overriding theme, children’s storybooks such as Franklin and The Wild Things anthropomorphize animals for the edification of children and parents. But rereading the beloved Babar also reminds of the struggles and freedoms behind the stories as Celeste and Babar dressed in human clothes and eating delicious sweets stand at their windows and mourn for heir homes far away.
The social commentaries contained in the Babar stories may be lost on children , but are replaced by the surface delight in seeing the familiar humanized antics of the elephants. This brings to mind the learning stories of morality, behavior and such as dramatized in Corduroy, Clifford, Spot, the Runaway Bunny not to mention those tedious Berenstain Bears.
There are many levels to this exhibit. The mastery of the clay work, the stories that the objects hold and the history remembered. What hits me most directly is that these pieces reflect the times and historical contexts in artform whether in teacups or table decoration.
Instead of outright sculptures like the clay squirrel that stands alone here as a contemporary sculpture covered with a diatribe of restrictions that squirrels must endure today( as their natural habitats have been usurped by highways-poor things), many pieces in times past were incorporated into people’s daily rituals – of aristocrats at least- as continuing commentary . Everyday these images as a kind of propaganda made art part of everyday life, not something to be stored in a museum.
I reflected on how our generation might be immortalized: a tray covered in texting teenagers? I considered what it is about our world at this time that would be caught in clay and exhibited in the future.