In the Company of Animals
I'm in New York City this weekend, and it gave me the opportunity to visit "In the Company of
Animals: Art, Literature, and Music at the Morgan." The Morgan Library & Museum began as the private library and collection of the industrialist Pierpont Morgan. The original Library was constructed in the early 1900s to house the rare books, literary and historical manuscripts, music, artwork, ancient tablets and seals, and other objects that comprised his holdings. It is a truly staggering and wide-ranging collection with the focus on the written word, the history of the book, and master drawings.
It is from this collection that the current exhibit is drawn.
This exhibition examines the ways in which the artists, writers, and composers represented in the
Morgan's collection used animals to think and create. What does the portrayal of animals in
images, words, and music reveal about companionship, meaning, and morality? About science,
beauty, and truth?
At the threshold to the gallery, one encounters the words of a medieval monk, poet and philosopher, Alan of Lille:
Every creature of the world
Is like a book and a picture
To us and a mirror.
I thought this quotation aptly captured the exhibition's recurring themes: animals enchant us and
capture our imaginations; they are both the other and the familiar. Structured into categories Moral Teachers, Muses, Symbols, Talking Creatures and Companions
, the exhibition had both
expected and fresh things to say.
Here are some items that interested me the most:Zarafa and Atir
: this 19th Century painting of the giraffe and her caretaker, shows the
pair in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. The accompanying description notes that Zarafa was a political gift from the Ottoman Viceroy of Egypt to King Charles X of France. Zarafa endured a two-year journey which included a 550 mile walk after docking in Marseilles, to her new "home" in Paris. More about her story is here
. This painting was included in the Companion Animal
section to highlight the close relationship between Zarafa and her Sudanese caretaker. (Image: Zarafa Presented to the King, unknown)Flush
, a cocker spaniel, is represented in two juxtaposed works. He was the companion of the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and his abduction and return is recounted in an 1843 letter by Browning. She is overjoyed and describes their relationship as "love without speech."
The author Virginia Woolf provides a counter-point in her book, Flush (a 1933 first edition published by Hogarth Press is on display) which tells the story from the dog's viewpoint. Woolf explores the contradiction that we can feel so close to an animal who essentially remains unknowable.A charming example of Talking Creatures
is "Winnie-the-Poo and Friends at Ruth Draper's
House 1949," an illustrated letter by Ernest Shepard. His version of a fan letter to the actress
included an illustration of Poo and friends (Eeyore, Tigger, Piglet and others) standing in front
of "Ruth Draper's House" holding a proclamation in her honor, signed by them all. Poet Ted Hughes's love of nature
, and especially animals, was included in the exhibit
with a first edition of his 1975 collection, Season Songs. Hughes says:
I think of poems as a sort of animal. They have a life of their own, like animals by which I mean "On the Death of a Favourite Cat Drown'd in a China-Tub of Gold-Fishes,"
they seem quite separate from any person, even from their author, and nothing can be added to
them or taken away without maiming and perhaps even killing them. And they have a certain wisdom. They know something special ... something perhaps which we are curious to learn.Maybe my concern has been to capture not animals particularly and not poems, but simply things which have a vivid life of their own, outside mine.
illustrates Animals as Moral Teachers
. An elegy by Thomas Gray, the 18th century English poet, is a morality play indeed. Gray was visiting his friend Horace Walpole, historian, man of letters and politician. Walpole also was an ardent animal lover and during the visit his cat Selima, drowned
after toppling from her perch on the edge of a vessel and into the water which held goldfish. (Although ostensibly meant to console Walpole, Gray could not resist using Selima to illustrate avariciousness and vanity.) Read more here.
Other examples of animals as moral teachers
(Image: cover of Horace Walpole's Cat, by Christopher Frayling)
include the exhibit's 1919 French version of Kipling's The Jungle Book, which was adopted at the time as a motivational text for Cub Scouts, and Alexander's illustrations of the 1931 edition of Aesop's fables.Several other interesting juxtapositions
appear in the Animals as Muses
section. Two sets
of pictures are presented, both from the 15th century. During that period, there was a
transformation of using model books to observing -- and drawing -- animals from life. The first shows
birds; the other, camels. The model-drawn animals are always in profile and, well, not life-like
at all.Rembrandt's "Forequarters of an Elephant,"
ca 1637, is thought to represent Hansken who
was taken from Ceylon to Amsterdam and trained to perform tricks to entertain crowds who paid to
see her. The King of Animals
, a Persian manuscript from between 1297-1300, claims that the lion
is afraid of the white rooster, mouse, and flees from an ant.The French naturalist Buffon
, director of the Jardin des Plantes (where Zarafa resided),
made the claim that because their continent lacked large, powerful animals, Americans were less
vigorous than Europeans. In response, Thomas Jefferson dispatched soldiers to New Hampshire to
find a bull moose for Buffon as proof of the "stature and majesty of American quadrupeds."John James Audubon
is represented by a preparatory drawing of rabbits for his book, The
Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America,and including a description of the animal's propensity for
eating from the kitchen garden and general mischievousness.Jim Dime's beautiful drawing
"Blind Owl" (2000) was a result of a dream he had in which
he lived with a white owl and a black crow. "The birds were my friends, they were me" he said.
Birds are symbols of the struggles of creative life; owls, of course, represent wisdom.The New York Times reviewed
the exhibit and called it "enchanting," "literate and gracious." The article offers a slideshow of images.
Published by admin on 05/06/2012 22:47:26