Beauty and the Beast

15-02-2012

Animals have always held a fundamental position in the development of cultures. Whether they constitute our food, our companions, or our deities, we have represented them in images for thousands of years.

Animals depicted on cave walls, tombs, or the most simple of daily objects have imbued our habitats with special significance. They express our endless fascination with, and dependence on, the bounty of nature, the importance of friendship and fidelity, and the constant potency and presence of life and death.

A Greek red-figure fish plate attributed to the Dotted Stripe group. Greece, Circa 350-330 BC.  courtesy Rupert Wace Ancient Art

Western depictions of wild and exotic animals became increasingly common from the middle ages onwards, when trade routes with Africa and the East facilitated the importation of such remarkable creatures into Europe. At the turn of the fifteenth century, private zoos and menageries were commonplace set ups that enabled the study of, and delight in, just these animals. Jean, the Valois prince and Duke of Berry in central France, kept bears, camels, lions and monkeys in his gardens at Mehun sur Yevre, alongside fifteen hundred hunting dogs. This mix of companionship and recreation offers a perfect example of the multiplicity with which we have viewed animals in society from historic times to the present day.

'The Leopard' from the Rochester Bestiary. England, 13th Century

Animals also offer symbolic power for our imagination. Herds of sheep, mares with their young foals, lone stags - these subjects have long been tropes of unity and purpose, motherhood and nurturing, or the sheer wild and untamed majesty of the natural world, which we have sought to capture with delicacy and care in our objects.

An early casting of a Mare and Foal group by Christophe Fratin (1800-1864), entitled 'Jument et sons Poulain'. Paris, Circa 1850

Lastly, the materials of artistic production are as varied as its subjects, and they have all been put to use on the creation of bestial imagery. The increasing fineness and attraction of the bronze casting process during the nineteenth century, as well as a corresponding shift back to the hand made and organic, have both marked our understanding of art objects in the modern period.

A large and beautifully carved limewood sculpture of a stag. Germany, Black forest, Circa 1870

The ever-increasing role that materials play in our culture can be seen first in our art, and their diversity is reflective of the ways in which we attempt to capture life around us, especially our animals. As the poet John James has said, 'the projection of the human into the natural world, so to speak, through animals, is something that goes back a very long way, in both art and poetry.'

Author: Matthew Reeves