Viennese Splendour

In my efforts to play catch up with this blogging lark, I ask you gentle reader to step back in time with me, back by over three months to the 26th of May, when life didn’t include commuting or paperwork or deadlines.  Ah, those were the days…

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I had left Prague after a whirlwind visit, still aglow from my encounter with the treasures of Mucha and his contemporaries.  Art Nouveau held me in rapture and I was clamouring for Klimt.  For those not of an artistic persuasion, this is an Austrian painter and not something you’d find on Urban Dictionary describing a hard-to-find part of the female anatomy.

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I’ve been a huge fan of Gustav Klimt ever since I first clapped eyes on “The Kiss”.  The painting hangs in the Belvedere Gallery in Vienna and is something Austria is rather proud of.  It’s also something I had high on my list of art to see, so I booked a ticket to this magnificent city during my tour of Europe earlier this year

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I’d imagined Vienna to be a regal city of grand proportions.  The sort of place where operas were written and opulent balls were held.  I wanted to find more art nouveau (there was a bonkers building designed by Klimt and his cronies called The Secession amongst the plethora of Jugenstil architecture in this city) and perhaps see some of the old haunts of one of my favourite composers, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.  I also had in mind Viennese biscuits and coffee, because my brain seems perpetually wired up to seek out cake and hot beverages.

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As ever, the trip was made memorable and marvellous by the presence of a couchsurfer host.  In the case of Vienna, my kind and considerate guide was a Buddhist named Karl who was keen to show me the sights of his home city.  I instantly identified his apartment at the address he gave me from the riot of luxuriant foliage spilling from his windows on one of the uppermost floors.  His profile described him as someone who’d typically have a small rainforest in his flat, keen on gardening and yoga and arty things.  His apartment was so wonderfully quirky and creative, decorated with objects he had sculpted from upcycled materials.

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We instantly clicked and had lots of stories to tell each other, as well as a shared sense of humour; after exploring the famous landmarks of Vienna by day, we spent the evenings cracking up over The Graham Norton Show and old sketches from British comedies.

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My initial tour of Vienna was through the museum quarter and into the area around the royal palace; we passed the museum of natural history, wandered into the gardens of Heldenplatz and through the buildings of Hofburg Palace before strolling through the winding streets of the city centre.  The architecture of Vienna is truly grand and something I will remember fondly for a long time.

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My second day in the city was spent visiting Schönbrunn Palace walking through its ridiculously vast gardens.  The topiary, fountains and flowerbeds were a welcome visual break from the urban landscapes I had been touring through that month. Exploring cities is a fun pastime but my heart is where the green things grow, even if it’s manicured lawns and geometric gardens.

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After the obligatory coffee and cheesecake in the tearooms of Café Gloriette we meandered down through the forested parkland to the nearest metro and boarded a train bound for the food stalls of the Naschmarkt.  Apparently the market has 16th century origins and still boasts a huge selection of colourful and fragrant food.  It was a feast for the senses!

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After strolling among the stalls, we saw more of the Art Nouveau decoration I had been seeking in Vienna, as well as the famous Secession building where Klimt’s famous frieze can be viewed in the basement.  If you visit Vienna, don’t miss this amazing combination of architecture, interior design and spiritual vision.  The restored building is wonderfully unique.

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On our meanderings around this city, we also paid a visit to the national postal savings bank, or “österreichische postsparkasse”; Don’t be fooled by its mundane-sounding name.  The interior and exterior of this building is another marvel in this grand city and definitely worth a visit if you love Jugenstil.

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Vienna was one of my favourite places in Europe, with its magnificent architecture and beautiful art, grand boulevards and lush green parks, food from a rich mix of cultures and indulgent café culture, there really was something lavish and luxurious about the whole place. It is definitely a city I would return to, not least because I made a new friend in Karl there.  His hospitality and generosity were much appreciated, as was his marvellous historical and gastronomical knowledge.

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I feel like this post has taken a turn for the somewhat serious, but I guess this is an adjective that certainly suits this Austrian city.  It is a very sober and somewhat taciturn place, perfect for contemplation and inward searching.  I’m sure there is a vibrant nightlife there, with bars full of raucous Austrians glugging beer, but my visit was memorable for being a peaceful, calm and soulful experience.

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Time is money? I beg to differ…

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As the excitement for my first ever solo show in London builds, I’ve found myself talking incessantly about the exhibition and all of the preparations surrounding it.  Today at work, I was asked by my colleagues about the sale of my paintings, and a rather troubling idea surfaced.

When you’re invited to a friend’s art show, do you feel obliged to buy something?

It had never occurred to me that people might think this when deciding to come along to an exhibition.  One of my colleagues said he and a group of friends went to see a solo show hosted by an artist they all knew very well.  As they stood contemplating the art, they all began to furtively ask each other if someone was going to buy something.  The artist was selling paintings at a price well above their budget, but certainly not above the value of her work.  My work colleague said they all felt obliged to buy something because they’d gone to see the show and support their friend, but all they could afford were the postcards!

So this leaves me wondering… do most people feel like this when they go to a friend’s exhibition?  When you go to see a friend’s art show, does anyone expect you to make a purchase?  I think my favourite response to this question was from my friend Pam, who said “Well, it’s not like going to a Tupperware party, is it?”

For me, the simple fact that people have shown up to view the work is support enough.  I’d never expect anyone to come along and actually BUY anything!

I suppose this is because of my reasons for producing art.  I don’t make art to make money.  Sure, if I made a sale on a work, it would be a massive help in funding more creativity, but in truth I paint for two reasons, both of which will probably sound cheesier than the Elvis Presley portrait created entirely from Cheetos cheese puffs – I kid you not: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SXigfZGqsLM The fact is, I paint because I love doing it and because I have this inexplicable urge to communicate something to others, whether it’s the beauty I see in the surface of an insect wing, or the bleak story of another species being eradicated from our planet.

The fact that people are willing to exchange money for art is something of a bonus.  Don’t get me wrong – I completely understand why it’s important for artists to be valued in monetary terms as well as aesthetic, spiritual and philosophical ones.  And naturally there are numerous degrees of value across all of these spheres, all according to individual and societal taste.

In our capitalist, commercial, cash-focused culture, an obvious way to show appreciation of anything is to wave the moolah around.

I think people sometimes need to be reminded that giving time is a much stronger way of acknowledging someone else’s endeavours.  I have a lot of respect for people who make the time to come and take a look at anyone’s creative efforts.  These people don’t even have to like the art they’ve come to see; to be moved by the work, whether positively or negatively, is the important thing.  Art should alter someone’s perception of the world, whether as a subtle shift of perspective or a mind-blowing realisation of something new.  It’s enough for me that someone has walked away from one of my paintings with a question on their mind (even if it’s “Why the hell did he bother?” lol)

Time is precious.  Time given is a generous gift indeed, and something that should be appreciated.  And so I’ll end with the somewhat obvious quote of entrepreneur Jim Rohn: “Time is more valuable than money: You can get more money but you can’t get more time”.

“Hidden Dragons” opens 18.30 July 17th 2014 at /i’klectik/ art lab & cafe; nearest Tube stations: Waterloo/Lambeth North
Art Workshop for 6-11 year olds on Sunday 20th July 10.30-12.30
Artist talk: 18.30 Thursday 24th July 2014
Closing show: 18.30 Thursday 31st July 2014

For more information go to http://www.markjnewton.com/news-and-events.html or find it on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/markjnewtonart

Using special Sta-Wet palettes with acrylic paints…

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This is my first proper blog in a long time, but I’ve been testing out some new materials and thought it’d be useful to write about it.

 

I was recently contacted on LinkedIn by Ben Smith of Loxley Arts (www.loxleyarts.co.uk), who asked if I’d like to test out some special palettes for acrylic paints.  The request was out of the blue but much appreciated, and is a testament to the ubiquity of social media these days; don’t underestimate the power of Twitter, Facebook and other online networks, as you never know who or what you may find when using them!

I started using these palettes last week: They’re called Sta-Wet by a company called Masterson’s and they’re designed to keep acrylic paint wet and workable for an extended period of time.  I’m sure most painters are acquainted with the way acrylic paint dries so fast.  It’s one of the reasons why I use the medium, as it enables me to paint quickly and spontaneously.  There are times however when I need to keep a particular colour I’ve mixed, or when I’ve had to take a break from my work and hope to continue with the same paint later.  In the past I’ve resorted to drowning the palette in water and covering it with cling film to preserve it, but after 3 or more days (especially in the warmer, drier summer weather) the paint still dries up.

 

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This is where the Sta-Wet palettes come in.  They work by using a soaked sponge placed beneath some specially prepared paper, onto which your paint is applied just like you would with a solid palette.  The paper is quite durable and even withstands my palette knife when I mix paint on it.  The sponge and paper are kept inside an airtight plastic box, so that when you’re done painting for the day, you can seal it up and come back to it later.

I’ve been using these palettes all week and was quite impressed with how they’d kept the paint wet.  I didn’t get much chance to do my work for almost four days and when I returned to my palette, the paint was still workable and absolutely wet, with no sign of ‘clotting’ or forming a skin.

You do have to be careful if there’s too much water in the sponge when you seal the box, as the humid atmosphere in the container can actually dilute the paint, but if you remember to take out the sponge and gently press out the excess water before placing the special paper back on top, the acrylic paint is pretty much exactly as when it came out of the tube.  I also think it’s a good idea to mix paint on a separate plastic/wooden palette and transfer it to the Sta-Wet surface, as I’ve found that when I’m mixing colours, they can spread out a bit and reduce space for adding more paint to the Sta-Wet palette (you can see an example of this in the photos in this post!).  Basically these things do exactly what it says on the tin: they keep paint wet, so if you want to mix more on the palette, you’ll be doing it in the wet surface on the paper.  I’ve been using acrylics on dry palettes for such a long time that I had to remind myself that in this case they weren’t going to dry in time for me to work over in-palette!

So would I recommend other artists to get these?  Given how practical these palettes have been, and have saved me the mess and minor expense of using my clingfilm/water method (!), I would say yes.  No doubt the pads of special refill paper carry an added cost, but I’d say it was worth it because you save on paint.  If I think back to all the times I’ve had to scrape off thick, stratified layers of dried acrylic from my palettes, as well as the frustrating moments when I’ve mixed the perfect colour, applied it to my canvas, been distracted away from the work and then returned to find that wonderfully perfect hue completely dry and unusable, I’d say these little boxes are very handy and economical indeed.

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Where Does Paint Figure in Posthumanist Thinking and the Emerging Field of Critical Animal Studies? (part 4: Posthumanism, identity and the animal ‘other’)

Posthumanism, identity and the animal ‘other’

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Fig. 1.

Paulus Potter, Young Bull, 1647

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Fig.2

Damian Hirst, The Physical Impossibility of Death In The Mind Of Someone Living, 1991

Throughout paint’s history, humans have been placed at the centre of the known universe.  This anthropocentric bearing has remained unchallenged across genres and other mediums for much of the history of animals in art; from Paulus Potter’s The Young Bull, 1647 (fig. 1) to Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death In The Mind Of Someone Living, 1991 (fig. 2) animals have played a subsidiary role in the portrayal of human concerns and values.

Posthumanism has emerged through philosophy’s attempts to redefine humanity’s identity by repositioning humans within technology and biology, in which the human is but one life form among many, whether natural or artificial.  Its tenet is to decentre the human in relation to evolution, ecology and technology as well as oppose established humanist dichotomies such as male-female, nature-culture and human-animal.  In his book What is Posthumanism? Cary Wolfe explains that these binary concepts are typically humanist in that they reflect humanity’s tendency to dogmatically divide the universe into opposites.  He refers to his own sense of posthumanism as being in opposition of ‘the fundamental anthropological dogma associated with humanism and invoked by [French philosopher Étienne] Balibar’s reference to the humanity/animality dichotomy’.[1] Wolfe’s definition of posthumanism suggests that human identity is realised by the avoidance or repression of animal origins in evolutionary and biological terms as well as by transcendence from bonds of materiality and embodiment.[2]

This concern with the devaluing and deconstructing of anthropocentric views has in part arisen due to post-colonialism and the ideas arising from the sense of ‘the other’.  In his book Art and Animals, Aloi states ‘the animal has insistently sneaked through the pages of key continental philosophers’ in reference to the way thinkers such as Jacques Derrida, Donna Haraway, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari all challenge the notion of humanity as being world-forming.[3]  The concepts initially postulated by philosophers such as Slavoj Žižek and Michel Foucault are now debated in these contemporary circles of thinkers while science and technology open up the opaque world of animal phenomenology.  We can now investigate and reveal animal communicative and cognitive abilities, or perceive things using wavelengths of sound or light that were previously denied to us as another species, resulting in a challenge to our hierarchical relationship with non-humans.  This propagates a multitude of other questions about how we should interact with or regard animals in modern society, particularly at a time when other species are marginalised and exploited by humans more than ever before and on a global scale.

At present, posthumanism is hard to define.  Neil Badmington in his introduction Approaching Posthumanism states that ‘the use of such a term is, of course, far from straightforward’[4] while Wolfe also mentions that ‘the term has begun to emerge with different and sometimes competing meanings’[5] referring to the elements of the subject which branch into transhumanism (enhancing the human using technology and biology, particularly in reference to Donna Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto) and anti-humanism (a more radical outlook that sees humanity as amoral, narrow-minded and blameworthy of ecological destruction). While it is beyond the scope of this essay to explore such terms, it is important to establish a point of reference for this discussion.  This essay allies with Wolfe’s definition, particularly concerning the humanity/animality dichotomy as well as its postmodern connections:

My sense of posthumanism is thus analogous to Jean-François Lyotard’s paradoxical rendering of the postmodern: it comes both before and after humanism: before in the sense that it names the embodiment and embeddedness of the human being in not just its biological but also its technical world, the prosthetic coevolution of the human animal with the technicity of tools and external archival mechanisms (such as language and culture)…after in the sense that posthumanism names a historical moment in which the decentering of the human by its imbrication in technical, medical, informatic, and economic networks is increasingly impossible to ignore.[6]

It goes without saying that the subject of posthumanism is extremely sensitive, not least because it is still in its infancy as an emerging mode of thought, but more so for its upheaval of values which have been central to our self-identification as a species.  The problematic situation for artists concerning posthumanism is that in extending their artistic and ethical consideration out towards the non-human ‘other’,[7] they ironically adhere to humanist principles.  This complicates the subject for artists in terms of what to represent as much as how to represent it.

But the proposal here is that just by representing animals differently, we create the potential to discover more about ourselves and redefine that identity of ‘the human’.  Steve Baker proposes that the ‘ideas of the animal…enable us to frame and express ideas about human identity’,[8] while according to Ron Broglio of Arizona State University, ‘animal worlds set a limit to human knowledge’ and the human can no longer be regarded as a starting point when forming ideas about the status of non-human animals in society.[9]

The role of artists, and specifically for this discourse, of paint, in the wake of posthumanist questioning is a crucial one and for the representation of animals in paint to be productive in the 21st century against this posthumanist backdrop, certain conditions for its employment as a medium as well as choice of and depiction of subject apply.

What is meant by the term ‘productive’ is the avoidance of depicting animals in an anthropocentric manner while simultaneously advocating positive shifts and alterations in human attitudes towards animals.  This text has presented a historical context on which to frame reasons for depicting animals, revealing that in the past animals in art have been represented as God, food, trophy or possession.  Unlike the painters of the late 19th century, today’s artists are encouraged to avoid sentimental, romanticised imagery in their works as such attributes are now considered patronising towards other species and only serve to perpetuate the aforementioned humanist binary concepts.  The posthuman world must appreciate animals for their capacity to think, act and communicate, whether this is at an inter-species level or an intra-species level, and more so for the latter.  Posthuman thinking in the realm of animal studies is also about respecting diversity and universality.  Artists can highlight an appreciation of the world on non-human terms, such as recognising individuality among other species that transcends taxonomy or emphasising that the ethical standing of at least some non-human animals is taken for granted.[10] For artists wishing to highlight the discrimination, injustices and marginalisation of non-human species, the imagery decided upon should ideally provoke discussion about such matters without denigrating or sentimentalising the animal subject.


[1] Cary Wolfe, What is Posthumanism? (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010)  p.xiv-xv.

[2] Wolfe, p.xv.

[3] Aloi, Animals preface p.xix.

[4] Neil Badmington, ‘Introduction: Approaching Posthumanism’ Posthumanism (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2000) p.1.

[5] Wolfe, p.xii.

[6] Wolfe, p.xv.

[7] Wolfe, p.167.

[8] Steve Baker, Picturing the Beast: Animals, Identity and Representation, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993), p.6.

[9] Ron Broglio, Surface Encounters: Thinking with Animals and Art, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011) p.xxiii.

[10] Wolfe, p.145.

Where Does Paint Figure in Posthumanist Thinking and the Emerging Field of Critical Animal Studies? (part 3: Postmodernism, photography and painting)

Postmodernism, photography and painting

It was the development of postmodernism towards the end of the 20th century that helped to shake off the antiquated view towards the painting of animals.  Postmodernism is somewhat difficult to define, but according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

It can be described as a set of critical, strategic and rhetorical practices employing concepts such as difference, repetition, the trace, the simulacrum, and hyperreality to destabilize other concepts such as presence, identity, historical progress, epistemic certainty, and the univocity of meaning.[1]

Steve Baker cites Rauschenberg’s Monogram of 1955, which consisted of a stuffed goat and tyre on a painted and collaged platform, as being one of the first convincing presentations of a postmodern animal in that it is directly confrontational and presents an obstacle to the viewer (in both a philosophical and a physical sense) by being a literal object.[2]  It creates a situation and ‘only the viewer’s presence completes the work’.[3]  Baker uses postmodernism to extol the virtues of representing animals as they are, without positing them as symbols, allegories or depreciated subjects.  We will return to this issue of the postmodern animal later in this essay, but first the significance of photography in terms of postmodernism will be presented.

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The portrayal of animals in paint has been aided by a gradual return to ‘traditional’ methods of painting (traditional in this sense being about the use of the medium and a two-dimensional surface) in the last 50 years, which has ‘encompassed photography to redefine and extend its conceptual reach’.[4]  In the latter half of the 20th century many artists began using photography to develop new modes of depiction in paint as a response to ‘the ubiquity of the photographic image and the breakdown of modernism as a sustaining paradigm’.[5]  Two artists of import in regards to this are Francis Bacon (1909-1992) and Gerhard Richter (b.1932) as both were among the first to utilise fresh approaches in dealing with paint as modernist ideals began to unravel.

Bacon drew from Muybridge’s photographic sequences of movement, as well as books of photographs on subjects such as radiography or natural history.  He is said to have never worked from life, preferring only to work from photographic material and in a number of interviews made from 1962 to 1974 with art historian David Sylvester he spoke candidly about his use of photography to produce several series of paintings.[6] Some of Bacon’s work featured animals, such as Study of a dog from 1952, which showed a canine subject distorted and fragmented in an observation of movement.  By using Muybridge’s studies of motion, Bacon directly transposed the filmic images into paint.  His loose, smeared brushstrokes portrayed the blur-effect of motion and of a subject appearing to stretch and contort in an instant of film. Bacon’s other works featuring bestial hybrid forms suggest the importance of animality in relation to both human and non-human subjects, and how that animality or the movement of animals could be translated into paint.

Study of a Dog 1952 by Francis Bacon 1909-1992

His work is a significant part of the history of animal depiction in paint, primarily because of the way he dealt with his subject.  Bacon’s paintings are often described as bestial and animalistic, particularly in his treatment of the human figure.[7]  In a chapter by Matthew Gale, a reference to Bacon’s religious stance reveals the significance of the artist in terms of human identity:

In a world without God, humans are no different to any other animal, subject to the same innate urges, transient and alone, they are victims and perpetrators of meaningless acts.  This is the theoretical context for his creation in the 1940s of animalistic humanoid figures and his superimposition of animal features on to the human form.[8]

With such an attitude towards human identity in relation to animals, it can be argued that Bacon is one of the most significant artists according to posthumanist themes of hybridity and human integrity, themes that will be explored in a later chapter of this essay.

Gerhard Richter’s foray into animal representation is exemplified by Stag   which was painted almost ten years later in 1963.  Like Bacon’s works, this subject was not painted from life, but from a photograph.  In the image, the animal appears to float amidst a tangle of branches, separated from the forest by its depiction as a black and white photographic image.  The stag’s dislocated quality is further exaggerated by Richter’s painterly technique which is similar to a photograph’s blur; the viewer is forced to repair what is presented.[9]  In his essay Post-conceptual painting: Gerhard Richter’s extended leave-taking, Jason Gaiger describes the painting as ‘a sudden but fleeting emergence of the real within the strained and artificial conventions of late 20th century painting’and that ‘photography…allowed Richter to approach reality (in paint) yet again’.[10] Following Stag, Richter painted a variety of animals as photo-paintings, however it was not his intention to change the way animals were perceived in art; indeed Stag is so early among his works that it could be considered atypical.  Rather, his aim was to use photography as an aid in re-establishing the vitality of paint. ‘The animal’ simply happened to be one of many useful subjects in subverting previously held assumptions about each medium.

stag

Above all, artists like Richter were interested in the way meanings and information within a photograph altered when transformed into a painted image on a canvas.[11] Richter’s imagery questions the modes of representation photography and paint offer, as well as challenge the experiences both mediums strive to appropriate, so that the process of forming meaning in the emerging image is left to the viewer.  The pioneering work of Richter and his contemporaries has re-established the credence of paint for animal artists in the 21st century and engendered a new way of utilising the photograph and screen in relation to representation.

 

 


[1] Aylesworth, Gary, “Postmodernism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2012/entries/postmodernism/&gt;.

[2] Baker, Postmodern, p.51.

[3] Baker, Postmodern, p.53.

[4] The Hayward Gallery, The Painting of Modern Life: 1960s to Now (London: Hayward Publishing, 2007) p.16

[5] Gill Perry & Paul Wood, (eds) Themes in Contemporary Art (London: Yale University Press, 2004) p.99.

[6] Peter Hay Halpert, ‘Influence and Inspiration: Francis Bacon’s Use of Photography’ Aperture Fall 1996  <http://phhfineart.com/articles/francis_bacon.html&gt; [Accessed 20th January 2013] (para. 3 of 10)

[7] Matthew Gale & Chris Stephens (eds) Francis Bacon (London: Tate, 2008) pp.94-95

[8] Gale & Stephens (eds) p.27.

[9] Gill Perry & Paul Wood, (eds) Themes in Contemporary Art (London: Yale University Press, 2004) p.101.

[10] Perry & Wood, pp.101-102. (italics mine)

[11] Perry & Wood, p.102.

Where Does Paint Figure in Posthumanist Thinking and the Emerging Field of Critical Animal Studies? (part 2: Animals as a lower genre in art)

Animals as a lower genre in art

It is important to note the changes that occurred in the art world throughout the 20th century, as the abandonment of paint by Duchamp and subsequent climax of modernism contributed to the decline of the animal as a painted subject. Reductionist values, avant-gardism and an overall dismissal of paint as a productive medium were all factors which effectively vanquished the painted representation of non-humans.

Throughout most of the modernist period the subject of animals was overlooked and sometimes even derided as a lower art form.  This denigration of animal painting was owed to an attitude initiated by the Royal Academy of Arts in France that went largely unchallenged for 400 years and culminated in a tendency to avoid representing animals as primary subjects by the mid-20th century. Andre Felibien first discussed a hierarchy of genres in 1667: At the top of the hierarchy was history painting, followed by portraiture, genre painting (that is, scenes from societal life) then landscape painting, animals and finally still life.[1]  In Bailey and Conisbee’s work on French genre painting, Felibien declares:

He who paints landscapes perfectly is above the artist who paints only fruits, flowers or shells.  He who paints living animals is worthy of more esteem than he who only represents things dead and no longer moving.  And since man himself is God’s most perfect work on earth, it is certain that he who imitates God in painting the human figure is far more excellent than all the others.[2]

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Although in this quote from Felibien it appears that animal painting was held in high regard, the fact that it was placed low in the Academy’s hierarchy did little to help its status as a serious subject over the following four centuries, which resulted in many painters refraining from using animals in their work for fear of being taken seriously as artists.  More recently Giovanni Aloi is quoted in Animals and Art as saying ‘we are all familiar with the multitude of works featuring animals that have helped define the canon of one of the lower genres in the history of painting’.[3] In addition, artist and animal studies writer Steve Baker asserts that ‘worse still, for much of the twentieth century the animal in art was regarded as the most kitsch of subjects, undeserving of serious attention’.[4]Baker also explains how the anthropomorphic sentiments of the Victorian age disagreed with serious modernist art so that ‘the animal was the first thing to be ruled out of modernism’s bounds…There was no modern animal, no ‘modernist’ animal’.[5]

With such comments, it is not difficult to understand how painting animals suffered for over 100 years of art history (that is, after its peak of popularity with Victorian Romanticists) and was relegated to the practices of wildlife artists and natural history enthusiasts.


[1] Author unknown, ‘Royal Academy Art Hierarchy’ hierarchystructure.com (2012) <http://www.hierarchystructure.com/royal-academy-art-hierarchy/&gt; [Accessed 20th January 2013]

[2] Colin B. Bailey, Philip Conisbee, and Thomas W. Gaehtgens, ed. by Colin B. Bailey, The Age of Watteau, Chardin and Fragonard: Masterpieces of French Genre Painting (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2003) p.4.

[3] Giovanni Aloi, Art and Animals, (London: I.B. Tauris, 2012) p.1. (italics mine)

[4] Steve Baker, ‘Something’s Gone Wrong Again’,  Antennae issue 7, (2008)  <http://www.antennae.org.uk/ANTENNAE%20ISSUE%207.doc.pdf&gt; [Accessed 21st January 2013] (para. 4 of 5)

[5] Steve Baker, The Postmodern Animal (London: Reaktion Books, 2000) p.20.

Where Does Paint Figure in Posthumanist Thinking and the Emerging Field of Critical Animal Studies? (part 1: Introduction and a brief history of animals in art )

circa 22,000BC

Red Cow and First Chinese Horse, Lascaux cave painting, circa 22,000BC

George Stubbs, about 1762

“Whistlejacket”, George Stubbs, about 1762

Thomas Gainsborough, 1777

“Pomeranian Bitch and Puppy” Thomas Gainsborough, 1777

Eugene Delacroix 1855

“The Lion and The Caiman” Eugene Delacroix 1855

William Holman Hunt, 1856

“The Scapegoat” William Holman Hunt, 1856

Sir Edwin Henry Landseer 1839

“Dignity and Impudence” Sir Edwin Henry Landseer 1839

Francois Desportes 1699

“Self-Portrait as a Huntsman”, Francois Desportes 1699

Franz Marc 1913

“Fate of the Animals” Franz Marc 1913

Aelbert Cuyp, 1655-1660

“Young Herdsmen and Cows”, Aelbert Cuyp, 1655-1660

Marc Chagall 1982

“The Painter and the Goat”, Marc Chagall 1982

1785-91

Jaguars, taken from George Buffon’s “Histoire Naturelle” 1785-91

 

Jean-Baptiste Oudry 1748

“Boar Hunt”, Jean-Baptiste Oudry 1748

Paulus Potter 1647

“Young Bull”, Paulus Potter 1647

Theodore Gericault, 1820

“Head of a Lion”, Theodore Gericault, 1820

Joseph Wolf, 1861

“Bearded Vultures Attacking an Alpine Ibex”, Joseph Wolf, 1861

Introduction 

As scientific advances and environmental pressures rapidly alter our relationship to the non-human and deconstruct humanist philosophies and values, how is the use of paint in the depiction of animals able to best represent this shift in thought towards other species? Can the use of paint represent animals in a way which is productive in terms of promulgating these changes in attitude, or at the very least decrying the antiquated humanist values behind animal depiction throughout history?

Moreover, who are the painters who would meet the criteria in relation to posthumanist thinking and what are their motives regarding the animal ‘other’?  Although I briefly describe the term posthumanism later in this dissertation, to comprehensively define it is beyond the scope of this essay.  Much of the terminology and theory gathered in regards to the definition appropriated for this discourse is from a handful of writers whose supporting explanations and comments are referenced accordingly.  It is also important to note that this essay does not concern itself with the kinds of questions asked in John Berger’s famous work Why Look at Animals? such as the reasons for our loss of a connection with nature, although the book certainly has a vital context within this discussion.  In addition, this essay is not intended as a defence for the validity of painting in contemporary art practice.

As we progress into the 21st century, it will be argued that painting is enjoying a renaissance as a genre, with a surge of emerging artists utilising the medium in a plethora of styles and with a multitude of subjects.  The intention here is not to value one medium over another in the representation of the non-human, but rather highlight a selection of contemporary artists who are using paint in ways relevant and beneficial to the emerging field of animal studies within posthumanities.

A brief history of animals in art 

The history of the representation of animals in art is unarguably as long as the history of art itself.  The cave paintings of Lascaux and the rock art of the Australian aborigines depicted animals as the first subject and the first medium in art was most likely animal blood and fats, perhaps mixed with pigments. Throughout the ages, at least until the mid-16th century, animals were chiefly used across cultures as motifs, symbols and totems and as vehicles for religious and metaphorical values.  Representing animals accurately in a physiognomic sense can be dated back to Greek Hellenistic art, but with the dawn of the woodcut and mass printing, illustrators in the Middle Ages began to compile imaginative pictures of creatures purported to exist at the edges of the known world, such as those in the Ashmole Bestiary of the 13th century, now held at the Bodleian Libraries of the University of Oxford.

With the Enlightenment, these medieval bestiaries of fantastical beasts and inaccurately described specimens gave way to more concise encyclopedias of a taxonomic and scientific standard by illustrating different species using ink and graphite.  The illustrators aimed to pave the way for a new depiction of non-human species, one they intended to be largely free of symbolism and sentimentalism, as scientists began to categorise and codify the world around them.

Perhaps two of the most important scientists to influence natural history in terms of creating order and eliminating fantasy from animal illustration were Georges-Louis Leclerc De Buffon (1707-1788) and Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778).  The latter was a Swedish botanist, famous for developing the classification system of plants and animals still in use today, the former a naturalist noted (among other scientific accomplishments) for his Histoire naturelle published in the mid-1700s.  Buffon and his contemporaries produced illustrations and engravings of animals portrayed in a noble and aristocratic style that mirrored the portrait and genre paintings fashionable at the time. The artists strived to show off animals in ways which made them appear ‘clean, neat and innocent’ and clearly recognisable for taxonomical purposes; they were often painted from taxidermied specimens and positioned in unnatural stances to display their bodies and markings.  Like the earlier illustrations of Nicolas Robert (1614-1685), who produced portraits of animals for the French royal family of Louis XIV, the animals were idealised and perfect, with barely a ruffled feather or misplaced hair. Today they would perhaps be considered as mere caricatures of animals.  Buffon was also influenced by Dutch artists such as Aelbert Cuyp (1620-1691) and Paulus Potter (1625-1654), whose hunting and agricultural scenes in oils were commissioned by the wealthy classes at the same time as Robert.  These Dutch painters were following a tradition of painting animals that would continue alongside wildlife illustration until the present day and was at its most popular in western European society during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Where most 18th century animal illustration was designed to impress wealthy clientele with its gaudy, flamboyant and often inaccurate style, at the turn of the 19th century, the work of British illustrator Thomas Berwick had adopted a new approach.  Forsaking the large colourful format, Berwick brought a ‘new insight into animal portraiture’ with a revival in woodcuts and an emphasis on physiognomic accuracy.  After Berwick came John James Audubon and Joseph Wolf in the mid-1800s: two illustrators whose technical skill appealed to prevailing Victorian tastes.  At a time when the British Empire was at its height, their close observation and honest depiction of animals contributed to the collection of specimens in the name of science and taxonomy.

It is important to note the relationship between the two fields (of illustration in the name of science and painting in the name of art), as they informed each other stylistically as well as objectively.  Both were purchased by the wealthy and both were built upon a succession of styles and observations that were simultaneously improved upon and modified according to need.  The application of taxonomy that these artists either advocated or ignored is a contributing factor to the current discourse surrounding the representation of animals and one that may be addressed by heeding contemporary posthumanist views.  This will be covered in greater detail later in this essay, but first a historical context of paintings in relation to taxonomy must be discussed.

In flagrant disregard for the identification systems developed by naturalists of the Enlightenment, many of the illustrators and painters deliberately accentuated redeeming features of their subjects, or embellished the animals with richer colour and decorative effects.  The artists often decided what to include and what to omit according to the tastes of their patrons or the fashions at the time.

Francois Desportes (1661-1743) and Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1686-1755) were two painters who are best noted for their scenes of sporting and the hunt.  Like most other painters of the period who produced hunting scenes, they achieved a visual realism of species that was owed to a proximity to and familiarity with the animals they pursued.  The paintings served as status symbols for the wealthy, reminding them of the nobility and grandeur of the hunt and ultimately of their power and prowess as leaders, land-owners and sportsmen.  Although details such as the physiognomy or colouration were carefully attended to, as well as naturalistic poses both before and after the animals’ death, it was important for the animals to appear more ferocious and impressive than in reality and as a result the animals (or features of) were often exaggerated or over-dramatised.

Towards the end of the 18th century, animal portraiture continued to be popular with the wealthy, as pet ownership became a sign of affluence.  Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788) produced animal portraits, such as those of dogs, for rich patrons. In striving to capture the animals’ character in paint, attention to detail became paramount.  The fashionable practice of painting horses for rich landowners was also prevalent at this time, with exponents such as George Stubbs (1724-1806) leading the way in this oeuvre.  The paintings were a record of their owner’s possessions and triumphs and care was given to imbue the animals with valiant and even individual qualities.  Although Whistlejacket, a painting of the Marquess of Rockingham’s racehorse made in 1762, is considered one of the first paintings to place an animal as the central subject, it is contested by those who believe the portrait was initially going to feature a landscape and rider but that Stubbs was forced to leave the painting unfinished at the request of Rockingham.  Whatever the original intention, the individual character expressed in the equine subject is undeniable. It is with these paintings of domesticated animals that taxonomy is displaced by individuality as a means of achieving accuracy.

Following Stubbs and Gainsborough came other painters during the Romantic era, including Theodore Gericault (1791-1824), William Blake (1757-1827) and Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863), all of whom sought to depict raw animal energy and vitality.  The Romantics sympathised with the savage fierceness of animality and in their paintings they tried to show an admiration of animal beauty and the wild.  Delacroix in particular ‘exposed a new religion of violence’ with regard to animals, painting scenes of carnage between predator and prey with startling realism.  In contrast, Gericault’s animals, such as Head of a Lion (1820) were much gentler and more sentimental and it is this sentimentality that became prevalent in 19th century painting.  Painters like Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) and Sir Edwin Henry Landseer (1802-1873) followed the tradition of animal portraiture for the upper classes, producing realistic images ranging from dying stags in hunting scenes to family lapdogs staring sorrowfully towards the spectator-owner.  In a description of one such painting titled Dignity and Impudence, writer Frances Fowle describes how:

Landseer draws attention to the dogs’ ‘human’ characteristics: the soulful look and gentle dignity of the bloodhound is contrasted with the mischievous expression of the small terrier. Moreover, the larger dog is painted in smooth, variegated textures, while the smaller dog comes to life with a few jabbing and expressive brushstrokes.

This use of paint to stylistically anthropomorphise animals was a popular trend at the time and demonstrates the painters’ tendency to ignore the animals’ true bearing in the world and overlay it with humanist affectations.

Whether consciously or not the artists of the late 19th century were producing such realistic paintings in response to the development of photography; a technological influence on paint that will be explored later.  It was also at this time that the binary of nature-culture was strengthened by the industrial and scientific advances of the Victorian era and both animals and ‘the wild’ receded into the distance and were romanticised.  By the end of the nineteenth century, this sentimentalism in the treatment of painted animals culminated in the work of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, whose excessively romantic imagery featured animals only as narrative references and metaphors, realistic though they were.  William Holman Hunt’s (1827-1910) The Scapegoat painted in 1856 is a good example, portraying a male goat laden with metaphorical and allegorical meaning.  Despite the faithful rendering of its hair and physiognomic accuracy, it is impossible to ignore the desolate surroundings and red crown that implicate the mammal in a deeper religious agenda on the part of the artist.

For over 170 years photography has had a profound effect on the art of the 20th century.  Although many painters, such as Degas, Courbet and Delacroix embraced photography and often even used it to help depict movement or achieve accuracy in their painted animal subjects, it eventually undermined painting’s claim to historical and documentary authority. It is no accident that the development of photography eventually led to a peak followed by a subsequent decline in the realistic representation of animals, both in terms of romantic painting and natural history illustration.  The work of Eadweard Muybridge and his use of photography to investigate the motion of living beings is particularly significant and perhaps places him as the central figure in the history of the reproduced image. In the year 1879, Muybridge successfully documented specific visual information about the locomotion of animals and people.  His work revealed the significance of an accession of images instead of the noteworthiness of a select few and for the first time people could truly understand the way non-human and human anatomy functioned.

Muybridge’s experiments and the rise of photography altered the purpose of the painter.  The understanding and interpretation of the visual world was affected; events (such as motion) could be isolated in static images, scrutinised and reproduced on an unprecedented scale.   As a result, artists produced works which focused on the very qualities early photography did not possess: the play of light, the expressive qualities of paint and the spontaneity of creation, which resulted in the movements of Impressionism and Expressionism that still find popularity today. By concentrating on colour, movement and the gestural, emotive qualities of paint, animals painted after the Romantics became prime vehicles for expression and metaphor.  German Expressionist, Franz Marc (1880-1916) is one of the most famous animal painters, whose paintings depicted the spiritual beauty he found in non-humans.

Other 20th century artists who depicted animals did so as supplements to their oeuvres of genre paintings, still-lifes or portraits, positing the non-human as symbolic accessories to whatever narrative was being constructed in the work and even using animals to represent themselves, such as in the Surrealist paintings of Marc Chagall (1887-1985), where the artist used creatures such as goats or horses to signify his own presence in a picture.  In his article on the artist, Simon Abrahams describes The Painter and the Goat (1982) as a piece in which:

Chagall placed his own figure behind the goat as if to say ‘I am the goat’…One eye of the goat is placed horizontally, flat on the surface, as an eye of the artist often is in self-portraits. The painter’s palette-arm is hidden though one leg of the goat extends straight towards the thumb-hole of the palette as though the goat’s leg and the painter’s thumb are linked.

“Strigops habroptilus” acrylic on canvas, 119cm x 148.5cm

I decided to paint this after a friend at university sent me a photograph of the strange bird. The kakapo’s latin name “Strigops habroptilus” means “owl-like” and many people have mistaken this image for an owl. I wanted to capture the flightless bird’s comical, clumsy nature as well as its lush green habitat of New Zealand.

For more, visit http://www.markjnewton.comImage

“Thunnus thynnus” acrylic on canvas, 160cm x 200cm

Image

This painting was something of an experiment. How do I fracture the image of an animal in water? The way light is refracted in swirling seawater is broken enough, without trying to distort the image in reference to screens and the internet. The species is Atlantic Bluefin Tuna, another animal on the IUCN Red List and classified as critically endangered through over-fishing.

To see more, check out http://www.markjnewton.com