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.
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. It creates a situation and ‘only the viewer’s presence completes the work’. 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.
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’. 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’. 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. 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.
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. 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.
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. 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’. 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.
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. 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.
 Baker, Postmodern, p.51.
 Baker, Postmodern, p.53.
 The Hayward Gallery, The Painting of Modern Life: 1960s to Now (London: Hayward Publishing, 2007) p.16
 Gill Perry & Paul Wood, (eds) Themes in Contemporary Art (London: Yale University Press, 2004) p.99.
 Matthew Gale & Chris Stephens (eds) Francis Bacon (London: Tate, 2008) pp.94-95
 Gale & Stephens (eds) p.27.
 Gill Perry & Paul Wood, (eds) Themes in Contemporary Art (London: Yale University Press, 2004) p.101.
 Perry & Wood, pp.101-102. (italics mine)
 Perry & Wood, p.102.