Monday, December 31, 2007


This is "Sacred Hamadryas Baboon" by Rembrandt Bugatti, modeled in 1910, cast by 1930.

As Giancarlo Biagi is quick to say in his editorial comment in the Fall, 2007, issue of “Sculpture Review,” the magazine is “planned and designed at the head office of the National Sculpture Society where the Editorial Board meets regularly... the group is very tight and includes a variety of experts in the sculpture field.” This time the theme (there is always a theme) is animal sculpture, with a sort of sub-theme because of the number of sculptors who have background in taxidermy: Akeley, Clark, Rockwell, Jonas, Ullberg, Balciar, Bunn, Cherry and others. Bob Scriver belongs on this list (as do several others). I choose to take the attitude that it’s always good to know what the others are like, since one already knows oneself. BUT I hope my book about Bob (assuming it EVER arrives from the printer), will get his name on such lists.

An introduction specific to this sub-theme was written by Dan Ostermiller, whose huge piece called “Scottish Angus Cow and Calf” often pops up in the Western Art mags. His father was a professional taxidermist and Dan worked for him. He says, “These modeling skills now allow me the luxury of creating character without struggling with the details.” He also explains that his father made casts of animal bodies for the production of mannequins that other taxidermists bought. (Those huge molds made by Bob Scriver from real animals, invaluable because they included all the fine specimens in the Scriver Museum of Montana Wildlife and cannot be duplicated without killing another animal, were destroyed out of ignorance by the lawyers in charge of the Scriver estate.)

Sculpture Review is a sophisticated magazine for connoisseurs and therefore doesn’t depend upon slick color photos, but it does rely on excellent black and white photography. This suggests that supplying the National Sculpture Society with good photos is an important step for sculptors who hope to be represented, no matter the theme.

Barye (1795-1875), the “Rodin” of the Animaliers, who capitalized on the same fine “Roman Block Investment” castings done in France of that time, is here with his archetypal portrayal of reptile being killed by big cat. At the other end of this spectrum are the peaceful portraits by Rembrandt Bugatti (1884-1916), younger brother of THAT Bugatti (the auto man). Anna Hyatt Huntington (1876-1973) is represented by one of her agile, choreographed portraits of young animals (which are often human) and an indispensable photo of Carl Akeley (1864 - 1926) shows him with one of his famous elephant mounts. Kemeys (1843 -1907) deserves much more attention as an early American Animalier, but the bison shown here has a eye so large and misplaced that the animal seems like a toy with a shoe-button eye.

Among the younger and more recent artists, there is a tendency to stylization, most marked in “Rising Crane” by Elliott Offner, b. 1931, and least by Walter Matia, b. 1953, whose taxidermy background includes the Natural History Museum of Cleveland where he learned the importance of gesture and silhouette. He is represented in the magazine by an interview and three photos of sculptures, including a fragmented maquette of a bull -- very powerful. Rosetta likes to emphasize the faceted planes of animal bodies and Louise Peterson appreciates the humorous expressiveness of dog bodies. Tim Cherry, who smooths his animals, also has a feel for the droll including an otter ready to rhumba and a duck with a curly drake’s tail.

As Matia puts it, preparation as a taxidermist provides two fields of expertise: one is the anatomy of animals, the sensation of their fur or feathers in one’s hands; the other is the technical skill of the mold and materials which can only be acquired by experience. In addition, most taxidermists are hunters, watchers, keepers of animals who store up interactions -- gesture and silhouette, one might say, as well as the obvious emotional content of animal movement and expression. Bringing these skills together successfully is the key to fine animal scuptures, whether portraits of specific actual creatures or archetypal representations.

I’m on several academic list-servs concerning animals and increasingly find them dismaying as they lift off into philosophical discussions, untethered kites most nearly resembling theology. There is a preoccupation with suffering, transgression, and ownership that I find quite beside the point of animals. One recent article was about bringing animals into a clean, beautiful room so they could “piss and shit” on it -- very transparent sort of displacement, if you ask me: a child’s reliance on bad words to pitch muck against parents. Of course, this is as far as it could be from the careful molecular considerations of scientists working through the dog or horse genome, so similar to human beings, so elegant in balance between chaos and eros. And so totally blank in describing what animals in their environment can become. These are animals reduced to ciphers, made abstract nearly to the point of nonexistence.

We are, naturally, obsessed with the loss of species and their habitat, preoccupied with the proper management of our household pets, and concerned about what the food industry does to animals that we eat. But I think it is vitally important NOT to lose our grasp of actual animals, whether the cats and dogs in our homes or the exotic beings in places we cannot hope to go. Biophilia must be anchored in true images we can keep with us.

In the Fifties and Sixties, when Bob Scriver was making many animal portraits of the specimens he collected for the Scriver Museum of Montana Wildlife (now dispersed by the Montana Historical Society), he felt it was important to be unique, to be the only one doing this. Now it seems that there is "so great a cloud of witnesses," and that is also a very good thing.

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