Norton Museum of Art

West Palm Beach, Florida



Animal as Muse

May l6 - August 23, 1998


Joan Brown, Self Portrait with Gorilla and Wolf, 1970, enamel on masonite panel, 90 x 48 inches,

purchased through the R. H. Norton Fund

The complicated relationship that exists between humans and animals is the subject of the exhibition "Animal as Muse" on disptay at the Norton Museum of Art May l6 - August 23, 1998. The use of animals as a form of artistic expression has been prevalent throughout the centuries. They have been idealized by the Greeks, entombed by the Egyptians and enshrined by the Chinese. "Animal as Muse," organized by the Norton Museum of Art, was forged with the premise that many contemporary artists at the close of the 20th century still find meaning and inspiration in animals as subject, metaphor and symbol. The 93 works included in the exhibition are from the Norton's permanent collection as well as loans from collections across the United States.


Marsden Hartley, Flounders and Blue Fish, 1942, oil on rag board, 22 3/8 x 16 3/4 inches,

bequest of R. H. Norton


Our pre-historic ancestors chose animals as one of their first subjects, scratching them on cave walls with charcoal. Animals are depicted on the Parthenon frieze, in Egyptian tombs, and Pre-Columbian temples. The earliest example of an animal form in the Norton's collection is Hittite, a cast bronze standing horse dating from the 10th Century B.C. This diminutive yet powerful work captures the spirit of the horse with an economy of detail that is remarkably msdern. What remains becomes the essence of the animal, an iconic deal of grace and power.


David Gilhooly, Moose Potter Returning from Greece with Souvenirs, 1978, ceramic, 18 x 13 x 21 inches,

gift of Dale and Doug Anderson


Now fast-forward to the contemporary earthy beauty of Deborah Butterfield's 1981 Palomino. By the late twentieth century, the horse has become marginal in western culture. Once relied upon for transportation and agriculture in industrialized countries, the horse is now more often used for recreation. But Butterfield has rescued the horse from marginality, choosing to make it the central image of her body of work. Butterfield, whose smaller scale sculptures were influenced by those of the Tang Dynasty, has constructed Palomino using plant leaves (a substance not unlike that which makes up a horse's diet) and paper pulp over a wire armature, ultimately capturing the spirit of the horse in a Zen-like state of grace. The horse appears returned to nature; we sense no hovering human presence.


Paul Caponigro, Running White Deer, 1967 (printed by artist in 1996), gelatin silver print, 9 1/8 x 23 11/16,

purchased through the R. H. Norton Fund


As European and American Modernism evolved, the use of animals as subjects shifts to more formal concerns. All one has to do is compare the academic style of Eugene Fromentin's 1872 painting The Rest with Milton Avery's Landscape wifh Black and Whife Horses to gauge how artists' concerns have evolved in seventy years. The emotional component flattens and recedes; the artist seems less concerned with communicating values such as nobility and grace than with using animals as pure form or color.

Many contemporary artists use animals for more conceptual aims. Ours is a world of rocketing changes and cultural shifts. Anxity and ambiguity are its artistic product. Animals become potent symbols of our failures, the fragility of the natural world, and our own reckless natures. And they are also depicted with reverence, as wild creatures we can never truly tame. In the work of Morris Graves and in Paul Caponigro's Running White Deer, spirituality achieves form in the guise of the natural world. Graves strives for a meditation on spirit, while Caponigro eloquently captures the mystical beauty of a herd of running deer. Joan Brown, in Self Portrait with Gorilla and Wolf, includes a pair of wild creatures as rather quirky companions, suggesting the artist's peaceable coexistence with the primal, both in the world and within her own nature.

In many ways, contemporary artists are closer to the views of our prehistoric ancestors than to a nineteenth century sensibility. As the natural world is corrupted, we are returning to the reverence of our ancestors, the knowledge of ourselves as just another species inhabiting a very small world.

Animals do not exist in order to be tamed, or for our sport or amusement, nor are they designed for our service. Often, they give testimony to our worst mistakes. The salient characteristic of the strange creatures in the paintings of Alexis Rockman, Abakanowicz's mutants, or Kiki Smith's dead, silent crows, is that these creatures did not create their circumstances. When it comes to animals and our environment, contemporary artists point out what we have perhaps already suspected: everything, in the end is all our fault.


rev. 11/26/10

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