When portraying animals in art, humans have come a long way from charcoal cave paintings and terrible medieval murals (seriously – google ‘Medieval animal paintings’; I guarantee the results will be entertaining).
One thing Britain is quite reputable for worldwide is our penchant for photographing and filming wildlife, from the exotic sweeping visuals of BBC’s Planet Earth series to the hundreds of talented emerging photographers, as well as a long history of renowned traditional artists famous for animal portraiture.
It makes sense that animals all over different countries and cultures across the world have been a focal subject for art throughout history. Animals themselves are intrinsic to our survival as a species, the loss of which would be detrimental to the entire planetary ecosystem. There’s definitely a bond, isn’t there? It’s perhaps why we keep domesticated animals, attempt to conserve species in zoos, and like to feed the ducks in the park.
Animals themselves are also rather symbolic. Just as colours can represent moods and energy, images of certain species can embody an idea that an artist perhaps wouldn’t otherwise be able to explain or clearly portray. In some tribes in Native American culture, for example, images of bears were used to represent bravery and ferocious strength.
Even the recording of dead animals carries powerful symbolism in art. When the thrill of worldwide travel began to grip the globe in the late seventeenth century, new and unusual creatures were captured for a high price and shipped across the world to the highest bidder. Still-life paintings of exotic birds and insects would be bought by collectors and put on display in homes to indicate wealth and a knowledge of high culture.
Animals in fiction, also, are a demonstration of how we represent animals in artwork. An accurate portrayal? Aslan the lion from ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’, the wolfly White Fang and even Winnie the Pooh are all illustrations of the diverse personalities that are created when animals are personified and characterised
in fiction. In this respect, however, it can be easier to think of animal characters as perhaps more human than the animals they portray.
In contemporary art, the focus appears to have shifted very much to animal photography rather than painting, perhaps influenced by the increasing inexpensiveness of good quality digital cameras and international travel. Nowadays there are many great opportunities for anyone to get involved with wildlife photography and art, no experience necessary. Some good places to find modern animal photography include the Natural History Museum’s ‘Wildlife Photographer of the Year’ webpage, showcasing the best talent from amateur photographers around the world. In contrast to older forms of art such as still life painting, modern day photography seems a
lot more respectful – almost always capturing the animal subject in its natural habitat, without it being much disturbed. Definitely better than being shipped around the globe for next to no benefit for the animal.
Art is often defined as a method of self-expression. As human beings, there has always been a connection between ourselves and animals. This is one that we have strived to illustrate for millennia, whether that be inked on animal skin or chiselled in sandstone. Maybe a reason why we have continuously considered animals to be a symbolic subject is down to instinct; they’re a powerful representation of the natural world and base emotions, and will always be a great reminder to humanity of the world that continues to flourish even with us existing beside it.