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Animals and Art

I shouldn’t paint another elephant picture.

I have done my share of them over the years, exploring different poses and ideas, attitudes and moods and even different painting styles. Realistic, impressionistic, dreamlike or hard-edged. I have arranged elephant herds on my canvas in decorative patterns, I’ve abstracted their form to its bare essence.

I like elephants. But as a serious artist I’m supposed to deal with serious subjects, and I’m all too aware that wildlife art has long been regarded as fine art’s poor (and very distant) cousin – nothing more than a genre at the periphery of ‘real’ art, like the crime novel to serious literature. The reasons for this aren’t hard to find. Art is supposed to reflect the political and social issues of its time, to function as a mirror of the era in which it was created. 

Every artist has the urge to say something profound, or at least significant. To think deeply before taking up the brush, and to paint a picture that reaches out and shows someone somewhere, that the world is not as they thought it was – to reveal a new or forgotten truth. It’s what sets us apart from mere decorators (or so we like to think). And wild animals can’t do that. Not anymore. When the first artist raised his hand to a cave wall, he portrayed an animal. Our destinies were entwined like the matted hair on our backs; we depended on each other, to kill and be killed, but on some level we must have recognized our kinship. We worshipped gods with the heads of lions, or the sly eyes of cats and the power of wild bulls. Then our fates diverged, and as we tamed and domesticated, hunted, exterminated, and relegated all animals to the status of second-rate, we lost our connection, moved on, and severed the umbilical cord that once tied our dreams to theirs. 

Now, if someone wants to make a work of art about humanity’s relationship with animals, he’ll saw a slice out of a cow and display it in a hermetically sealed Perspex box. Or make an assemblage out of pig droppings or do something witty with barbeque sauce. It’s the only thing people understand, it seems. Not terribly subtle perhaps, but the critics pronounce it profound, and the galleries and museums follow. And art, let’s face it, has become big business. But listen: I have looked into an elephant’s intelligent eye and seen something there that made me shudder. Like coming face to face with an ancient shrine where forgotten ancestors have worshipped the unknown, my skin crept with awe, apprehension, and an emotion best described as shame. 

On our long journey from the savannah to the suburbs – from Olduvai Gorge to Morningside – we have left the wild beasts behind. We have no further use for animals, other than for food, hides, and entertainment, and the providers of those we breed in factories. The others missed the boat. 

Abandoned, forgotten except by a few hunters and birdwatchers…nutcases with binoculars and funny hats. I have watched my daughters adopt and raise an orphaned elephant calf, and when it died, the grief we felt was like the sharp stab of sorrow at a young nephew’s grave. I hear them in my half-sleep, chewing outside my hut at night, a rhythmic, reassuring sound, like murmured voices in a quiet church. Sleeping in the open, I woke one night to find an elephant’s foot inches from my head. High above me, the elephant was feeding unhurriedly while my heart jumped into my throat but tried to reach out to his at the same time. With artist friend Keith Joubert I stumbled through a black night, ten kilometres through dense elephant country, in search of petrol for the Land Rover we’d left stranded under a tree somewhere. Like two blind fools we strode forth through the darkness, reassuring each other with tales of destruction and slaughter by lions and elephants. The victims were others like us – careless idiots gored or trampled to death by animals provoked beyond the limits of their good nature – and our survival chances, I thought, were on a level with bicycling drunk through rush-hour traffic. But that was a minor concern. 

For those two long hours we were each transported to a different time – and a condensed essence of being human, lost and bewildered and of course afraid (although we’d never admit it). We were back in that time when our distant ancestors blundered through the dark, terrified but trusting – in touch with a greater power than themselves, a power benevolent and reassuring and omnipotent. And the gap was suddenly not so wide, between now and that distant time, and I was aware that basic elements of our humanity had changed very little, if at all. That to be alone in the wilderness teaches us –still – a lesson of great importance. A lesson in humility, the same one we feel when we spend too much time looking at the stars. And suddenly the fear was gone, and there was peace. We were at one with nature and all creation. I was aware of elephants out there. We smelled them, we heard them, and one group seemed to be travelling on a parallel course to ours, walking quietly through the night not very far from us. But I knew they would not harm us. Unless we taunt or anger them, these wild beasts have no quarrel with us, and as if to prove this, a grazing hippo, surprised by our blundering arrival, ran off with a grunt, more startled than us. Ah, but there must be better metaphors, a voice inside me will say, to comment on the human condition than elephants, and of course I listen. I am plagued by doubts, aware that I may be missing the real issues, missing my real calling by hiding out here in the wilderness. But every time civilisation calls me back and I go and live in some town, my dreams are plagued by demons of the bush. I hear hippo grunts in the traffic noise, lions and leopards stalk my sleep, and the smiling girls shouting their advertising slogans from my TV screen assume the hunched forms of night-time scavengers with the faces of hyenas. As I write this, a mother baboon walks past my hut, her baby pressed to her flank. The others of the troop are foraging nearby, busy, noisy, but always alert, keeping one eye out for potential danger. The hierarchy in their group is firmly established, and there is security in the knowledge that everyone knows his or her role. They talk to each other in a language of grunts, gestures, eye signals. They raise or lower their tails, their body language is full of secrets; it’s a language I don’t understand (but wish I did). Better metaphors? Maybe. More sophisticated, no doubt. Better reflecting the artificial super-efficient world we have created for ourselves? Definitely. More elemental? More eloquently telling of the very basics of human existence? More immediate, more persuasive than watching these baboons? Or feeling the presence of the elephants that shadowed our footsteps that night? Well, now… With the creeping realisation that our planet may be in big trouble, wildlife art has started to make a comeback. It has a long history of existing–even prospering- in the shadow of the academic ivory tower, and now, along with the endless TV programmes that show us the plight of some hitherto obscure species, it is straining at the leash. Unfortunately, much of the fare on offer cannot be taken seriously because, quite simply, it is so bad. Like many of the earnest-voiced cliché-ridden commentaries that accompany these TV documentaries, the paintings and sculptures, too, suffer from a lack of imagination, from too much blandness, or worse, sentimentality. 

The majestic old elephant bull resting in the shadow of the baobab tree has no place in the vocabulary of contemporary art. The times of the khaki-clad bwana with solar topee and double rifle have slipped into oblivion, missed by only a few. Unfortunately, much of Wildlife art still operates from the same platform; trying to replicate the romanticism of early nineteenth century art, where man and brooding nature fought their heroic battles. At best, along with botanical art, it shows drawing skill and a grasp of descriptive, zoological accuracy – at worst it is anthropomorphic nonsense, contaminated by sickly sentimentality, the thing you buy at the fluffy toys counter at OK bazaars. Most of today’s wildlife art doesn’t even come close to the elegance and simple beauty of the Italian and French ‘animaliers’ of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. In any case, for the academics, elegance and simple beauty wasn’t enough. The academics wanted more, they wanted social context. Some of Modernism’s most haunting images are animals. But they are rare, and condoned only as long as the animal form has first undergone a profound metamorphosis and emerges at the other end of the creative tunnel as a Symbol (blinking sheepishly, one imagines). Picasso’s bulls and goats, Marini’s horses had more to do with abstract concepts than with the animals they depicted, and Francis Bacon’s caged apes were powerful metaphors for human suffering. Yes, art, if it wants to survive, should reflect its epoch. When I look at a Rembrandt, I find myself transported to seventeenth century Amsterdam, with all its social inadequacies, its smelly streets; Monet invites me to take a walk with him along the banks of the Seine, and Turner is as unquestionably English as county cricket. Picasso belongs firmly into the first half of the twentieth century, and Warhol to the sixties –he’s as sixties as ban the bomb signs and Janis Joplin. But wait. Take a closer look at that Rembrandt, and you’ll notice it transcends its time and place. 

The humanity in his portraits speaks of our joys and suffering everywhere. Monet’s exuberant colour crosses the borders of the French countryside and tells us something of universal importance. Picasso’s Guernica may have been conceived as an anti-war statement, and by extension anti fascist. But it, too, says so much more. It opens up the entire catalogue of our worst sins and our highest aspirations. It is the task of animal art now, to rise to that same challenge. To put it simply, bad art is bad art, no matter what the subject. But at a time when the natural balances of our planet are tilting dangerously out of kilter, perhaps wild animals, from where they are squeezed to take their last stand, have something to say to us. A concern with animals is, for some reason, considered anti-intellectual in some circles, so it’s no surprise the academics aren’t listening. But others are. Perhaps our reactions to animals are so deep and ancient that they reside at a level which is not easily reached by words or even concepts. 

After all, we lived alongside them and shared our hunting grounds and prey with them for much of our history. Perhaps we should allow a less rational, more passive and passionate side of our nature to confront a painting of a lion, as if on the lion’s terms, not ours. To face a lion in the wild is a profound and disquieting experience, and even the most resolute of urbanites will be unsettled by the moonlight call of a hyena. Perhaps I shouldn’t paint another elephant. But I probably will.