By J. Scott Orr
Artists and animals have a long and lovesome past, with some of history's greatest artists sharing their lives with pets of every stripe. From Andy Warhol’s dachshund, to Frida Kahlo’s monkeys to Salvadore Dali’s ocelot, behind many of art’s greatest humans were non-human intimates.
Now, an East Village art gallery is hoping to build on that transition through its new exhibition Animalia, a group art show that explores the adamantine bonds between humans and their non-human companions.
Through history, animals have been friends, inspirations, emotional-support-givers, even muses to their two legged partners in the art world. Warhol immortalized his dachshund Archie in portrait. Kahlo created a self-portrait with her monkeys. David Hockney posed for a photograph before a wall of portraits of his dachshunds Stanley and Little Boodgie.
Fittingly, perhaps, Dali was associated with a most unusual collection of animal friends. He was pictured signing documents on the belly of his pet ocelot Baby. Even more bizarrely Dali-esque is a photo that captured the father of surrealism taking a pet anteater for a walk, though that one is acknowledged to have been staged.
Kahlo and her muralist husband Diego Rivera maintained a diverse and often rowdy menagerie of pets that included spider monkeys, cats, parrots, an eagle, a deer and a pack of Mexican hairless dogs. Her most famous work featuring animals is Self-Portrait with Monkey, painted in 1938. Apropos of nothing, but perhaps worth noting: the painting is now owned by pop megastar Madonna.
For some reason, dachshunds seem to be a preferred breed among the fine art crowd. In addition to Warhol and Hockney, weiner dogs were favorites of Picasso, Adolf Eberly, Pierre Bonnard, Max Liebermann and many others.
Picasso rendered likeness of his dachshund Lump at least 15 times after the canine joined his household in 1957, a gift from photojournalist David Douglas Duncan.
“This was a love affair,” Duncan said at the time. “Picasso would take Lump in his arms. He would feed him from his hand. Hell, that little dog just took over. He ran the damn house,” he said.
Hockney was so enamored of Stanley and Little Boodgie that he created a “dog wall” consisting of 15 etches of the dogs, separately and together, lounging in various states of calm and comfort.
“They sleep with me; I’m always with them. They don’t go anywhere without me and only occasionally do I leave them. They’re like little people to me,” Hockney said.
Georgia O'Keeffe, doyenne of American modernist painting, fell for Bo and Chia, a pair of blue chow chows she received for Christmas in 1953 that she referred to as her "little people." She would own six chows in her lifetime.
Henri Matisse enjoyed the company of felines: while he had several favorites, including Minouche and Coussi, it was a black cat named la Puce (the Flea) he is said to have loved most. La Puce is featured on the lap of his daughter in the 1910 painting “Marguerite au chat noir” one of the French post-impressionist master’s few pieces featuring animals.
And there are countless other noteworthy animal lovers among art’s historical greats. Favoring cats were Gustav Klimt, Paul Klee, Frank Stella and Ansel Adams, among many others. Art giants who preferred canines for companionship: Edvard Munch, William Wegman, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Joan Jonas and William Hogarth.
Then there was Jackson Pollock who preferred the company of a feather friend, his pet crow Caw Caw. Apparently Caw Caw was not a very well-behaved pet, but that didn’t prevent his birdhouse from becoming part of the collection at the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center in East Hampton.
Animalia, the EV Gallery Show, hopes to honor the tradition of artists partnering with their animal friends while at the same time giving local artists a chance to memorialize lost pets and show love for their current companions.
“We wanted to highlight the long history of animals and artists as partners in the creative process, so we decided to ask local artists to create original works that express their own relationships with their non-human loved ones,” said Kerri Lindström, who owns EV gallery and co-curated the show.
Curator Marie Suchan added that the idea grew from the grief she and Lindström experienced recently with the passing of their respective canines, Daisy and Bao Bao. “We wanted to give the artists in our community a chance to celebrate the lives of their pets through art. The response to our call for artists was overwhelming,” she said.
Scott Orr is a career writer, editor and a recovering political journalist. He writes for UP Magazine and is publisher of the East Village art magazine B Scene Zine.