At Large  May 26, 2023  Cynthia Close

Creature Comfort: Animal Art in the Home

wikimedia commons

Gerrit Dou, Sleeping Dog, 1650.

The term zoomorphism, when applied to art, can mean any object that uses animals as a visual motif. In literature, zoomorphism relates to humans or objects that assume animalistic behaviors or features.

Louvre, wikimedia commons

Egyptian mummified cat.

Deities in the art of ancient religions were often imagined as mythological creatures sometimes merging animal and human anatomies. Hindu gods and goddesses all have their animal counterparts. The elephant-headed Ganesha, Lord of Obstacles, is perhaps the most widely recognized deity outside of India.  

Cats were ubiquitous in ancient Egypt revered as sacred household companions in life and mummified to travel with their human owners after death.

Indigenous cultures acknowledge their dependence on animals for daily survival by incorporating their images in artworks and everyday items like this beautifully crafted Eskimo basket topped with an ivory polar bear and seal handle.

Honolulu Museum of Art, wikimedia commons

George Omnik (Point Hope, Alaska, Eskimo), Basket with bear and seal carving. Coiled, rattle cover, baleen, whale ivory.

Cultural depictions of dogs in art, usually in the context of hunting, are found in caves and tombs going back to the Bronze Age. As they became domesticated dogs, were brought into the home, as seen in this Pompeiian fresco Endymion and Selene. Dogs have continued to be featured in painting and sculpture throughout art history, becoming a status symbol in the 18th and 19th century.

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Master of Color, Endymion and Selene, before 79 AD.

As long as life itself, our evolution as a species has been intimately dependent on our nonhuman counterparts and we have honored that reciprocal relationship by incorporating animal imagery in art, icons, and everyday objects used in our domestic environments. In the early 20th century Dadaist Marcel Duchamp coined the term readymade, turning found objects into art. In 1942, Picasso put a twist on this concept when he turned a discarded bicycle seat into a bull’s head.

courtesy the artist

Sayaka Ganz, Whirl, 2010.

Japanese sculptor Sayaka Ganz takes household waste, discarded items from thrift stores and turns them into animal forms. Ganz’s current focus is plastics. Motion is her hallmark. Her Shinto animist belief imbues inanimate utensils, forks, knives, and spatulas, with new life. Sculptures of birds, cats, fish, and horses are positioned swimming, swirling, flying, and running elegantly in space.

Creature Comfort: Animals in the House (February 1 - August 23, 2020) at Vermont’s Shelburne Museum explores our historical bonds with animals through the art we make and the objects we live with. Shelburne Chief Curator Kory Rogers has created a cozy, thematically arranged showcase taping into the museum's own extensive collection of art and household artifacts complemented by objects from private collections to highlight the cultural, emotional, aesthetic, and practical bonds between humans and animals.

courtesy the Shelburne Museum

Creature Comfort: Animals in the House installed at the Shelburne Museum through August 23, 2020.

Upon entering the gallery, we are greeted by a warmly lit mantel flanked by two framed late 18th century Delft tiles, one a cat, the other a dog, suggesting we have just entered an inviting home where both cats and dogs are welcomed by the fireside. A series of black and white photos from the life of Electra Havemeyer Webb (1888-1960), the museum's founder, show her surrounded by and sometimes covered by her bevy of dogs, most often poodles, indicating that although she died in 1960, she would have enthusiastically supported this exhibition.

courtesy the Shelburne Museum

Electra Havemeyer Webb

Creature Comfort is organized into six animal-themed, color-coordinated areas suggesting rooms in a home. The paintings, rugs, ceramics, toys, cages, wallpaper and furniture featuring dogs, birds, fish, cryptids (myths and monsters), wildlife, and cats generally date from the 18th century to the present. In challenging our notion of domesticated animal imagery, Rogers has chosen objects that take giant aesthetic leaps.

courtesy the Shelburne Museum

Mute Swan Tureens, ca. 1755.

A gracefully sculptural pair of porcelain Mute Swan Tureens, ca. 1755 (the only known surviving set) stand in sharp contrast to Pair of Guard Beasts: Brooke Shields and Jean Luc-Pi-guard (2016) a surrealist inflected anthropomorphic set of chairs by the Los Angeles-based Haas Brothers known for their irreverent designs straddling functionality and purely inventive form.

courtesy the Shelburne Museum

The Haas Brothers, Pair of Guard Beasts: Brooke Shields and Jean Luc-Pi-guard, 2016. Installed in Creature Comfort: Animals in the House at the Shelburne Museum.

It is estimated that over 85 million households in the United States currently include at least one animal as a pet with worldwide statistics even higher and growing. We pay tribute to those creatures in our lives with photographs, paintings, sculptures, poetry, and song. And while human activity drives ever more species into extinction, their images, caught in art and objects may be all that remains.

About the Author

Cynthia Close

Cynthia Close holds a MFA from Boston University, was an instructor in drawing and painting, Dean of Admissions at The Art Institute of Boston, founder of ARTWORKS Consulting, and former executive director/president of Documentary Educational Resources, a film company. She was the inaugural art editor for the literary and art journal Mud Season Review. She now writes about art and culture for several publications.

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