Tag Archives: animals in art

Botanicals and Beasts in two Shows at The Clark: Nikolai Astrup and les Lalanne

at The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA:

Nikolai Astrup: Visions of Norway, through Sept. 19, 2021

Claude & Francois-Xavier Lalanne: Nature Transformed, through Oct. 31, 2021

Take heart, struggling artists. Just keep going and be sure to leave a few works with at least one person who will take care of them and perhaps facilitate your coming out a century later. Actually, Nikolai Astrup (1880-1928) is fairly well known in his native Norway as a tentative modernist on the heals of elder compatriot Edvard Munch, but hardly known elsewhere until a 2016 show at the Dulwich Picture Gallery (London). Yet his work sits squarely within the European Post-Impressionist milieu of his time in engaging emotional as well as formal ways. He clearly moved away from naturalism towards highly subjective transformations of the visible world into pictures, on occasion broaching Symbolism, yet retained plein air effects held over from Impressionism. The collection of work here imparts an idiosyncratic painterly charm, tempered by gestural, impasto brushwork and content suggesting the metaphysical dimensions of humans interacting with nature. 

Beyond the promotion of personal stylistic autonomy and disavowal of mimesis as an art goal, Post Impressionism’s orbit reined in a catch-all European-defined “primitivism”–in Astrup’s case, fomented in depictions of regional folkloric–aka pagan, according to Astrup’s preacher father–festivals gathered in an opening gallery. They suggest blended earthbound and mystic experience, a la Gauguin in Brittany and Van Gogh in Arles and recall Munch in their swirling, smoky bonfires. 

Paintings by Nikolai Astrup at The Clark (6/22/21)

Following some traditional art training, Astrup, like Munch, apropos of interest in a questioning new art, sojourned in Paris and Berlin. His animated renderings of rugged mountains and spectacular fjords are kin to Alpine views by his German contemporary, Ernst Kirchner and others of the expressionist Die Brucke group.  Unlike Kirchner or Munch, Astrup enjoyed a close-knit married family life intertwined with the environment on a near self-sufficient farm-residence.  Think holistic healing idyll a la Heidi (the late 19th c. novel. best known from a 1937 Shirley Temple film). Several ersatz replications of his last homestead in the form of hi-rez photo wall paper appear in gallery corridors (as in the header image above).  A bit overblown (literally)? I liked this curatorial touch, considering the simultaneously intimate and monumental, transporting sense of place that his art itself registers. Somewhat ironically, Astrup died of pneumonia at 48, reminding of the probable many harsh realities not alluded to in these portrayals.

Among the engaging technical variations in Astrup’s paint application, breezy but deliberate dabs approximating botanical details stood out.  At times, swaying foxgloves, blankets of marsh marigold, and giant rhubarb (for example) suggest transformation from wood’s edge to wonderland. 

Foreground detail of a Nikolai Astrup painting at The Clark (6/22/21)
Nikolai Astrup, “Foxgloves” (1920); at The Clark (6/22/21)

Domestic scenes are conspicuously filled with cut flowers, towering plants, and table-top produce, and often include open doors and windows to meld inside and outside space.

Nikolai Astrup, “Early Snow” (1926); at The Clark (6/22/21)

A substantial cache of Astrup’s woodcut prints, most hand-colored in experimental ways, are also on display, along with some of the corresponding carved blocks.   It is obvious he shared a trendy interest in Japanese woodblock prints of the ukiyo-e “school” then flooding the European market, notable especially in his images of the local Mount Klauva as a repetitive, stabilizing stand-in for Mount Fuji in the protoypes.

Some compositions and ostensible subjects veer distinctly away from naturalism through awkward scale, and enigmatic, sometimes anthropomorphized shadows and objects (like giant coffee-pot silhouettes and scarecrow-morphing grain stacks); even a few anamorphic forms, like a rocky crevice or ridge that can appear alternatively as a skull or a woman’s body, can be discerned sparingly.  But it’s Astrup’s ability to convey the ethereal through his rooted allegiance to the earth that is awesome and uplifting.


Astrup’s pictorial nature segues nicely to non-human creatures featured in the sculptural work of Claude (1925-2019) and François-Xavier (1927–2008) Lalanne, couple-creators somewhat akin to the ubiquitous art collaborators, Christo and Jean-Claude.  Each Lalanne, however, generally created independent works, albeit with related content, namely, fauna, which they exhibited and marketed jointly as Les Lalanne. 

Among their signature designs are woolly-coated “sheep” seats, examples of which are included, some replete with cast bronze faces, some distorted and partial, first created by Francois-Xavier in the ’60s and popular with the European jet set.  

Francois-Xavier Lalanne, Moutons de Laines (first created 1965) at The Clark (6/22/21)

Having seen some of these previously in outdoor settings, I wondered, at first, whether a glimpse, beyond the glass gallery wall, of still cattle in the distance at the edge of the Clark grounds was a site sculpture extension of the exhibition—not.  But a perfect backdrop, past a large cast metal fish sculpture in an architectural pool just outside the gallery that is.

Francois-Xavier Lalanne, Carpe (Tres Grande; 2000); at The Clark (6/22/21)

I found the large-scale bronze “flying rabbit” richly evocative, conjuring a prosaic Pegasus, an updated ritual Near Eastern lamassu, and a Brancusi fish, for starters.

Francois-Xavier Lalanne, Lapin a Vent (1994/2004; bronze)

Jointly, the collection here may insinuate inter-species development and mutation–discordant and slightly sinister–but also suggest blow-up toys in a futuristic 3D bestiary.     

The Astrup and Lalanne exhibitions are unexpectedly complimentary, each striving for a child-like visual and psychological examination of non-human living things as extensions of being.

Claude Lalanne, Choupatte Moyons (bronze; 2012) at The Clark (6/22/21)


Zootropia: Recent Shows

“Ester Curini: Endangered”; through April 1 at Bernarducci Meisel Gallery, 37 West 57th Street

“Animal Intent,” curated by Emily Falvey; through March 18 at Apex Art, 291 Church Street (Tribeca)

If you were feeling the animal magnetism of Sean Landers, Walton Ford and Dürer (yes) last month in Naturalia at Paul Kasmin, or are partial to furry-feathery-hoofed-slivering friends generally, two follow-ups:

Ester Curini’s wolf paintings take on the (relative) artistic sheep’s clothing of Photorealism, as close translations of Sierra Club-wildlife photography.  The substantial rub is in the blown-up scale and white-out of settings, so that each in confronts viewers as both fleeting chimeras and frozen icons.  Curini’s empathy with the creatures portrayed, borne of direct interaction with rescues at a conservation center, scene of the source photos for most of the paintings, is conveyed in the reciprocal gaze and perceived emotion she establishes between subjects and viewers after an initial, mutually defensive rapprochement.

Ester Curini, “I am the Lobo,” 2016 (72×48 in.; www.bernarduccimeisel.com).

If Curini posits a human artist/model relationship in her face-off, planar perspectives that subtly undercuts anthropocentrism, the artists in Animal Intent do so by enlisting animals as collaborators.  (I mean, literal appropriation seems the greatest form of flattery–its more subversive implications notwithstanding.)

An example:  Alison Reiko Loader and Christopher Plenzich present a stereoscopic-like, time-lapse video (viewed on a wall-mounted ipad) of developing caterpillar larvae, accompanied by charcoal drawings created by the “adults.”  Perhaps part “chimps with paintbrushes,”  the controlled and extended nature of the project is much more provocative (you’ll see).  Others immediately memorable: honeycomb-adorned, found tchockes by Aganetha Dyck, with help from a bee hive; an unlikely snake and mouse camaraderie captured in elegant photos by Nina Katchadourian; and, especially fascinating, lacquered and faux-gilded (in one case) spider webs by Michael Anthony Simon.

Michael Anthony Simon, “Faux/Real” (2017), at Apex Art.

Perhaps most prevalent in postwar cutting edge art when it comes to animals is taxidermy; from Joseph Beuys’s hares to Robert Rauschenberg’s combines, to Annette Messager’s pscyhe-scape installations,  to Damien Hirst’s pork bellies and dead insects, to Yinka Shonibare’s beast-head mannequins, to Maurizio Cattelan’s faux-perched pigeons.  In these the critter stiffs are re-purposed as reified metaphors and coalesced raw materials (not to mention, in a few of Hirst’s cases, killed in the making of art).  In a similar but shifting vein,  Matthew Barney, Jane Alexander, and Nandipha Mntambo have moved to diverse interspecies explorations, not coincident with a rising wave of interdisciplinary research and conjecture on the vicissitudes and very likely false “truths” of human primacy and difference.  This is ground zero for the artists of “Animal Intent” (along with relatively recent insect-assisted work by Pierre Huyghe and Dieter Roth), specifically in liminal terms of creativity.

The take-way from this discourse (including these two shows): don’t be too quick to dismiss expression–including artistic–by animals, or the trope of animals in art, despite its long history.   Of course,  we do not yet know whether animals are truly self-conscious constructors, never mind willing participants, in what we can reasonably call art, even if they have “emitted” or contributed to it.

*Excluding exclusively “taxidermic artists.” (Yes.)