You could call it an indoor zoo.
“Beaute Animale,” a new exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris, features 120 paintings, drawings, sculptures and photographs of animals.
There are many masterpieces in the show -- Goya’s fighting cats, Guericault’s melancholy horses, Audubon’s U.S. birds and Courbet’s dying trout, a self-portrait of the despondent painter who was doing time because of his key role in the Commune revolt and the demolition of the column on Place Vendome.
Durer’s famous hare hasn’t budged from its wall in Vienna’s Albertina. Instead, there’s his no less famous rhino, a gift from an Indian prince to King Manuel I of Portugal.
The artist hadn’t seen the sensation of the Lisbon court with his own eyes, which explains why he added -- maybe inspired by the mythical unicorn -- a second horn on the animal’s back.
Another diplomatic gift, a giraffe sent in 1826 by the viceroy of Egypt to Charles X, the last Bourbon king in France, walked the 770-kilometer distance from Marseille to Paris where it lived for about 20 years in the Jardin des Plantes, feeding a cottage industry of prints, scarves, plates and other souvenirs.
Not all the artists in the show are household names.
One of the funniest canvases, “Monkeys as Art Critics” (1889), is by the Munich-based Gabriel von Max. A fervent Darwinist, he loved to portray monkeys with human features and even kept some of his models as pets.
To narrow the vast field, the organizers have limited the exhibition to Western art from the Renaissance to the present. That deprives us of the rich medieval fauna -- heraldic animals and emblems of saints.
You also look in vain for Rembrandt’s slaughtered oxen or Picasso’s bullfights. This is a sensitive show drumming up support for endangered species and pleading for biodiversity.
The most serious omission is the lack of any structure, chronological or otherwise. Jeff Koons’s 1991 wooden poodle peacefully faces Horace Vernet’s 1848 sketch of a ram.
At one point, a wall text raises the question as to why we find certain animals cute and detest others.
Georges Louis Buffon, the great naturalist, we are told, proclaimed in his “Histoire Naturelle” (1749-1804) that the horse was “the most noble animal.” The cat, by contrast, had “innate malice, a false character and a perverse temperament.”
The only reason to tolerate cats in the house, according to Buffon, is that they chase other, even less agreeable beasts.
The organizers lamely conclude that tastes do change. They also demonstrate that a few artists swam against the stream: Van Gogh painted a bat, Louise Bourgeois was obsessed with spiders.
If you expect a systematic exploration of the role animals played in art history, you’ll be disappointed. As a personal selection of often beautiful works, the show merits a visit.
“Beaute Animale” is at the Grand Palais, Paris, through July 16. Information: http://www.rmngp.fr. The exhibition is sponsored by Vetoquinol SA.
(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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