One must know the animals, a new exhibition in the main galleries of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, opens June 2 and continues through August 19, 2012. Through works drawn from the museum’s permanent collection, the exhibition provides a platform to question and discuss our relationship with the animal kingdom.
The title of the exhibition is drawn from The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, a novel by Rainer Maria Rilke published in 1910. In the novel, Rilke, who is best known as a poet, addressed requirements for writing poems:
For the sake of a few lines one must see many cities, men and things. One must know the animals, one must feel how the birds fly and know the gesture with which the small flowers open in the morning. One must be able to think back to roads in unknown regions, to unexpected meetings and to partings which one had long seen coming ….
The public is invited to a special MMoCA Nights opening celebration for one must know the animals and other MMoCA exhibitions from 6 to 9 pm on Friday, June 1, 2012.
Animals and Art
Dating back to the earliest cave paintings and tribal totems, animals—as companions, workers, prey, predators, and sacred creatures—have captivated artists’ imaginations and served as an enduring subject. From representational to symbolic, scientific to mythological, animal-based imagery has appeared across time and cultures, a reminder of how deeply animals are embedded in human life.
One must know the animals examines how modern and contemporary artists, in a reflection of personal and social values, have used the animal form. Roy De Forest, for example, depicts the animal world in a fantastical comic style. In Out Our Way (1971), De Forest rounds up caricatured men in hats and oversized animals. From a window cut into the side of a giant pink rabbit, a woman stares out to make eye contact with a spotted horse. We are both with and within animals.
Several works in the exhibition present animals as stand-ins for humans. Both Untitled (beso/kiss), 1992, by Fred Stonehouse and Ursa Memoriam (1998) by Erik Weisenburger show animals in the role of the Christian martyr Saint Sebastian. Conversely, Warrington Colescott presents a disturbing reversal of roles in The Hunt: Counterattack by Deer Hunters (1981), as five deer in hunting clothing take aim at human targets.
Other artists use animals to make a social or political statement. Works by Thomas Frederick Arndt and Thomas Hart Benton address the value and vulnerability of the family farm, while Archie Lieberman demonstrates the intimacy that we can experience with creatures other than ourselves in his photograph Jay Dexter with duck, Schapville, Illinois (1974). Similarly, in Self Portrait with Sandy (1974), photographer Cherie Hiser presents a joyful image of the human/dog bond.
In a bestiary, a medieval illustrated manuscript of beasts, each animal carries religious meaning. The Italian artist Nino Longobardi created a personal version in the portfolio Il Bestiaro di Nino Longobardi (1984), in which he included the etching Cane (dog). Unlike medieval compendiums, Longobardi’s bestiary pairs animals with human beings. In Cane, animated skeletons are drawn over a seated and forlorn dog. The image brings to mind the memento mori in western art, the symbolic reminder of death—as in a skull, wilting flower, or burning candle—that caution against ignoring life’s brevity.
By considering the cultural roles and meanings of animals in contemporary life, one must know the animals demonstrates the evocative power of animal imagery and reveals truths about the animal itself and the people associated with it. Society and the artist define and depict animal life, respectively. To know the animals, in whom we see ourselves reflected, is also to know who we are.
Major funding for one must know the animals has been provided by The DeAtley Family Foundation; the David and Paula Kraemer Fund; Dane Arts, with additional funds from the Endres Mfg. Company Foundation; a grant from the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts; and MMoCA Volunteers.
Saturday, June 2 · 10:30–11 am
Animals, Image, and Text in a Technological World
Poet James Crews and visual artist Heather Swan will discuss one must know the animals from the perspectives of their creative disciplines. Together, they will explore the ways in which poetry and visual art depict the relationships of people and animals in a highly technological world, and how image and text can inform and transform each other.
This gallery talk is presented in conjunction with Taking Animals Apart: Exploring Interspecies Enmeshment in a Biotechnological Era, a conference sponsored by the Robert F. and Jean E. Holtz Center for Science and Technology Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Thursday, June 14 · 12:30–1 pm
Richard H. Axsom on one must know the animals
MMoCA curator Richard H. Axsom will provide an overview of one must know the animals. Axsom will highlight some of the many ways that animals have captivated artists’ imaginations and examine key works in the exhibition that illuminate our relationship to the animal world.
Richard H. Axsom is curator at MMoCA and professor emeritus of art history, University of Michigan-Dearborn. In addition to his curatorial work, he has published extensively in the area of modern and contemporary prints, including a forthcoming two-volume catalogue raisonné of Ellsworth Kelly’s prints.
Thursday, June 21 · 12:30–1:15 pm
McConnell and Axsom on Animals, People, and Art
Patricia McConnell and curator Richard H. Axsom discuss the complicated and often contradictory relationship between people and animals. The conversation will integrate Dr. McConnell’s expertise in zoology and comparative psychology and Dr. Axsom’s knowledge of art history.
Patricia McConnell is an international expert on canine and feline behavior and author of the acclaimed books The Other End of the Leash, For the Love of a Dog: Understanding Emotions in You and Your Best Friend, and Tales of Two Species. In addition to her teaching and writing, she is a sought-after speaker on dog behavior and training, and was the featured expert on Wisconsin Public Radio’s long-running program Calling All Pets. She is a certified applied animal behaviorist and an adjunct associate professor in zoology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Saturdays, June 9, 23, and 30 · 1–1:30 pm
Led by MMoCA’s docents, these free, informal tours provide visitors with the tools to consider artists’ creative decisions and construct meaningful interpretations of works on view in one must know the animals.
Hours at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art are Tuesday–Thursday (noon–5 pm); Friday (noon–8 pm); Saturday (10 am–8 pm); and Sunday (noon–5 pm). The museum is closed on Mondays.
Admission to exhibitions at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art is free of charge. MMoCA is supported through memberships and through generous contributions and grants from individuals, corporations, agencies, and foundations. Important support is also generated through auxiliary group programs; special events; rental of the museum’s lobby, lecture hall, and rooftop garden; and sales through the Museum Store.