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The animal in art, from Rosa Bonheur to Gilles Aillaud
lanimal-dans-lart-de-rosa-bonheur-a-gilles-aillaud - ARTACTIF
December 2023 | Reading time: 23 Min | 0 Comment(s)

About the animal genre, which is regaining strength and vigour on the art market.

Do you remember the exhibitions devoted to Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899) to mark the 200th anniversary of her birth in 2022? As for me, I set up my caravan next to the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Bordeaux at the beginning of June, not at all to take advantage of the air conditioning on a day when the city was sweltering in the heat, even if the occasion was opportune, but to discover the event that opened the ban, just before the Musée d'Orsay in Paris and the Château de Fontainebleau. Incidentally, Wikipedia contributors with a passion for Rosa Bonheur would do well to revise their entry on the famous animal painter, who made a very good living from her works of art for sale, because among her monographic exhibitions, the one that ran from 18 May to 1 September 2022 in Bordeaux has been completely overlooked. Even though it was really the first, in homage to the artist's birthplace...

In short, we remember above all discovering that these animal paintings, often monumental, always impressive, despite the immense fame acquired by their painter during his lifetime, had long been put away in the reserves of provincial museums, so much so that their classicism, their realism, had made them out of fashion. In fact, I've never forgotten the cultural mediator at the Bordeaux museum explaining to a group of visitors that she herself, a graduate of the Beaux-Arts in Paris, had never heard of Rosa Bonheur during her studies! The bicentenary of the painter's birth, which is part of the France Mémoire 2022 commemoration calendar, and the first retrospective devoted to the artist since the one held in Bordeaux, Barbizon and New York in 1997, came at just the right time: thank you for the return to favour of the forgotten women of art history. Because Rosa Bonheur alone really deserves to be known, whether or not you're tempted to buy one of her works of art to decorate your home.

So, in 2022, I took the opportunity to deepen this wonderful encounter by visiting the 'château' of By, in Thomery, Seine-et-Marne. Rosa Bonheur was able to afford this former 15th-century manor house in 1859, thanks to the sale of just one of her paintings: her monumental Marché aux chevaux, which was exhibited at the 1853 Salon in Paris and led to it being said that she painted "like a man": a supreme compliment for the time! But even if she had to constantly renew her "transvestite permit" to be able to put on trousers before setting up her easel in the livestock markets, Rosa Bonheur was a woman, and an excellent painter. She was even the first to be able to buy a house on her own with the proceeds from her works of art for sale. So if she had set her sights on By-Thomery Castle, it wasn't just because she could build a luminous studio there. Above all, it was because it stood on the edge of the forest of Fontainebleau, on four hectares of wooded estate... which she could populate with animals.

Yes, Rosa Bonheur's living models wandered around her own garden, be they dogs or cats, but also sheep, deer, horses, birds... and even wild animals. A lion and a lioness ended up living on the By-Thomery estate so that the artist could paint them as she pleased. It's enough to make you jump out of your skin, now that the animal cause has been heard! But in Rosa Bonheur's defence, and to put the matter in context before putting her on trial, we were still in the wake of Cartesian theories of the 'animal machine'. In other words, Descartes' thesis that deprived animals of all consciousness and sensitivity, in order to justify their exploitation by man. By endowing the eyes of her animals with a disarming humanity, the painter was perhaps, in her own way, working to improve their status...

Be that as it may, at least it did not present live goldfish in mixers at its openings, which visitors were invited to operate (and did operate), as did Denmark's Marco Evaristti in 2003! Nor did it stage the death of a dog in an art gallery, like the Costa Rican Guillermo Vargas, or a shark in formaldehyde or dying flies in a glass case, like Damien Hirst... Do artists have every right to speak out about a cause that questions them? "These extreme creations, in which the animal is sacrificed in the service of a discourse that claims to open the eyes of the spectator, who has become a voyeur and unwilling accomplice, are virtually indefensible and unjustifiable", says Daphné Bétard in the fascinating feature she devotes in the October issue of Beaux Arts Magazine to artists who explore the soul of animals. She also cites Adel Abdessemed's video Printemps, showing hens suspended by their legs and burnt alive, Huang Yong Ping's vivarium Theater of the World, where locusts, lizards and snakes slaughter each other, and Eduardo Kac's fluorescent transgenic rabbit Alba, which ends up in a laboratory...

"How can you claim to be fighting torture when you stoop so low as to stage it? Stirring up scandal and stupefaction, creating unease to make people think... yes, but at what price?" asks the journalist. "Ambivalent, disturbing, subversive, extreme, troubled and cruel, animal-tested contemporary art - the title of art theorist Vincent Lecomte's edifying book (...) - has also been able to take obscure paths, trashy, twisted and painful byways, where morality and propriety have been consigned to the wardrobe. Nevertheless, we have known since the 1960s, and especially since the work of ethologists in the 1980s, that animals are no less sensitive than humans. But it took a long time for the need for an ethical approach to the animal cause to become part of our collective consciousness! As Daphné Bétard writes, "the animal is no longer a subject of curiosity, scrutinised to satisfy the voracious human eye, it has become a subject in its own right".

On the contemporary art market, representations of animals are all the rage. So even if the genre, which came into fashion in the 18th century and rose to prominence in the 19th century with Rosa Bonheur, has since become completely outdated, here it is, emerging from the thicket and roaring with all its glory. "Totally reinvented by artists weaving a new relationship with the animal, in the light of the great extinction of species", writes the journalist from Beaux Arts Magazine. "Paintings, sculptures, installations, performances... all forms in which to experiment, with empathy or violence, with our own share of bestiality".

So let's push open the door of the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature in Paris, which has entrusted its walls to the surrealist humour of Sean Landers, mixed with Magritte and Picabia. The American artist does not hesitate to dress his wild animals in tartan, or to clothe a buffalo in a leather patchwork jacket with a pendant bearing the effigy of Salvator Dali... And while we're in Paris, we'll of course be stopping off at the Centre Pompidou to admire Gilles Aillaud's hippopotamuses, polar bears, tigers, lions and tortoises. Before crossing the border to the east for a little tour near Basel, to the Fondation Beyeler, which is exhibiting the mysterious Niko Pirosmani, the great Georgian loner of modern art... But it's a shame: animals are not allowed into museums!


Valibri en RoulotteArticle written by Valibri en Roulotte

Illustration : The Horse Market - Rosa Bonheur

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