November 3, 2013

At the Met: Animals

Antelope Pendant, Iran 3100-2900 B.C.; silver.

In his essay "Why Look at Animals?", which you can read here, John Berger begins by writing that before the 19th century, when the human connection with nature began to be disrupted,
...animals constituted the first circle of what surrounded man. Perhaps that already suggests too great a distance. They were with man at the center of his world.
Animals first entered the imagination as messengers and promises. 
Wandering through the Metropolitan Museum of Art recently, I thought to focus on the rich representations of animals in their collection which certainly make Berger's thoughts manifest. There is a power and presence to so many of the animal works, and a sensitivity to detail and form, even if abstracted, that makes clear the artist's attentiveness to the subject. The small antelope pendant above, only 4 inches long, is a favorite of mine that I visit often. I love its refined forms, so carefully described, so real and alive. It goes beyond naturalism to touch something more enduring and essential.

Bronze Horse, Greek (Geometric), 8th century B.C. 

Although it is quite abstracted, this sculpture of a horse is an embodiment of horse, with its graceful curve of neck and full limbs.

Animal, Mali, Bamana; 19th-20th century; wood, sacrificial materials

Quite a different kind of abstraction is used in this animal from Mali. It is a magical figure, called a boli, containing great power within the spiritual world of the Bamana. From the sculpture's description on the Met's website (more there if you are interested) I learned that
The primary function of a boli is to accumulate and control the naturally occurring life force called nyama for the spiritual benefit of the community. The composition of the encrusted patina varies, but all the ingredients possess this inherent and important spiritual energy.....As the sacrificial materials accumulate over time, each added layer affords the structure greater spiritual power. 

Bronze statue of Artemis and a Deer (detail), Greek or Roman, ca. 1st century B.C. - 1st century A.D.

This graceful creature stands looking up at Artemis, also known as Diana, the goddess of the hunt, of wild animals and wilderness.

Waterfowl in a Clapnet, Egyptian Dynasty 11, ca. 2051-2000 B.C.; painted limestone.

Egyptian reliefs have some of the most beautiful depictions of animals in the history of art. Their outlines are elegant and specific, and the interior carving delicate and finely observed. They balance a simplifying vision with a keen understanding of animal forms. They are achingly touching.

Horse, Tang Dynasty China, 8th century; earthenware with brown glaze. 

My animal selections wouldn't be complete without a Tang dynasty sculpture. This horse is another favorite; he looks about to prance, or to be ready to pull a load, solid and full of life.

Hunting Dog, European, 15th-16th century or later; iron.

When I walk through the European sculpture galleries on the way to the American wing (café), I love to stop and visit this small dog, whose curves never fail to delight me.

Figure of a Hare, Egypt, 11th century; copper alloy, cast.

This exclamatory bunny was a new find, so utterly charming with its happy face and extended ears.

Seal Amulets in the Form of a Reclining Cow, Mesopotamia, 3300-2900 B.C.; various stones.

Animal Brooches, Roman, 100-300; copper alloy with enamel. 

Group of cosmetic Flasks, Iran or Central Asia, probably 9th - 12th century; soapstone, carved and drilled and serpentine, carved and incised. 

Stags and Ear Pick in the Shape of an Alligator, China, 13th-11th century B.C.; jade and bone (alligator)

Other new discoveries were a variety of small sculptures, made over a wide period of time in different cultures, all objects for ordinary use; ordinary for those who could own such things, who I imagine were the elites.

The Crow Spy Talks to the King of the Owls and His Ministers, Egypt or Syria, Ottoman period, 18th century; ink and opaque watercolor on paper.

Laila and Majnun detail, Iran, mid 18th century; oil on canvas. See the entire painting here.

I found the two paintings above, one from a manuscript the other a painting, in the Islamic wing. The Crow Spy has wonderfully patterned imagery; the animals in Laila and Majnun, though more naturalistic, are still quite fanciful and tender. In all the works I've shown there is a sense of attention, of reverence, of deep interest in these lives that surrounded and were part of these various cultures, yet separate, as Berger described them, "parallel lives".


  1. A wonderful selection, Altoon...thank you.

  2. You are both very welcome; I'm glad you enjoyed this post.

  3. I loved this. Your shot of the brooches was perfect.