It took me a while to get into “Paper Zoo”, a collection of prints, photographs, books and drawings illustrating wildlife at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. If it were organized chronologically, so that I could see the progression of the animal into character in these works, then I might have gotten into it sooner. "Paper Zoo" is good for kids and perhaps it’s good for the English language learner, like the woman who asked me how to properly pronounce the name of the warty creature in Pablo Picasso’s illustration, "The Toad", a feature in this exhibit.
An ornamental panel of various animals, like a bird, a porcupine, and a turkey drawn by an unidentified artist of the early 16th Century is painstakingly accurate, but if you take Curator Clifford Ackley's suggestion, seeing the works as more of a culmination of the animal into character, then you might stay in the paper zoo a little longer than you thought you would.
“A Stag Grazing”, another 16th Century illustration, and the late 17th Century etching of sheep and goats by the Dutch artist Karel Dujardin have no distinguishing characteristic other than the hand that drew them, which also speaks to the invisibility of the artist in works during that time.
But as we approach the 18th Century, a vicious lion emerges from his darkened cage in James Daniel’s “A Lion Emerging From a Cave.” By this time, it seems that the mark of character had become the genius of an illustration. Animals themselves became the statement of the artists. Take “Prowling Cat” by Theophile Alexander Steinlen, for example. This is no ordinary cat, but one that is very aware of the viewer at its backside.
As time progresses, the animals in the 19th and early 20th Century embody more personality, like the pompous and colorful chicken in “Strutting Bird” by Austrian artist Berthold Loffler or the detailed illustration of a turtle’s beautiful home in “Turtle II” by Ukranian-American printmaker Jacques Hnizdovsky, who began his lifetime work of illustrating animals when he could not afford to hire human models.
Animal lovers might also appreciate “Paper Zoo”, which also features works by Rembrandt and John James Audubon. As for me, I’m not a big animal lover at all, so I would have preferred Dancing With Renoir.
Paper Zoo runs through August 19.
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
465 Huntington Avenue
Boston, MA 02115
Mon–Tue: 10 am–4:45 pm;
Wed–Fri: 10 am–9:45 pm;
Sat–Sun: 10 am–4:45 pm
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About the AuthorBridgit Brown
Bridgit Brown is a graduate of the MFA program in Creative Writing at Emerson College ('98). She was a Fulbright Lecturing and Research Scholar in Cote d'Ivoire, West Africa, and her writing has appeared in the Boston Globe, Boston Herald, Bay State Banner, Color Magazine, BasicBlack.org: Black Perspectives Now, Colorlines of Architecture, Exhale Magazine, Ibbetson Street Magazine, and Somerville Review.