Curious Beasts and Where to See Them

John Neylon ventures into the South Australian Museum’s latest exhibition, Curious Beasts: Animal prints from Durer to Goya and likes what he finds.

I thought we’d come a long way from bear baiting and cock  ghting – until the US elections got under way. Now that put Question Time in the Australian Lower House Parliament in the cat spat category. That we can talk about decency to animals as one hallmark of civilised society is a sign that in some national legislatures at least progress has been made.

But for every single domestic creature protected by law or guidelines there are countless others, including whole species, staring down the barrel as habitat clearance, poaching, feral predation and over exploitation take their toll. And did I tell you that a neighbour just spent $000s on vet and cosmetic surgery for his Cavoodle? And that’s not taking into account the rehab costs for Black Hawk Holistic K9 Dry Lamb and Rice for Adult Dogs addiction.

Getting the balance right between human and animal realms seems more challenging than ever. Curious Beasts doesn’t claim to have the solution. But in giving expression to senses of relationship with what used to be called ‘the animal kingdom’ it portrays this facet of human consciousness as central to what it means to be human.

Curious Beasts draws on the British Museum’s rich and extensive collection of prints, and the 15th to 19th century period in particular. This is the first time an exhibition from this institution has been presented in Adelaide. It is in fact the rarest of opportunities to see such a stellar line-up of remarkable works by by iconic artists including Durer, Rembrandt and Goya – unless of course you’ve wised up to the fact that The Art Gallery of SA regularly exhibits from its own extensive collection of old master prints and drawings.

First exhibited in London, Curious Beasts has a touring life of five venues with the SA Museum the last. Then for many of these Down Under tourists it’s back to the the solander boxes for a Bex and a good lie down. The core exhibition is constructed around three themes; Animals Allegorical, Animals Observed and Animals Encountered. These themes have been amplified and complemented by additional works drawn from the British Museum and SA Museum collections.

Of particular interest are works that express something of the intrigue that Antipodean creatures held for Europeans. Look out for a quite extraordinary mash up of bush denizens; Thomas Landseer’s koala and wombat climbing a gum tree with a kangaroo and thylacine below. All that is missing is a black swan or two and a Hills Hoist out the back.

curious-beasts-sa-museum-adelaide-reviewGeorge Cruikshank (1792-1878) The Mermaid! (1822), Hand-coloured etching, © The Trustees of the British Museum

The decision by the SA Museum to create a cabinet of curiosity mood by selectively rifling its research resources and creating ‘wonder walls’ and tableaux of specimens such as
taxidermed thylacines (absolute standouts) and an ichthyosaur fossil skull to complement an 1819 lithograph of same item plus eggs that defy the imagination – has paid off. Theatrical lighting has transformed this compact gallery space into an evocation of the foundations of the British Museum holdings – Sir Hans Sloane’s collection of natural history specimens plus books, manuscripts and prints, and other items bequeathed to the nation in the mid eighteenth century. Whenever objects from the SA Museum collection are tied closely to the core exhibition of prints, things click into focus.

A good example is the juxtaposition of George Cruikshank’s etching The Mermaid (1822) and a contemporary work Yawk Yawk, by Indigenous artist Anniebell Marrngamarrnga. Within some belief systems Yawk Yawk are female water spirits. Sometimes they are described as ‘mermaids’ who live in trees and water in special places in Western Arnhem Land.

Had the SA Museum’s holdings been further represented by examples of Indigenous art that amplified the three themes this would have lent the exhibition more coherency and focus. And indeed there are many examples such as the taxidermed ostrich amplifying an 18th century etching (after John Collet) satirising a mania for ostrich feathers as a fashion statement and a line-up of actual porcupine skeletons to provide a reality check for a fabulous 17th century engraving interpretation.

While finely detailed observations of all manners of creatures from insects to elephants will fascinate in terms of the slippages that occur when preconceptions get in the way, the Animals as Allegory selection deserves to appeal immediately to the contemporary imagination. Here, moralising mixes with inspired satire as animals are cast in human roles or act as foils to beliefs and values. There was an opportunity here to insert an appropriate work by a local contemporary artist (one of Julia Robinson’s ‘goats’ for example) to really take this thematic on a journey.

Early days perhaps with the SA Museum testing the waters in terms of expanding the viewing experience in this way. There are lessons to be learnt – don’t set small, intricately illustrated works too high – people of all ages and abilities need good viewing access. And when the curatorial process moves from the climate of possibilities make sure there’s a toe-cutter in the group to slash if necessary to ensure the essential narratives cut through.

That said, this visually intriguing exhibition unfolds like a High Victorian children’s game, mixed with some Monty Python lunacy, Grayson Perry arcana, Harry Potter necromancy, Night at the Museum capers, Where’s Wally sightings and Sinbad the Sailor tales. In short, it’s enormously entertaining, informative when it needs to be and just a little over the top. Bill Bryson would love this show.

Curious Beasts: Animal prints from Durer to Goya
South Australian Museum
Until Sunday, February 5
samuseum.sa.gov.au

Header image: Francisco de Goya (1746-1828), The agility and audacity of Juanito Apiñani in the ring at Madrid (1816), Etching and aquatint, © The Trustees of the British Museum