Lastly I will be considering one of the most influential taxidermist of this era; Walter Potter and his approach towards this art, analyzing key work such as 'The Kittens' Tea Party' will help set a grounding in what has been done during this time period and will help compare what modern day artists are doing in taxidermy. Helping argue this case I am going to analyze three contemporary artist's work.
Firstly taking a look at Damien Hirst, an artist who does in a roundabout way use taxidermy within his work but uses methods of preservation, can help understand the way in which aspects of taxidermy are being adapted in contemporary art and whether it is significant.
Secondly looking at Polly Morgan, a completely qualified taxidermist and artist, can help realize what contemporary taxidermy work has been made. By comparing just how she uses traditional and modern elements within her work. Also by analyzing key work such as 'Departures' (2009), it can help identify Morgan's way of thinking and ways of working. Furthermore comparing similarities to Walter Potter's work will argue what advances present day taxidermy has developed compared to the Victorian era and whether it had an influence.
looking at David Shrigley's work and the advances he is making in this particular fi.
Lastly an interview with George Jamieson, today's day traditional taxidermist will help understand what importance taxidermy has in being used in modern-day art and whether it's suited.
'The rude flint knives and scrapers found in such caves of Dordogne and many other places '
It is evident that early man had a simple understanding of how to take care of and dress skins. Using such skins and pelts for clothes, tools and ceremonies man has always relied upon and used animals for their survival. Although just skinning animals is not what's classed as taxidermy it is evident that is the earliest starting point of what became the first 'taxidermist'. However, preservation techniques didn't evolve so rapidly which is interesting to see how different societies adopted their own techniques throughout history in tanning skins and embalming the bodies of the dead.
For example the Inca Empire, dating back again to the first 13th century, used to bring their dead to high mountains situated in Peru leaving them to dry in the cold altitudes, which would help preserve the bodies. The bodies would be kept in households for an extended period of time before burial or performing a ceremony. This is a very basic way of preserving the dead by letting natural salts and minerals dry out the skin.
" After removing the internal organs, the body was washed inside and out with astringent palm wine and then filled with pounded aromatics such as myrrh, cassia and cinnamon. The body was then kept covered in natron, a type of salt mined from the dry lake beds nearby the Nile River which accelerated the dehydration of the body. After a period of almost a year, your body was washed again and wrapped with bands of fine linen smeared on inside with gum, which the Egyptians used instead of glue allowing your skin and muscles to become rigid. "
It was only on important people such as Pharos and Nobles that mummification was practised on; with this the Egyptians used to preserve a lot of their animals in the same process, such as cats, dogs and different birds.
It seems odd why the Egyptians would take so much time and effort to mummify their rulers nonetheless they believed that preserving the bodies after death would allow them in to the afterlife. It is apparent that many cultures preserved their dead for several different reasons and uses whether it be religious or sacrificial. However with mummification being one of the only advanced techniques at this time to avoid the decay of dead bodies it can't be considered as taxidermy as the technique solely evolves the drying of bodies in comparison to removing and stuffing skins. Yet this is evidence as the first stages and first steps towards the start of the art of taxidermy. Through the next few centuries preservation methods improved drastically and the eye in preserving human bodies became less apparent.
It is evident that the abundance and increase of practising taxidermists in Britain rose during the 16th - 19th centuries with the hunters of that time sparking a surprising rvelation in showcasing animals as trophies; Victorian taxidermy was created. The sudden fashionable craze within everyone at the moment meant that everyone wanted specimens either dead or alive. Taxidermy was now being found in all aspects of Victorian life from the decor of rooms to fashion. Although taxidermy became highly fashionable during this era there are a variety of different factors that helped contribute towards advance in techniques in this particular craft. How the qualities of skins were being treated was still experimental and little is well known of the beginnings of stuffing and mounting animals and displaying them as ornaments, the advances made during this time period where still far from perfect. Like the Egyptians, taxidermists at this time were tinkering with a number of different ways in trying to dry the skins of the pet; the import of foreign spices such as nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves helped the development within this field.
A) Good vs. Bad Practice
'A solid understanding of modelling and form; a good understanding of biology; a solid grounding in anatomical structure; the analysis of the skeleton; the habits of the animals in nature such as feeding, breeding plus they manner in which they conduct their young; location of habitat and plantation. '
Using this abundance of knowledge a taxidermist must also have a strong hand at drawing and sculpting; making study drawings of specimens within natural habitat can help the taxidermist observe a number of poses which he/she could replicate. This also helps the taxidermist understand how the specimen reacts to different elements within its surrounding environment. An impatient taxidermist may never achieve the perfection this art can give. It really is clear by the number of skills that the artist must perfect that taxidermy is an art and that many people do not realize or give little appreciation from what is needed to create such compelling work.
"In 1892 a study was exhibited where an owl figured; the painting was simply perfect and learned- however the bird! A ragged, moth-eaten old specimen, stuffed by some incompetent hand; and the artist, as artists constantly do, failed to recognize the utter atrocity of the lines of form. "
"I cannot refrain from saying a word after the sadly-neglected art of taxidermy, which is constantly on the fill the cases of the majority of our museums with wretched and repulsive caricatures of mammals and birds, out of all natural proportions, shrunken here and bloated there, and in attitudes absolutely impossible for the creatures to have assumed while alive. "
B) Natural History Museums
Taxidermy is seen in several different uses ranging from museum dioramas, medical studies, fashion and gamesmanship, much like the British Empire expanding rapidly at this time, explorers such as Watson Perrygo (taxidermist and field collector) were employed to work with the British Museum. Several men would go on collecting expeditions and hunts all round the entire world to recreate foreign and rare specimens to taxidermise and then showcase in these museums. New and exotic animals such as rhinos and zebra meant that British taxidermists had to learn and adapt their ways to preserve these animals, the sudden advances and demand in this particular practice can be right down to man's urge to accumulate and catalogue. Helping this develop was the start and setting up of the Natural History Museum, which owes much to the responsibility of Sir Hans Sloane, an eighteenth-century collector. Sloane's earliest collecting saw that he had up to over 80, 000 different items, which range from a large variety of foreign taxidermy specimens to a massive library of rare books, fossils and oddities. Sir Hans collection was the major throughout Europe at this time; hence with his death in 1753, the federal government came forward and bought his entire collection as they agreed that it should stay intact. This abundance of unusual artifaces helped lay the foundations for the beginnings of the Natural History Museum which opened it door to everyone in 1759.
Natural History museums have now been set up about the world helping boost the amount of taxidermy being produced, yet it can be said that taxidermy is uncommon nowadays as almost all of these early works and dioramas remain on display and have not been replaced with modern examples. It is unfortunately that during this era, nature was now seen as a commodity and fashion item and for most people the partnership between animal and man became distorted as the public could only study these rare specimens within the confines of the museums enabled by the skill of taxidermy.
Legislation as well as the Guild Of Taxidermy
No legislation or protection for wildlife was put in place during this time period period; hence the ways in which Victorian taxidermists collected their specimens can be deemed barbaric compared to modern standards. Ways of examining many flying or dangerous specimens such as lions or vultures would be shoot first study afterwards. This had drastic effect on many species and is reflected today as many of these species are threatened with extinction and are now being protected. To combat this, new laws and legislations are being protecting our wildlife and things like the Guild of Taxidermy have now been created. George Jamieson, a modern day taxidermist in Scotland, create The Guild of Taxidermists in 1976 to help improve the standard and just how taxidermy had been conducted. George Jamieson is at the frontline of present day taxidermy within Scotland. Edinburgh born Jamison has been working within this practice since 1974, with commissioned bits of his work being featured in Natural History Museums, hotels and television adverts, such as Irn-Bru and Famous Grouse Whisky. George Jamieson is a well-respected taxidermist and by 1982 this scheme had been adapted and taken on at nation-wide level. The Guild of Taxidermists has helped the typical of taxidermy become recognized within the UK with stricter and tighter laws and legislations on which kind of specimens can and can't be stuffed and mounted. It has effectively helped wildlife and helped taxidermists identity where their specimens have come from. For instance animals that die from natural causes or road casualties can be mounted compared to specimens that are hunted or poached. Illegal means of hunting and capturing animals will never die out yet it is reassuring that many practising taxidermists are dealing with this scheme in order to protect our wildlife.
C) Walter Potter
Leading taxidermist Walter Potter (1835-1918) was one of the pioneers in changing the macabre nature taxidermy was associated with; by introducing more humorous elements, by creating his own style known as anthropomorphic taxidermy; meaning that the specimens were now designed to represent and display human behavior, set alongside the traditional style which mimics its naturalistic pose. Potter achieved this by posing his specimens in homemade dioramas that helped distance the specimen, as they didn't have any recognizable natural characteristics that the viewer could identify. So Potter would dress up his specimens in tiny human clothes, create miniature props and go to great lengths to make outstanding detail within his dioramas. For example kittens were dressed up in their Sunday best and frogs and toads would play croquet; this helped to alienate and detract from the natural beauty of the pet as the way Potter represented his specimens bewildered the viewer. Potter's work was one of the first ever to feature taxidermy that mimicked human characteristics and behavior, this helped changed the direction taxidermy was going in and showed a fresh light In the way of working which many followed.
Analyzing the work "The Kitten's Tea Party", 'fig1', is one of Potters renowned pieces. The display depicts seventeen taxidermise kittens surrounding an over sized dinner table packed with a variety of objects, such as tiny china plates, cake and sandwiches, and kittens pouring tea for every single other. The focus on detail within Potter's displays helps submerge the viewer in Potters surrealist world and helps the view forget that the topic matter is stuffed dead kittens and treat the diorama as any other tea party or a day-to-day activity the viewer would partake in. This is what makes Potters work so powerful.
"The first impression of the interior of the museum is a glorious Victorian jumble of odds-and-ends. Stuffed birds and animals abound, including a number of freaks. There may be even a massive Coypu rat, forty inches long, that was shot over a bank of the river Adur, near Bramber; as it is a native of South America, the supposition is the fact that it disembarked from a boat carrying timber at Shoreham, and was exploring a nearby. An alarming apparition! But I soon forgot the rat in the contemplation of some old musical instruments, a length of telephone cable, an albatross, a Siamese war saddle, butterflies, beetles, boomerangs, and leading foot of Indian elephant made into a waste-paper basket and twelve engravings of the Wandering Jew by Gustave Dore. As the attention accustomed itself to the rich, inconsequential mixture, the major works of Walter Potter- in regards to a dozen of them, in their show cases- steadily detached themselves from other surroundings. I became aware of a whole " new world " of fantasy, in which kittens played croquet with fastidious enjoyment, squirrels gravely drank wine and ate nuts, and rabbits frowned over their slates in the village school. "
" I've offered 1million also to pay for the price of the auctioneer's catalogue- simply for them to take if off the marketplace and keep the collection intact- but apparently, the auction has to go ahead. It really is a tragedy"
As time progressed the skilled talent of taxidermy started dying out and became outdated. However, within modern day art taxidermy is currently being adapted and found in a number of different ways.
Taxidermy in modern art
Although taxidermy is not as popular as it was during the Victorian era it has now digressed into the art world; does it still holds its as a significant talent? The transition from museums to gallery is interesting to address. With different approaches artists are taking in rebirthing this dying art. Certain elements of taxidermy are being used in modern art with artists such as Damien Hirst, Polly Morgan and David Shirgley and lots of others either using dead animals, preservation techniques or taxidermy within their work. The roots of the historic practice are now used in modern context, but could it be any different to what Walter Potter and other artists where doing a long time before?
"Art's about life and it can't really be about other things there is not other things, "
MA- ' That which was your first experience with the animals in formaldehyde? How did you get the theory, and what does it mean for you?'
DH- ' I put envisioned the formaldehyde series. I suddenly realized that I really liked the formaldehyde, the look of the formaldehyde. It had that kind of tragedy that things are falling apart, that kind of arrested decay, however, not quiet. I needed visitors to think < That shouldn't be within an art gallery> as well as questioning why these are in an memorial, or thinking that they are really in the wrong place. The things in formaldehyde are excellent, they always look great. I remember things like that from school. In art class at school we always had frogs in jars and things like that. We just used to draw from those and skulls that we had lying around. '
" I had fashioned a very strange thing eventually me once, which was with the animal rights people, where I actually contacted them because they stood beyond your exhibition and said < Damien Hirst is this, etc. And he kills animals for art>. I contacted them and said, < I don't kill animals for art. Were making a spot of getting already dead things. We don't kill them for art; we get things that die naturally>. Individuals just said < oh look, we don't care really. And we were like
Artists will usually try and push the boundaries of what can and cannot be done within art, with either the subject matter or message they are trying to convey. Yet artists will always utilize animals in art, it's the manner in which they conduct themselves with using such delicate subject material. Hirst crosses this fine line which is interesting to see how he has adapted this process of preserving by showing beauty in something that has already been dead, the fundamental elements of what taxidermy is wanting to attain. Although Hirst's work will not consist of taxidermy it can't be eliminated as it demonstrates the talent can be adapted to new ways of working and this has a significant effect on this practice.
B) Polly Morgan
'Polly Morgan is an associate of the Guild of Taxidermists, which adheres to and promotes the law pertaining to taxidermy, and keeps a detailed log of all animals in stock. All taxidermised animals are either road casualties or have been donated to the artist by pet owners and vets after natural or unpreventable deaths'
"My mother explained that easily didn't bury them they would rot. So the little burials began. "
"I began learning taxidermy without particular intention to be an artist but neither did I wish to be a traditional taxidermist, mounting pets or hunting trophies. I suppose having both old-fashioned and modern elements makes it out; the taxidermy and the bell jars could be antique yet the cast balloons and the polished telephone receivers have a far more Pop influence. "
"Walter Potter's taxidermy wasn't technically skilled, but he became quite legendary because he made these kitsch, outlandish displays; a kitten's wedding where all of them are dressed up in finery and a tea party where they are all huddled around a table, drinking out little china cups. He would also taxidermy freak animals, such as chickens with four legs or lambs with two heads. When I first started learning, almost anything I found is at a naturalistic setting, with the animals looking as it had in life. I needed to keep the birds or mammals looking dead, as they looked when they came if you ask me. I can realize why people want to resurrect them, but I thought there was something quiet beautiful about their death pose which i thought worth preserving. I needed my work to be less ornamental plus more monumental. I began to be more thoughtful in what I undertook and not to rush into anything"
"I read a book called 'Flying's Strangest Moments' by John Harding, which comprehensively covers all recorded attempts by man to fly. I was touched by the men who'd fashioned primitive flying machines out of strap-on wings and balloon-clusters tied to their chairs in their obsessive quest for flight"
Morgan references this notion to an anonymous Victorian inventor as she found an etching that depicts flocks of birds' (eagles) harnessed with leather straps and mounted on a strange cage like structure, scientifically and physically unrealistic. Morgan felt the duty to give this idea life:
"I needed to build it as an homage to the inventor, who plainly never realized his plan. THEREFORE I redesigned it and made the carriage like a giant birdcage. I love the idea that it's not queit clear if the passenger or the birds are free. The passenger gets the freedom to travel while the birds are tethered; yet they have the true ability to fly while he is caged. I love that dichotomy between the human and the pet. We harness them in a myriad of ways but they are the ones with ultimate power"
Taking two years to complete and a conveyor-belt of various birds to stuff and attach, Morgan's flying machine is a true wonder to witness as it pays homage to Morgan's ideas and visions. The work deals with multiple levels of surrealism and the playful nature of the piece touches on the subtle nature of life and death. Morgan's work may also be seen in a minimalistic sense as by using smaller scale, specimens such as chicks, forces the viewer to interact and examine the pieces more intimately. The positioning of the specimens including the way the legs of your barn owl are sitting to the amount of whiskers on a foxes face can drastically enhance or detract from the emotion of a piece. This reinforces that taxidermy is a good art form similar to a painting; one brush stroke can transform a whole painting's mood.
Morgan gives her specimens human like poses and behavior that introduces humor into her work, seen in her piece, 'Still Life After Death (rabbit)'. A stereotypical white magicians bunny is displayed curled up lifeless on top of a magician's hat. It is nice to start to see the subtle nature of the human and animal relationship within Morgan's work set alongside the brash nature Potter displayed.
Keep choosing Morgans work. ------
C) George Jamieson Interview
Artists such as Polly Morgan, a skilled taxidermists, create powerful work using taxidermy. There are a variety of other artists creating similar work which is interesting to identify whether these artists are also paying respect to the dying talent. In an interview with a modern day taxidermist, George Jamieson, it is interesting to understand what his views are on this matter, as he has done so much because of this practice.
Question -"What are your thoughts on taxidermy being used in modern-day art and could it be suited?"
Response- "I have no issue with taxidermy being found in contemporary art so long as it is well thought out and done well. I am not keen on badly come up with work such as items of different species stuck to one another. Everything depends upon the skill of the artist "
However, Jamieson will not like when species of different animals are combined in creating a final piece. Work like this is classed as 'bizarre and rouge taxidermy' which has been with us from the Victorian era. An abundance of this type of work being created isn't just insulting the wonder and delicate nature of the specimens but also the knowledge of learning taxidermy. Certain taxidermists and artists make an effort to create mythical creatures from folk tales. Such as for example combining parts of different animals to make griffins, unicorns and mermaids. Walter Potter was one of the first ever to create such spectacles yet more and more contemporary artists are creating work such as this.
D) David Shrigley
"Strangely moving, romantic and sincerely emotional"
"On making death not so grim: Welcome to the macabre world of David Shrigley, the artist-cum-taxidermist who in his own unique and graphic way offers a witty twist on the subject of death. For a man whose drawings were once described by novelist Will Self as like those of a serial killer, there is no shortage of the bizarre, the disturbed and the debauched at his new exhibition  His moral (if that may be the right word) of the storyline may stink of the pointlessness of existence, but Shrigley is keen for people to laugh about it. "
Round up his work
Thus it is evident that with hindsight it is understandable to claim that the artists of the modern day have benefited from the ones of days gone by. Such as the way in which modern artists like Polly Morgan can study and analyze the works of Potter. This can only help her define the approach and message that she wants to provide within her work. Morgan suggested that Potters work is 'crude and badly done' which she will not want to recreate what Potter did. It really is interesting to highlight that they both have subtle similarities of working as they both make an effort to create something new within the practice of taxidermy. Also they both lean from the traditional areas of what taxidermy is and associated with. Walter Potter created his own strand of taxidermy; 'anthropomorphic taxidermy'. The recognition of Potter's work during his era made him main artists to show his work within his own confines, as much of the museums of that time period wouldn't normally take or display his freak and bizarre displays.
This makes the fine line between honoring this talent as the delicate subject material the artist is using. In comparison to painting or sculpting, the artist is using real animal skins as highlighted before a prior knowledge and training through this practice would be beneficial. It is obvious to the viewer whether the execution is skilled or not. As the viewer does not have to obtain any prior understanding of taxidermy to understand that the proper execution or mounting of the animal is inferior badly. Secondly with the subject matter of using dead animal skins; taxidermy comes under a lot of scrutiny, as people may take offence and weary in work done badly, conveying that the hand in question is making a mockery of the talent and the animal involved. Distorting and changing the perceptions we've of animals, arises in the task of Damien Hirst. Hirst wants to provoke the viewer and change our views of the animal; this is attained by displaying the animals within an alien environment and helps ask the question whether it's beautiful or not. Yet his work will not contain taxidermy but deals with most of the issues taxidermy is faced with. It really is interesting to observe how he wants people to question whether work such as this belongs within an memorial and the notion of what a skill gallery should be utilized for?
Modern day taxidermy has been taken out from the museums and placed into the galleries but has there been a noticeable difference between your two? Both museums and galleries are places of study and learning, yet the difference with the galleries are that they depend upon the artist to make work that evokes emotion and meaning by altering the specimen involved, compared to a taxidermist doing work for a Natural History Museum who creates realistic dioramas to depict wildlife inhabiting their own environments that live throughout the world.
Although taxidermy has been at the forefront of British art for the last 25 years can it be said that the shock value has lost its appeal? More and more becoming more popular artists opting for to use this medium of their modern day practice but will it eventually die out and become bland like the Victorian age? As George Jamieson said the execution of the specimen is key, as you do not need to know about animals to distinguish faults within mounting. It really is a simple thing to get wrong and an even harder thing to master, as it's restricted to the absolute imitation of nature, it could be described as a showcase of death. The wonder of it comes from the way that the specimen will be lost and forgotten forever after death but employing this skill it could be reborn and almost suspended in time forever to live on in another life. The power where taxidermy gives specimens another breath makes it such an important skill.
It is evident that taxidermy has evolved with mans evolution, from the earliest beginnings in skinning animals to make clothes to modern standards where taxidermy has been created into art, for peoples enjoyment; it is key to understand that the process of taxidermy has adapted to different changes, yet it'll never die out and will always have a function and use. Thus the continuing future of taxidermy is uncertain and could change throughout time, as much societies have a variety of uses for it, yet it will always uphold its uniqueness as it is associated with a bizarre nature due to the subject matter and connections it offers with life and death. This old-fashioned skill has not only played a huge role in just a social spectrum but also how it has shaped the training of nature all around us. It includes changed how we look at and connect to animals and has shaped a fresh path within modern-day art.
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