Monday, December 15, 2014

Wildlife Art As Modern (and Eternal) Totem

 Reviewed By Todd Wilkinson

Author, freelance writer
Bozeman, Montana

With David J. Wagner’s handsome and voluminous American Wildlife Art (Marquand Books, Seattle), millions of people around the world can now cheer, for wildlife art has a new towering champion. But first consider what, on the surface, appears to be a rather strange and formidable contradiction: Forever, or at least for as long as we have been a species and even in the dimmer twilight before Homo sapiens walked distinctly on our own, we have lived side by side with wild animals.

In turn, as an act of veneration, remembrance and humility, “wildlife art” has existed on our walls and shelves in the dwellings we inhabit, from caves to fireplace mantels in modern 21st century McMansions. Wildlife has been our sustenance, our stalkers, our companions, and our bellweathers for gauging the health of the environment around us. Our relationship with wildlife is age-old and yet, only relatively recently, has the art which celebrates animals and our own place in nature, achieved formal recognition as its own valid subject matter.
In some ways, the battle to achieve respect from the self-proclaimed fine art intelligentsia continues
unabated. And yet in this whale of a book Wagner presents the strongest case yet for why animal imagery commands not only contemporary relevance for OUR time, but as fine art, scientific documentation, popular decoration for the masses, and yes, as icons, corporate logos, sports team mascots, and political expressions, it is THE genre that perhaps most transcends social classes, national identity, age, religion and province.

As someone who has written about wildlife in art for a quarter century, I am left daunted by the depth of Wagner’s scope. This book establishes the author as the foremost authority on wildlife art in the Western Hemisphere and his credentials were not earned overnight. “David Wagner is the number one intellectual in wildlife art, certainly in America, maybe in the world,” proclaims Canadian painter Robert Bateman, who himself is the best-known contemporary wildlife artist on the planet with millions of his reproduced wildlife art paintings in circulation around the globe.
Simply put, the seven-pound American Wildlife Art is unprecedented as a work of academic study. But more than that, for a general audience, it is an entertaining journey that should sit on living room coffee tables and have a spot in university and family libraries as THE definitive resource. Not merely does Wagner impressively impart the history of wild animal art in North America, but also as an art book, it is, in its own way, a work of art filled with dazzling examples of the finest paintings and sculpture ever portrayed of wildlife on this continent.

What makes American Wildlife Art noteworthy, though, is that as an art historian, Wagner refrains from academic platitudes and he does not pander. Rather than causing reader’s eye to glaze over, he asks us to widen our vision. The arc of his half-millennia story and the art he chooses to feature is immediately familiar. Why? Because wildlife is engrained in the identity of North Americans in a uniquely North American way. One does not need a highbrow interpreter.
A grade-schooler could peruse these 424 pages and become inspired to pursue a career in art or field biology. A college student could find endless fodder for term papers. A professor would find a term’s worth of lectures. A birder (beginning with the cover jacket image of a Carolina parrot by frontier painter Mark Catesby) will feel a kindredness to the high tradition of commemorating avifauna in the New World. A hunter or angler who collects Duck Stamps and wooden decoys will flit through the pages and gain more confirming insight into the role that wildlife art has played in conservation. A businesswoman, who has chosen to decorate her corporate board room with an original painting or bronze, will better understand why, for the discriminating collector, wildlife art can provide a compelling, enjoyable escape to the daily grind at the office and also be a shrewd investment (if recent auction records are any indication). American Wildlife Art, at $75, is a good investment.

For a long time, the (primarily) Eastern art establishment has dismissed wildlife art and its practitioners as crude, undeveloped, and prosaic—unworthy of comparison to other art movements and the masters who spawned them. Critics demean wildlife art as little more than superficial documentation, though an exception is always unexplainably granted if a master from another genre, say, chooses to insert an animal image into a scene or motif as allegory. But here’s the real gist of the paradox: Does the fact that artists like Constantin Brancusi, Pablo Picasso, and Andy Warhol chose to feature animals in their work substantiate the premise of critics or undermine it?

Wagner answers the casters of aspersions with evidence to the latter. Ironically, given the title of the book, he sets out to erase the artificial boundaries between wildlife art and fine art. As a foil, he invokes the story of Carl Rungius. The German-born painter who spent his most productive years in Canada’s Banff National Park also explored Wyoming’s Wind River Mountains early in his career and won acclaim as a landscape painter. Around the turn of the 20th century, Rungius, who today is recognized the finest painter of North American big game animals scenes, came under criticism for putting portraits of wildlife between the frame. Some claimed he was less of a painter as a result. Rungius responded by painting a series of pure landscapes that were hailed for their technical virtuosity and won him academician status with the vaunted National Academy of Design. The triumph proved that it is not subject matter that makes the painter, but the painter who chooses to apply his skill to whatever line of visual reference point he or she sees fit.

Wildlife, as subject matter, has indeed entered into the esteemed portfolios of the ancients as well as those avant- gardists pushing the cutting edge and who intend to provoke a response from a numbed, perpetually distracted urban society. If one has an open mind, as Wagner suggests is necessary, a person will find that works featuring animals are hung in the Louvre, the Prada, and the Hermitage (and any great American art museum), as well as, unsavory as it is to some, down at the local bait shop, café, and barber parlor in middle America. Millions of international tourists make pilgrimages every year to see wildlife in national parks or embark on photo safaris in Africa. Millions more crowd urban zoos. In his pop art, Warhol grasped the icnographic power of animals, but so, too, have U.S. presidents, European and Asian royalty, people who wear religious cloth, and marketing geniuses on Madison Avenue.

Along with his narrative portraits of Audubon, Rungius and Bateman, who is not only featured but makes his own written contribution to the book, Wagner offers a lengthy examination of Swedish-American sculptor Kent Ullberg who today is regarded as the foremost creator of wildlife monuments in the world. A bronze man who divides his time between Corpus Christi, Texas and Loveland, Colorado, Ullberg has works that can be found in public spaces on four continents and although he is notably a contemporary sculptor, his work follows within the classical tradition dating back to the ancient Greeks who held up art as a prominent, utilitarian focal point in daily life.

Wagner will surely stand accused of being a wildlife art propagandist. However, he readily addresses what critics have called the schlock and kitsch element, as well as the capitalistic phenomenon of some artists pandering only to markets for commercial reasons and dubious profiteers attempting to hoodwink gullible collectors who approach hoarding of wildlife art reproductions the same way some financial investors court junk bonds. Art as an investment, after all, no matter who the creator, can be risky. Time and again, Wagner notes that the best reason to purchase a piece of art is because the individual likes it and wants to live with it.

If I have two modest quibbles with this book, they can be summed up this way: First, I would have liked to see Wagner dig into Native American wildlife art, which wields its own influence and helps to set North American art in general apart from the “Old World.” Second, Wagner navigates through a minefield of not WHAT to include, but WHO to include, in contemporary terms. Surely, there will be some living artists with hurt egos who feel left out, which is impossible for the author to avoid when a book like this has to name names.
One of the tools that Wagner uses for connoting inclusion is a list that emerged from a study he conducted as part of his exhaustive PhD dissertation at the University of Minnesota that forms the background for the book. Wagner surveyed artists, collectors and publishers. He asked artists, in particular, to identify colleagues or predecessors who had most influenced them. Here is the top 15 listed in order: 1. Robert Bateman; 2. Louis Agassiz Fuertes; 3. Carl Rungius; 4. Francis Lee Jacques; 5. Robert Kuhn; 6. Winslow Homer; 7. Andrew Wyeth; 8. N.C. Wyeth; 9. Roger Tory Peterson; 10. John James Audubon; 11. Lynn Bogue Hunt; 12. Maxfield Parrish; 13. Ogden Pleissner; 14. George Miksch Sutton; 15. Owen Gromme. It’s a notable list, but one that is sure to be seized upon by critics of wildlife art who say it only confirms that a complete fine art discernment is lacking in the perspective of contemporary painters. The late wildlife painter Bob Kuhn, for instance, was a graduate of the Pratt Institute who cited abstract expressionist Mark Rothko as an inspiration in his 60 years behind the easel.
Auspiciously, the value of Wagner’s book is heightened by a statement that emanates from the
cornerstone of American Democracy and the halls of political power, Capitol Hill. In 2008, Congress passed an act, signed into law by the president, that formally recognizes the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson Hole, Wyoming—an important reference point in Wagner’s book— as THE official wildlife art museum in the United States. The NMWA, a novel institution designed to exude the appearance of an ancient Southwest desert cliff dwelling, is an architectural wonder.
For the same reason that artists like Audubon, Homer, N.C. Wyeth, Anna Hyatt Huntington, Edward Kemeys, Arthur Tait (who collaborated with Currier & Ives), Paul Wayland Bartlett, Frederic Remington, Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran, and Karl Bodmer, are considered national treasures whose works are worthy of exhibition at the National Gallery, they are equally esteemed when displayed at the NMWA. American Wildlife Art is today a featured book at the NMWA book store and has been adopted as a text at a number of colleges.

“The thesis of American Wildlife Art is that American wildlife art evolved not merely out of aesthetic advances, as many would simplistically believe, but out of four centuries of aesthetic, ideological, and entrepreneurial appropriation, and that the forces at play were symbiotically shaped and fulfilled,” Wagner explains. “My purpose in writing this book has been to account for the evolution of the genre, and in doing so correct misconceptions that might exist.”
It’s an academic way of saying wildlife art deserves a place at the table of discussion about American art history and its reflection of Western culture and society. For us in the 21st century, wildlife art does not assume a fleeting presence; it is an urgent modern totem.


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David J. Wagner, L.L.C.
by David J. Wagner, Ph.D.
Curator/Tour Director
Office Phone: (414) 221-6878
Cell: (414) 712-0863
Skype: davidjwagnerllc
Recipient of the 2010 SKBF Black-Parkman Award for Art Industry Leadership

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