I discovered this most esteemed of Victorian Animalier paintings adorning an enormous wall within Manchester’s Art Gallery. Before the vast canvas there’s a small contemplative wooden bench and sitting down to stare into this Landseer can be quietly overwhelming due to the amount of darkness carved into the piece.
‘The Desert’ – 1849
^ This doesn’t really do justice to the majesty of the thing, here’s a better idea:
It’s the use of light however that really gets me. The paint is just so intangibly subtle in its touches. An authentic shimmer on the whiskers draws us throughout the humanity of the face, curving to a full stop at the Lion’s embittered snarl. There is indeed a ‘Desert’, but one that like the animal has curled away from everything else; the sands wait at the edge of the image in a closed mouth gloom.
The focus here is entirely on the animal, an uncomfortably intimate glimpse at that. Almost too natural in its pose. More portrait than demonstrative of anything beyond heavily freighted symbolic intent, it is the mediations on death rather than the obvious patriot metonymy that I find so engaging everytime I pass it
With the animal clearly dead, thoughts draw to its passing. Seeing the Lion as mere body but still beautiful, still majestic with its mane and paws became for me oddly inspiring. This Lion hasn’t been shot, he hasn’t been eaten, he isn’t caged, merely, he’s gone.
‘Man proposes, God deposes’ – 1864
There’s nastiness to this piece, an aggressive spite that really challenges the viewer to tug at the bones with it.
The fallen mast for one is an expert move, both reflecting the (somewhat Rick Ross lyric) title through its division, as well as suggesting size. The doomed vessel at the center then is a large one, no doubt more Bears feast in the margins.
Despite these horrors, Landseer delights one again in hairs and furs, with the Bears exuding a positive radiance amidst the mostly muted backdrop. Much like the Lion, their story has as much thought as they do – both beasts clearly unaware of any consequence of the shipwreck beyond satiation. The tipped back head of the right Polar however is oddly comic amidst the water.
Drawn as a response to a failed Arctic mission, the picture’s intent is fairly clear – even at the ends of the Earth there is still failure, misadventure. It is of man to imagine but nature to decide. This duality becomes embedded within the piece’s symbols. At the bottom left beside the Bear there’s humanity in a fallen gun. A weapon that points pathetically in defiance, half submerged itself in its conquerer hunting ground. At the top right there’s a suspiciously familiar shape in a looming iceberg.
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