Kweiseye is an art criticism blog written by Tom Kwei. If you enjoy this article, browse the archive HERE for more than 60 other critiques of both artists and exhibitions. Any questions/queries/use: firstname.lastname@example.org
Part of the joy of looking at painting is the sense of being connected to the past without filter. Whether a work of art is seen here on this blog or in the oily flesh at a gallery, it always crafts a pure, intimate, historical connection, one essentially unsullied by the degradation that can so often alter other artefacts of the past. Painting then is a dialogue uninterrupted, comparable in a sense, as strange as it may sound, to our own relationships with animals today.
As imagine the way a dog would play with you now on a 2015 afternoon, why it would be rough, ready and rambunctious, no different to a pup playing with Italian schoolchildren in the 15th century. Consider a pig (such as those featured below) of the Victorian era alongside a contemporary counterpart – there feels no difference does there? Rather, it is we who have changed around the infallible nature of animals. A portrait can’t change its subject and a leopard cannot change it spots it seems. They remain the same as we grow further beyond them yet as fascinated as ever.
Never better are these twin threads of animal disposition & eras bygone explored than by Paulus Potter, a gifted Animal ‘Animalier’ painter (see HERE for an earlier explored Animalier/Queen Victoria fave, Edwin John Landseer), whose adroit brushwork forges compelling, mostly farmyard pieces, that retain a deep humanity some 350 years later.
Initially it seems as if no painter was even present to record such an image. The poses are just so relaxed and natural. With Potter’s typical eagle eye gifting a quiet, intimate dignity to what is effectively the confines of a sty. A sty the artist seems to respect in his brush: the strips of fell hay lying as tame lightnings across the front & hoofs for example, the small troth recessed against the worn, thick wood.
It is the pigs themselves though that are the real marvel. Their mottled, hay coloured coat a rich antithesis to the traditional porcine pink. At the back, the dominant male leers forward, his furrowed fur and turnip snout lit thoughtfully by the subtle slats of pure blue light flitting in around the couple from the outdoors. His squinted, slightly hazy eyes tucked beneath the floppy eaves appear welcoming, as if he has a dirty joke to share. Below him the other pig is more vacant, a smile perhaps is recognisable, but the eyes betray an element of being elsewhere, her exposed nipples suggestive perhaps of a recent feed.
Free of irony, the image elevates the creatures to the status of portraiture. As just as within the portraits of this era, we see their world, their relationship, signifiers of their status. These are pigs not be looked at as ‘pigs’ but as animals, as creatures, as a record of the humanity that they held and continue to hold, no matter how we may think otherwise.
Low beneath the snout of this dog, there’s a masterpiece. A small gruff of a town that Potter skilfully evokes and then stores away for us to seek out. A spire can be seen, a dappling of settlements perhaps before it. Cattle are grazing and one is drinking at the water’s edge, cattle that may well eventually be as the bone beneath this chained beast’s watch.
By creating such an interesting sense of perspective, Potter foreshortens & isolates the hound. He is the centre here, not the aforementioned town, the clouds even seeming to wrap slightly around his watch. He is a guard dog, what he guards we will never know, the world that Potter gives us at the back is cruelly one that he is blissfully unaware. One that may be even further than it seems.
The titular Wolfhound itself is magnificent, its odd size giving a sense of omnipotence to its stance. The long coat a telling of character in its variety, the tough white fur around the legs giving away to solid clumps of muscle. Its eyes ever watchful amid a head all black from the collar down.
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