Four legs and two legs

Following on from my last post, I’ve also been studying the relationship between animals and humans as told through the history of art. Its been a joy to scour museums for animals, and draw creatures that at least keep still. But the most interesting part of using historic examples is seeing how artists have interpreted animals, stylised them at points to suit a purpose, and treated animals as equal partners to humans in each narrative. In some cases the anatomy and characteristics of animals can express more than human nature.

Daughter of a king turned into a deer, ancient greek vase. British Museum

The beauty of this image is in its simplicity. The elegant lines of the girl and her dress suit the skillful florid lines of paint, her movement is apparently echoed by the deer behind her, as is she walks into the spell, her transformation triggered by hers steps.

Warrior fighting a griffin attacking his horse. British Museum

This is taken from a Greek vase, so the curved shaped suits the stretch of the griffin’s wing and dynamism of the warrior’s stance, leant back to give full strength to his spear.

Possibly my favourite part of the British Museum is the ancient Assyrian lion-hunts in room 10, where beautiful muscular beasts pounce at bearded warriors or lying writhing  and vomiting blood from arrow wounds. But I’ve only just seen this narrow slab nearby, showing marching hunters with their blood-lusting dogs, lean and poised, straining at their leashes to start the hunt.

The Battle of San Romano, Paolo Ucello, National Gallery.

This depicts the victory of the Florentines over the Sienese in 1432. Though it seems many of the colours have suffered with time or over-cleansing, a small silver lining is that this emphasises the dramatic graphic composition of the cavalry. The hero, Niccolò da Mauruzi da Tolentino and his white horse, are defined by the narrow space between the enemy to one side, and the dense layers of his soldiers, horses and fence of spears behind him. The string linear perspective of the ground, and foreshortened features, make the viewer think that we have stepped onto a giant chessboard dominated by knights, and to me seem to remind us the chess-like foresight and strategy are as important in battle as numbers and brute force.

The Vision of St Eustace, Pisanello.

One of the loveliest paintings in the Sainsbury Wing. This can be quite an overwhelming picture to draw, with such a rich tonal range and so many details it feels like woven tapestry, like the hunting ones popular in the period. The animals are exquisite, each feels drawn rather than painted, so careful does it delineate their anatomy. Eustace’s dogs steal the show. As he stops, stunned at the deer with Christ’s cross, his hounds can’t quite decide what to do, some hide under the horse guardedly, one turns back to its master as if to say ‘why have we stopped?’, two are distracted digging the forest, whilst one gives up on the deer and seeks out a hare.

Diana and Acteon, Titian.

I’ve never quite gushed over this picture as many others do, possibly because I’ve been frustrated with odd changes in scale between the layers of characters, or have found my eyes lost in the muddy colours and wondered if the deer’s head was too small. But drawing it several times it different approaches has helped. In this instance this sketch focuses on charge in the picture, and out of it I found real pleasure in the extreme change contrast of the goddess’ figure. As if the light side shows off the womanly beauty poor Acteon couldn’t help but stare at, enraged into a dark temper on the other side that holds the bow.

National Artillery Memorial, Hyde Park Corner, Charles Jagger.

‘War Horse’ has done enough recently to tells the stories of all the animals that contributed to the Great War, but Jagger’s sculpture got there first. These horses are stunning, dragging the gun and straining in unison with the soldiers. They’re very like greek reliefs, the break in the pair’s head suggests we catch them at the moment where one charges, another raises its head back in panic as a shell strikes.

Minotaur and sleeping woman, Picasso.

On show at the fantastic Vollard Suite at the British Museum. This is an etching that I’ve copied almost line-for line. Picasso, in his instinctive and driven manner, seems to have worked directly onto the plate and the result is so fresh. I really like the contrast between the sparsity of lines in the sleeping woman’s calm presence and open face against the compulsive and busy muscles and hair of the Minotaur. It’s at once erotic as his body entirely dominates hers, and yet the simplicity of the drawn lines and the sharing of bright white seems to give the characters an equal presence on the paper.