Dog Art History – Level 4
Dogs in Modern Art
Man’s stalwart friend has remained a constant muse through the evolution of modern artistic expression.
By Amy Fernandez
Modern art cannot be pigeonholed. Very few common denominators link the movements and philosophies it has spawned since the mid-19th century. Even so, artists continue to be inspired by age-old themes, including man’s multifaceted, unique relationship with the dog.
This movement, led by French artist Gustav Courbet (1819-1877), signaled the first radical break with traditional art. Courbet depicted the gritty reality of everyday life in a direct, expressive style that shocked the art world. It appeared crude and unfinished in contrast to the polished style and conventional themes of academic art. In his 1866 painting “The Greyhounds of the Comte De Choiseul,” the dogs are presented without artifice or sentimentality. These sturdy, athletic hounds are rendered with abrupt edges and simplified planes, starkly contrasting against the flattened background. Posed casually, almost awkwardly, they appear totally disinterested from the viewer.
With a focus on a detached examination of light, color, and visual sensation, this movement gained prominence in the 1870s and 1880s. The French artists Edouard Manet (1832-1883) and Renoir (1840-1919) are described as impressionists, although their styles differed radically, which can be seen in their depictions of Tama, one of the first Japanese Chins imported to Europe.
Vibrant light and saturated color becomes the major theme in Renoir’s portrait of Tama. His soft, feathery rendering of the dog’s coat is filled with ephemeral light, and seems to melt into the background, deemphasizing the subject.
Manet distilled his subject to its bare essence with flat color, simplified shapes, and minimal detail. In this portrait Tama is flattened, stylized, contrasting harshly against the background.
Post impressionists used color, form, and the picture plane to evoke an emotional response from the viewer. French artist Paul Gauguin (1843-1903) dismissed impressionism as superficial and meaningless. He rebelled against artistic convention, as well as the constraints of modern civilization. Inspired by folk art and primitive culture, his images are bold, simple, and powerful.
“Still Life with Three Puppies” (1888), ostensibly portrays three innocent puppies lapping milk from a pan. Gauguin transforms this into a tense, disquieting composition that draws the eye equally to three puppies, three cups, and three pieces of fruit. The bizarrely flattened, brightly colored puppies seem alien and unearthly. More alarming, the sharply tilting tabletop suggests that the puppies, milk, cups, and fruit are sliding out of the picture plane onto the viewer. Gauguin never totally abandoned figurative painting, but his work heralded the advent of abstract art.
Unlike the art of past centuries, 20th-century movements did not appear in an orderly succession. New technology and discoveries sparked a plethora of styles that branched off from one another at an accelerating pace.
Futurist art celebrated innovation, mechanization and speed. It attempted to convey the speed and noise of modern life. Italian artist Giacomo Balla (1871-1958) painted “Dynamism of Dog on a Leash” in 1912. By presenting the scene from a canine viewpoint the artist emphasizes motion and accelerating speed. The repetitive images of the leash, tail, shoes and skirt pay homage to the emerging technology of cinematography.
Freud’s groundbreaking theories of psychoanalysis helped give rise to Surrealism. Surrealists attempted to portray the absurd images that spring from the unconscious mind, unconstrained by logic, morality or aesthetic purpose. In more than 200 self-portraits, Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) examined her fears and fantasies. In her 1949 painting, “Diego, Me, and Senor Xolotl,” her impression of death includes a sleeping Xolo, an ancient Mexican breed traditionally considered the guide and protector of souls in the afterlife.
Surrealism’s juxtaposition of inner and outer reality inspired experimentation with symbolic, rather that representational elements. This trend was partly inspired by Carl Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious. Jung believed that mankind shares a subconscious recognition of elemental themes and symbols.
Swiss artist Paul Klee (1879-1940) used simplified forms and hieroglyphic symbols to suggest the fantastic creatures and mysterious dreams, without the literal elements of surrealism. In his 1928 painting “She Howls and We Play,” mazelike, scribbled lines suggest euphoric, tumbling of playful puppies. In contrast, their mother is rendered as an ancient cave painting. Howling at unseen demons, Klee emphasizes her anguish with a line linking her heart to her tongue.
Modernists gradually abandoned representational elements for pure abstraction. This triggered the birth of Pop Art. Although it marked a return to representational art, this was meant as a critical commentary on modern culture and the elitism separating fine and commercial art.
Like earlier movements, it drew on familiar symbols to connect with its audience. American artist Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997) utilized the slick, superficial imagery of comic strips. His paintings mimic an enlarged cartoon frame with hard outlines, printer dots, and dialog balloons to suggest mechanical reproduction, such as “Grrr,” painted in 1965. Rather than emphasizing danger, the dog’s exaggerated, confrontational posture, expression and caption translate into meaningless parody.
Assemblages and installation art went a step further to involve the viewer. American artist Jeff Koons ( b. 1955) utilized enlarged scale to blur the distinction between art and reality. Labeled as Post Pop, Koons recreates everyday objects on a heroic scale to convey optimism and awareness of the beauty of everyday life. In this case, his “Giant Puppy” symbolizes the familiar themes of love, warmth and happiness.
Amy Fernandez is former president of Dog Writers Association of America, and is a regular columnist and contributor to dog magazines. Her recently published books include “Training Your Dachshund” (Barrons, 2008) and “The Poodle” (TFH, 2008). She has owned Chihuahuas since 1970 and bred and shown Chinese Cresteds since 1981.