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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, February 21, 2003

Animals of imagination Animals of imagination (February 21, 2003)

Print exhibit communicates cautionary tales of human history

by Sue Dremann

A rtists and tale spinners throughout human history have enlisted animals to help them explain the incomprehensible world. Mischievous and comical, grotesque and nightmarish, a new print show at the Palo Alto Art Center treats the viewer to the authentic works of some famous names in art history: William Blake, Albrecht Durer, Francisco Goya, Pablo Picasso and Thomas Nast, among others.

"Creatures that Stir: Symbol and Satire in Animals of Imagination," is a journey through history's cautionary tales, as well as satirical commentary on the major issues of the artists' times. The lessons are relevant today, said Signe Mayfield, curator of the Palo Alto Art Center, who assembled the exhibit with the current tumultuous times in mind.

Many of the prints deal with themes of war and political oppression. Prints from Goya's 18th-century "Los Caprichos" series explore these darker themes through satire, or use animal imagery as a backdrop to the central human figure or theme. The intrusion of bats and owls as fearsome night creatures into the sleeping man's dreams in Goya's "The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters" (1799) plays upon the dark side of the unconscious. In early Christian symbolism, the featherless flight of the bat was associated with the perversion of intellectual faculties, Mayfield quoted in the exhibit's brochure.

The power of Goya's work is echoed in a modern print by artist Enrique Chagoya, entitled "After Goya 'Sleep of Reason'" (1987), substituting helicopters and bat-like airplanes for the dark creatures of Goya's dream. Done in a series of prints modeled after Goya's "Los Caprichos," Chagoya added topical references, such as the face of Ronald Reagan as a hybrid man/bat in "Las Resultas."

Goya used the hybrid man/animal/grotesque creature as a device to express veiled critiques of the Catholic Church, nobility and even the ignorance of the peasantry, sheltering the true meaning of his images from the Inquisition, Mayfield noted.

"What all of these artists are trying to do is to look for an avenue into consciousness. If an artist can make a statement through beauty, (the work) can get across more than hitting someone over the head, so to speak. Much more can be said about difficult subjects," she said. The device of the animal goes as far back as the beast tales, to 400 B.C., Mayfield added.

Sixteenth century artists, such as Martin Schongauer and Albrecht Durer, created demonic tormenters locked in a struggle for the human soul. A 15th-century engraving by De Raphael Mey, a reverse copy of Schoengauer's print, "St. Anthony tormented by demons," depicts an array of grotesque fish, fowl and mammal in a whirling aerial battle for the body and soul of the saint, pulling at him from all angles, as if to tear him apart. The saint stares stoically, ignoring the terrifying creatures, resolute in his faith.

Even Christ is not immune: Durer's "Christ in Limbo" (1511) depicts Christ being tormented by a saggy-breasted half-human pig. In the times of these artists, doubt and temptation appeared as part and parcel of the human condition.

Besides the rich themes of phantasmagoric imagery, the exhibit teaches on multiple levels. The accompanying text explains the important contributions each of the artists made to the art of the print. For instance, French printmaker Jacques Callot (1592-1635) developed the process of etching we know today. He utilized a lute-maker's hard varnish as a ground applied to a copper plate. Lines drawn into the ground exposed the metal, which was then immersed in an acid bath multiple times, increasing the variations of dark lines.

His work, particularly the posthumously published series "Miseries of War," is "an indictment to the savagery of war he observed in his native France during the Wars of Religion," noted Mayfield. Nearly 200 years later, Goya would evoke the same sentiments of his war experiences in the 80 sketches in "Los Caprichos."

A heritage of symbolic animal history runs through many cultures, as exhibited by Japanese woodcuts by 19th century artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi. "The Seven Wonders of the Clowning Raccoon (Badger)" depicts an anthropomorphized Tanuki, a raccoon-like dog that vested with powers of transformation in Japanese myth.

Tanuki dances in a geisha house, the gigantic testicles that identify him pouching onto the floor. Comic and celebratory, the work opens a window into the geisha-house world, a raucous, drunken reverie of the primordial human spirit.

The print, done in classic Japanese woodcut style, is paired with a colored woodcut by Kansai. Entitled "Yoku Kiku Kusuri" ("Medicines that Work Well"), the work depicts a parade of Japanese warriors with heads of medicinal roots, flower buds and animals, slaying evil spirits that are the root cause of disease.

Speaking of testicles, one would not want to miss the uproariously funny take of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, done by Pablo Picasso. "Dream and Lie of Franco I and II" (1937) is a suite of two panels, each composed of nine small etchings. "Franco I" portrays the terror and agony of the Spanish Civil War. Four of the etchings are themes reproduced in Picasso's famous mural, "Guernica," named after the ancient Basque town in which civilians were bombed by the Germans in 1937, according to the exhibit brochure.

"Franco II" is comprised of nine etchings in which a crazed, hirsute Franco, with tentacle-like appendages sprouting from his head, postures in a number of ridiculous manners. One plate shows Franco as the emperor with seemingly few clothes -- a grinning fool walking a tightrope, with his privates exposed.

Mayfield hopes that school-age children will also learn from the exhibit, but parents should be aware that many of the themes are adult in nature, and depict genitalia, sexual content or imagery that may be frightening to the very young. One child accompanying his father was heard to remark, "These are scary pictures. Are you frightened, Daddy?"

Amid the grave and frightening images, there are plenty with humor. The "animalization" of political figures by Thomas Nast, a top 19th-century caricaturist, gave American politics the Republican elephant.

Nast's legendary caricatures, gathered at the Art Center exhibit, are homage to the power of the caricature art form to change public opinion. His 1869 campaign of satirical cartoons ousted the corrupt Boss Tweed and his ring of swindlers, who stole millions from the City of New York. In his "A group of Vultures Waiting for the Storm to Blow Over -- 'Let Us Prey,'" Nast depicted Boss Tweed and his gang as carrion-eating vultures. Ralph E. Shikes, in his book, "The Indignant Eye," quoted Tweed reputedly lamenting, "I don't care what they print about me, most of my constituents can't read anyway -- but them damn pictures!'"

What: "Creatures that Stir: Symbol & Satire in Animals of Imagination," an exhibition featuring more than 50 historic and contemporary fine prints

Where: Palo Alto Art Center, 1313 Newell Road, Palo Alto

When: Through April 27. The gallery is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday also from 7 to 9 p.m.; Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m.

Cost: Admission is free.

Info: Call (650) 329-2366 or visit


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