Art show offers fur, feathers and a dose of eccentricity


An exhibition in France explores unusual and occasionally moving animal-based art by contemporary Flemish artists, from amorous deer to war horses in the throes of death

All things weird and wonderful

Last year the Musée de Flandre in northern France explored the pioneering representation of animals in 17th-century Flemish painting. Now the museum takes visitors back to the future with a follow-up exhibition that basks in the zoological eccentricity of contemporary Flemish art.

The French village of Cassel is situated atop a hill that locals claim is the tallest in all of Flanders. A historical crossroads, the region has for the last 1,000 years been a melting pot of French and Flemish influence. The modern border may have put the Kasselberg about 10km from Belgium, but the town that straddles it remains rich in echoes of the past.

Nowhere is the Flemish legacy more pronounced than the Musée de Flandre. The museum’s permanent collection is drawn mainly from the Baroque era, when Flemish painting flourished.

Indeed, the exhibition that inspired Fur and Feathers showcased the art of that period. Last year’s Odyssey of Animals presented wildlife canvases by the likes of Roelandt Savery, Jan Fyt and Paul de Vos.

Testing the limits

The current exhibition fast-forwards a few hundred years to the end of the 20th century and into the present millennium. “We wanted to bring the subject up to date,” museum director Sandrine Vézilier-Dussart says. “The changing representation of animal life tells us a lot about changing values, both in art and in society.”

Vézilier-Dussart and her team duly reached out to nine contemporary Flemish artists and acquired more than 30 of their works in various media, from bronze sculptures to photographic montages to wild taxidermy installations.

The bizarre creatures catalogued by an artist like Koen Vanmechelen are conscious references to the world of Hieronymus Bosch

- Sandrine Vézilier-Dussart

“These are all revisited works,” she explains. “They were created in different contexts across many years, but bringing them all together, in this specific context, emphasises similarities and differences.”

One of those similarities is the freedom with which contemporary artists approach the subject. “The early painters were busy perfecting a technique,” Vézilier-Dussart explains. “Representational painting was fairly new. These painters used the varied forms of animal anatomy to test the limits of verisimilitude. Contemporary artists use the animal subject to deconstruct or transcend that very representational technique.”

So the ancients wrote the rule book only for the moderns to tear it up. This general evolution is, of course, a global fact of contemporary art.

There is a specifically Flemish characteristic, however; the current generation of Flemish artists inherited the Baroque tradition of animal painting and can reference it with native ease.

Into the modern age

“Look at the bizarre creatures catalogued by an artist like Koen Vanmechelen,” Vézilier-Dussart says. “They are conscious references to the world of Hieronymus Bosch.”

Visitors are greeted in the exhibition’s first galleries by two of the biggest names in contemporary Flemish art: Jan Fabre and Wim Delvoye. Though Fabre’s bronze lamb sculpture “Sanguis Sum”, his stuffed owl head and their accompanying Baroque tableaux are a little too clumsy in their symbolism, he does have some excellent work in the exhibition – particularly the wood, taxidermy and beetle installation “Gravetomb”.

Delvoye’s copulating deer bronze “Trophy” is refreshingly secular, meanwhile, even if the amorous animals are pairing in missionary position. His triptych of controversial tattooed pigskins is also relatively understated (apart from one titled “Madonna”). Still, exhibition curators serve them up with a gigantic 16th-century Italian painting of a bloodied and lifeless Jesus being hauled to his grave.

Despite the minimalism of her approach, the artist plunges you into the intensity of war

- Sandrine Vézilier-Dussart

It’s only with the third featured artist that we truly move away from ecclesiastical domination and into the modern era. Marie-Jo Lafontaine’s photographic series I Love the World! does feature an obligatory lamb among the wolves (and rats and predatory apes) of Wall Street, but everything else about it is resolutely 21st century.

Vézilier-Dussart’s favourite piece is a meditation on modern warfare. Berlinde de Bruyckere’s immersive installation “In Flanders Fields” (pictured above) was originally conceived for the eponymous First World War museum in Ypres.

The work consists of three life-sized horse simulacra upholstered in real treated horse skins and posed in their death throes. “This one moves me the most,” she says. “Despite the minimalism of her approach, the artist plunges you into the intensity of war.”

After traversing Vanmechelen’s cabinet of curiosities – a taxidermy mash-up that puts iguana heads on poultry and vice versa – and passing Michel Vanden Eeckhoudt’s stark photographic depictions of zoo life behind the scenes, the exhibition ends on an optimistic note with Éric de Ville’s slick, digitally enhanced montage “Paradise”.

This utopian vision of lush landscape and exotic wildlife is a modern update of the birds-of-paradise tableaux showcased in last year’s Animal Odyssey. It’s also a reminder that contemporary art isn’t always about ironic distance or worldly pessimism.

Until 9 July, Musée de Flandre, Cassel, France

Photo: Courtesy M HKA, Antwerp