The museum is teeming with animals this season! From wriggly ants, hairy spiders and colourful butterflies in Crawly Creatures to Clara, the famous rhinoceros. The more than 200 objects on display reveal how artists and scientists have been fascinated by animals. While Clara the rhinoceros is huge and strong and some of the crawly creatures are incredibly tiny, they all have one thing in common: with time our understanding and view of these animals have completely changed. In these two exhibitions presenting more than 200 paintings, sculptures, prints, medallions, clocks and drawings, you’ll see how people marvelled at these animals, and artists and scientists fell under their spell.
Two exhibitions explore the wonders of the animal kingdom.
CLARA THE RHINOCEROS Huge, imposing, and utterly strange: though it’s difficult to imagine now, until Clara arrived in the Netherlands, pretty much everything Europeans knew about the rhinoceros came from a print made in 1515. That all changed in 1741, when Dutch sea captain Douwe Mout van der Meer brought Clara to Amsterdam from India. For the next 17 years, Clara was toured to towns and cities all over Europe, attracting big crowds and gaining superstar status. There are few places in Europe she didn’t visit, travelling from Vienna to Paris, and from Naples to Copenhagen – and the Netherlands of course.
Scientists studied her, and artists marvelled at her appearance. The exhibition tells the story of Clara’s life and how her presence changed our perception of the rhinoceros, from a semi-mythical beast to a real live animal. This is perfectly illustrated in the exhibition by two images: the very first print portraying the rhinoceros, made by Albrecht Dürer in 1515; and the life-size, full-length portrait of Clara by Jean-Baptiste Oudry, dating from 1749.
HUMANS AND ANIMALS Though Clara was greatly admired, she was also something of a fairground attraction, and she never mixed with other rhinoceroses. So despite her star status, how happy would she have been? Her story also touches on the relationship between humans and animals. It’s an issue raised by contemporary artist Rossella Biscotti in her 2016 installation Clara. This work reveals that colonialism, exoticism, exploitation and power are also part of Clara’s story.
CRAWLY CREATURES How do you feel about little crawly creatures like spiders, toads and ants. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the arts and sciences brought about big changes to the way people thought about these little beasts! From scary, filthy symbols of death and decay they became the focus of spellbound artists.
In 140 objects, Crawly Creatures takes a closer look at these changing perceptions, with highlights including the first drawing whose main subject was an insect, made in 1505 by Albrecht Dürer, and Peter Paul Rubens’ Head of Medusa (1617-18). We also discover how this emerging appreciation for crawly creatures gave rise to its own painting genre called sottobosco, meaning ‘forest flora and fauna’. See for yourself how sottobosco paintings merged the arts and sciences, in the final gallery of the exhibition.
FROM THE 17TH CENTURY TO THE PRESENT DAY How do we see these little beings today? Are they really creepy crawlies at all? Only now, when it’s perhaps too late, are we realising how important they are to our ecosystems.
The exhibition also features work by the contemporary artists Tomás Saraceno and Rafael Gomezbarros.