Artistic Genus: Depictions of Animals in the Collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

This exhibition was created by students enrolled in Art History 1302 at the University of Houston-Downtown during the fall 2017 semester.

Artistic Genus: A Bestiary
During the Middle Ages in Europe, bestiaries became popular sources of information about the natural world, specifically animals. Bestiaries contained drawings and descriptions of creatures both real and imagined. In the spirit of these medieval works of science and art, the exhibition "Artistic Genus" explores depictions of animals from across the world found in the art collections at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
Creatures of the Sea
In many cultures, the sea is symbolic of life itself. The objects featured in this section of the exhibition reflect the cycle of birth, life, and death.

The top of this West African linguist staff—made from wood covered in gold leaf—depicts a human inside the mouth of a whale. The staff references a story about an ancient Akan chief who emerged from the belly of a whale to claim land.

In many Western African cultures, including the Akan, linguists act as advisers and message-bearers to the king. Linguists carry staffs to represent wisdom, power, and their kingdom's divine right—over rival kingdoms—to rule a particular region.

Here, the man emerging from the whale may be interpreted as a warning not to defy this king or his kingdom.

The Coclé people emerged in what is now the province of Coclé near the Santa Marta River in Panama. The Coclé culture is known for its ceramic objects portraying a variety of meaningful images. This ceramic work is covered in geometric designs, and the pedestal’s top takes the form of a stingray.

The stingray’s poisonous spines, seen in the tail extending over the top’s edge, were used by the Coclé as spear and arrow tips. Stingray spines have also been found in tombs of the region, suggesting the importance of these animals to the Coclé culture.

This etching shows the stages of whaling during the 19th century. The whaling crew in the foreground is captured at the moment just before the harpoon pierces a massive whale. The intensity of the scene can be seen in the chaotic motion of the water near the whale.

Just behind the waves in the middle ground, a different whaling crew cuts off long strips of the whale’s blubber. Whale oil, bone, blubber, and ambergris—a waxy substance found in the intestines of sperm whales and used in perfume—were highly prized resources. The collecting of these items drove the whaling industry and led to the decline of whale populations at the time.

In the background to the right, another whale floats next to a small boat. The flag to mark the carcass, and the circling birds, indicate that this whale has been killed and is ready for blubber collection.

Creatures of the Land
The animals in this section—like humans—roam the land. The featured works of art focus on the form, shape, and physicality of these fellow terrestrial creatures.

For the Inca people, feather panels held more value than gold or silver. Inca rulers presented Spanish conquistadors with gifts of feather textiles as a show of utmost respect.

These lavish textiles were made with macaw and Amazonian parrot feathers, prized for their amazing shine and vibrant colors. Highly skilled Inca weavers knotted and tied the feathers onto a cotton backing.

This panel depicts a herder with blue and black llamas. Llamas were such important animals to the Inca that the animals were sacrificed to the gods.

Albrecht Dürer depicted horses in many of his engravings. Here, the animal is shown next to an almost-hidden figure.

The winged helmet and winged shoes may identify the figure in this scene as either Perseus or Mercury, mythological heroes who often wear both attributes.

Above the horse and figure, a flame bursts forth from a conspicuously placed vase. According to one scholar, the flame may be a symbol of “illuminating reason” throwing light on the struggle between wild sensuality (the horse) and reason (the mythological figure).

Albrecht Dürer, a German artist, went to Italy from 1494 to 1495 to study Italian innovations in drawing, including the work of Leonardo da Vinci. Dürer’s engravings evoke Leonardo’s style with their precise proportions.

The enormous size of the elephant atop this sword handle of the Akan people indicates that the animal is likely a representation of strength and power.

The duiker—the animal standing on the elephant—is a type of antelope found in Sub-Saharan Africa. In contrast to the elephant, the duiker is small and often symbolizes wisdom in Akan culture.

The small duiker physically dominating the enormous elephant relates to two proverbs: “Though the elephant is huge, the duiker is the elder” and “The elephant is big for nothing, it is the duiker that rules the forest.” The Akan believed that intelligence—not strength—wins a battle.

The handles of Akan ceremonial swords are often elaborately carved into figurative sculptures referencing Akan proverbs, and are covered with gold leaf. Gold in the Akan cultures represents not only wealth, but also the well-being of the kingdom.

Different types of swords have specific ceremonial and political purposes. The number of swords in a ceremony, and how elaborate the swords are, represent the power and authority of the king. Central to Akan rituals, the most important sword is the one used in the ascension ceremony—called an enstoolment—for a chief, who holds the sword while taking his oath of office.

This Albrecht Dürer engraving depicts a woman holding a child. The halo behind the woman’s head symbolizes her divinity, signaling that she is the Virgin Mary holding the Christ Child.

Albrecht Dürer placed small birds on the hands of the young Christ. The bird is a common symbol in Christian art, and here symbolizes the souls to be saved by Christ’s sacrifice.

At lower left, Albrecht Dürer has included a monkey, often used in Western art as a symbol of lust and greed. The leashed monkey sits calmly at Mary’s feet, suggesting that the purity of Mary and the promise of salvation have calmed humanity’s impulses.

Creatures of the Air
Birds are important symbols throughout the history of art. In this section of the exhibition, birds symbolize intimate connections between family members, the global artistic community, and the responsibility of humans to create and maintain caring connections with one another. 

In the Bible, birds are often used as metaphors for spiritual lessons and important creatures of sacrifice, and as symbols of the Holy Spirit. In this 17th-century etching by Simon Vouet, the sparrow perched on Joseph’s finger acts as a symbolic connection between man and the outstretched hand of the Christ Child.

All eyes are on the small bird at the center of the print, and the natural, commonplace gestures portray the biblical figures as a simple, content family. The Italian inscription below the Holy Family translates to “He sits in the arms of his mother, the son of God. Woman, the angel came to him with piety.”

Vouet became an important participant in an artistic movement inspired by Italian Baroque painter Caravaggio. The "Caravaggisti" movement emerged in the early 17th century and often depicted religious scenes in the context of everyday life, as seen here.

This woodcut is one in a group of prints by Félix Emile-Jean Vallotton that depict swans, bathing women, or both together. In 19th-century Europe, swans were often interpreted as a substitute for the nude female body.

Vallotton’s choice of subject and style was also influenced by Japanese prints, which were popular in Europe at the time. Japanese prints frequently featured scenes of birds in nature that emphasized the movement of line and the simplicity of the background.

Félix Emile-Jean Vallotton was part of the group of artists called the Nabis, who emphasized flat shapes and simple, everyday subjects. For the print seen here, as in many of his other woodcuts, Vallotton chose to simplify his forms, relying on strong, high-contrast lines.

The hen nesting four eggs at the top of this Akan staff may be a reference to an Akan proverb. “The hen says: ‘I know what is in my own head, but not what is in my eggs.’”

This proverb alludes to the inability of parents to know what their children are thinking, and to the responsibility of caring for those who rely on them. The proverb is also a metaphor for the duties of a king.

Proverbs referenced by linguist staffs often allude to the responsibilities of a king to his subjects. The gold leaf, hammered into thin sheets to embellish the carved wood staff, demonstrates the value of linguists as trusted counselors to their kings and to their people.

Gold staffs are carried by linguists of the Akan people of West Africa. Until the late 18th century, the Akan languages did not have formal writing systems, and as a result the culture possesses a rich oral tradition of proverbs, metaphor, and riddles. The finials atop linguist staffs often illustrate proverbs that are a part of the linguist’s immense knowledge of Akan history and culture.

This gallery photo shows some of the many linguist staffs in the Glassell Collection of African Gold at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Rendered in great detail, "Feeding the Sacred Ibis" depicts a young caretaker feeding Egyptian ibis. Ancient Egyptians worshipped Thoth—the god of wisdom, knowledge, and writing—in part by cultivating land for the ibis. Thoth was portrayed in Egyptian art as a man with the head of a bird, and the ibis was believed to be a reincarnation of Thoth himself. The birds were cared for in temples dedicated to Thoth as well as in the wild.

Ancient Egypt has captivated European artists for centuries, with particular interest resulting from events such as the discovery of the famed Rosetta Stone in 1799, its eventual deciphering later in the 19th century, and the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869.

This jar, or “olla,” is of Hopi origin. The abstract birds on both sides of the olla may be mockingbirds, given their narrow beaks and the red coloring of their necks. In a Hopi creation myth, the mockingbird was a divine creature that gave humans the gift of speaking, thus making the mockingbird a symbol of intelligence.

The shape of this jar was formed by the traditional coil-and-scrape technique. The vessel was then fired in an open pit.

The firing process turns the pale clay of the Southwest desert into the warm yellow color seen here. The multicolored bird design was likely painted with traditional materials such as yucca leaf brushes and other natural materials native to Southwestern North America.

Credits: Story

This exhibition was created by students in Art History 1302 at the University of Houston-Downtown during the fall 2017 semester.

The students were mentored by their instructor, Rebecka Black, and by MFAH staff members including Chelsea Dacus, assistant curator of antiquities and of the arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas; Chelsea Shannon, gallery interpretation specialist; and Dena Woodall, associate curator of prints and drawings. Special thanks go to Kelley Magill, university programs specialist at the MFA; and Mark Cervenka, associate professor of art and director of the O'Kane Gallery at the University of Houston-Downtown.

STUDENTS | ART HISTORY 1302
Genesis Alvarado, Ethel Anderson-Bilyeu, Juan Barrera, Victoria Cabrera, Kevin Chavez, Nataly Escamilla, Helen Fraps, Ashley Gayossa, Zitlaly Granda, Aaron Gutierrez, Jose Guzman, Allison Hamm, Irie Harrison, Joseph Jimoh, Alexis Martinez, Marisol Mireles, Jonathan Olivos, Edylizette Orozco, Francisco Parra, Maia Revells, Genneviee Sanchez, Pierce Strader, Jaime Trujillo, Christopher Udeh, Dania Uriostegui, Diego Vieyra

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Wall text for Akan Ceremonial Sword, African art, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Wall text for Akan Linguist Staff, African art, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Wall text for Coclé Pedestal, Pre-Columbian art, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Wall text for Hopi Olla, Native American art, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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