Best in Show

“Every dog must have his day.” – Jonathan Swift

Figure of a Puppy (c.1680-1690) by Unknown Artist, Hizen, JapanGardiner Museum

Best in Show

Dogs share the lives of humans more intimately than any other animal. They guard our homes, work alongside us, and are our companions, guides, protectors, and friends. As perhaps the first animal to be domesticated by humans, dogs come in countless shapes and sizes and have been bred all over the world for many different purposes. The wide range of emotions that dogs appear to express makes them seem almost human. Whose heart doesn’t melt at a guilty puppy’s eyes? For many, dogs occupy an intermediary realm between human beings and other animals. They represent our wild, untamed selves as well as our refined, cultured existence; perhaps it is this duality that makes them so lovable. As our closest animal companions, dogs provide an endless source of artistic inspiration and have taken every conceivable form. They have assumed a range of connotations including loyalty and fidelity, fickleness and treachery, and both innocence and guilt. Best in Show brings together a group of sculptures in an array of canine forms, from the ferocious to the cuddly. Drawn mainly from the Gardiner Museum’s permanent collection and spanning several cultures and time periods, these works highlight how artists have used the medium of clay to convey the varied relationships between dogs and people, as well as the constantly evolving beliefs and symbolism attached to the animal. Whether a status symbol, spiritual protector, or loyal companion, dogs have not only captured our hearts but also our imaginations.

Dog-form Effigy Vessel (300 BCE - 300 CE) by Colima Culture, MexicoGardiner Museum

In mythologies of the Ancient Americas, dogs were believed to guide souls on their journey to the underworld. This function may explain why so many dog-shaped vessels, now called Colima Dogs, have been found in ancient burial sites throughout Mesoamerica. The hairless breed represented here, Xoloitzcuintli, safeguarded homes from evil spirits and intruders as well as acted as a guide in the afterlife.

Pair of Fo Dogs (lion dogs) (19th Century) by ChinaGardiner Museum

Chinese Fo dogs developed from a conflation of lions and dogs, both of which appear in stories from the Buddhist and Taoist traditions. Large statues of Fo dogs frequently guard entrances to temples and shrines. They are usually made in pairs: the male dog with a globe under one paw represents Yang, or the masculine influence, while the female with nursing pup symbolizes the feminine Yin.

Pair of Shishi Dogs (c.1680) by Unknown Artist, Hizen, JapanGardiner Museum

The Japanese shishi dog derives from the Chinese guardian lion-dog. As in China, they are often seen in pairs and are ascribed protective powers.

Pair of Pug Dogs from the Royal Palace at Warsaw (c.1741-1745) by Meissen Porcelain ManufactoryGardiner Museum

The preferred lap-dog of the nobility and a signifier of wealth and status, the pug also served as the symbol of the Mopsorden, or “Order of the Pug Dog.” This secret society was formed in 1739 in Vienna as a lighthearted response to a Papal Bull forbidding Catholics from becoming Freemasons. Progressive for the time, the Mopsorden admitted both men and women. The initiation ceremony required novices to kiss the backside of a pug, although ceramic models often replaced the real dogs.

Scaramouche and Columbine (c.1740) by Meissen Porcelain ManufactoryGardiner Museum

Figure of a Puppy (c.1680-1690) by Unknown Artist, Hizen, JapanGardiner Museum

The flower-like ornament on this puppy may derive from the use of the word “flowered” to describe dog markings in China and Japan. While scientists and physicians now acknowledge the health benefits of canine companionship, dogs have long been associated with a wide range of medical beliefs. In early China and Japan, physicians recommended holding a dog as a heated compress to an affected area to relieve cramps and muscle aches, the only supposed health benefit the animals could provide.

Gardener (c.1760) by Chelsea Porcelain ManufactoryGardiner Museum

Scent bottles such as these next three pieces, became popular in the eighteenth century during a time when daily bathing was considered unhealthy. People believed that water permeating the skin could disrupt their physiological, mental, and emotional functions. Like pet keeping and porcelain collecting, scent became intertwined with conceptions of social status.

Pug Dog (c.1751-54) by St. James FactoryGardiner Museum

Young Man Holding a Dog (c.1755) by Meissen Porcelain ManufactoryGardiner Museum

“Anybody who doesn’t know what soap tastes like never washed a dog.” - Franklin P. Jones

Minature Figure of a Dog (c.1750) by Meissen Porcelain ManufactoryGardiner Museum

Both of these next two figures may have served as decoration for the dessert table. This hunting dog made at Meissen is characteristic of J. J. Kaendler’s style of carefully observed naturalism.

Dog and Kennel (c.1740) by Du Paquier FactoryGardiner Museum

Rendered in puce, schwarzlot, and iron-red, Dog and Kennel exemplifies the type of porcelain created at the rival Du Paquier manufactory in Vienna. Du Paquier likely employed confectioners as model-makers, which may explain the figure’s caricature-like appearance.

Boy Frightened by a Dog and Girl with a Mousetrap (c.1772-1775) by Richard Champion and Co.Gardiner Museum

These figures may have acted as cautionary warnings about certain types of people.
The foppish male, with his tailored jacket and stylish trousers, exudes gallantry, which eighteenth-century Europeans associated with dishonest men driven by
sexual conquest. The dog, widely known as a symbol of loyalty and fidelity, frightens
the libertine man in search of fleeting delights of the flesh. The companion figure of a young girl holding a mousetrap with a cat may represent the female equivalent, with the cat symbolizing the perils of female sexual desire.

Pair of Bolognese Hounds (19th Century) by Meissen Porcelain ManufactoryGardiner Museum

While the luxuriating, wealthy woman with her over-indulged toy dog is an ancient and widespread stereotype, lap-dogs became the preferred pet of the nobility in eighteenth-century Europe. Meissen first manufactured Bolognese hounds in the 1730s, creating numerous variations. The version here has been so popular that it has been in nearly continuous production into the present day.

History of a Family (c.1997) by Laszlo FeketeGardiner Museum

It is not surprising that dogs, and other animals, made their way into this work. Today, many pet dogs are like members of the family, some being spoiled more than children. Using discarded porcelain shards from the Herend porcelain manufactory in Hungary, Fekete’s History of a Family larks at materialism, luxury, and mass production.

The dog in this work is an amalgamation of different figurines, one of which is so popular that it has been manufactured for over 100 years.

Penelope's Suitors (2010) by Ann RobertsGardiner Museum

A playful take on the Homeric myth of Queen Penelope and the suitors who plotted to win her hand in Odysseus’s absence, this work is one of a small number that Ann Roberts has executed in porcelain. Both dogs and fish frequently appear in Roberts’ sculptural narratives and personify male/masculine characteristics. These dogs are predators: hunters in competition for Penelope’s hand in this modern reinterpretation that explores a popular theme in Greek literature, female guile versus male dominance.

Credits: Story

This exhibition was on display at the Gardiner Museum Toronto, January 17 - March 17 2019. It was curated by Natalie Hume.

The exhibition was presented by Lindy Barrow and Sharon Kleim

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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