'Animal Modernities' addresses questions of animals’ agency in modern art

The symposium brought together academics to discuss animal depictions in eighteenth and nineteenth century art.

by Sophie-Marie Chadha | 10/21/22 2:00am

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The “Animal Modernities” symposium brought together professors from around the world to speak on an extraordinarily wide range of topics relating to the way in which animal depictions in 18th and 19th century art reveal the changing relationship between humans and animals over time. The symposium, which took place on Oct. 13, was hosted by the Leslie Center for the Arts and Humanities and the Departments of Art History, French and Italian in the Hopkins Center for the Arts.

“We're trying to get away from iconography and think of animals as co-creators, with a more active role in art history than just as inert subject matter for brilliant artists to discover and represent,” Dartmouth assistant professor of art history and co-organizer Katie Hornstein wrote.

The symposium was co-organized by Hornstein and Colby College professor Daniel Harkett. While collaborating on a research project relating to animal agency in art, Hornstein and Harkett got the idea for the conference. The pair sent out a call to scholars, colleagues and listservs “to challenge the traditional subservience of ‘non-human animals’ in accounts of the emergence of modern visual culture between 1750 and 1900,” according to the English department website. Due to the flood of interest in presenting, they had a rigorous acceptance process which helped them cultivate a selection of “truly high-caliber presentations,” which Hornstein said she and Harkett were “really thrilled with.”

Virginia Tech University assistant art history professor Annie Ronan, one of the speakers at the conference, said that she became involved in the underrepresented field of animal modernities completely by accident. 

“My friends would often send me paintings of dogs dressed in human costumes and similarly ridiculous images because they thought I would find them funny as an art historian,” Ronan said. 

While they did make her laugh, these strange depictions of animals in nineteenth century paintings piqued her interest beyond purely the comedic. When she first came across “It is Very Queer, Isn’t it?” — an 1885 oil painting by James Henry Beard which depicts a chimpanzee sitting in a chair and holding Darwin’s classic “The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex” — she said that she sent it to her advisor because she thought he would find it entertaining. 

Though originally having nothing to do with her dissertation, Ronan eventually told her advisor that she was actually shifting her focus to the painting — to which her advisor responded with confusion and skepticism, saying ‘you do know that painting is insane, right?’ He asked me. I said, ‘I know.’”

Similar to Ronan, professor Catherine Girard at St. Francis Xavier’s University in Montreal also found her transition into animal studies to be a strange one. Referencing early 20th century German art historian Erwin Panofsky’s famous quote that beavers’ constructions cannot be considered art because only humans can make art, Girard began asking herself whether or not art historians should “start to study and interrogate the aesthetic productions of non-human species.” 

“It’s kind of a funny question, but it's also a profoundly serious one about what differentiates human and non-human animals,” Girard said.

In her presentation, “What Do Seals Want? Unsettling the Visual Culture of Seals and Sealing through Restorative Art History and Deference to Indigenous Epistemologies,” Girard explored art made with materials from seals — emphasizing the importance of repatriation and respecting indigenous peoples’ perspectives on how their artworks are represented to the public. She discussed the Inuit culture as an example of how indigenous communities often give animals more agency and respect than Western cultures do and how they maintain a less strict identity boundary between themselves and animals. 

Reflecting back on the symposium as a whole, Girard said she resonated with the “transversal idea of gender” which frequently appeared in the other presentations.

“As soon as we start interrogating the margin of gender identities — as part of moving away from the centrality of the human experience — other identities that are marginalized begin to come more into play. The symposium generated discourse that would create associations between animality and different conditions of otherness,” Girard said.

Dartmouth Middle Eastern Studies professor Tarek El-Ariss, discussed how the concept of modernity draws its inspiration from multiple different cultures. In his talk on the plurality of modernity he asked, “How do you make modernity inclusive of multiple cultural traditions of thought?”

El-Ariss underscored that though “modernity” may be a Western concept, it is built on global contributions “from different sides, with different perspectives.” 

“Modernity is established through exclusion but also undermines itself – no longer subject to the architecture of control that modernity imagines itself having,” he said. 

Jonas Rosenthal ’25, one of the few student attendees of the symposium, met El-Ariss on the Arabic LSA+ in Morocco. Rosenthal said that he found El-Ariss’ talk interesting and was particularly struck by this idea that the monster in “Frankenstein” was “serving as a symbol of the failure of modernity,” erasing humans’ all-knowing gaze and capacity to classify.

In their both humorous and pensive talk, “Modernism is a Cat,” University of California, Davis art history professor Michael Yonan and Southern Methodist University’s art history chair Amy Freund analyzed the significance of cats in eighteenth and nineteenth century paintings. Often overlooked as mere symbols of domesticity in paintings of this era, Yonan and Freund argued that cats actually “stand in for qualities that resonated with the artist that is depicting them.” 

Yonan and Freund highlighted the positioning of the cat in “The Painter’s Studio: A Real Allegory Summing Up Seven Years of My Life as an Artist,” as an example of this. They said the painter, Gustav Courbet, asserts himself as a hunter and not a “flâneur,” which is the fashionable personae of a detached, observatory figure that most French artists assumed at this time. In their paper, Yonan and Freund are proposing an alternative to the flâneur: that, like cats in their hunter mindsets, “artists instead pounce on reality, and even kill it.” 

The “Modernism is a Cat” speakers elicited lots of laughter by ending with an acknowledgement of the contribution of their own cats to this paper. Yonan and Freund said that the  cats’ presence while their owners have been working has informed the professors’ research because cats train you to do what they want and to look at them in specific ways. Tying back to one of the central questions of the symposium, Yonan and Freund said that they both fully support the idea that animals have agency over how we depict them in art.

Hornstein said the symposium’s guiding question of the human-animal relationship in art history is particularly urgent given what she described as the era of anthropogenic environmental catastrophe that we are currently living in. 

“What would it mean to kind of destabilize this arrogant, powerful conception of the human?” Hornstein said. “One answer we have to that is by looking to the spaces in art history where the conception of the human is established, and seeing how the animal might kind of disrupt, destabilize [or] trouble.”

The second part of this symposium, which will be hosted at Colby College on April 13, will shift focus slightly to workshopping the collection of papers presented at Dartmouth’s symposium  and drawing out the main threads connecting the vast range of topics to be synthesized into a book or anthology. 

Correction appended (October 24, 2:35 p.m.): A previous version of this article had a grammatical error in the section about “The Painter’s Studio: A Real Allegory Summing Up Seven Years of My Life as an Artist." 

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