Friday, May 20, 2016

Zoology Paintings by David Holt at Loop, May 21 - June 12, 2016


Sources and Inspirations


David Holt, Monkeys, 26"x28", acrylic/linen, 2016


The paintings in Zoology are part of a continuing series of works inspired by natural history museum displays and illustrated atlases. The grid-like arrangements, which echo the arrangements of specimens in display cabinets and on atlas pages, provide compositional scaffolding for playful variations and comparisons of animal forms.

My interest is not in the genre of “wildlife illustration” as it is often practiced but rather in the history of our thinking about animals, the ways in which we depict them, and the ways in which we mentally visualize them in our memories and imaginations. I am especially interested in children’s depictions of animals.  

Child's animal drawing from the Rhoda Kellogg Child Art Collection

Wang Yani painting monkeys

I also like works in which the artists try to express the characters or personalities they imagine the animals to have.
Jean Dubuffet, Angry Cat,1953 , MoMA

Sengai Gibon (1750-1837), Tiger

Silvio Loffredo (1920-2013), Gatti, (Loffredo was my professor at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence)

David Holt, Cats, acrylic/linen, 12"x12", 2016

Early examples of animal descriptions and taxonomies include Aristotle's History of the Animals and Pliny the Elder's Natural History. Visual depictions of types of animals can be found in Roman paintings and especially mosaics

Roman mosaic from Lod, Israel. (More Lod images at this Metropolitan Museum of Art site.)

Roman mosaic, Palazzo Massimo, Rome

Later, in the east, Zakarīyā ibn Muhammad al-Qazwīnī (circa 1203–83) wrote the widely copied and translated Wonders of Creation, which included a catalog of real and imagined creatures.

Manuscript page from The Wonders of Creation

Such early examples inspired my handling of the subject of fish.

David Holt, Fish (yellow), acrylic/linen, 11"x11", 2016

David Holt, Fish, acrylic/canvas, 11"x14", 2016

European medieval bestiary manuscripts featured both actual and fanciful animals in order  to list and describe them and also to convey allegorical religious and moral messages. (The Medieval Bestiary is a useful online resource for images and information.)

Mole, from a manuscript in the Danish Kongelige Bibliotek, Gl. kgl. S. 1633 4º, Folio 9r
Ibex, from a manuscript in the Danish Kongelige Bibliotek, Gl. kgl. S. 1633 4º, Folio 9r

Aesop's (ca. 620-564 BCE) Fables or the Aesopica had an even earlier history of animal subjects and narratives employed for moral instruction. Illustrated manuscript and printed versions of the fables continued to be produced during the early modern era.

Page from the Fable of the Snake and the Crab, Medici Aesop, 15th c., Spencer 50, Spencer Collection, New York Public Library

Revenge on the old lion from a printed Augsburg version, ca. 1480, British Library, (online facsimile from a copy in the Bavarian State Library available here)

Early printed books and atlases facilitated the spread of knowledge about animals. Collectors displayed live specimens in private menageries and preserved ones (along with other curiosities) in wunderkammer. Such menageries and curiosity cabinets were the forerunners to today’s zoos and natural history museums.

Engraving from Ferrante Imperato's Dell'Historia Naturale (Naples 1599)

La Ménagerie at Versailles, begun 1663. (Here is a short official video reconstruction and history.)

Some important early modern and modern examples of illustrated texts have included Conrad Gesner's Historiae Animalium (1551-58); Carl Linneaus' Systema Naturae (1735); George-Louis Leclerc, Compte de Buffon's Histoire Naturelle (1749-88); Oliver Goldsmith's A History of the Earth and Animated Nature (1824); and Alfred Edmund Brehm's Life of Animals (1895).

Page from Buffon's Histoire Naturelle
David Holt, Three Dogs, acrylic/canvas, 6"x8" each, 2016

Our human similarities with animals, especially primates, have long been a subject of intense interest. Linneaus drew close connections between humans and other primates by placing them in the same category of Anthropomorpha in his early volumes of the Systema Naturae.

Christian Emmanuel Hoppius: Anthropomorpha. In: Amoenitates Academicae. Band 6, Stockholm, 1763

Of course Darwin continued to explore such connections not only in terms of taxonomy and evolution but also in terms of behaviour and emotional expression in The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals (1872).

Page from Darwin's Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals

I have found it both interesting and challenging to try to convey a sense of emotion, character, and even personality in primate facial expressions. 

David Holt, Baboon sketchbook page, pen/ink, 6"x4", 2015

David Holt, Baboon sketchbook page, pen/ink, 6"x4", 2015

David Holt, Baboon Heads, acrylic/linen, 24"x22", 2016

John Berger, in his essay Why Look at Animals? from his About Looking (1980), notes that over time our connections with animals have become less meaningful since most of us do not work with them daily on farms or other settings nor do we raise or hunt them for food. Merely having pets or seeing animals in zoos creates relationships with animals that can be problematic. Others such as Frans De Waal and Jane Goodall have thoughtfully explored animal (especially primate) intelligence and their complex social relationships, while still others such as Robert Sapolsky have written about our human physiological similarities with animals that we ignore to our detriment. Peter Singer has also explored our close  resemblances with other animal species, raising serious questions about ethics and animal rights. 

David Holt, Birds, acrylic/wood, approx. 6"x6" and 4" x 6", 2016

More of my paintings of animals and other subjects can be found on my website at