A case of curiosity

In the nineties the American artist Bill Scanga had a show in New York that explored with wry amusement the interrelationship between viewer and viewer, audience and artist. He created tableaux starring mischiefs of mice: looking at nineteenth century landscape paintings in a miniature mock-up of a gallery at the Met; sitting on a bench and scrutinizing their living counterparts behind a glass wall in an ersatz zoo; and huddled around a tiny TV set, watching none other than “Tom and Jerry” in their mouse-size living room. While the cartoon rings a dissonant chord in a setting that shows the rodents’ clear preference for late nineteenth century frills, the Victorian décor is perfectly suited to these taxidermied mice.

Anthropomorphic taxidermy was all the rage in late Victorian England. Perhaps it was paradoxically due to the growing recognition of the study of natural history as a science and not just as a hobby. Or perhaps the Victorians were just a bit mad—they were certainly mad for stuffed animal mounts to fill their homes not to mention to wear on top of their heads. And surely among the nineteenth-century taxidermists, there’s no one who came closer to being an artist than a man named Walter Potter. His work from the mid-to-late 1800s may be regarded as the pinnacle of the art form. He created obsessively detailed tableaux of animals against a variety of backdrops, in humanized settings: rabbits in a classroom; guinea pigs playing cricket; toads playing sports; and squirrels in a club.[1]

His dioramas I find are at once whimsical and macabre, horrifying for the sheer number of animals he used. In his “Kitten Tea and Croquet Party” he took thirty-seven dead kittens and adorned them with bits of jewelry and bows: seventeen are seated at a long table, serving and sipping tea and eating tarts; the others are playing the lawn game, one kitten is holding an umbrella, and a small tyke is on a bike. And for his “Kitten Wedding” he took another twenty felines and dressed them in bridal finery. His friend’s dog Spot (Potter had made his bread and butter stuffing people’s dead pets, a popular European tradition at the time) appears in “The Hunting Party.” Spot had been a “ratter” before he died; he had apparently “provided” the fifteen brown rats for the taxidermist’s “Rats’ Den.”

That being said, Walter Potter killed none of the animals—all allegedly died of “natural causes,” including presumably the ninety-eight specimens of birds of England he featured in his magnum opus “The Original Death and Burial of Cock Robin.”

On that note I can’t help wondering where Scanga had found the mice he used. Had he killed them? Had he stuffed them himself?

 

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[1] In 2003 Walter Potter’s entire collection—including six thousand taxidermied pieces—was put up for auctioned. The artist Damien Hirst offered a million pounds sterling for the collection; he noted that it was more important if it was kept together. “Individually,” he said, “what have you got except for some bad examples of taxidermy?” But alas his offer was turned down for technical reasons related to the bidding. The collection was splintered among myriad collectors. For a wonderful narrative of Potter’s work and the auction, see Melissa Milgrom’s Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy.

Additional sources: Grace Glueck, “Art in Review: Bill Scanga,” New York Times, May 2, 1997; Tami Katz-Freiman, “Notes from the Front-Line of the Struggle for Attention, New York, Spring 1997,” Art Papers, November-December 1997.

(Image: Living Room (Tom & Jerry), 1997, by Bill Scanga; The Lower Five or the Rats’ Den by Walter Potter,reproduced for non-commercial use only.)


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