Tag Archives: Animals in Art

Careful What You Wish For


Rudolf Siemering, St. Gertrude of Nivelles, 1896, Gertraudenbrücke, Berlin (detail)To a mouse, today is not so much about an Irish saint called Patrick but about another saint who lived three centuries and six hundred miles away from him. Saint Gertrude of Nivelles hails from seventh-century Belgium (then known as Francia). Like Saint Patrick she died on March 17th, and like Saint Patrick she was posthumously awarded the date as her Feast Day. But you’ll find no mice dancing down the avenues, dying rivers and lighting buildings in colors that sing spring, drinking Belgian ales by the bottlefuls; you’ll hear no squeaks of Happy Saint Gertrude’s Day. Instead the holiday undoubtedly makes tiny rodents rather somber, for this Gertrude was none other than the Patron Saint of the Fear of Mice.

According to legend, Nivelles’s Gertrude was responsible for driving field mice out of the land, protecting people’s crops from devastation and the people themselves from disease. Before you picture a nun chasing mice like some kind of rabid farmer’s wife, the young abbess got rid of the rodents much more efficiently; she banished them with a single Rudolf Siemering, St. Gertrude of Nivelles, 1896, Gertraudenbrücke, Berlinprayer.

“Karma will bite you in your habit,” the mice must have thought, and sure enough, by the Middle Ages Saint Gertrude became forever stuck with myriad tiny rodents at her side. As mice at the time were popularly considered to represent souls in purgatory—souls for whom Gertrude in her day had spent hours and hours praying—artists began depicting her together with a mouse, often more than one, climbing her pastoral staff or sitting at her feet.

In 1896 the German sculptor Rudolf Siemering[1] completed a nine-and-a-half-foot bronze of Saint Gertrude for Berlin’s Gertraudenbrücke (Gertrude’s Bridge) that had been erected near the site of a former hospital, which also bore the saint’s name. The pedestal is bedecked with mice and rats on the run—one mouse’s head has been rubbed to a high shine from the many hands of passersby who can’t resist touching him in hopes their wishes are granted.



[1] Here in the States a sample of Siemering’s work can be seen in Philadelphia: his monument of Washington on horseback (1897) sits in Eakins Oval in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Sources: Catholic Encyclopedia; [Father Alban] Butler Lives of the Saints, 1866;

Images: Saint Gertrude of Nivelles (with a traveler) and detail (secretcitytravel.com), 1896, cast bronze, height: 118 inches, Gertraudenbrücke, Berlin, reproduced for non-commercial use only.

“‘I breathe when I sleep’ is the same thing as ‘I sleep when I breathe’!”

Felinka Mouse 2013, Mister Finch

The sculptures of Mister Finch, a British textile artist, conjure up a mesmerizing world of sleepy dormice and March hares, magical mushrooms and mischievous fairies, of Victorians romancing fantasy and nature. One of the works in particular (pictured here) caught my eye. The mouse is titled Felinka, but unlike the mice of Fairy- and Wonderland, Mister Finch’s mouse happens to be gigantic—at least for a mouse. Rivaling the capybara, the planet’s largest rodent, Felinka measures more than three-feet across and has a tail that’s five feet long.

Often referred to under the umbrella of the cuddly-sounding art form “soft sculpture,” each of the works Finch creates are sewn from remnants of new and vintage cloths, recycled clothing and table linens. The pieces are as meticulously realistic as they are fanciful; they’re as hard as they are soft.

While articles about Finch’s work almost invariably point to the Pop artist Claes Oldenburg, considered ‘the creator of soft sculpture’ with his three-dimensional interpretations of everyday objects, the use of non-traditional, malleable materials—felt, foam and fabric and animal skins sewn and stuffed for example—can be traced back to the first half of the twentieth century and the works of the Surrealists, including Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, and Meret Oppenheim. That being said, perusing his website and the press, I get a sense that Finch (the Mister he added to reference his gender, meaningful in that he is a man who sews) is hardly the sort who is preoccupied with his place on art history’s spectrum. He seems to prefer to spend his days in his studio working late into the night, sewing his sculptures to the steady patter of the Yorkshire rain.[1]

He completed Felinka in April of 2013. In an email, he wrote, “I’m drawn to creatures with eyes closed as it has more room for interpretation,” and added, “a huge mouse was something I always wanted to make…”[2]

“Do we need [enchantment] now more than ever?” a journalist recently asked him what feels to me today like an urgent question. To which Finch replied, “I don’t believe it ever went away.”[3]



[1] Laren Stover, “Faeryland and Toadstools Arrive in Chelsea, Courtesy of Mister Finch,” The New York Observer, June 10, 2015.

[2] Email to author, December 28, 2015.

[3] Stover, “Faeryland and Toadstools Arrive in Chelsea, Courtesy of Mister Finch.”

Additional sources: Steven Kasher Gallery, NYC; “Viewfinder,” T Magazine, The New York Times, December 3, 2015.

(Image: Felinka Mouse, 2013, 
unique hand-sewn sculpture made from a mixture of fabric, paper, wire and plastic details.)

Moonlight and Mouse

The Mouse, the Moon, and the Mosquito Photograph c Alex Badyaev, 2014The Natural History Museum in London has just announced the winners of their Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition. The mammal category goes to Alex Badyaev for his stunning picture of a deer mouse and a mosquito backlit by the moon.

Badyaev is an evolutionary biologist, and like numerous scientists and naturalists who have preceded him, the art and the science go hand in hand. “My career as a scientist and a nature photographer gives me a way to learn and convey the fascinating complexity and diversity of the biological world,” he told BBC Wildlife, after winning an earlier photography award—a list of prizes he’s received that keeps growing.[1] “I have always spent a long time observing animals. That’s when I think, get inspired, learn, come up with my best scientific ideas,” he said.[2]

For centuries wildlife artists with their closely observed, highly detailed illustrations informed us humans of the natural world, much of which was out of reach and out of sight. Before John James Audubon painted portraits of birds as well as quadrupeds, there was Maria Sibylla Merian, at the turn of the 18th century, traipsing through the Dutch colony of Surinam, capturing in brilliant colors insects’ metamorphoses. And before her there was Leonardo da Vinci, filling his notebooks with studies of wild cats and crabs, feathers and wings. The camera’s invention, however, was a boon to the animals; they no longer had to die and be stuffed in order for their likenesses to be rendered.

Badyaev was hiking through Montana’s Blackfoot Valley when he came across a giant puffball—an amazing mushroom that can inflate to more than a foot in diameter—which piqued the curiosity of a coterie of small animals. Running across the mushroom’s surface, the chipmunks and squirrels, like ancient travelers, made hieroglyphs with their tiny toes. The photographer lay on the ground, observing the nocturnal activity, patiently waiting for the right moment.[3] In an email he said that although he was in the midst of another research project, which included photographing mountain lions and beavers, “It was just hard to resist the combination of inquisitive mice, full moon and a giant mushroom that looked like a planet surface when a mouse stood on it.”[4]

One deer mouse hesitated. A mosquito had caught his attention. In an instant, an ephemeral, faraway moment was captured for the world to see.



[1] BBC Wildlife, July 21, 2011, Alex Badyaev’s website.

[2] Interview with Neil Losin, “Meet Biologist/ Photographer Alex Badyaev,” October 2011.

[3] London, England, Natural History Museum, “Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2014.”

[4] Email with photographer.

(Image: copyright Alex Badyaev, 2014, courtesy of the photographer.)

A Virtual Feast

Rachel Lee Hovnanian, In Loco Parentis, 2014In Rachel Lee Hovnanian’s installation In Loco Parentis, a gigantic white mouse stands in front of an open refrigerator, stuffing his face, while a toddler sits in a high chair looking down at her iPad; mounds of Cheerios cover the floor. But there’s a twist to this: the child is a video image on a LCD tablet-like screen and the white mouse is but a video projection.

Asked about the work, which was shown recently in her solo show “Plastic Perfect” in New York, Hovnanian told the interviewer that when she was growing up in Texas, she had two pet white mice. She said, “[The albino mouse] was a very rare animal. But through technology we created all these white mice to do testing on. So for me it represents technology itself. Even if you think you can get away from technology, you can’t. …The lab mouse has total freedom; that’s why it’s eating out of the refrigerator. It’s like the white elephant in the room—it’s so big and we’re not even aware it’s there because we naturally accept it.” [1] And because everyone has forgotten about the mouse, being preoccupied with all their gadgets.

In Loco Parentis along with Hovnanian’s other multi-media installations Dinner for Two: Wedding Cake and New Year’s Feast: Beijing 2014—each of which also features a virtual mouse, munching away on a festive cake set in the center of a table at which sits a digitally-produced couple or a family—effectively evoke a discussion about how our gadgets have changed the way we communicate, how our obsession with them has given rise to a preference for interacting with those farthest away over those who are near, casting a chilly spell over intimacy as well as parenting.

Each of these mice in her works, though hardly alive, is ironically the liveliest element within the domestic tableaux. Thus inasmuch as the tiny fellow may be intended to represent technology—genetically engineered in the case of the lab mouse—to my mind the tiny insatiable rodent could just as easily be regarded as the age-old symbol of a ceaselessly gnawing entropy.

Today Hovnanian keeps two mice in a cage in her studio, “her sometimes-actors,” her collaborators.




[1] Rachel Small, “Rachel Lee Hovnanian Versus the Future,” Interview, September 3, 2014.

Additional sources: Artist’s website; Robin Peckham, “Dining Partners: Beyond Weak Ties,” New Year’s Feast Beijing 2014, Rachel Lee Hovnanian, catalogue.

(In Loco Parentis, 2014, installation with rear projection video, HD video, acrylic, Cheerios, refrigerator, high chair, metal, diamond dust; dimensions variable, reproduced for non-commercial purpose only.)


Up Close and Personal

Close Mouse 2009, Trey FriedmanTrey Friedman took out his camera. He had set up a miniature photography studio on the dining table, smack in the middle of it. He had fashioned a small box with a Plexiglas front, and mounted lights on either side, and inside, attached a backdrop of white seamless paper. His subject for his shoot was waiting within easy reach. A deer mouse who had made a wrong turn into a live trap. He wanted to photograph him, reference shots from which to sketch.

As you might expect, the mouse didn’t behave—or rather he did behave like a mouse. He scurried back and forth, drummed his front paws, stood up on his hind legs, looking for a way to escape. And when he calmed down, he crouched in a corner, his back toward the lens. But with patience and a fast shutter, Friedman was able to capture him in a variety of poses.

For years the artist had been trying to find a way to paint the wildlife. It was a natural extension of the theme that has thread throughout his figurative works and landscapes since he started painting in his early teens: the discomfort of man at the edge of the forest, the mess we make in trying to tame the wilderness. But he always ended up omitting any creatures. He argued that we couldn’t really see animals—as our equals with whom we share the land; that we are blinded by the sheer ubiquity of images and by our perceptions and by our fears, by the kitsch, the cuddly and the fierce, the symbolism and the metaphor. Then upon meeting a wildlife rehabilitator he saw an opportunity to show not only the adverse effect of man’s relationship with nature but the unanticipated benefit as well. Through a series of paintings of mammals who were being rehabilitated, having been hit by a car, having lost their mother or their habitat, their tree chopped down, he could give them the prominence they deserved, an animal-centric motive for representation—Chuck Close-up-close style, enormous portraits centered on paper.

A couple of squirrels, an opossum, a baby raccoon, and a small brown bat, each with his/her own tale. And the deer mouse. The oil paintings were completed, framed and hung in the studio.

The reaction was like the brittle leaves in the fall.

His dealer said, “You know…these are not for our clients.” The rehabber lamented, “Oh, I thought the paintings were going to be bigger.” A friend laughed nervously, facing one of the squirrels, “It’s staring at me.” The distinguished elder art patron told Friedman he admired his clear and unwavering intention in his art and his solid technique, and added, “I can see what you are doing here. But animals—” The patron’s wife joined in, “The eyes! They’re frightening!”

It wasn’t that these individuals couldn’t see the animals but that the animals could see them.



Further sources: Trey Friedman website; Gallery Henoch.

(Image: Close Mouse, 2009, Oil on paper, 32 x 24 in. courtesy of the artist, reproduced for non-commercial use only.)

“You know, I’m cutting out the people.”

John Baldessari is considered the ‘godfather of conceptual art.’ He pushed the movement’s boundaries; he made it his own. His early antics have been well recorded: cremating all the paintings he made between the years 1953 and 1966; writing over and over, the sentence “I will not make any more boring art”; standing, waving his arms slowly about as if he’s directing a turtle, declaring “I am making art, I am making art, I am making art”; singing to familiar tunes, such as “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Sol LeWitt’s thirty-five precepts on conceptual art and the artist. Throughout the late sixties and the seventies Baldessari was also creating photo-and-text and text-only works on canvas, filled with witty and often sardonic observations. His art garnered its critics; they called it jokey. But the breadth and depth of his vision and his innovation, and the span of time—more than six decades today—have quieted them.

Irreverence was his singular approach to probe truth in art. And it was in photographic source materials—publicity and press shots and movie stills—that in the eighties he realized how easily the truth could be manipulated. He radically cropped and shuffled the pared images, obliterating their original context—not to mention the faces with the ever-familiar colored dots, to tell a new narrative. Storytelling was key to Baldessari, an insatiable reader who “often thought of [him]self as a frustrated writer.”[1]

Two Onlookers and a Tragedy (with Mice) might be regarded as a visual synthesis of the artist’s notions: the importance of the spectator; art as documentation; the fine line between order and chaos; and the absurdity of man—a result of placing one image on top of the other. Above, two mice in period nighttime garb lean over their balcony, looking as if they fell through a hole in a Beatrix Potter story and landed in a Shakespearean play. Below, a mouse has had his spine broken in a snap trap. No elaboration needed. Viewed individually, the photographs are saccharin and sorrowful, respectively. But together the work forms a narrative that’s not without irony. A marriage of fiction and fact, the two mice who are alive are in no way real and the mouse who is dead is alas all too real. While his death is most certainly a cautionary tale, the mice remind us of our inextricable connection to nature—and if you look closely you’ll see the male mouse has tiny human hands.

In the eighties apart from the dots, Baldessari was turning more and more to animals for his subject matter because, he said, that’s “where my sympathies lie. You know, I’m cutting out the people. … I invest animals with the idea of some sort of truth. Animals always seem much wiser than people.”[2]



A show of John Baldessari’s new works, Double Play, will run October 19 – November 21, 2012, Marian Goodman Gallery, NYC.


[1] Calvin Tomkins, “No More Boring Art,” New Yorker, October 18, 2010.

[2] Coosje van Bruggen, John Baldessari, 1990.

Additional sources: Roberta Smith, “Tweaking Tradition, Even in Its Temple,” New York Times, October 21, 2010; Karen Wright, “Interview with John Baldessari,” Art in America, October 23, 2009; Video “A Brief History of John Baldessari,” narrated by Tom Waits, YouTube.

(Image: Two Onlookers and a Tragedy (with Mice), 1989, by John Baldessari, color and black and white photographs with oil tint, 91 x 64 in, private collection, reproduced for non-commercial use only.)