I recently chanced upon a new addition to my mother’s vast, personal library – a small, colourful book on spirit animals. Amongst the many volumes on Urdu and Persian literatures, travelogues, novels, anthologies of poems and haikus, collections of essays and short stories, the little book on spirit animals sparkled shyly. It seemed so wonderfully out of place, it held such a mischievous promise of magic that it had to be picked up immediately and perused.
The first thing it told its readers was that they were not to expect the book to provide them with a quick, step-by-step way of discovering their spirit animal. No, that was something they had to find out for themselves. The book was merely a guide to what their spirit animal was trying to tell them or help them with. It did explain how one can identify one’s spirit animal, but it is a process involving both the conscious and subconscious mind, and it requires one to be more attentive to images, occurrences, and patterns in one’s wakeful and dreaming states.
It told the readers also that their spirit animals can change over the course of their lives, as they face or overcome different situations. So if, for example, a person has dreamt of crocodiles or has inexplicably found him/herself thinking about the prehistoric beasts, chances are that the crocodile is, for that phase of the person’s life, his/her spirit animal, and is trying to bring the person’s attention to unresolved ancestral issues or unsorted emotions from their past.
A one-page chapter, along with a fanciful, watercolour illustration, had been devoted to every animal discussed in the book and this had the effect of gathering, before my eyes, a menagerie of sorts. It made me realise, with a start, how odd and fantastical animals are, even the ones we are over-familiar with (cats, dogs, squirrels), and how ancient a charm they possess to have lent themselves so easily and so frequently to our fables, our art, and our poetry.
Depictions of animals in art are, in fact, so diverse and numerous that I have chosen three works of art in an attempt to sort through these various depictions.
Henri Rousseau’s The Sleeping Gypsy (1897): animals, art, and magic
If there is one painting which, for me, epitomises the brilliant, scorching energy latent in our relationship with the animal kingdom, it is Rousseau’s The Sleeping Gypsy. There is hardly a painting more powerful yet more subtle in directing us to the tremendous potential for learning that exists in this relationship. The painting is hugely popular, of course, with its toy-theatre evocation of a strange, nocturnal scene. A dusky lion, on his stroll through a moonlit desert, pauses by a gypsy fast asleep on the sand. The dark gypsy in her striped and colourful robe; the stick she clutches as she sleeps; the mandolin cradled next to her on the dune; the lion’s bright, feverish eye; his tail held up in curiosity or wonder or anticipation, all work together to make us believe that there is a quiet but crucial transference of power happening as the lion whispers into the gypsy’s ear and enters her dream, her subconscious and, consequently, ours.
The Jungian school stresses, and discusses at length, the importance of the animal motif in art and religion, reminding us also that at one time the two were inseparable. So the artistic worth of the animals in cave paintings and of ancient Egyptian hybrids cannot be acknowledged without acknowledging also their religious importance for the cultures that produced them. The caves bearing many of these early representations of animals are not easily accessible; uncomfortable passages must often be braved in order to reach the chambers with the artworks. An aura of ceremony and sanctity envelops these works still. These drawings and paintings are, in a sense, supplications to what were clearly considered superior beings or just forces to contend with. The primitive man attempted, through his obsessive, repetitive drawings, his masks, even his costumes (as the so-called ‘Sorcerer’ of the Trois-Frères cave suggests), to imitate, appease, and influence these creatures of great strength, speed, and virility that roamed the empty earth with him.
What our ancestors left us with, then, in the form of art and mythologies that ascribed deific qualities to animals, was a very important message that Aniela Jaffé sums up in Man and His Symbols: ‘The boundless profusion of animal symbolism in the religion and art of all times does not merely emphasise the importance of the symbol; it shows how vital it is for men to integrate into their lives the symbol’s psychic content – instinct.’ Jaffé goes on to explain that ‘in man, the “animal being” (which lives in him as his instinctual psyche) may become dangerous if it is not recognised and integrated in life. Man is the only creature with the power to control instinct by his own will, but he is also able to suppress, distort, and wound it – and an animal, to speak metaphorically, is never so wild and dangerous as when it is wounded. Suppressed instincts can gain control of a man; they can even destroy him.’
This, perhaps, is what Rousseau wittingly or unwittingly illustrated through The Sleeping Gypsy – the urgency of heeding the big cat when he saunters through your dream. This grappling with the ‘animal being’, this tussle, this eternal wrestling between the human and the animal within is what makes artworks like Max Ernst’s Attirement of the Bride (1940) so unforgettable; it is also what makes contrastingly calmer and obscurer works like Remedios Varo’s Creation of the Birds (1957) so persistently haunting (let’s not forget that in the 1920s, Ernst created for himself an anthropomorphic alter-ego, a kind of birdman, named Loplop, who featured in a number of his artworks; Varo, too, found herself spiritually connected to flora and fauna throughout her life). Going through images of Anwar Saeed’s multitudinous paintings, one feels – again – the pull of an oneiric world where fish and leopards cohabit savagely coloured edens with men who chose not to follow the signs back home.
Rousseau never saw a jungle in his life, nor a lion, nor a leopard. His tropical forests, carefully constructed layer by layer, like appliqué-work, were wholly imagined. His beasts of prey were modelled on taxidermological exhibits at Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris. Perhaps that is why his depiction of animals has the awe of a child who has pieced together his animals from bits and bobs of nursery rhymes and bedtime hearsay. You would flinch from his pouncing tiger but also want to reach out and pet him. And that is the kind of fascination for animals that we have lost, that we lost as animal paintings became more and more anatomically correct, as the Stubbs-es and the Landseer-s moved in, correcting the overly sharp fangs, snipping the exaggeratedly huge wings, fixing the outrageous beaks and haunches and underbellies, making them realistic and zoological and so very boring.
Raphael’s Saint Margaret (1518): the snake is the Devil; or, enter the Monotheist
Raphael’s image of a heroic, triumphant Saint Margaret, who manages to retain her supple femininity in spite of her showdown with the devil, rings the death-knell for Horus, for the shaman dressed as a bear, for Zeus as bull, as swan, as eagle. Saint George slays the dragon, Saint Anthony scorns the devil disguised as a satyr, Pan flees the groves. Of course, a deeply ingrained attraction to animals is not completely squashed by the reasonings of a serious, young religion. It survives in the form of bestiaries and resurfaces, later, in the splendid canvases of the Renaissance that revisit mythological tales or, as with Raphael’s Saint Margaret, appropriate their birds and beasts to be cast in new, villainous, church-sanctioned roles. So the serpent and the dragon sprout affiliations with evil, and satyrs and centaurs, while becoming convenient means for the artists to explore more raucous themes, come also to symbolise the unrestrained sexual appetites of the ungodly. At the same time, some animals, like the lamb and the dove, are imported to further the Christian cause.
In Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, an engrossing conversation takes place between the progressive Brother William and the elderly, puritanical Jorge, on the animal-bedecked marginalia that graced many medieval manuscripts. While Jorge is critical of the trend, equating it to heresy, William takes a more enlightened stance, saying, ‘As in sermons, to touch the imagination of devout throngs it is necessary to introduce exempla, not infrequently jocular, so also the discourse of images must indulge in these trivia. For every virtue and for every sin there is an example drawn from bestiaries, and animals exemplify the human world.’ Their dialogue sheds light on the ambivalence surrounding animal imagery in the art of the middle ages. But one has only to recall, according to Jaffé, the quintessential Christmas image of the birth of Christ in a manger to find a balance between the pagan veneration of animal forms and the monotheistic elevation of the human form – ‘The subhuman as well as the superhuman is felt to belong to the realm of the divine; the relationship of these two aspects of man is beautifully symbolised in the Christmas picture of the birth of Christ, in a stable among animals.’
Paula Rego’s Pregnant Rabbit Telling Her Parents (1982): animals as gazing-ponds
With the dawn of psychoanalysis, the portrayal of animals in art took on another meaning. Using animals to allegorise human foibles was nothing new, fables and folklore from the world over can prove storytellers’ ingenuity in doing so. What did come about, perhaps, with a growing psychological awareness in artists and a reduced hold on art by religious bodies was the readiness to paint animals not merely as symbols of higher powers or forces of good and evil, but as symbols of human traits, shortcomings, and quirks. For some artists, like the indomitable Paula Rego, presenting subjects as animals makes it easier to ‘mock’ them. In a 2011 interview with Ben Eastham and Helen Graham for The White Review, the cheeky raconteur admits that it is ‘easier if you make them into animals because you can do things to animals that you can’t do to people because it’s too shocking. You can cut off a person’s tail – like in “Wife Cuts Off Red Monkey’s Tail” – which is a form of revenge for her.’
Animals clutter Rego’s paintings and prints, standing in for different people she has loathed or loved all her life. They re-enact – with their big, wobbly, mascot heads on small, gesticulating, how-do-you-do bodies – episodes from Rego’s life which are essentially very human episodes. An earlier work titled Pregnant Rabbit Telling Her Parents (1982) is a personal flashback to when a pregnant Rego, abandoned by boyfriend Victor Willing (who went on to become her husband), was rescued by her father and taken back to the family home in Portugal. The bow-toting rabbit, a little sullen, seems to be both shrugging off and displaying her bulging tummy. The mother sits swaddled like a mummy in the background while the father is shown smoking calmly in an armchair in the foreground. Nails have very matter-of-factly been driven into the father’s leg but they seem unnoticed by all present, especially the father himself. These were an allusion to how kind and gentle her father had been to her during the ordeal, despite the profound hurt that she believed to have caused him.
Imagine how much more truthful family albums would be if they had, instead of people dispensing measured smiles to the camera, animals acting out all the secret, stormy love affairs; the abrasions of lives lived out in cramped rooms; all the codependencies and tyrannies of familial experience. Animals, like all symbols, transform personal narratives into universal ones. Louise Bourgeois’s Maman (1999) is another momentous testimony to that. The now-iconic giant spider was meant as ‘an ode’ to the artist’s mother, who worked as a weaver in the family’s tapestry restoration business. Bourgeois, quoted in her exhibition catalogue for Tate Modern (2000), remarks, ‘The friend (the spider – why the spider?) because my best friend was my mother and she was deliberate, clever, patient, soothing, reasonable, dainty, subtle, indispensable, neat, and useful as an araignée. She could also defend herself, and me, by refusing to answer “stupid”, inquisitive, embarrassing personal questions. I shall never tire of representing her.’
There have been works of art with animals in them that have been coolly observant and just that – works like Albrecht Dürer’s woodcut Rhinoceros (1515) or watercolour study Young Hare (1502). But the temptation to narrate, teach, and share through animals is most likely an eternal one and keeps materialising as multiple forms of contemporary visual culture – our superheroes have animal monikers and attributes, our memes are all the more relatable when they carry images of cats, goats, or pandas, our films love flaunting CGI animals who are voiced by award-winning humans. Our continuous mystification by this other species is beautifully touched upon by Yann Martel in Beatrice and Virgil. He writes, referring to an autobiographical protagonist who relies heavily on the use of animals in his work – ‘Speaking before his tribe, naked, he was only human and therefore possibly – likely – surely – a liar. But dressed in furs and feathers, he became a shaman and spoke a greater truth. We are cynical about our own species, but less so about animals, especially wild ones. We might not shelter them from habitat destruction, but we do tend to shelter them from excessive irony.’