11 Jun 2023

an excerpt from john berger’s ‘why look at animals?’

The treatment of animals in 19th century romantic painting was already an acknowledgement of their impending disappearance. The images are of animals receding into a wildness that existed only in the imagination. There was, however, one 19th century artist who was obsessed by the transformation about to take place, and whose work was an uncanny illustration of it. Grandville published his Public and Private Life of Animals in instalments between 1840 and 1842.

At first sight, Grandville’s animals, dressed up and performing as men and women, appear to belong to the old tradition whereby a person is portrayed as an animal so as to reveal more clearly an aspect of his or her character. The device was like putting on a mask, but its function was to unmask. The animal represents the apogee of the character trait in question: the lion, absolute courage; the hare, lechery. The animal once lived near the origin of the quality. It was through the animal that the quality first became recognisable. And so the animal lends it his name.

But as one goes on looking at Grandville’s engravings, one becomes aware that the shock which they convey derives, in fact, from the opposite movement to that which one first assumed. These animals are not being ‘borrowed’ to explain people, nothing is being unmasked; on the contrary. These animals have become prisoners of a human / social situation into which they have been pressganged. The vulture as landlord is more dreadfully rapacious than he is as a bird. The crocodiles at dinner are greedier at the table than they are in the river.

Here animals are not being used as reminders of origin, or as moral metaphors, they are being used en masse to ‘people’ situations. The movement that ends with the banality of Disney began as a disturbing, prophetic dream in the work of Grandville.

From John Berger’s ‘Why Look at Animals?’ — published first, it seems, in 1977 as several short pieces in the UK’s New Society and then in combined form as opening of the 1980 collection About Looking, which PRH still has in print 40+ years later.

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