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AMERICAN WILDLIFE ART
MARQUAND BOOKS, SEATTLE
424 PAGES; $75
CONSTANTIN BRANCUSI, ANNA HYATT HUNTINGTON, PICASSO, O'KEEFE, HOMER, MORAN, BIERSTADT, DIXON, BENSON, WYETH, REMBRANDT, AND MICHELANGELO: THEY ARE AMONG A LONG LIST OF INDIVIDUALS WHOSE CREDENTIALS WERE NEVER CHECKED BY ST. Peter while passing through the vaunted gates of art history.
Each one painted or sculpted animals.
David J. Wagner's new 424-page, coffee-table sized book American Wildlife Art is unprecedented in its scholarship, certainly in the way it explores the history of wildlife art on the North American continent.
In this whale of a book Wagner presents the strongest case yet for why animal imagery commands not only contemporary relevance for our time, but as fine art, scientific documentation, popular decoration for the masses, and yes, as icons, corporate logos, sports team mascots, and political expressions, it is the genre that perhaps most transcends social classes, national identity, age, religion and province.
For a long time, the (primarily) Eastern art establishment has dismissed wildlife art and its practitioners as crude, undeveloped, and prosaic—unworthy of comparison to other art movements and the masters who spawned them. Critics demean wildlife art as little more than superficial documentation, though an exception is always unexplainably granted if a master from another genre, say, chooses to insert an animal image into a scene or motif as allegory.
Wagner answers the casters of aspersions and the defenders of minimalism and demonstration art with evidence of wildlife art's validity. Ironically, given the title of the book, he sets out to erase the artificial boundaries between wildlife art and fine art. As a foil, he invokes the story of Carl Rungius. The German-born painter who spent his most productive years in Canada's Banff National Park also explored Wyoming's Wind River Mountains early in his career and won acclaim as a landscape painter. Around the turn of the 20th century, Rungius, who today is recognized the finest painter of North American big game animals scenes, came under criticism for putting portraits of wildlife between the frame. Some claimed he was less of a painter as a result.
Rungius responded by deliberately painting a series of pure landscapes that were hailed for their technical virtuosity and won him academician status with the vaunted National Academy of Design. The triumph proved that it is not subject matter that makes the painter, but the painter who chooses to apply his skill to whatever line of visual reference point he or she sees fit.
"The thesis of American Wildlife Art is that American wildlife art evolved not merely out of aesthetic advances, as many would simplistically believe, but out of four centuries of aesthetic, ideological, and entrepreneurial appropriation, and that the forces at play were symbiotically shaped and fulfilled," Wagner explains. "My purpose in writing this book has been to account for the evolution of the genre, and in doing so correct misconceptions that might exist."
It's an academic way of saying wildlife art deserves a place at the table of discussion about American art history and its reflection of Western culture and society. For us in the 21st century, wildlife art does not assume a fleeting presence; it is a modern totem.
—Editors of WAJ
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