First I’ll say this. I don’t love hunting and I don’t think I could ever do it myself, even if the species is overpopulated and most parts of the animal are eaten and used. It follows, then, that modern taxidermy disturbs me. Somehow it seems okay, though, and even quaint, when the stuffed animals are hundreds of years old and part of a collection of aging curiosities.
Over Valentine’s Day weekend I came upon just such a wondrous collection at La Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature in Paris. This Wunderkammer in the true sense of the word is filled with specimens and art related to the golden age of hunting, when it was twinned with a budding interest in collecting, understanding, and cataloguing newly discovered species. Arguably, this is where the now-overlooked link between sportsmanship and conservation began. Not all hunters were collectors, and not all collectors were hunters, but most of the time the animals needed to be dead for study and identification.
Still, a museum like this could easily have ignored the changing times, continuing to exist as a dusty tomb to the once thriving ecosystems of which it contains mere traces. However, through novel curating practices and a focus on contemporary art, this museum brings into focus the convergence of modern-day naturalism, conservation, and the history of hunting. The exhibits I saw there did more than just question humanity’s need to dominate nature. Rather, the exhibits question the very meaning of hunting and the ways in which we project human myths and impulses onto our environment.
There are little odd things throughout the rooms. Lovely eighteenth-century oil studies of birds share rooms with contemporary art installations. Upon entering the trophy room, a boar’s head opens its mouth and laughs, speaking French in a growly, unintelligible voice. In the room of horns, a faun made of birch bark emerges from the dark recesses.
Visiting this museum at any time would have been fascinating, but the current exhibitions hit it out of the ball park. The first is Walton Ford, a contemporary American artist working in a style reminiscent of John James Audubon. Rather then just serving as faithful representations of various fauna, his large gouache paintings tell allegorical stories examining larger issues. Seeing his pieces juxtaposed next to taxidermy versions of their erstwhile subjects is a surreal experience.
Ford created a new series of paintings for his show at the museum based on the French legend of the Beast of Gevaudan, a tale of an enormous wolf creature who terrorized the French countryside in the eighteenth century. Rather than taking the story as literal truth, Ford uses it as an opportunity to interrogate European myths of beasts. The story of the beast is revealed as you walk through the museum. Each piece of the tale occupies a place on the wall amongst the antiquated paintings of the permanent collection. Slowly, you begin to understand that the young woman in the paintings is not a victim in danger of ravishing, but perhaps she is linked to the wolf. Perhaps she is or is becoming the beast.
Blurring the line between victim and the perpetrator and playing on the idea of transformation central to the werewolf myth is the focus of these pieces. Add another layer and you have a comment on the upheaval of the French revolution, through which the oppressed victims transformed into perpetrators of extreme violence.
A more peaceful exhibit awaits visitors on the top floor. George Shiras, another American, was a naturalist and photographer who travelled into pristine waterways by canoe to catch wildlife by surprise using his (by today’s standards) primitive camera and flash. He took his amazing nighttime photographs in the late nineteenth century, rare glimpses of animals bounding away or looking calmly toward the vessel moving alongside them in their nightly perambulations. In one, a white stag accompanies two does. In another, a pure white fawn walks next to its mother. The oddest picture is of a lynx, sitting at the edge of the water, looking into the camera as tranquilly as a house cat peacefully observing its surroundings.
When I first walked into the room, I thought I was seeing the high-tech work of a modern wildlife photographer. The eerie glow of the animals against the black with their luminescent eyes even reminded me of night vision technology used in drug raids and war zones. The transient moments these images capture depict single moments in time and seem to belong to our own world, rather than to the stodgy, static Victorian Age.
At the end of the visit, I was left pondering a paradox. In ages past, Europeans (and later Americans) sought to conquer, colonize, and classify their world and, while this agenda was destructive, it was also creative and furthered the bounds of human understanding. However, unknowingly, they were setting the stage for mass extinction. Conversely, we are aware of the destruction we are wreaking but refuse to stop even as we continue to study and classify our world. Who is the beast now?
Walton Ford at La Musée de la Chasse et la Nature has been extended until February 28, 2016.