Stuffed Full of Art
By: Kevin McElvaney
The mere mention of the word “taxidermy” is enough to make some people squirm. But when it’s done right, the practice of preserving dead animals for display can be a thing of beauty – even a genuine work of art.
Charles Willson Peale was a Revolutionary War-era painter who created memorable portraits of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and others. He was noted for his ability to show the humanity of those who seemed larger than life. But Peale’s enthusiasm for capturing a lifelike essence wasn’t limited to humans — he was also an enthusiastic taxidermist.
Peale, who had previously apprenticed with a saddle maker, was no stranger to working with the hides of animals. But taxidermy didn’t come to him easily — Peale once tried and failed to preserve Ben Franklin’s cat. Still, he ultimately did become quite skilled at the craft.
Bringing a sense of showmanship to what most considered a purely scientific pursuit, Peale took to placing his animals in fabricated, but realistic, environments. In 1826, he used these creations (along with an exhumed mastodon skeleton he’d acquired) to form a collection that would become the foundation of The Philadelphia Museum — the first ever museum of natural history in the U.S.
Of course, taxidermy existed long before Peale practiced it. Ancient civilizations mummified the bodies of animals great and small, just as they did with important humans. Few bat an eye when they hear about this practice in antiquity. Why, then, does modern taxidermy make so many people so uncomfortable?
Well, for one thing, there’s the connection to trophy hunting. While it’s common for hunters and fishermen to proudly mount their kill, many animal lovers find it a tough sight to swallow.
Of course, taxidermists work with plenty of animals whose deaths were natural. Reconstructing a house pet to look as it did in life is a comforting measure for some owners – and for others, a haunting reminder of a love lost.
Simply put, the sight of an impeccably preserved (though definitely deceased) creature on a mantle provides a visual reminder of our own mortality. That careful rendering may look an awful lot like Polly the parrot, but it sure doesn’t talk or squawk like she did. And while the stuffed Polly might help Mr. Smith cope with the loss of his feathered friend, it doesn’t always make the same impression on guests — most of whom just want to stop by for a polite visit, and not be forced to look death straight in its cold, callous beak.
But, lest we forget, great art often makes audiences uncomfortable. For every grieving pet owner attempting to immortalize their cat, there are several collectors who simply want to display something provocative in their homes. And what could be more provocative than a three-dimensional portrait made from the body parts of the subject itself?
Today, some people are working diligently to redefine taxidermy as a fine art. the Minnesota Association of Rogue Taxidermists, founded in 2004, spearheaded a new mixed media art movement influenced by traditional taxidermy — but with a few twists. Works of this “rogue taxidermy” range from the lifelike to the completely surreal.
Unlike traditional taxidermy, the “animals” can be made with a mixture of organic and synthetic materials. In fact, some are made with no animal products at all, but still manage to look quite a bit like the real thing.
Regardless of what they’re made of, these artworks are made for much the same purposes as any other — whether that is to reveal a natural truth, to provoke thought and discussion, or simply to impress viewers on an aesthetic level.
Centuries after Charles Willson Peale put his realistic animals on display in a museum of natural history, the spiritual successors to his work have made the unlikely transition to art galleries. Much of the credit undoubtedly goes to the artists who’ve experimented with the form, but maybe — just maybe — some people are finally getting a little less uncomfortable looking death in the eye (…or beak).