Creativity Runs Wild at the DIA’s ‘It’s a Zoo in Here!’ Exhibit

Noah’s Ark supposedly landed at Mount Ararat, but visitors to an exhibit at the Detroit Institute of Arts might think it docked at Woodward and Kirby
Charles Culver’s Bobcat, a 1956 watercolor.

It’s a Zoo in Here! Prints and Drawings of Animals, in the museum’s Schwartz Galleries of Prints and Drawings, is a veritable menagerie of pictures culled from the DIA’s collection. Running through Sept. 25, it encompasses 171 images, ranging in age from a circa-1495 image of a lion by Albrecht Dürer to Jane Hammond’s multi-media “butterfly map” from 2008.

In scope and variety, the show resembles a zoo, including all creatures great and small — those that crawl, fly, gallop, swim, prance, and preen. Even bees and fireflies fly in for an appearance. Stylistically, the exhibition embraces the figurative to abstract. There are vultures and horses by Diego Rivera, a parrot by Mary Cassatt, a dove by Pablo Picasso, as well as many animals by Edouard Manet, an artist better known for his depictions of people. But these famous artists share wall space with more obscure ones, whose representations are sometimes equally arresting.

Curator Nancy Sojka says the show’s goal was “quality, variety, and visual interest,” but it still proved challenging as she waded through the DIA’s riches.

“I have an MSU student who volunteers here, and she and I went through the entire print and drawing collection, box by box, object by object, hoping to represent as many cultures, time periods, and styles as we could.”

After Sojka winnowed through the collection, the art was divided into five thematic sections: Beasts of Burden, Beasts and Religion, Literary Beasts, Creature Comforts, and All in the Animal Family.

There was a further consideration. It’s a given that children are attracted to animal images, so the museum wanted to make the exhibit as child-friendly as possible, while keeping it attractive to adults as well.

“At least 30 images are hung lower so kids can feel comfortable,” Sojka says. In addition, “Creature Features,” with paw tracks leading to them, are sprinkled throughout the exhibit. They provide additional information about the animals represented and sometimes challenge youngsters to spot things in the art that they may have otherwise overlooked.

And, Sojka says, grisly depictions are nowhere to be seen. “We thought intentionally about kids in the show, so there’s nothing gory, nothing speaking to violence involving animals,” she says. “There are some hunt scenes, but they’re so stylized that they’re not violent.”

Charles Culver’s The Bee, from 1947. // Images courtesy of The Detroit Institute of Arts

One lithograph in the All in the Animal Family section that does suggest potential violence is Children Frightened by a Dog, by Alexandre Decamps, in which a mother dog protects her pups by baring her teeth at two cowering urchins who come too close for comfort. However, the larger dog is merely exhibiting her maternal instincts, and, Sojka says, “If you look at it, the puppies are being taken better care of than the humans.”

Throughout the history of art, creatures have often symbolized a trait or person. The serpent or snake represents Satan; the lamb or dove, Christ; dogs, loyalty; and the lion, St. Mark. Sometimes, that symbolism carries political freight, as in Thomas Rowlandson’s 1808 hand-colored etching, The Corsican at Tiger Bay, included in It’s a Zoo in Here! It depicts a power-hungry Napoleon with the body of a tiger with dogs subjugated under his claws and another pack of canines attacking him. The Russian bear and Austrian eagle are depicted in manacles.

ABOVE: (Left) Owl, Fox and Hare Legend, a 1959 sealskin and stencil print by Oshaweetuk. (Right) Charles Culver’s Longtailed Teetotaler, a 1952 watercolor.

But in the majority of the exhibit’s images, the artist represents animals on their own terms, as beautiful creatures to be admired. The works also remind the viewer how heavily humans relied on animals when most of the world lived in an agrarian society. Horses and camels provided transportation. Oxen and horses pulled plows. Mules carried all manner of gear. Dogs were indispensable on hunting expeditions.

One might think that man’s best friend would be the most frequently represented beast in the exhibit, but one creature has them beat.

“I expected there to be more dogs, but horses really dominate,” Sojka says.

And one artist who dominates in the exhibit is Charles Culver, who’s represented by several vibrant watercolors. Although born in Illinois, Culver (1908-1967), is closely associated with Detroit. He worked as a commercial artist in the General Motors Building, exhibited at the Detroit Artists Market and Scarab Club, and taught at the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts (now the College for Creative Studies). Dozens of his works are in the DIA’s permanent collection. He also loved to paint in bucolic Bellaire, Mich., in the northwest part of the Lower Peninsula. The vicinity is captured in Fireflies, Torch Lake, Michigan, a 1956 watercolor that’s part of the exhibit.

“[Culver] is a good example of a very good artist who was extremely popular in the past and has kind of fallen off people’s radar screens, undeservedly so,” Sojka says.

The exhibit ends “entirely intentionally” the curator admits, with a 1950 wood engraving by Fritz Eichenberg called The Peaceable Kingdom, which was inspired by words in the Book of Isaiah. The passage refers to all animals living in concord — “The wolf will dwell with the lamb, and the cow and the bear will graze.”

Says Sojka: “It’s all about harmony and unity. As different as we are, there’s so much that binds us together. This is a simple show, but when you start thinking about it, the reflections it inspires are quite poignant.”

Birds Following a Plow, a 1933 linoleum cut by Ethel Spowers.

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