Friday, June 26, 2009

Landseer Lecture

I just arrived back late last night from my lecture on Sir Edwin Landseer's "Man Proposes, God Disposes," currently on display at the Yale Center for British Art. It was well-attended, and the audience was wonderfully diverse in every sense -- in age, in background, in interests, in expertise. I was especially delighted that my partner Karen Carr and my daughter Caeli were there, along with my dear friends Mary Cappello and Jean Walton (thanks, Jean, for the photo!). This painting, along with the rest of the Royal Holloway's touring collection, has been expertly hung and lighted, and has never looked better. It's also worthy of note that the frames, which were originally all glazed and made with specially-designed latches for removing and cleaning the glass, are now hung almost entirely unglazed, which offers a view long unavailable in their original home. Landseer's carnivorous canvas finally gets its due.

There is an enduring anxiety about these bears, one which was the subject of several questions after my lecture. One person in attendance, an alumna of Royal Holloway, offered her recollection that the painting was hung with a Union Jack -- reversed -- during exams, as though the mirror image would better defeat the harmful rays of the naval ensign in the painting. She vividly recounted the anxiety of those who sat near. What horror still exuded from them nearly 150 years after they were painted? I offered my own view that the bears, in all their muscular horror, were more or less stand-ins for fears of cannibalism.

And yet whether or not these bears were simply representatives of animal appetite -- or else subconscious representatives of the upgorged horror of the "last resource" was a matter of debate. Scott Wilcox, the YCBA's curator of graphic arts and an expert on panoramas, asked whether the bears might not offer the relief of resolution -- after all, if 'the bears did it,' then there was no further need to probe the scene in search of something far worse. Ultimately, many present felt that the bears could be both a potential guard against far worse images, and an embodiment of the very fear thus allayed -- and I heartily agreed with this view.

But why not judge for yourselves? This magnificent show runs through July 26th, and New Haven is an easy day-trip for anyone in the greater New York or greater Boston areas. These paintings, as a collection, will not travel again soon, and you may be surprised to find that even the most difficult to please of museum goers -- children -- will at once be drawn to Landseer's portrait of these astonishing creatures, and will be led by them through the rest of a gallery filled with an abundance of Victorian riches.


  1. From my layman's view I think the painting was meant to illustrait that humans were arrogant for believing they could conquer all of God's Earth. The bear on the right looks like he/she is smiling in a mocking way. The bear eating the ensign suggests to me that the painter wanted to show that the British empire had been defeated in this "battle."

  2. I think this is much more personal and introverted than Chris suggests. Lanseer is saying that at the extremity there is no difference betweem humans and animals. It is an acceptance of literal Darwinism.

    These bears always look horribly human to me. I think they should be seen as such. Landeer accepted the evidence from the Inuit via Rae (and actually via McClintock for those willing to open their mind to what he said) that the final sufferings inflicted on the Franklin Expedition were by its own members. The bears surely represent the desperation of men driven to cannibalism.

    It is bizarre and deeply unsettling that these suupposed bears attempt to derive sustenance not only from human remains but also (somewhat implausibly) from 'the flag'. This I think shows that the 'bears' are to be seen as proxy humans. It shows that at the extremity, in their deperate struggle to remain alive, men can turn on anyone, even their shipmates and their 'flag', in order to stave off death.

    Horribly prescient.

  3. Funny you should mention Darwin -- as it happens, the exhibition "Endless forms": Charles Darwin, Natural Science and the Visual Arts" just recently closed at the Yale Center for British Art; my understanding is that it occupied the same gallery in which the Landseer and the rest of the Royal Holloway are now being shown.

    And I agree. The idea of tearing at the Naval ensign was in fact so repugnant that many reviewers in 1864 simply could not see it, referring to the cloth as merely a "striped blanket or rug." Though here I don't think it's so much the "eating" per se as the symbolic humiliation of a great empire in the defacing of its flag.