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The sculptor Rembrandt Bugatti: He found human company difficult, and much preferred to spend time with animals (photo: Conservatoire Rembrandt Bugatti, Paris)

In discussions of representational art, there is a well-worn belief that someone who only paints or sculpts animals can never achieve greatness. A painter or sculptor whose subject is the human condition, and who explores it by examining human character and how it is reflected in the form and features of individual people, can rise to the highest level. Even someone who concentrates on landscapes might succeed in producing a work of real significance. But an artist of the first rank whose only subject is animals? The idea is ridiculous. Sir Edward Landseer, the technically gifted Victorian artist who churned out vast numbers of sentimental and anthropomorphic paintings of dogs, horses and stags merely succeeded in demonstrating that animal art is a very minor genre, popular only with people who do not know anything about the real thing and who care more for hunting than high culture.

The prejudice against animal artists is widespread, despite the fact that some of the greatest of all images in art revolve around the depiction of animals. For sheer power, the paleolithic paintings found in the caves of France and Spain, some of which are more than 30,000 years old, have never been bettered. Their antiquity is part, but only part, of their fascination. The capacity of some of the primeval artists to summon up the spirit of whatever animal they depict — a lion, a bull, hyena, a horse or a deer — is uncanny. The energy and motion with which the images are imbued is astonishing. No one could call the cave paintings minor or inconsequential, sentimental or superficial. They are at the summit of what, in artistic terms, human beings can achieve.

It is nevertheless very hard to dislodge the sense that, whatever it may have meant in paleolithic times, in the modern era the depiction of animals is only for artists who have nothing to say about humanity: it is for second-raters, because work centred on animals can never communicate anything really significant — about either them or us.

That sense may be reinforced by the ubiquitous presence of wild-life documentaries on television. What is the point of artists producing images of animals when wildlife cameramen can capture animals as they really are, and in their natural environments? 

It is a good question. The work of Rembrandt Bugatti, an Italian artist who died in 1916 aged 31, is the best answer to it. Bugatti made around 300 sculptures of animals during his very short life. Each one of them has a remarkable intensity which captures not just the ripple of the muscles beneath the animal’s skin, or a bird’s pattern of feathers, but the uniqueness of the particular creature that is its subject. Photographs do not convey the full power of Bugatti’s sculptures. But even in photographs you can see that his sculptures convey each animal’s gaze and poise, their suffering and their dignity.

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