Unconventional Animals and Anatomy in Art: British Museum Part 2
June 15, 2014 by John of the Freezers
Welcome back to my two-part British Museum series; I covered crocodiles before. Here, I celebrate the less common creatures depicted in human art, design and culture. And we begin back in Egypt, with a bit of crocodile to provide a nice segue:
With the head and torso of a hippo, the legs of a lion and the tail of a crocodile (not easily visible here), the Egyptian goddess Taweret just rocks. More info here.
Anatomy in art is best when the anatomy is actually used as a substrate for art, as in this later piece from Egypt, and another piece that follows it:
Scapula (shoulder blade) from an ox, with Roman enscriptions. Click to embovine for closer examination and explanation.
~8000 BC red deer antler headdress from England (click to enstaggen for closer examination and text details in upper left). Picturing an Ice Age shaman wearing this gives me a sense of awe.
Human anatomy in our artwork, to my mind, reaches its pinnacle in Aztec religious masks like this, which was too cool to omit:
Use of a human skull to make a stunning mask decorated with obsidian, representing Tezcatlipoca, the Smoking Mirror and master of creation/destruction; slayer of Quetzalcoatl. Badass dial turned to 11! He is also sometimes represented as a jaguar.
Continuing the mask theme, the following masks show off sawfish, sharks and other species from the region:
Awesome diversity of ceremonial fish masks from Africa.
Lions find their way into plenty of artwork such as European royal heraldry. Yet the huge depictions of an Assyrian lion hunt in the British Museum are not only anatomically impressive but also evocative of a time long past, when Asian lions ranged far across human territories. In viewers today, however, they may inspire more sympathy for the fleeing lions than awe for the lordly charioteers, horsemen and archers that pursue them.
I finish with some statues and other depictions of animals that are more globally uncommon than lions:
You don’t see tapirs much in art but here seems to be one, as a bronze statuette from ~400s AD in China.
I love Indian artwork for its plethora of proboscideans. Here, a statue of the Indian elephant diety Ganesha from ~750 AD, engaged in a dance. As the placard explains, Ganesha got his elephant’s head when Shiva freaked out and cut off the human one, then promised to make amends by substituting the head of the next animal he saw.
More dancing! North Chinese (~11-12th century) ceramic plate depicting a funky, vaguely humanoid dancing bear tied to a pole. The anatomical exaggerations here make the piece more memorable and vaguely demonic, but not so much as the next item.
The dance is over, thanks to ass demons. That’s right, ass demons. Many Burmese were surely frightened or inspired by these terracota warriors from 1400s AD. These warriors represented king Mara’s forces that attempted to disrupt the Buddha’s meditation. As ass demons would tend to do. (I hate it when that happens)
I hope you enjoyed this brisk dance through atypical animals and their anatomy in artwork! Coming next, a look at one of the greatest anatomists ever.