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.
“Elephant Begging”, 1908, by Rembrandt Bugatti (photo: Sladmore Gallery)
The question will still be asked: Yes, but do his animal sculptures have anything to say? I think they do. But as is often the case with art, it is not easy to state exactly what it is, and the attempt to do so usually produces only banalities or clichés (try summing up what Van Gogh’s Sunflowers “say”, for instance). However, I defy anyone to spend a few minutes contemplating Bugatti’s Crouching Jaguar, for instance, or his Two Donkeys and to come away thinking that his work is shallow and superficial and communicates nothing that a decent wild-life documentary wouldn’t do much better.
You have probably never heard of Rembrandt Bugatti. He is certainly very far from being a household name. His brother, Ettore, who designed cars and founded the Bugatti firm that produced them, is much more famous. And his father, Carlo — a designer who helped to create Art Nouveau and then Art Deco — is a recognised figure in the development of 20th-century art in the way that Rembrandt is not.
Rembrandt Bugatti did not belong to a school and he did not found one. He cannot be easily fitted into any history of 20th-century art: his work does not point in the direction of cubism, or abstract expressionism, or futurism, or conceptualism, or any of the other “isms” that have come to dominate contemporary art.
He started to produce remarkable works very early — which was just as well, given how short a time he would live. His earliest surviving bronze casts date from 1901, when he was 16. He had a short period at the Brera Academy in Milan before moving to Paris with his father in 1903. He was invited that year to exhibit at the Venice Biennale. In 1904, he was given a contract by the dealer Adrien Hébrard while he was still technically a minor, so his father had to sign it with him. Hébrard also ran a bronze foundry, and he would cast all of Bugatti’s bronzes. Hébrard cast the works of Degas and Rodin, so Bugatti’s work was in good hands. When he signed him up, Hébrard dedicated his new gallery to a one-man show of the 19-year-old’s animal sculptures. The exhibition was a runaway commercial and critical success, and it launched Bugatti’s career.
Bugatti worked astonishingly rapidly. Unlike most sculptors, he made very few drawings. He would spend days or even weeks watching a particular animal, and then produce, in a single day, a model in clay or plastilene (a compound of clay dust and wax) based around a wire frame. If he didn’t like what he had done — if he didn’t feel he had captured the essence of the animal — he would immediately destroy his model and start again. In Paris, he spent his days wandering around the Jardin des Plantes, which then had a large menagerie of animals, including panthers, tigers, lions, monkeys, hippos and deer. But Antwerp had the largest zoo in Europe, and Bugatti could not resist its pull. Although he never gave up his apartment in Paris, he spent several years in Antwerp, mostly watching the animals in the zoo.
Detail of “La Mère Blessée”, 1911 (photo: The Sladmore Gallery)
His sculptures were extremely well received, so much so that in 1911, at the age of 27, he was awarded the Legion d’Honneur by the French government. But as Degas said, “There are some kinds of success that are indistinguishable from panic.” Panic is what success seems to have produced in Bugatti. His work did not make him much money. His deal with Hébrard involved Hébrard getting all the reproduction rights to his sculptures. Bugatti received 500 francs a month in return for providing Hébrard with plaster models that Hébrard thought he could sell as bronzes. But when Bugatti stopped producing the sort of thing that Hébrard liked, the money dried up. He had to appeal to his father and his brother for financial help. They appear to have resented giving him money as much as he resented having to ask for it.
He was stung by critics who patronisingly referred to the “drawing-room scale” of his work. Perhaps in an attempt to prove that he was not a minor artist making minor works, he created two monumental human figures in clay — but no one seems to have wanted them, and he could not afford to pay the cost of transforming them into bronze, so they were not cast until after his death.
When the First World War broke out in August 1914, he stopped doing animal sculptures, saying that wartime was “not the moment to do animals”. He became a stretcher bearer in Belgium, and was traumatised by the experience of carrying the horrifically injured and the dying. The killing of the animals in Antwerp Zoo seems to have depressed him still more: as the war went on, the lack of food meant that the zoo’s officials felt it was more humane to shoot them than to let them slowly starve.
Bugatti’s depression was compounded by the fact that he found relationships with people extremely difficult. He was excruciatingly sensitive. He had a great need for human company combined with temperamental characteristics that repelled it. He was also increasingly isolated by advancing deafness. His relationships with women were intense and almost always unhappy. He seems to have had an on-off relationship with his older brother’s spouse, which Ettore does not seem to have minded: he was much more concerned about his mistress than his wife. Rembrandt also fell in love with Kathleen Bruce, a sculptor studying in Paris who may have been the model for his charming sculpture Girl with a Cat. As usual, that relationship ended in disappointment and heartbreak. He preferred the company of animals to people. He insisted that animals alone “are my faithful friends”.
Bugatti was able to return from Belgium to Paris in 1915 and accepted a commission to sculpt Christ on the cross. He wanted to make sure he got the pose of Christ’s body right, so with typical thoroughness, he hired a young model and then tied him up on a cross to see how his body contorted. The model was unsurprisingly not at all pleased, but the result is a remarkable sculpture.
He spent Christmas 1915 on his own, having been rejected by another woman with whom he had fallen in love. On January 8, 1916, he attended mass, then returned to his room and turned on the gas without lighting it. The fumes killed him painlessly and quickly, as he intended they should. He left two suicide notes. Both were destroyed by his family.
“Baboon”, 1910 (photo: The Sladmore Gallery)
After the war, there was a brief revival of interest in his work, but it was soon buried beneath the juggernaut of modernism. Picasso’s experiments with shape and form seemed to have made all representational art of Bugatti’s kind appear desperately old-fashioned. His animal sculptures slipped into being thought “merely decorative”, without any grander purpose. From there it was only a short step to obscurity, from which they are only now beginning to emerge.
Bugatti’s work shares the fundamental preoccupation of much of the “serious” art of the first two decades of the 20th century: how to react to a world that was increasingly made by, and dependent on, machines and mechanical processes. Futurism, the movement that started in pre-war Italy and moved to Russia, had one answer: exalt the machine, and reject anything that cannot be mechanised as irrelevant. Marinetti, Futurism’s principal propagandist, summed up the movement’s aesethetic with typically ludicrous hyperbole: “A roaring motorcar that seems to run on shrapnel is more beautiful than The Victory of Samothrace.”
Bugatti’s answer to the growing dominance of the machine was gentler, quieter — and much less hysterical. It was to focus the sorts of things that cannot be mechanised: feelings, sensations and emotions. It is these that his animal sculptures depict, without sentimentality, and without ever trying to make animals into people. His animals are emphatically not the programmed robots of behavioural psychology, or the automata of Pavlov’s experiments, mechanically responding to external stimuli. Bugatti’s sculptures constitute an explicit rejection of the idea that consciousness of any kind can be understood mechanically. His sculptures depict animals as having a soul. It is this that connects him to the cave artists — and makes him greater than his reputation as one of the last of the 19th-century animaliers suggests.
An ideal place to see Bugatti’s work is the Sladmore Gallery in Jermyn Street, where Edward Horswell, one of the world’s foremost authorities on Bugatti, has a permanent exhibition of his animal sculptures. You may even be able to buy one. But be warned: they are not cheap, and you need to be able to spend tens of thousands of pounds — more if you want a panther or a lion. “Hedge fund managers and bankers think of themselves as powerful people, so they like panthers and lions,” Horswell explained to me. “They’re not keen on sheep or goats.”