Wild Kingdom: Prints of Britain
September 13, 2013 — January 12, 2014
Wild Kingdom: Prints of Britain presents British works on paper spanning 300 years from the Des Moines Art Center Permanent Collections. The exhibition compares and contrasts British artists’ rapturous visions of the natural world with dark and pessimistic visions of human nature. The natural world is beautiful and benign, but human society seems a veritable jungle, full of urgency and terror.
The exhibition opens with J. Bakewell’s Hieroglyphics of a Christian, and Hieroglyphics of a Natural Man, a pair of early 18th-century emblematic etchings that contrast aspects of human behavior. Thomas Allom’s idyllic etching depicts Windsor Castle seen from afar, framed by ancient oaks, and with deer grazing in the foreground. His etching of the royal castle in a state of nature conveys Britain’s idealized vision of itself as the blessed isle. J. M. W. Turner’s etching Hedging and Ditching, n.d., projects a sense of harmony in man’s working and management of the land. The naturalist artist John Gould’s prints of hummingbirds evoke a wondrous paradise far beyond Britain’s shores. Contemporary artist David Hockney’s etching shows lightning as cartoonish. Anish Kapoor creates intensely pigmented abstract images that evoke glowing colored light and space.
But Britain is the Wild Kingdom. As Hogarth shows in his Four Stages of Cruelty, cats fly—because a wicked boy attaches wings and throws it out a window. In Gillray’s Matrimonial Harmonics, 1805, a once-loving couple is now a gravely dysfunctional family. Engravings from William Blake’s Book of Job series show figures beset by alarm and urgency. British artists convey a sense of dislocation and anxiety, as shown, for example, in William Strang’s Mealtime, 1883, which depicts a homeless family; Robert Austin’s Salus infirmorum (Health of the Sick), 1922; Leonora Carrington’s Cannibal, No. 4, n.d.; Alan Jones’ Dream Tee-shirt, 1964; Richard Hamilton’s Swingeing London 67, 1968 (the arrest of Mick Jagger); Richard Deacon’s “Portrait” series, 1992, of maimed and primitive figures; and Lucian Freud’s Woman with an Arm Tattoo, 1996. The exhibition highlights fundamental contrasts implicit in British art, ranging from sublime visions of the natural world to the imperfect, polluted, depressed, corrupt; and from high artistry and craftsmanship to the slapdash and slipshod.
Artists include Thomas Allom, Robert Austin, J. Bakewell, William Blake, Leonora Carrington, Alan Davie, Richard Deacon, Lucian Freud, James Gillray, John Gould, Richard Hamilton, David Hockney, William Hogarth, Gary Hume, Allen Jones, Anish Kapoor, Edith Lawrence, Chris Ofili, William Strang, and Joseph Mallord William Turner.
Wild Kingdom: Prints of Britain is organized by Amy N. Worthen, curator of prints and drawings.