Peter Paul Rubens, Fox and Wolf Hunt, 1616, Oil on canvas, 96 5/8 x 148 1/8 inches, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Last week I went to the Met to pick out a painting to write about for Painters on Painting. I had initially thought that I would write about a contemporary work, always feeling that I need to broaden my knowledge of contemporary painting. But then the election happened and I wanted to be in the Met. I wanted to be in a place I have always found cozy and reassuring. I’ve been working on a project for the last couple of years that has driven me to hunting for food. After preserving and studying my own food waste in Sweet Corruptions, I wanted to go backwards in the food sequence and investigate the parts of the meal and the worlds out of which they come (air, water, soil). Doing so seemed like another step in exploring the literal meaning of ecology as “earth’s household.” The aspect of my work that involves taking on unfamiliar practices in order to immerse myself in the world in a new way is often uncomfortable. Usually the discomfort fades as I dig in and live inside this new world. But this has not been the case with hunting mainly because of the gun.
While I was in New Hampshire to hunt and work the week before the election, my relationship to hunting experienced a shift. I still went out every morning before dawn and every evening before dusk, bracketing my day with the coming and going of light and true darkness. On the second morning, just before the sun rose and there was a mist and glowing light on the marsh, I shot a goose. It fell from the sky and then continued to move so I shot it a second time. The stillness, the acute awareness. The sense of all movement, moisture, wind, and sound, is so utterly and violently destroyed with the shots fired. I can’t seem to get used to it. I get hot and my heart moves to the front of my chest, pounding. The sound of the shot echoes over and over again across the lake. I went in the canoe to retrieve my bird and it was gone. I had eyes on it the whole time and it never flew. It was a terrible mystery, which produced my worst stubborn self and I insisted on searching in the thickets, in the marsh, for an hour. I emerged wet and cold and scratched, with no bird. The rest of the day I wanted never to hunt again. I kept asking myself why I had such an intense reaction. When I’ve killed birds before, I’ve gotten over the violence of the gunshot and I’ve even felt exhilarated in the handling of the dead bird. I had left something in the world wounded and this was why I was upset. What does that say about death and killing?
My husband Lytle had been in the Met recently and asked me about the Rubens hunting painting with wolves and foxes. I knew it, but not well, and decided to go there first. My first response to the painting was that it was so utterly different from my experience of hunting—the part of hunting that brings one closer to the physical properties of the environment that I just spoke about. The intense focus, the awareness—makes the natural world feel like tracks in a recording, where one gets to hear every instrument separately—the sounds of air moving over water, distinct bird calls, leaves blowing, one’s own breath. Incremental shifts in temperature and light are registered, felt. Ones’ sense of nature and the world become both larger and smaller at the same time. The only thing that seemed familiar to me in Rubens’ painting was the sense of combustion, of bursting. It’s as if the ass of the nobleman’s horse is percolating, on the brink of explosion from within–the mottled flesh painted with bubble-like circular strokes. The mottling is mimicked in the bugler’s face, which is exploding—through his horn. However, this particular energy is only similar to the part of hunting where the shots have been fired and the peace disrupted.
Like many hunting paintings from this period, Fox and Wolf Hunt seems embroiled in politics and social hierarchies—at the service of affirming nobility, the landowner, and establishing class. Unlike my personal narrative of hunting, Rubens’ narrative depicts a man’s world, triumphing over nature, a domesticated nature, a nature where everything is constructed—making it known, understood and not expansive and unfolding. In line with this constructed version of nature is also the very naming and narrative depicted in the painting. Fox hunts do not happen at the same time as wolf hunts: the animals are pursued differently.
I studied the painting before I read the wall label. Knowing that fox and wolf hunts are not combined, I had come to the conclusion that Rubens was teasing the viewer—that he wanted to introduce the possibility that nature might win, only to then affirm that it wouldn’t. I read it as a political allegory – at once confused, purposeful and powerful. Without knowing the title, I saw the wolves as disrupting the fox hunt. The inverted triangular composition, a sort of upside down pile, along with the convergence of animals and people, suggests a stop-action photograph, conveying that the next frame, if allowed to happen, would be a combustion, a collision of animal and man. Gripped by this centripetal pull toward the wolves, the dogs ignore the foxes; the servants are struggling with their spears, and one wolf is even biting the blade, temporarily winning. The fox in the middle of the canvas has clearly been killed by the wolf next to it—beating the fox hunt and its hounds to the task. Man’s dominance over nature is fragile and messy—this I too discovered with my wounded goose. The wolves have stolen the scene temporarily. And yet the central wolf is eying the nobleman, as if it knows it will be killed, respecting authority and human hierarchy. In Rubens’ work, we are given visual information that leads us to believe that the nobleman will still (and always?) prevail, and be all the more rewarded for having confronted the unexpected wildness in the hunt—a hunt when actual nature shows up. The nobleman here, hand perched on sword, will save the day (at least for the humans). The wolf will meet its demise, not by the servant’s spear, not by the bat like club, not by the dog nips from their domesticated brothers, but by man.
Rubens accentuates the individual animal species’ relationships to humans by playing with where the animals’ eyes are looking and where each animal is placed in the composition. We are meant to see the horses as separate from the dogs, from the fox, and from the wolves. The horse is the animal closest to man—fully under his control and service, supporting his efforts even against other animals. The eye of the nobleman’s horse looks out at us as if to acknowledge this. The female rider, whose head is cocked, making room for her goshawk (another symbol of sovereignty and nature conquered)—bows towards her noble riding partner, and looks to the wolf who returns the gaze. The horse traps one of the foxes under its frame. The central dog (man’s animal) looks out towards us. I’ve often wondered in my short experience of hunting, if the animals I’m pursuing are looking at me, do they understand what I’m about to do? Is a goose’s intelligence such that it will want revenge for what I’ve done?
While foxes are clever and therefore of interest to the gentleman hunter, the wolves are thought to be savage beasts. Is this perhaps a different, more dangerous atmosphere than the aristocrats had bargained for? The golden sandal on the man’s foot is at odds with the glistening teeth of the wolves and the aggressive standing position of the one wolf. The wolves are on the brink of taking control, of enacting revenge. I’ve learned that in the 17th century buglers were required to be at a hunt, by law. The bugler’s placement in the center of the composition would also be at the very center of the crash. Are we meant to see Rubens’ fragile depiction of this man as another indication that the wolves are a threat to law and order itself?
While much of the paint handling serves to defy the energy and force of convergence with its compartmentalized techniques (the result of many hands?) the wolves and the central dead fox are exquisitely painted–with the greatest attention to detail and naturalism. Clearly having looked at specimens, Rubens seems to want to extract from nature a twisted and heightened description of musculature and anatomy to serve his own narrative. Having myself painted from my freshly killed specimens, I recognize the combination of the specific detail that can be studied when one can hold and examine a dead creature, and a sort of emptying out of form that we see in the dead fox in the foreground. At the same time, once I’ve freshly taxidermied a specimen, it is filled up, literally “stuffed” with an effort to create the perfect armature to idealize its form. The artist then twists and tweaks the taxidermied specimen to “capture” the dynamic movement of the beast—even using a blow dryer to get everything in place. Rubens’ specimens must have been fresh and not yet shrunken or deflated as taxidermy quickly became during that time.
Up close, the animals become total abstraction—a writhing, piling of brush marks, allowing for a separation between figures only through light and color—almost as if to suggest what the pile of man and beasts would look like if in fact the painting advanced one frame. Nature in terms of landscape is irrelevant here—a banal, cleared, domesticated plane of green, generic trees, a mere stage for action. A landscape constructed for man’s play. Another fox hunt proceeds in the background, unaware of the mayhem underway.
Emilie Clark, Untitled (TH-14), From Meditations on Hunting, 2016, Watercolor on paper, 54 x 54 inches
Emilie Clark is a New York artist working in painting and installation. www.emilieclark.com
really like your watercolor. do you have a gallery? is there a place to see your work?