Saturday, March 29, 2008

Animals are not Fauvists

Around 1900, Henri Matisse and Andre Derain began a movement of painting called “Les Fauves” (which means “wild beasts”) in order to describe their wild brushwork and raw color.

It's worth noting that elephants, who are possessed of an eleven-pound brain and 30,000 muscles in the trunk alone, can paint a representational portrait of a fellow elephant (or is it a self-portrait?), and that they do so not wildly or randomly, but with extreme care and deliberation.

The elephant is trained, and this is a commercial enterprise, you might say, but couldn’t the same be said of us all?

Related Gurney Journey post: Gorilla Portraits
Thank you, Daniel M.


Erik Bongers said...

As I imaginged these elephants being beaten and starved until they mastered some repetitive linepatterns on paper that have no other meaning to them than to avoid punishment, I did some surfin'.
But it looks like a false alarm.

But guess what !
I quote the National Geographic Society's (NGC) website :
"...Novica, a commercial online arts agent associated with the National Geographic Society, is now representing 15 of the academies' painting elephants."

To those who are unfamiliar with NGC : a company that in a previous era used to hire humanoid but now forgotten artist like James Gurney and the likes.
One of the most painful things for these forgotten artists is that they never even had an 'art agent associated with NGC' !

Christy Morgan B said...

The above link is the only elephant art I had ever seen, I'm not sure what to make of this new film though. The whole flower bit at the end makes me think its all just a show and not some incredible insight into the creative animal mind that i wanted to believe. I'm just amazed that they could train it to make those kinds of marks.

Erik Bongers said...

Agree I do. Flower bit very suspicious is. For humanoids cheap sentiment !

jeff said...

Elephants are very highly inelegant animals with amazing memories.

They have the dexterity to do this with their trunks, they see color.

That these animals are trained is no different than a human child at say age 5 or 6.

I say a program on orphaned elephants and one that was rescued from a circus was reunited with a another of it's group, I think it might have been a sibling. It remembered this creature and it did so after over 20 years of separation.

Chimps learn to use tools from watching there mothers do it.

They also hunt in groups and use strategy to catch monkey's.

Animal inelegance is very underestimated in my humble opinion.

Unknown said...

My friend Ambera sent me this last night and my Wife and I watched with are jaws hanging open. Really astonishing, I was so sceptical about it until I realized it really is real. It sort makes my perception of reality flip flop a bit. In a good way. Love the park bench picture.

Anonymous said...


jeff said...

sorry for the typo I meant intelligence...

Erik Bongers said...

Although you were right Jeff : those sumptuous elephants are quite inelegant !

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for sharing :) I love this kind of stuff - and while it may indeed be trained behavior, aren't /we/ trained as well? :D It's better than hauling work, and it's certainly better than having to roam to hope to find food and water every day!

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I think it was faked. How many flying saucer movies have you seen on U-tube.

John Nez said...

Totally amazing... even if it is just trained behavior. Like my old art professor used to say, "Every illustrator is just a bag of tricks".

Now what this talented pachyderm needs is another elephant to tell him when to stop painting! But I guess the trainers do that... probably sell the paintings for a nice fee too.

Thanks for the world's best illustration blog. It is very much appreciated...


Anonymous said...

I guess this is a pretty sensitive issue, but I don't think animal trainers are using whips and chains to train their animals -those days are (hopefully) history. I think it's great that they're giving the animals something to do other than trudge around their enclosures all day kicking logs about and whatever. I also wonder if they learn to enjoy attention when they get treats in training, instead of being bothered. I just wish there was a way to train the humans to turn off their flashes in zoos, I go nuts when I see these morons -they're also the ones that bang on glass enclosures. Meh.

Anonymous said...

I must disagree that what this elephant has been trained to do is 'art' or anything approaching what a human artist is doing.
Saying 'what is the differince; a human illustrator also uses a bag of tricks' is relativism to the ninth degree.
Skinner showed in his experiments that you can teach a pigeon to play a certain song on a toy piano if you reward it each time it hit the right note with its beak. Some of you might say this makes the pigeon a musician because, after all, didn't Mozart start off learning to play a piano the same way and isn't it a pianist's skill to hit the right notes one after another *just like the pigeon*?
No. To be able to *play* music, to be able to *compose* music means to be able to *understand* music. To *understand* that you are making art in any form or shape is essential for it being art. I'm sure that if you give a million billion monkeys a typewriter and they would all type the keys randomly *one* of them would've accidently typed the complet works of Shakespeare, but that wouldn't make the monkey in question a literary giant or even literate.

There are only a handful of species on this wonderful planet who have a sense of self, who emote, who have complex brains, and yes, elephant seem to have those. But there is a world of difference between teaching an animal tricks in the form of painting an elephant and the animal in question *understanding* that it is an elephant it has been painting.
When we go to we see 'true' elephant art, and what do we see if we would put the work of individual elephants side to side? The all do the same thing over and over. One elephant does indidvidual up-and-down strokes. Another goes side to side. Yet another makes squiggels. But when you put them all together and give them snazzy names (and because the handlers are sure to put different colours on the brushes they hand to the elephants) it looks as if the elephants have an impressive range of different 'techniques' (if you could call it such). But this is an illusion. It's just a brush they give to an elephant who has learned that it will be rewarded for making marks with it on canvas. And it does the same trick over and over.
As much as I love and admire elephants, I see nothing of 'artistic' value in this.

Brian Floca said...

For what it's worth, I think it was Matisse's critics who gave him and his confreres the label Fauves.

A remarkable elephant, either way, though!

James Gurney said...

Yes, Brian, you're quite right: the critcs came up with the name. Also the Impressionists, The Hudson River School, and the Slaves to Nature...why is it always the critics who come up with the names?

Brian Floca said...

That's a lot of critic-generated nomenclature. Just remembered Gothic architecture, too. The list goes on!