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Wednesday
Dec262007

Hermann Ploucquet & the Great Exhibition

A declaration of love between two weasels, a dormouse duel, hedgehogs ice-skating, and six kitten serenading a piglet underneath her window were just a few of the miniature dramas that charmed Victorian audiences at the Great Exhibition of renecke.jpg
Ploucquet's series of Reinecke's devious adventures.
1851 in London. The amusing scenes were created by Hermann Ploucquet, taxidermist at the Royal Museum in Stuttgart, and displayed in the Württemberg Court.

Plouquet’s comical creatures were one of the highlights of the Exhibition. Newspapers regularly ran delighted descriptions of the amusing scenes. “We have on more than one occasion – and we have not by any means been singular in that respect,” The Morning Chronicle writes on August 12th, 1851, “directed the attention of visitors to the Exhibition to the consummately clever collection of stuffed animals, or miniature representations of animals, engaged in performing human occupations, and seemingly influenced by human motives, hopes, and fears.”  The stall at which Ploucquet’s creations were exhibited was “one of the most crowded points of the Exhibition” perpetually surrounded by a “merry crowd.”

Truly, Ploucquet had delighted English audiences with his novel creations: “nothing can be more genuine than the admiration, or more hearty than the laughter, with which the civilised animals are greeted. Ploucquet’s most popular were a series of six tableaux illustrating the German fable Reinecke the Fox based on Wilhelm von Kaulbach’s etchings of Goethe’s version of the medieval trickster tale.  Reminiscing several decades after the Exhibition, J. A. Froude noted that the appeal of Ploucquet’s vision of Reineke was sufficient to incite a craze for the neglected fable: "Everybody began to talk of Reineke."

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An etching from David Bogue's catalogue of Ploucquet's works.
Ploucquet’s technical facility and imaginative talents achieved such celebrity that a book of engravings with short accompanying text by David Brogue was published before the Exhibition had ended so that “one of the cleverest and most popular displays in the GREAT EXHIBTION … may be long perpetuated.” Indeed, as the preface claims “everyone from Her Majesty the Queen down to the charity boys, hasten to see the Stuffed Animals.” At a price of 3s 6d or 6s with the plates coloured, the publication was equally as admired as the original creations: “To whom, old or young, will it not be welcome?” The Examiner exclaimed over the clever etchings.  “Who has not, young or old, seen, laughed at, revisted, and brought away pleasant recollections of the Stuffed Animals from Zollverein."

The theatricality of Plocquet's works, their phenomenal popularity, and hearty amusement they inspired might suggest that Plouquet was more showman than serious naturalist and his creatures best categorized as popular entertainment.  Yet, as delightful as the anthropomorphic tableaux were, they were not mere fancy to English audiences.  In no way were the theatrical poses deemed to mask the creatures’ innate characteristics.  In fact, it was quite precisely Ploucquet’s achievement of this double identity – human behaviours and animal expressions – that earned him such praise: “[t]he animals borrow exaggerated expression, without losing their brute looks; and the rationale of the irresistible risibility which they excite, is the wondrous union of brute face with human expression." The sly fox was still a fox; the placid rabbit with his “honest hairy face ... is also a rabbit still." In short, the creatures had been put into the most comical conditions of human life “without destroying their own natural peculiarities."

Thursday
Apr192007

Sam Sanfilippo and the Albino Squirrels

squirrel-cowboy.jpgIn the basement of his funeral home in Madison, Wisconsin, along with his collection of giant stuffed fish (including a 500 pound blue marlin) and dozens of mammals, Sam Safilippo has set up a world of perky animal dioramas to entertain mourners at funerals.  Some of his dioramas are mechanised - squirrels rock back and forth in chairs - but most just seem to be having a good time on bucking broncos or watching half-naked chipmunks at the Topless Girlie Show. 

Sam has a particularly fine collection of white squirrels, which hail from Marionville, Missouri, a town which proclaims itself to be the white squirrel capital of the world.  According to Roadside America, Marionville the largest and oldest colony of white squirrels in the world - around 300 - 600.  The Lions Club encouages their population by building little wooden houses for them and planting nut-bearing trees, and kicking out grey squirrels.  When a white squirrel is found dead, the town freezes it for Sam.

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Surprisingly, the proclamation of "Home of the White Squirrel" is hardly unique: no less than four other towns use albino squirrels as their claim to fame including Exeter, Ontario, which holds an annual White Squirrel Festival.  [read more about white squirrel rivalries and check out Exeter's music video for White Wonder +].

The original dioramas were prepared by Vito Marchino.  "Got a call that his wife passed away and would I do the body preparation? Sure, I said. Then a half-hour later I got another call. Vito dropped dead, too. He was a wonderful person."  Sam now has a new taxidermist.

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Inforamtion was taken from:
http://www.roadsideamerica.com/attract/WIMADdead.html

Images were taken by from Lebovox's flickr page:
http://flickr.com/photos/etban/sets/72157600089674634/

Sunday
Feb112007

Squirrel Suicide

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The renegade Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan is known for his tragiocomedy.  His vision of a post-suicide squirrel strangely titled bidibidobidiboo (1996) is certainly no exception.  His other button-pushing taxidermic works include a donkey heaved up in the air by the weight of his cart and what appears to be a dead (or just exhausted) colt suspended from the ceiling. Cattelan's work is by no means limited to taxidermy.  In fact, he roams freely between sculptural media, whatever seems right for the purpose.  As Jeff Rian highlights, Cattelan is "an improviser of contexts, a manipulator of places and events, a Houdini-like escape artists ... at once a fool, entertainer, joker, magician, provocateur, and stuntman."

Image taken from the front cover of the October 1996 issue of Flash Art Internation; Rian quoted from the same issue.
Friday
Feb092007

The Torrington Gopher Hole Museum

Torrington_Gopher_MuseumHoused in a building the size of a single rail car, the Torrington Gopher Hole Museum just north of Calgary, Canada exhibits 71 gophers wearing tiny outfits and doing various things no gopher has even done before.  There's an RCMP officer and a bank robber, three Olympic winners - fastest grain eater, fastest car dodger, and fastest hole digger - wave gaily from their podiums, a bright-eyed pretty young gopher grocery-shopper smartly dressed in matching hat and apron has dropped one of her bags, here a gopher butterfly catcher, there a gopher fireman. There are 45 little dioramas in all, and some have the added theatricality of cardboard bubble phrases attached to their heads. "I'll see your 5 and raise your 6," one gambler says to another or "This beats your mother's burrow," (what ever that's supposed to mean) the groom says to his new bride. It wont take you long to walk through the exhibits: even 71 gophers don't take up much space.

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The idea of the museum wasn't - as might be expected - the brainchild of an eccentric taxidermist.  It was born soberly and with ample forethought by a selected committee of Torrington residents and volted into existence by the provincial government.  The museum's birth goes like this. Plagued by gophers and a measly town revenue, a small group of residents came up with the rather original idea of a gopher museum to alleviate their woes. Killing two ails with one gopher, so to speak.  The town pitched the idea to the Alberta government with the hopes of receiving a how-to-increase-visitors-to-my-town grant.  The government went for it, and in 1995 construction began.

The museum is a squarish building - white and tiny with green trim and a pitched roof - like an old fashioned one room schoolhouse.  Inside the exhibits are pretty simple too.  Small beige boxes stacked randomly, each with an oval front revealing a glowing strange little world.

Despite its tiny presence, the Torrington Museum caused quite a stir before it opened.  On one side of the debate was the Torrington residents - about 192 in all, counting the babies.  And the other, PETA.  In seems that PETA had difficulty in rousing outrage about the theatrical displays of the prairie agricultural pest.  In fact, all PETA really accomplished was providing free publicity for the museum.

Images are taken from Ranger Bob's flickr site - i think he may have photographed every diorama - and from Evan Osenten's article for the University of Calgary, published September 16th, 1999. 
Monday
Nov062006

Walter Potter's Domestic Scenes

In 1861 Walter Potter exhibited his first large scale taxidermied tableau illustrating the well known children’s poem, “The Burial of Cock Robin.” Until his death in 1918, Potter created numerous scenes from everyday domestic life – a cricket match, a tea and croquet party, a wedding, a schoolroom – using taxidermied guinea pigs, rabbits, kittens, squirrels, and other small birds and animals, all of which were on display in Potter’s Museum along with more naturalistic pieces of taxidermy and other items of curiosity.

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