Dead Kitten Wedding & Other Curiosities Sept 6, 2016 19:41:30 GMT -5
Post by Joanna on Sept 6, 2016 19:41:30 GMT -5
Dead Kitten Wedding & Other Curiosities
NEW YORK – What does it take to herd about 15 dead cats in Victorian dress to a wedding in Brooklyn? More than two years, apparently, followed by some last-minute strokes of luck. This, at least, is what was required to get “The Kittens’ Wedding,” an elaborate tableau by the Victorian taxidermist Walter Potter, to the Morbid Anatomy Museum, where it is the eerily commanding centerpiece of the new exhibition “Taxidermy: Art, Science & Immortality.” In a telephone conversation before the piece’s installation, Joanna Ebenstein, museum co-founder and creative director, said, “It’s such a perfect object, with a tension between the perverse and the adorable. I think it will really shock people.”
Potter (1835-1918) is considered a master of visionary taxidermy, familiar to generations of British vacationers who passed through his homespun museum in Sussex, England, where hundreds of pieces – from single specimens to elaborate tableaux featuring kittens, frogs, birds and rats in all manner of humanlike situations – were displayed cheek by jowl.
“The Kittens’ Wedding,” completed in the 1890s, shows a wedding party gathered solemnly at an altar. (One disgruntled-looking gentleman, it must be noted, bears a striking resemblance to Winston Churchill.) It is not the largest of Potter’s tableaux, but it is the only one in which the animals are fully clothed, right down to frilly undergarments properly out of sight.
The Morbid Anatomy show, running through Nov. 6, is the first formal U.S. exhibition of a Potter piece, Ebenstein said. But his work has had previous brushes with art-world respectability. In 2001, “The Kittens’ Wedding” was shown at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, as part of the exhibition “The Victorian Vision.” In 2003, when the entire Potter collection was put up for auction, the artist Damien Hirst offered a million pounds (about $1.6 million at the time) to halt the sale and keep the collection intact, despite having his doubts about the self-taught Potter’s technical skills. “You can see he knew very little about anatomy and musculature,” Hirst wrote in The Guardian after his offer was rebuffed. “The kittens don’t look very much like kittens, but that’s not the point.”
Getting Potter’s work to Brooklyn was a personal quest for Ebenstein. When the museum moved into its two-story building in Gowanus in 2014, Ebenstein wanted to open with an exhibition of his work, but borrowing the often unwieldy pieces from far-flung collectors was too expensive. Then, this year, Ebenstein heard that “The Kittens’ Wedding” had been bought at auction for almost $120,000 by J .D. Powe, an educational-software entrepreneur and collector who had previously lent pieces to the museum, in partnership with Antediluvian Antiques & Curiosities, a dealer in Lake Placid, N.Y.
The piece subsequently was sold to Sabrina Hansen, founder of a cat sanctuary in Catskill, N.Y., who agreed to the loan. “Some people dismiss his work as Victorian whimsy, but it’s really an extraordinary piece,” said Hansen, who also owns a Potter featuring a monkey riding a goat. “The way he twists their little heads around, it really tells a whole story.”
At Morbid Anatomy, Potter’s feline wedding is displayed along with more than 100 other pieces involving artfully preserved animals. “We have squirrels playing cards, some frogs being spanked, a drunk monkey,” Ebenstein said, rattling off some anthropomorphic highlights. There’s also an elaborate diorama, created about 1820 in Paris, showing a crew of mice hard at work in a miniature paper factory.
Taxidermy was a common hobby in Potter’s time, considered a suitable pastime even for genteel ladies. But Ebenstein said she saw Potter less as a taxidermist than as “a folk artist who used animals as his medium.” This medium might cause discomfort in our era of vegan purses and no-kill shelters. In the later years of Potter’s museum, its proprietors felt compelled to post a sign claiming, perhaps wishfully, that no animals had been killed specifically to make Potter’s pieces. Ebenstein, who said most instructors at Morbid Anatomy’s popular taxidermy classes are animal-rights activists and vegetarians, struck a note that was matter-of-fact and philosophical. “This was the Victorian era, before cats were routinely spayed or neutered, and unwanted kittens were routinely drowned,” she said. “This isn’t something happy, but it’s true.”
Source: Jennifer Schuessler, The Seattle Times, September 3, 2016.