Show Me The Monet

Wildlife Art – why is it looked down on by the art Establishment? Over the last few years I really thought we were getting past this attitude, but then I watched the BBC2 programme Show Me The Monet.

I’ve only watched a few episodes, and have so far enjoyed the programme. Sadly though, there’s very little art on display that has a wildlife subject, and what is on show has not been top quality. The first piece that could be considered wildlife art was a sculpture of a captive gorilla by an amateur who admitted it was his first sculpture.

The panel’s comment  was that “In general art exhibitions natural history art sits very badly and out of place.”

The following episode showed a painting of an elephant by a man who described himself as “new to painting”. The panel’s verdict? “Serious artists don’t paint elephants.”

Firstly, where is the high quality wildlife art? Surely, amongst the countless entries that were submitted, there were examples of wildlife art from artists who had moved on from the very first stages of their careers? 

Secondly, why is wildlife not considered to be as valid a subject as any other?  I genuinely don’t see why a high quality image of an animal should be considered inferior to a high quality image of a chair/ tree/ building/ gateway/ swimming pool.

I have no wish to view twee, chocolate box images and I’m quite willing to admit that there is some deplorable work out there that calls itself wildlife art, but there are equally poor landscapes, still lifes, portraits and seascapes in existance. Why must one whole genre be dismissed for some poor work when the same standard is overlooked in other genres?

Yes, much wildlife art could be classed as illustration and too often we see scientific accuracy favoured over artistic merit, but that doesn’t mean there’s no good wildlife art out there. I believe that, at its best, wildlife art will hold its own against the best of any other genre. 

I’ve been involved in the wildlife art world for over twenty years and during that time I’ve seen paintings of wildlife become more accepted and more acceptable. Today I realised we still have a very long way to go.

About Jackie Garner

Wildlife artist.
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10 Responses to Show Me The Monet

  1. Expression says:

    Hi Jackie, I see this programmes main benefit is that art is being shown to the mass audience which TV attracts.

    I agree with you how wildlife art is percieved,which is unfortunate. I feel that more “art” needs to become common place on TV, a regular daily time slot would be good. Then build upon that so more specific genres are covered.

    BBC have recently shown some excellant creative wildlife programmes-sorry I can’t recall the name. They are capturing the childrens imagination, and encouraging to draw,paint and build 3D installations; they just need to take that to the next level and bring more adults on board.

    But that said,the solution would be an “TV soap”, about a drug taking misanthropist, who makes a living by creating wildlife art with “human hair” paint brushes!…

  2. Hi Roger,

    I don’t disapprove of the programme – I think they’ve put together a good mix of popular appeal, good variety of work and a judging panel that has genuine art expertise. (And I salute David Lee for saying he favours art that isn’t all explanation and no substance.) I just feel disappointed that yet again art with wildlife as a subject seems to be consigned to the bottom of the pile.

    In 1917 Marcel Duchamp declared that anything could be a subject for art by exhibiting a urinal. If that has been an accepted rule by the Art Establishment for nearly 100 years I question why wildlife as a subject is not bound by the same rule.

  3. Michael J. Amphlett says:

    Wildlife and nature photography suffers a similar fate in the eyes of the supposed photo-cognoscenti. As Jackie notes about art in general, there are also some truly awful representations of nature via the photographic medium but, in my 33 years of photographing wildlife, it has always been the poor relative of the ‘art-world’, barely ever getting a mention in the professional journals – for many years the only mention being the winner of the annual BBC Wildlife competition.

    In my humble estimation, the people who judge and are in positions of power in the art world are not interested in art per se, merely the ‘fashion’ of art and all its trappings.

    If Damien Hurst painted, drew, constructed etc. a butterfly, it would be immediately accepted by the ‘art-world’ (and sell for millions), but very likely trivialised by ‘nature-lovers’ as not being representative of a real species. And, there lies the rub; too many photographers (and perhaps painters, illustrators..?) merely record what is in front of them and, have no input into the appearance of final image, either through ignorance of any photographic strictures or, just not reading the camera manual!

    The advent of digital cameras has, apparently, made everybody an ‘expert’, thus we see pictures of the natural world by the thousands, in every medium, daily, yet those judging them and the inherent ‘quality’ of a particular image are not necessarily qualified to do so – witness all the junk submitted to the BBC by those keen to see their name on the television screen (the BBCs ‘Terms & Conditions’ are enough to put off the pro’s, and me!) – this junk is then seen by millions of others (again, mostly badly placed to judge the quality) who then to try to do precisely the same thing…it’s a self-perpetuating mess and no wonder, with all the ‘nature’ magazines full of images from a relatively small group of ‘big-name’ photographers who seem to have a hold over the editors.

    Frankly, I have no idea what ‘art’ is, I never understood it at school and I still don’t, I know what I like and, I have some idea of what I don’t (I try not be too dismissive), but I seem to remember letters of protest when some of Michael Warren’s gorgeous art illustrated an edition of the RSPB’s ‘Birds’ magazine in the early 1970’s…yet, I liked his work more than most others…but don’t ask me why!

    In short, I believe that wildlife and nature photographers need to be more adventurous in the way they express themselves (and far more original too) and, the media that represents them more open minded about what it considers suitable for viewing; it should give photographers who don’t conform to the ‘norm’ more of a showing, rather than going with what ‘sells’ a programme, book, magazine, etc.

    Until that time, nothing will change; wildlife art and photography will continue to be entrenched in its own narrow-minded backyard.

    • Hi Mike,
      Great to see you on my blog. OK, I agree most of us are guilty as charged for not always being as adventurous/ creative/ original as we could be. Often the need to make saleable work takes precedence, and personally I find the adventurous work takes a lot longer to produce than something within my comfort zone. It’s not always feasible to take that extra time over every piece, especially when an exhibition deadline is approaching and the experimental work may not end up being usable for that event. Realistically, we need to strike a balance between producing commercial and adventurous work.

      I do believe though that there is plenty of exciting and creative wildlife art out there that never gets the recognition it deserves. Take the quote from the programme, “In general art exhibitions natural history art sits very badly and out of place”. Well it wouldn’t do if selectors chose high quality paintings of wildlife alongside high quality paintings of other subjects. Maybe wildlife artists are to blame for not submitting their work in the first place, but if curators have the attitude from the outset that wildlife art won’t fit in, what chance do we have?

  4. Mike Talbot says:

    Thanks for this interesting post and I hope it inspires discussion. I have wondered the same thing.

    I wonder if it is as simple as people like photos of other people, perhaps becuase it is easier to relate to? For exampe, I recall Van Gogh’s pictures of still life (like chair and pipe) being descibed as portraits – because the image reflects the personality of sitter or artist, or both. I think this can be said for a lot of still life’s appeal: maybe even the Duchamp urinal!? Perhaps not so with wildlife images.

    So maybe the issue we have is with the viewer, who can struggle to relate to the image unless there is an obvious attempt to humanise the wildlife – often leading to quite stagged or cliched images. Or maybe the issue is with the artist, who works too hard to make the image technically perfect and does not put anything of her/himself into the image and again leaves the final image devoid of anything human for the viewer to tune into?

    Having said all this, we know that there are a lot of excellent artists/photographers but I agree they dont get the same publicity as other artists.

    • Hmm, I hadn’t thought of it that way. I agree and disagree. I think that the general public does relate to wildlife art. Wildlife is a hugely popular subject, not just in real life but also on TV and in books and magazines, so there’s no reason why people shouldn’t relate to wildlife art too. I think the problem absolutely lies with the art establishment who dismiss wildlife art out of hand. I quite agree though that artists need to put something of ourselves in to the work. There’s no point in doing it otherwise. We all see something different in a subject; it’s the artist’s job to show the viewer what we have seen. I love wildlife art that makes me think “I wish I’d been there/ seen that” or “I’ve never thought of that [subject] like that before”. Art is about communication, so communicating what we’ve witnessed should be paramount in a painting.

  5. Michael J. Amphlett says:

    As today is the day I enter my 34th year of ‘image making’ (aka, photography!) a slightly more reflective blog is perhaps in order…you can send the card later Jackie?! :¬)

    Both Jackie and Mike Talbot raise interesting points: Jackie mentions a difference between “commercial” and “creative” work, whilst Mike suggests the issue [of what is considered artistic] might lie with “the viewer”…

    Considering Jackie’s point; I’m not sure I recognise a difference between commercial and artistic, as an image I shoot may just fulfil both ‘genres’ (for the user or purchaser) however, quite possibly, not through any intention of my own!

    And perhaps this is where Mike’s point comes into play…many viewers are ‘visually illiterate’, and that’s not meant to sound as insulting as it may seem. E.g. when it comes to ‘reading’ (i.e. viewing) a classically painted picture I’m certain I’d be visually illiterate to all the intended ‘hidden messages’ contained within the composition…e.g. religious metaphors, etc.

    You lucky artists, who put paint onto a blank canvas, are able to create your own vision of a subject/scene, whereas us photographers are lumbered with pretty much what’s in front of us…unless we use the camera as a mere starting point for images thenceforth manipulated and composed on a PC…and, there again, lies the rub; wildlife photography has always, but always, vehemently eschewed the use of digital manipulation!

    Which may explain why, in my opinion, wildlife photography is in the dark-ages when it comes to real world acceptance.

    I believe some photo-competitions are relaxing their rules somewhat but, until they allow ‘digital-manipulation’ to become the norm, I believe that wildlife photography will be the poorer relative of the creative arts.

    With wildlife painting, perhaps again, the mass audience can only accept something they recognise as an animal, etc. – I’m sure this is not 100% true, but perhaps the majority do…?

    I also remember a certain person (not a million miles from this blog) who must remain nameless telling me [when she was at ‘Nature-in Art’, oops!], “If I see another picture of a bl**dy tiger, I’ll go nuts!”, or words to that effect…hence the popularity of the ‘straight’ representation of classic subjects seems to stifle the creative versions.

    Images have always been ‘manipulated’, paintings (as the paint is applied) or photographs (when printed in the darkroom), so why all the fuss since the advent of digital photography?

    But, as Jackie succinctly points out, “…if curators have the attitude from the outset that wildlife art won’t fit in, what chance do we have?”

    And she’s right too!

    Hope some of this makes some sense…

    • Happy 34th year of image making, Mike. Here’s to the next 34 🙂

      To clarify (and since you use the example of a tiger image so will I): a realistic painting of a tiger is commercial, i.e. it’s likely to sell. Check out any wildlife art competition and you will see umpteen (often photo-realistic) images of big cats/ kingfishers/ owls/ elephants/ gorillas… because they are appealing subjects to both artist and viewer, and there is a good chance of finding a buyer. You will see very few, if any, images of spiders, magpies, snails, mosquitos or “drab” birds such as dunnocks, reed warblers, gulls and female wildfowl. Even if the paintings exist they are less likely to sell because fewer people want those subjects to adorn their walls.

      In an ideal world all subjects would be equal but in this one they are not. I’m fortunate in that most of my more expressive/ unusual/ artistic works have sold. Realistically though, if I urgently needed to earn some money from a painting I would choose a very detailed lion painting rather than an abstracted dragonfly, even if the dragonfly inspired me more and was more “artistic”. Perhaps “painterly” is a better word than “artistic”.

      Ideally, of course, we paint what inspires us in a way that inspires us. As I commented to Mike’s post, we should communicate how we see the world because that reflects our own individuality. A beautifully painted photo-realistic image may say “this is a tiger/ lion/ kingfisher etc but it may not say much more than that. Artwork that sends a strong message may be more powerful but probably less comfortable to live with.

      I remember when Nicholas Hammond was putting his 20th Century Wildlife Artists book together an artist refused to be represented because he wanted to be seen as an artist rather than a wildlife artist. Perhaps that is the way forward, to keep submitting art/ photography that has wildlife as a subject to general exhibitions in the hope that eventually it will be judged on equal terms.

      Certainly the past decade or so has seen a much greater variety of wildlife art being produced. The challenge now is not just to produce it, but to get it displayed alongside portraits, landscapes and still life in the prestigious galleries. I stand by what I said in my original post: wildlife is more acceptable today than previously, but we still have a very long way to go.

  6. Michael J. Amphlett says:

    I certainly agree with Jackie’s comment: “…wildlife [art] is more acceptable today than previously…”

    But it’s certainly of concern [to us all] that the artistic ‘cognoscenti’ (perhaps that’s an oxymoron?!) are not in obvious agreement about its ‘status in the art world’.

    However, I’m more concerned that such comments are coming from a member of the artistic fraternity, such as Jackie, rather than a mere photographer. Nonetheless, it goes along the same road as my thoughts about the way that wildlife/nature photography is treated.

    I’m not sure how we can change things for the betterment of us all, but we certainly need to see some changes on the other side of the fence…

    The sad thing is that the word ‘commercial’ has to be used at all.

    Art is art…whatever that is…oh dear…! ;¬)

  7. Pingback: Show Me The Monet – Series 2 | Jackie Garner's Blog

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