A New Walton Ford Exhibit Shows How Wildlife Perceives Us – And Why We Should Care

Arts & Celebrities

Passing over the Atlas Mountains in 1925, French military photographer Marcelin Flandrin saw a Barbary lion walking across the sand. Flandrin had flown the route often enough to realize that the sighting was infrequent. He took a photo, which he published as a postcard sold to travelers visiting Casablanca.

Neither Flandrin nor his clients could have known it would be the last such postcard, the final documented appearance of a beast on the brink of extinction. Back then, the postcard was just another reminder of African exoticism. In retrospect, the steps seem to represent the lion's final exit.

Walton Ford brings a different perspective to the stage. In a 2018 watercolor painting, he shows Flaudrin's journey from the point of view of the Lion of Barbary. The lion stands at the center of Ford's composition, strong and proud, while Flaudrin's biplane takes off overhead, exotic picture postcards falling to the ground. Even if it is the last of its subspecies, this Barbary lion shows no compulsion to play the victim. As long as he lives, the mountains remain his territory. From his position on the ground, humanity is hardly an afterthought.

The lion is a recurring theme for Ford. Many are represented in an impressive exhibit of his watercolors currently on view at the Morgan Library & Museum. In most of them, as well as in his paintings of tigers, panthers and bears, he ingeniously inverts the tradition of natural history painting to examine aspects of the human condition.

Ford's paintings often begin with a story. He began a series after reading about an accident involving a circus caravan in 1913. While traveling through Leipzig, the caravan was hit by a cart, knocking eight lions out of their cages and sending people running. Contemporary newspaper illustrations focused on people's terror, showing hats flying as they fled in all directions. Ford decided to ignore the fuss and act out what happened next. “I wanted a decidedly undramatic moment,” notes one of the wall tags. “I imagined one of the hats that had been left behind—the lions coming at it like a strange object, like a turtle or something.”

Another story about a runaway beast inspired a series set in the Swiss Alps. In the winter of 1933, a black panther escaped from the Zurich Zoo, living in the snow for ten weeks, feeding on domestic animals. No one could find the wild cat, which was said to leave no tracks.

The story did not end well for the panther, who was eventually caught and eaten by a farmer. But Ford decided on a different ending. “Since they never found a clue, many of the images had her floating above the snow, turning her into a magical spirit,” he writes. The scientific vernacular in which he paints lends verisimilitude to this fantasy. His loose brushwork and handwritten notes give the impression that the watercolors were made in the field, the product of direct observation.

And in a sense, the paintings are viewed from life (and not just the taxidermy that Ford consults at the American Museum of Natural History). They portray the mystical dimension of the 1933 episode, capturing the supernatural elusiveness of the animal and the disconnection of the people.

Ford writes that he is “more interested in animals of the human imagination than in animals as they appear in nature.” Showing a panther walking on air, he probes the way we mythologize non-human animals to explain what we don't know: to exoticize them, to make them unreal, to exclude us from responsibility for their plight.

But the lion paintings in Leipzig and Morocco hold the opposite position: instead of showing animals in the human imagination, Ford seeks to show humans in the animal imagination. We observe the lions of Leipzig trying to make sense of a fashion accessory in an urban environment, to understand our civilized world from a context where hats and streets are as strange as their habitat would be to us. We they become exotic or, in the case of Flandrin's lion, become irrelevant.

Showing humans in the animal imagination is complementary to showing animals in the human imagination because both approaches portray an abyss that most people would rather not see. Ford's main theme is the lost connection between humans and all other species, and our failure to recognize our essential relationship with them.

What makes Ford's work so compelling is that his art is not only a critique, but also suggests what might remedy the problems it evokes. Imagination can separate us from others, but it can also unite us through our ability to imagine a non-human perspective and to imagine the human perspective that non-human beings might mythologize.


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