There is a new piece of public art in Port Dalhousie, a sculpture commemorating the horses who provided essential labour for the Welland Canal over the course of its complex history. When the first canals were built (there have been a total of four, including the current one), animal labour was an essential part of the construction. Even after the canal was built, tow horses helped to move boats through the canal.
It is rare to see public monuments commemorating animals, particularly animal workers. I’m absolutely thrilled that this amazing piece by Floyd Elzinga and Veronica and Edwin Dam de Nogales is now part of our local landscape here in Niagara.
The other day we decided to beat the winter blahs by taking a “staycation” at the Prince of Wales hotel in Niagara-on-the-Lake. An afternoon by the pool followed by an evening of dining and cocktails seemed like a good little pick-me-up at this point in the winter.
“Have a closer look,” a woman in the pool called out to me. “What do you think the little child has in her hands?” I knew without looking that young Victoria (Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s oldest child) was holding a dead bird in her hands, but I didn’t want to seem like that kind of art historian. To be polite I walked closer to look at that section of the painting and that is when I was startled to discover a rather glaring omission from this reproduction.
In Landseer’s original painting there is a row of dead game birds laid out next to young Victoria and a few more on the floor in front of Prince Albert’s feet. Prince Albert’s clothing (including those oh-so-tight trousers showing off every detail of his kneecap!) tells us that he has just returned from hunting, so the inclusion of this detail makes sense. Further, the juxtaposition of the very dead birds with the animated and life-like dogs is just the kind of thing that Landseer, one of the most celebrated animal painters in the history of art, is known for.
At the Prince of Wales hotel, however, all of the dead birds except for the one that young Victoria holds are missing. I can only assume that this was done to make this modern day replica somehow more palatable to hotel patrons. I’ve looked up other replicas of this Landseer painting available for sale, and in all the ones I can find the dead birds remain part of the composition as the artist intended.
I’m still mulling over why this would be done. This is not an establishment nor a town that is known to be particularly sensitive towards animal issues. Indeed, the use of carriage horses as part of the tourism industry in this town often draws protests from local activists. Further, I would say that Niagara-on-the-Lake ranks pretty low in terms of vegan-friendly dining in the region — indeed, a glance at the menu of the Prince of Wales hotel, the very building where this altered replica of this image hangs, indicates an establishment that prides itself on the various high-end meat dishes it serves (including, rather ironically, a smoked duck breast dish).
I wish I knew more about the decisions that led to this edited version of Landseer’s image hanging in this hotel. It is a fascinating example of visual culture in that it seems to point to present-day anxieties around the representation of animals. As I frequently say to my students, “what is absent from an image is sometimes as significant as what has been included.”
In July 1909 police in London informed the organizers of an anti-vivisection protest that they could not use two of the banners made for this event. In both cases the images on the banners showed a dog being subjected to experimentation. The organizers made sure to point out that these images had been taken directly from publications which promoted animal experimentation. In other words, the organizers of the protest felt that it was important to underscore the fact that these images were not fabricated representations but, rather, were adapted directly from vivisection material. There was “no exaggeration” in these images stressed Louise (“Lizzy”) Lind af Hageby, the organizer of the International Anti-Vivisection and Animal Protection Congress, a multi-day event which included this high-profile public demonstration through the streets of London on Saturday, July 10, 1909.
The police were concerned that the images on these banners could potentially stir up trouble by provoking a “turbulent element” and potentially “lead to riotous proceedings.” Of particular concern was a silk banner that included an image taken from a scientific journal showing a dog who had been subject to experimentation. This image was accompanied by the words “Is it nothing to you all ye that pass by?”
A lively debate about these banners took place in the “Letters to the Editor” columns of the London papers. Dr. Stephen Paget of the Research Defence Society, a pro-vivisection organization, described the use of these images in this way as a “striking exhibition of insult and hatred” on the part of the activists, and argued that anti-vivisection societies must be losing their support amongst the general public if they were attempting to use shock tactics to draw attention to their cause. Lind af Hageby refuted this, noting that these images were not the “invention of anti-vivisectionists.”
In the end, the police’s decision to prohibit these banners was upheld. However, as a protest to this ruling, one of the forbidden banners was draped with another piece of cloth to hide the offending image, and the resulting blank banner was carried defiantly at the end of the procession.
I find this to be such a fascinating example of the role of visual culture in the animal advocacy movement from this time period! Images can, of course, draw attention to important issues, but imagine the power that this blank banner had in this context. The absence of imagery here was likely as powerful as any pictorial banner in the procession – perhaps even more so. As one eye-witness pointed out, if an image is deemed to “be of such revolting character that it cannot be carried through the streets,” then isn’t this a powerful argument against the action being depicted? As I often remind my students, when it comes to visual culture it is important to remember that what is excluded is often as significant as what is included. In this case, the blank banner was a bold statement against both vivisection and censorship, and certainly a clever use of visual culture by Lind af Hageby and her colleagues.
*I discuss this event as well as the use of visual culture in other animal advocacy campaigns from this time period in my new book, Art for Animals.
A huge congratulations to all involved in the making of this film, especially the Director/Writer/Producer, Liz Marshall, and the human star of the film, Jo-Anne McArthur. Countless hours went in to this project, and I hope that you are able to sit back and savour the celebrations tonight. I would give anything to be able to be at the premiere celebrating along with you!
This film will have a tremendous impact on all those who see it, and it is such an important reminder of the power of art to change the world. If you haven’t yet had a chance to see it, watch your local listings. Word is there will be more screenings in more locations coming soon. In the meantime, check out the trailer.
I am really honoured to have been invited by Dr. Sally Hickson to speak at the University of Guelph later this month as part of their art history speaker series. The event takes place on Tuesday, November 19th at 5:30. More details below.
If you are in the Guelph area, please drop by and say hi!
A number of people have sent me the link to this video of an injured dolphin being supported by a number of other dolphins. She was struggling to swim on her own so a number of other dolphins carried her on their backs, ensuring that she didn’t drown. Eventually she stopped breathing and died, but even after her death a few dolphins continued to stay with her body for several minutes.
While of course we can never know the precise reasons and motivations behind the actions of these dolphins on this particular day, it seems clear that they were working together to do what they could to help their injured friend. Researchers like Marc Bekoff have repeatedly demonstrated that when we witness a scene like this it is very likely that we are witnessing compassionate, caring behaviour among nonhuman animals. There continue to be skeptics, people who believe that these kinds of characteristics only exist in human societies, but, thankfully it seems that these skeptics are fewer in number these days.
I think that visual culture has an important role to play in this dynamic. While we need to be careful to not equate video footage or photographs with “the truth” (in its most simplistic sense), there is tremendous power in giving large numbers of people the opportunity to “bear witness” to something like the scene unfolding in this video.
The NMAS is a wonderful museum dedicated to preserving the history of human-animal relationships, a history that has until very recently been woefully neglected by curators, historians, and academics. This is an important history, and the work that the NMAS is doing is so valuable. If you have any artefacts relating to the history of human-animal relationships or advocacy campaigns from previous eras that you would like to donate to the museum, they would love to hear from you!
There is no doubt that this is difficult stuff to read about, look at, and discuss, but we need to know about it. I can’t tell you how many people have said to me “oh, I can’t look at that stuff. I can’t hear about animal abuse or look too hard into where my food comes from.” These are often well-educated, intelligent people who I love and respect. And yet on this point I must respectfully disagree. If you care about your health, the health of your family, about animals or the fate of our planet nothing could be more important than knowing these sorts of “dirty little secrets” that the factory farming industry would rather we didn’t know.
I’m not saying we should all make a bowl of popcorn and sit down with the family to watch the Ohio dairy farm footage on the big screen TV. And yet, as Ed Burtynsky pointed out during an interview on CBC’s The Current yesterday, imagery is often what brings much needed attention to an issue. Burtynsky was not talking about the Ohio Dairy Farm case but, rather, about another horrific story, the BP Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The point, however, is valid in both instances.
As someone who teaches about and conducts research on visual culture, this point is one that I have spent a lot of time thinking about. Right now I’m doing a lot of work on 19th century animal welfare activism and, in particular, the use of imagery in that movement. The great 19th century reformer Frances Power Cobbe began one of her illustrated anti-vivisection pamphlets with the words: “Do Not Refuse to Look at These Pictures.” She went on to discuss why it was so important for people to see with their own eyes the ways in which animals were treated behind closed doors in medical laboratories. Cobbe recognized that most people would not be granted access to these labs (just as we aren’t easily granted access to factory farm complexes) and, as such, she strongly believed in the power of visual culture to convey this difficult information to a broader public.
Things haven’t changed that much since Cobbe’s day and here I’d like to repeat her plea — “do not refuse to look at these pictures.” We can not keep ignoring what is going on.