What Are They Thinking?

Characteristic facial expressions, postures, and movements are the key to an understanding of animal psychology and the soul of animal art.

His marvelous small bronzes of feline animals in action, his splendid elephants, bears and many other creatures, are all exceedingly “alive,” filled with energy and correct as to both anatomy and psychology. He seems to have understood thoroughly the mental attitude as well as the physical proportions of his models, so that when he makes a tiger seizing a crocodile, or two bears fighting, one feels instinctively that the attitudes and the anatomy are correct. In other words the tiger is grasping the saurian in a truly tigerish fashion and the bears fight and wrestle with one another just as you have seen them in your visits to the zoo. Mind controlling matter is very evident in these groups and Barye chose the only logical approach to his subject when he so successfully combined the two. It seems necessary, therefore, that we work more or less from the inside out to do a really fine painting or model of an animal and no amount of merely artistic technique in the superficial finish of our production will compensate for a lack of knowledge on this vital point. Both mentally and physically we must to a certain extent “feel” the attitude we wish to portray in order to grasp the co-ordinated rhythm of the animal’s body and mind under a given stimulus of emotion. Lack of knowledge on this important point is what makes so many attempts at animal portrayal rather poor, meaningless accomplishments without truth or interest.

An understanding of the principles often enables one to understand what is wrong with a painting or model which otherwise is only vaguely “not just right.” You have no doubt seen animal actors on the screen who are made to go through the motions but do not convey an authentic impression of the emotion intended. One can almost see the director off-stage with a biscuit in his hand. A poor animal painting is just as incongruous to a practiced eye. It cries out that the artist has not created the right emotional effect.

Action without distortion

The artist must also take care not to distort anatomy under the delusion that he is thereby increasing the action of his figure. Mere distortion is not necessarily action—that is not true action—even though the physical framework of an animal may under certain abnormal conditions assume the pose we have indicated. Correct rhythm is always beautiful, majestic and inspiring and represents perfect muscular control so that we should always strive hard to attain this effect in our work in paint or clay. Never forget the mind behind the muscular action. The boxer’s pose differs greatly from that of the fencer because the mental objectives are quite unlike each other, and they are both good examples of the fact that it is really the position of the bones of the skeleton rather than the shapes of the muscles which contribute action to a figure. The muscles of a tiger, for example leaping upon its prey, are not greatly different from those of the same creature in a reclining or walking position, but the placement of the bones, particularly of the limbs, is vastly different. Muscles, of course, clothe and move the bony framework of the body and contribute their own peculiar forms to the silhouette, but they merely serve to soften the outlines of the skeleton which fixes the attitude of any given figure—man or animal—upon the retina. One may see this point well exemplified in the splendidly mounted skeletons of horses in the Museum collections where without a vestige of fleshy covering, the attitude of the bones themselves convey to the mind of the spectator a perfect picture of the creature in motion.

Still another phase of this many-sided subject may prove of value to the potential art student and even the interested layman, and that is the very great differences in the proportions of certain sets of bones in various species of animals.

camel illustration
Charles R. Knight
Many strange and diverse “sitting” postures are displayed by different well-known animals. The camel is one of the few animals that touches the knee joint to earth. The long hind feet are bent sharply at the heel or ankle and come forward again inside the lower leg in a most confusing and unusual pose. Horses, cattle, sheep, antelopes, deer and goats twist the hindquarters sideways, one leg under them and one leg free.

Diverse postures

All the mammals—man himself excepted—are essentially four-footed. The great apes do, on occasion, progress for a time on their hinder pair of limbs, but their usual method of walking is on all fours. Birds on the other hand are two-footed, the fore legs being converted into flight organs by the addition of the feathers. Reptiles again use all four limbs in walking or standing. One hardly realizes unless after careful observations, the many strange and diverse attitudes assumed in walking, standing or reclining by a number of well known types, as for example by the elephant, camel, bear, cat, horse and dog. Of all mammals the elephant is the only one that may be really said to kneel when reclining. That is, his true knee joint, the first below the hip, actually touches the ground while his very short hind foot sticks straight out behind. Camels also touch the knee joint to the earth, but their long hind feet are sharply bent at the heel or ankle joint and come forward again inside the lower leg, a most confusing and unusual pose. Bears lie while resting on their bellies, the whole of the hind leg back or with the knee upraised—the man-like hind foot pressed to the earth. Cats, dogs, and their allies also have the knee upraised, the foot touching for the entire length. Horses, cattle, sheep, antelopes, deer and goats twist the hind quarters sideways, one leg under them and one leg free as in the dog or cat. Just why these differing positions should be assumed we cannot truly say, though in the case of the elephant it would seem to give the enormously heavy creature greater facility in rising from the ground to a standing position. While the foregoing points are strictly anatomical facts as always there must be some powerful agency at work which guides the muscular and bony form in certain very definite directions, producing as usual complete harmony in the creature’s make-up.

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