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Animaliers, a wild journey through fifty millennia

Animaliers or animal artists? What do they do? Who are they? What pushes them? We asked Frans Boenders, Flemish radio and television producer, writer and philosopher, about his thoughts on animal art and to put together an art historical retrospective. He joyfully added his musings on the sculptures of the great Flemish animalière Greta Van Puyenbroeck. Her works, alongside the works of Hélène Arfi, Michel Bassompierre and Jos Dirix, are being exhibited at our art gallery in Knokke.

The earliest beginnings of the animaliers: the boar of Sulawesi

“The latest estimates as to the oldest depictions of animals date back over forty-five millennia. The recently discovered (and magnificently documented) drawing of a large wild boar, rendered in a realistic-figurative style and etched into the side of a cave on the isle of Sulawesi – stumped me at the sight of it.

An overwhelming monument of prehistoric art!

The depicted tough beast, with back hair and warts along its snout, is drawn with parallel red ochre horizontal lines, who gradually come together in a strikingly thin snout (a shape that is recognizable in some dog breeds today). An unmistakingly human hand, on the left side of the animal, is about to push away the back end of the animal – as if the hunter, to whom the hand belongs, wishes to put his reluctant trophy on a pedestal.

Yes, dear animal art lovers, the boar of Sulawesi -with an estimated age of over 45.500 years- exceedingly proves how widely spread prehistoric animal art was, going further than Western-European cave art. But also how timeless some animal art is, and how it has stayed that way, such as in the works of Greta Van Puyenbroeck. We owe this to the combination of evident realism and high level symbolism, an unique combination that both prehistoric and postmodern artists have succeeded in. 


Animal art with the ancient Egyptians, all the way into the 17th century.

On our journey through the ages we now make a time jump of a couple of millennia, while our gaze shifts to ancient Egypt – no burials with murals of animals. In Greek and Roman antiquity animal sculpture became the carrier and elevator of proud human dignity and brutal military force: the horse that works together with the equestrian and thus exemplifies the glory but also suppression of field marshals, consuls and emperors.

After a long couple of centuries, which in school were dubbed the Dark Middle Ages, the horse -and in its footsteps the animal- makes a triumphant return into the arts. Cryptids make appearances in the decorative elements of manuscripts – this as embellishment and aesthetic frivolity for the pious yet boring reading of Bibles and folios. 

First in the 16th and later in the 17th century animals started drawing in the well earned attention of some grand masters. In Italy Leonardo analyzed the proportions of horses, inside and out. But during the renaissance Albrecht Dürer shines with an entire menagerie of sketches going from dogs, pigs, goats, hares and ducks all the way to the lions and hippos he observed in royal menageries. In the Low Countries our artists painted animals, alive, though most of them dead in (o paradox) still lifes. The list of names is overwhelming. Frans Snyders is the stand out to me, he promotes the owl to be the orchestrator of birdconcertos. It is just like that: in every animal there hides a human.

The ‘birth’ of the animaliers

Near the end of the 18th century, the century of the Enlightenment and the French revolution, a new word came about in Paris, trickling down into Brussels. That word being animalier. The word gained common usage in the art criticism of the thirties of the 19th century. Because art critics, aside from the literary geniuses of Charles Baudelaire and Karel van de Woestyne, are often failed artists themselves there is often a denigrating tone to word animalier – as if animal sculptors aren’t quite real art, and that they need to content themselves with small successes. 

Quod non!

The 19th century, one says without real thought, is the century of bad taste, of the pompiers, of nude, chubby women and tastelessly overfilled interiors; the best artists applied their focus to nature (that had already started creaking under the heavy emissions of new industries) and those -again by the jealous critic- are called impressionists.

But it’s very possible that, now that we -with the weight of desperation- venture back into nature to heal our insides, weakened by stench and tasteless food coming from damaged soil, that we may see that the new discourse about animaliers is not illogical, and more so to be expected.

However that may be, in the 19th century goldsmith Antoine-Louis Barge re-educated himself into a distinguished animalier avant la lettre. THe found the right places at the time for good realistic art: the menagerie of the Parisian Jardin des Plantes, and also dog markets, in the Cabinet d’anatomie comparée and in the museum of ‘natural history’, as our ancestors used to refer to it. Barge’s name remains connected to the blood curdling animal fights to the death, such as in Tiger who devours crocodile (1831).

We now travel even further away from the boar of Sulawesi, if I recall correctly there was an interesting expo in 1984 in the Brussels gallery of the then A.S.L.K: Orientalists and Africanists in Belgian Art – an exhibition that brought mostly forgotten visual art from the two past centuries back in the spotlight. Animal sculpture -especially in the early 20th century – came to be in front of the dwellings of wild animals in the Antwerp Zoo.

Those by animal enraptured men (at the time little to no women) were Albéric Collin, Josué Dupon, Jean-Marie Gaspar, Frans-Paul Jochems, Raymond baron de Meester de Betzenbroeck; as well as internationally known artists such as Bugatti and Paul Jouve. They all found their way to the zoo next to the Antwerp Central Station. The variety of the materials used was abundant: clay, marble and bronze, ivory, wood and granite. 

Since those golden times many connoisseurs of the visual arts have decided that the magnificent works of contemporary animaliers can only be appreciated as the direct following of this era gone by. This while the best sculptures have earned their own important place in art production and take up an essential role in the field of aesthetics as a form of ethological aesthetics.

Ethologie -from the Ancient Greek ethos, customs and habits- as a field in biology and zoology studies the behaviours of animals in their natural habitat. Behavioural biology gives the animalier, or at least those who wish to overcome the sentimentality of their own observation, a marvellous mission to give a personal, artistic interpretation of the depicted animal, in rest or in spectacular movement.

This is why ethology is better defined in the broad sense as the biological science of the interactive behaviour between humans, animals and plants. To an artist as Greta Van Puyenbroeck the definition implies the finding of a harmony between the realistic depiction of the perceived animal (the objectifying gaze of the scientifically based artist) and the empathy used to show the natural virtues and vices of the animal. The great Flemish animalière has beautifully achieved this feat. 

The primatologist Frans de Waal garnered international renown as world’s leading ethologist of primates. He sees animals such as the dolphin, elephant and primates as intelligent and emotionally developed, for they have evolved into a refined group ethic of conflict management thanks to their empathy and their ability to tap into a humanoid conscience. The title of his books, The monkey in us, could very well be turned around into ‘the human in you monkeys!’.

Speaking of questionable sentimentality. Influenced by the internationally strong animal rights lobbyists, there is a suspicious amount of theriofilia – the partially unfunded love of wild animals – going around. Bears, animals with a notoriously unpredictable character, are being cuddled by children and former children in a masquerade of plush and bright colours. Photographs and videos of the last polar bears, losing their balance on slippery, melting ice, make sensitive watchers uncomfortable, if not enraged; they furrow our brows collectively. Pandas , in their artificial bamboo gardens, draw in endeared visitors who are often moved to tears.

Greta Van Puyenbroeck: five of her sculptures


Curious name -for Dutch speakers the Afrikaans word ‘bok’ sounds more logical. The old French ‘antelope’ could draw an etymological lineage all the way back to Ancient Greek, yet I cannot verify this in my dictionaries. 

The animal – in literature a once deerlike cryptid – appears in many sorts and is called, with a million dollar technical term, plurifyletic; almost all antelopes are related to buck. They run at lightning speed, which is their way to survive the lions of the African savannah and the tigers of East-Asian woods. 

Greta’s sculpture focussed on a spontaneous, stolen, not public moment. Her graceful antelope licks a sore spot on its hind leg. Greta offers us a remarkably discrete look into the everyday life of the antelope. I find myself wondering: does that spot itch? Has the animal hurt itself and is now cleaning out the wound? Or is it looking at a hidden enemy?



The African buffalo has unpredictable behavioural patterns. That’s why the king of the animal realm, the lion, often awaits its jump and the following bite to the muscular buffalo neck. 

The buffalo often has a short fur that causes enemies to just slip off. His brush-like tail is remarkably long. This mastodon, burly by nature, Greta cannot portray endearingly. He is a true herd animal, intimacy is not accepted. A buffalo may count on the support of the group, but as an individual he often steps in to save weak, inexperienced kin.

Fun detail: anthropomorphic buffalos often appear on thangkha, Tibetan scroll paintings, and in detailed god statues where they, because of human egoïsm, find themselves in yabyum (sexual unity) with a female counterpart, and transform themselves from initiated mediator into the defenders of Buddhistic religion. 



Nowhere the cat appears to be as omnipresent as in Ancient Egypt, where cats were embalmed after death. Under the name of Bastet the cat was worshipped as a fertility goddess in the Second Dynasty. Her powers reached all the way to calling of solar and lunar eclipses; though the catgoddess prefered spreading peace, she protected housewives and became the paredra (erotic partner) of the god Ptah.

Bastet received her own temple in the 13th century B.C. in the city of Bubastis: the Ancient Greek historian Herodotos visited her temple and could not stop talking about it!

Greta’s somewhat frightening cat makes me recall this history; thank you, Greta, you reconnect met to wondrous religions where gods, animals and humans were once inextricably connected. Also thank you for your self conscious, no: overwhelmingly arrogant feline lady, next to whom our pets pale – glorifying in attraction that can be seen in her pointed ears… Predicting a storm. 



As a young, frightened boy of five or six I conquered my fear to catch crabs during the summer holidays, in the ‘Crabhole’ in Bergen-op-Zoom. I barely succeeded, only pulling tiny ones out of the lukewarm water.

Later I loved eating crab, on the fishing market of San Francisco and later in Newfoundland, where besides huge crabs, lobster is also considered on of the delicacies of the Atlantic Ocean, on little Mount Desert Island, were I was gathering material in the eighties on Marguerite Yourcenar, the first female writer with her own tenure at the Académie Française in Paris.

The connection of the head and the body suggests stubbornness, which could be virtue or vice, depending on how you look at it. Their developed sight allows them to separate friend from foe. Handy; or maybe prejudiced? 

Greta’s crab is a sight to behold. To the left and right of the broad chest there are the legs, wide open, splinted, secretive, ready for attack. Pincers. Will Greta’s crab remain friendly? I hope so. I’m still slightly frightened. 



This elegant man, drenched in luxury, cannot be forgotten! He leaves nothing to chance and sniffs out his own path. I am not a dog lover myself, having been bitten twice.

This breed of dog I know from dog racing. Mostly from black and white movies from the thirties, forties and fifties. Great movies, though unfortunately there are often gaps in the audio missing. 

The greyhound also helps during hunting. Or was that only in the past? I do not count any hunters among my friends, only those who hunt for money and luxury and not those who hunt hares: those I encourage from the safe sidelines. A tasty hare’s back rubbed in mustard: who could imagine anything more delicious?

When I encounter a greyhound on a leash, and the one leading is a beautiful woman, then I find myself bowing for both. Ethologically speaking I see the greyhound as kind and amiable, yet never overly attached or overly spirited, as intelligent, but not denigrating – a sensitive, yet never tearful friend. 

Oh well, in every animal there is a human. 

And in every human there is a beast, sometimes more than one, but you knew that already.