Taxidermy: Art Straight from Nature
Written by Sarah Moore
The first time I saw a taxidermy animal, I didn't quite know what to make of it. I was 12 years old and we were visiting a family friend on Lake Michigan. In the sunroom overlooking the lake, they had an array of taxidermied animals--all frozen in action. There was a fox, a beaver, a group of ducks and several deer heads mounted on the wall. I had lots of questions about where the animals came from: How were they made? Why would anyone do that to an animal? Why did this family have them in their home as if they were as normal as a living cat or dog? My 12 year old mind concluded that taxidermy was a “people with lake houses” trend, but now, I know that is certainly not the case.
Taxidermy is an ancient practice (reaching as far back to the times of mummification) and as it has evolved, so has the use and interest in it as well. Typically, when one hears the word “taxidermy” a picture of a mounted deer head or fish comes to mind and when thinking of people who may own these stuffed animals, hunters and poachers are at the forefront. In reality, almost any animal, fish or insect can be taxidermied. There are also varying degrees of the practice; apart from the traditional expectation, “exploded animals” (animal skulls or skeletons that have been expanded to show their subsequent parts) and fully assembled skeletons are also considered taxidermy by modern standards. When it comes to people who produce, own or collect it though, it is hard to create such finite categories.
Recently, many people have noticed a shift in the use and creation of taxidermy. From the mid-20th century to the present, the practice, its business and even the demographic of the collectors has changed. This change has been in the works for quite some time, but now in 2017, it is front and center and easy to see! At any natural history or science museum you are bound to see some sort of preserved animal in a realistic setting. The use of taxidermied animals for educational purposes is not uncommon and generally, people don’t think twice about it. But what about when you see them posed or altered in art museums? Or even when you see them lining your friends’ living room walls?
Nowadays taxidermy is no longer just an educational tool or a wall-trophy--people consider it to be art and/or collectible. Museums, like the well-celebrated Guggenheim, showcase artists who have used taxidermy as a medium to create pieces intended to provoke thoughts about nature and social and controversial topics. Consider the pieces “Head On” by Cai Guo-Qiang and “Untitled #1240 (Black Cloud)” by Petah Coyne and you will find two very different conversations about animals in nature. Not all taxidermy art is meant to pose specific questions--sometimes, it’s just meant to be interesting! The taxidermy we see in art museums is often very different from what we may expect; animals in costumes and vignettes, posed misfits (when various body parts of different animals have been put together), and even certain fashion items feature stuffed animals. If you Google “taxidermy art”, you will see what we’re talking about (if you’re really curious, I suggest searching “Les Deux Garcons taxidermy”).
In terms of personal collections, outside of the public eye, people have varying curiosities and tastes when it comes to taxidermy. One of our Grandview Mercantile dealers and a longtime art collector says he collects stuffed animals and assembled skeletons because he is “always interested in naturals.” In his own home, he has a range of animals and settings and that unique variety is reflected in his items for sale in the store as well. From preserved insects to assembled lizard skeletons, even two-headed ducks can be found in this case of curiosities. “The unique is always interesting,” he says and strives to keep showcase stocked with the oddly wonderful.
Another of our dealers frequently has taxidermy pieces in their space as it is one of the “hottest categories in the market.” As evidenced in the photos shown, he pays particular attention to details and quality--all parts of the animal, including horns, fur, and structure are exquisitely preserved making it impossible to not find beauty in them:
“For many years taxidermy was somewhat unfashionable; now a good piece of taxidermy is the quintessential design center piece. What happened? The answer, I think, is generational. A younger generation sees the instant presence a good piece of taxidermy brings to a room: it brings the noble dignity of the animal depicted, a nod to the nature and the outdoors, as well as a feel of the classic gentleman's clubroom. A good piece of taxidermy will bring these to any decorating scheme, giving it a strong centerpiece that will provide a topic of conversation and a source of contemplation forever.”
Simply put, “taxidermy is having a moment,” and it is something that “more people are looking for again when it comes to home decor and personal collections. As the practice continues to evolve, it will also continue to transition from a trend to a modern facet of design. There is no doubt that a taxidermied animal is a conversation starter, but rarely do people think about how they add life to a space. These animals, frozen in a moment of elegance, are more than just trophies--they are pieces of art straight from nature. At Grandview Mercantile, we always have some form of it in store and if you are curious about some of the items featured in this post, feel free to stop by and see us.