The Eagle and the Hare, 2017

The Eagle and the Hare, 2017

1. Flying Eagle, Alpine, 18th century
Oil on canvas, unsigned, in wooden frame
The painting by an unknown artist depicts a life-size golden eagle, in flight with talons open, descending on its prey. The eagle’s head and it’s neck was deliberately distended by the artist to make the figure look natural when viewed from below.
240 (h) x 106 cm

2. Wild hare (model no. 077531), Margarete Steiff GmbH, Germany, c. 2000
Woven wool, with painted acrylic eyes
33 cm in length

2.1 Four-post doll's bed, Charles P. Limbert (American,1854–1924), c. 1904
Oak with original fabric mattress
40.6 (h) x 53.3 x 30.5 cm

Though the painting renders the eagle life-size, it is also an example of artistic anamorphosis in that part of the image is deliberately distorted to make the whole look realistic from a specific point of view. In this case, the head and neck of the eagle are distended so that they appear naturally in proportion when viewed from below. The device is familiar in art history from Renaissance times. The upper facial features of Michaelangelo’s David are similarly distorted to be seen in proper perspective from below.

In heraldic terms, the painting shows a form of eagle displayed, meaning that it is upright with head, both wings, both legs and tailfeathers outstretched. The common phrase “spread eagle” is related to this, the most common representation of eagles as emblems of military or national power. The attitude is not entirely warlike, serving as a symbol of the strength of a protector as well as of an aggressor. Besides Austria, the bird figures in the national seal or coat of arms of countries as diverse as Poland, Romania, the Philippines, Kazakhstan, Montenegro, Mexico and the United States.

The bird figures as an emblem of courage, strength, power and even wisdom around the world in mythology and history. It’s natural size and superiority in the skies have given it a ready association with gods and supernatural forces across many cultures. It was, for example, thus associated with Zeus by the Greeks, with Jupiter by the Romans and with Odin by the Germanic tribes. In North America, the birds figure prominently in the myths and spiritual traditions of almost all First Nations, which often imbue the bird with magical powers. There is a Banner of the Eagle in Islamic history, while in Christian iconography the bird is the symbol of Saint John, alongside the winged lion, winged ox and winged man for the other three.

The dual potential of the eagle as predator or protector is well established in art history. While such old masters as Michelangelo, Rubens and Titian produced powerful images of deadly aggression—the story of the eagle eternally tearing a regenerated liver from Prometheus as punishment for giving fire to mankind is a common subject—the depiction of a more benign power and strength is especially evident in Christian and other religious or spiritual iconography. The eagle appears in other installations in this exhibition in different forms and contexts, and, just as the eagle here may be maneuvering to protect its nest or readying to attack the hare, the various representations of the bird are open to interpretation.

Though not prominent like the eagle as a national emblem, the hare nonetheless plays a rich part in global culture, featuring in folklore and legend in the East and the West. Though classified into the same family of rabbits, there are significant differences, most notably in the popular imagination their relatively long ears, their solitary, above-ground lifestyles and their generally faster speed. There are almost three dozen identified species of the mammals around the world.

With significant variations from culture to culture, hares have been associated with or as deities, as fertility symbols (like rabbits, they breed rapidly), as tricksters and shapeshifters, and variously as cunning, careless, resourceful and mad. The phrase “mad as a march hare,” perhaps referring to the animal’s behaviour at the start of breeding season, appears as early as a 16th-century collection of proverbs in England, though the idea of madness would gain much wider circulation through the appearance of the character in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Another instance of the creature’s supposed poor judgement comes earlier from the collection of Fables credited to the Greek storyteller Aesop around the turn of the 6th century BCE. In its most familiar version, the fable tells of a boastful hare that goads a tortoise into a race. After swiftly taking the lead, the hare is so confident of victory that it decides to take a long nap, during which time the tortoise plods past and on to the finishing line. The moral of the story is some variant of “slow and steady wins the race.”

On the other hand, there are traditions and beliefs that put the hare in a more positive light. In one, a hare immolates to feed Buddha and is rewarded by a permanent spot on the moon (visible in the heavenly body’s dark markings; in another, an Indian hare, like Sambo in the Veronica’s Veil/Tigers’ Tale element in this exhibition, outwits a tiger intent on eating it by persuading the cat to engage in an endless fight with its own reflection.

The hare, like the “Golliwogg,” has crossed the border from popular culture to high art. In 1965, the German artist Joseph Beuys (1921–1986) performed How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare as a performance piece for a gallery in Düsseldorf. In this, the artist, his head covered with honey and gold leaf, could only be seen at first from outside the locked gallery explaining pictures in the exhibition to a dead hare cradled in his arms. When the public was finally admitted, he sat at the entrance with the hare still in his arms and his back to the visitors. Beuys’s widely discussed action proved influential beyond contemporary art circles. While the performance would be recreated in New York in 2005 by the Serbian performance artist, Marina Abramovic (b. 1946), its influence was also seen in the controversial 2004 production of Wagner’s Parsifal staged by the late Christoph Schlingensief (1960–2010). In this, the Klingsor character was seen holding a large hare in a clear reference to the Beuys (one of many allusions to the artworld in the production), while Schlingensief also incorporated a time-lapse video, Hasenverwesung (Rotting Hare, 2007), which graphically showed the decay of a dead hare as its corpse was infested with maggots. While Beuys wrote about the hare as a clear symbol of incarnation, and though dismissed by some as egregious bad taste on the opera stage, commentators also took Schlingensief’s imagery as an exaggerated symbol of the life-death cycle.