CRAWLY CREATURES AND CLARA at Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam

From eerie to fascinating animals, a shift in our attitude over the centuries.

Can art help us to rethink our relations with animals? Rijksmuseum’s current exhibition asks this question. A literal invasion of creatures has taken over the museum’s public areas. Hundreds of giant ants by Colombian artist Rafael Gomezbarro swarm over the walls, while myriad insects have proliferated unimpeded since the museum decided not to swallow them up for the duration of the show. The second part of the exhibition deals with the representations of the “colossal” rhino Clara, instead.

Pieter Paul Rubens’ Medusa is left with terror, her eyes swollen with her recent painful death. Protruding from her severed head, soiled creatures merge with blood and organic matter filaments. A shift in the way the artist sets up the composition and tells the Greek episode has recently occurred: the Gorgon is no longer the one-and-only protagonist of the scene, her hair is a twine of snakes filling at least half of the painting, while an elegant lifelike salamander, in the left corner, symbolises a newfound, “modern”, curiosity towards tiny creatures.

The Rijksmuseum’s exhibition explores the role that crawly creatures have played in our societies. Associated with death and the devil in pre-modern cultures, butterflies, spiders, and toads were believed to originate from dead materials such as rotting plant waste via spontaneous generation. Occupying the lowest rung on God’s pyramid, they were not even part of his creation. In copyists’ illuminated manuscripts they were mere decorations: exiled at the edge of the page, they had the same value as ornamental flowers and leaves.

Albrecht Dürer’s three-parted stag beetle (1505) shows a shift in the attitude towards these creatures. A stag beetle hovers alone above the page in a state of impeccable artistic finishing: the shadows defining its silhouette and the accuracy in reproducing its body make it undoubtedly a distinct piece of artwork and not a preparatory study.

From XVIth century, men and women collectors began including naturalia and artificialia in their Cabinets of curiosities, the forerunners of museums as we now know them. In the following century, an increasing scientific interest prompted many to scrutinize and study nature and its creatures with a rigorous approach. The rational century, 1700, saw the advent of scientific tools like the solar microscope and the first illustrated encyclopedia of natural history, in which species were reproduced enlarged as if they were under the lens.

Although invertebrate are 95% of all animals on earth, we have kept them out of our sight, denying them any authorship and agency for centuries. Tomás Saraceno’s Webs of Attent(s)ion, a sculpture woven by four spiders’ pieces, invites us to reconsider our relations with them. It marks «an attempt to draw focus and authorship (back) onto the life-forms and life-forming processes spiders have been practicing for millennia» in the artist’s words. An Open Letter for Invertebrate Rights accompanies the artwork, where imaginatively, web/spiders ask humans for a “certificate of coexistence”.

Along the exhibition’s path, we come across another type of extravagant animal, this time very large. The section dedicated to Clara recounts the Dumbo-like adventure of the first rhino to come to the Netherlands. Clara was only one month old when her mother was killed in her native land, present-day India, by poachers. Acquired by VOC (Dutch East India Company) Captain Douwe Mout at the age of three, she left for Europe in 1740. In the subsequent 17 years, Clara has traveled all over Europe, enhancing her fame through advertising campaigns, bringing a new renaissance to the study of creatures previously unknown. By broadcasting a new, realistic image of rhinos, which replaced the unrealistic sketch by Albrecht Dürer that had circulated in Europe for over two centuries, it contributed to influencing people’s imagery and raising their fascination with the animal.

When visitors learn her story today, they understand her unhappiness as a captive animal. If she could speak, as someone has imagined, she would say the following words:

“Were it possible in the future to liberate myself from slavery (…), in revenge I would exhibit men to my brethren. I am sure that the genus of rhinoceroses will look upon the wonder beast that man seems to be with more favour than human being view a rhinoceros.”     Silvia Zanni    27th October 2022

Crawly Creatures and Clara continues until 15th January