I have just been alerted to the publication of Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy, a new book about the art and history of taxidermy written by New York City based journalist Melissa Milgrom. The book traces the rise and fall and rise again of taxidermy, and follows this arc from the artform's humble beginnings to its peculiar Victorian flowering as seen in the artistry of such masters as Walter Potter (above middle) to its current omnipresence in home decor and the fine arts. Along the way, Milgrom investigates "not only what drives the very best taxidermists in their desire for perfection, but why people in our era of ecological awareness and high technology still find taxidermy so alluring..."
From the book synopsis:
It's easy to dismiss taxidermy as a kitschy or morbid sideline, the realm of trophy fish and jackalopes or a throwback to the dusty diorama. Yet it is a world full of intrepid hunter-explorers, eccentric naturalists, and gifted museum artisans, all devoted to the paradoxical pursuit of creating the illusion of life.If this is of interest, you can find out more by visiting her website by clicking here; better yet, why not come hear Milgrom's lecture on the topic followed by a book-signing at on Wednesday, March 31st at Observatory? More on that event can be found here. To find out more about the book or to purchase a copy of your very own, click here. If you are interested in the work of Walter Potter, you can find out more here, but also please stay tuned for information about a lecture on his work sponsored by Observatory and taking place on Thursday April 15th.
Into this subculture of insanely passionate animal lovers ventures journalist Melissa Milgrom, whose journey stretches from the anachronistic family workshop of the last chief taxidermist for the American Museum of Natural History to the studio where an English sculptor preserves the animals for Damien Hirst's most disturbing artworks. She wanders through Mr. Potter's Museum of Curiosities to watch dealers vie for preserved Victorian oddities, and visits the Smithsonian's offsite lab, where taxidermists transform zoo skins into vivacious beasts. She tags along with a Canadian bear hunter—the three-time World Taxidermy Champion—as he recreates an extinct Irish Elk using DNA studies and Paleolithic cave art for reference; she even ultimately picks up a scalpel herself. Transformed from a curious onlooker to an empathetic participant, Milgrom comes to understand not only what drives the very best taxidermists in their desire for perfection, but why people in our era of ecological awareness and high technology still find taxidermy so alluring. Straddling science and art, high culture and kitsch—like taxidermy itself—STILL LIFE celebrates the beauty in the uncanny.
The first two images you see above are from Melissa Milgrom's site (full credits follow). The bottom image is also featured in her book, and is drawn from the wonderful American Museum of Natural History online exhibition "Picturing The Museum: Education and Exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History" (as mentioned in these recent posts 1, 2) which you can see in its spectacular entirety by clicking here.
Image credits: Top: This orangutan, mounted in 2003 by a team of taxidermists for the Smithsonian Institution's Behring Hall of Mammals, typifies how exotic animals are procured in a post-expedition era. Photo: Cameron Davidson, from http://Melissamilgrom.com. Middle: Victorian taxidermist Walter Potter's fabulous collection was auctioned off in 2003. "Cock Robin" (above) took Potter seven years to make and features 98 British birds in a funeral procession. from http://Melissamilgrom.com. Bottom: James L. Clark mounting male Indian Lion, Original photographer Irving Dutcher or H.S.Rice, 1930; American Museum of Natural History, 313279.