Tuesday, March 31

A story of the monkey story today

Guard room with monkeys, by David Teniers the Younger, around 1633. Private collection / Wikimedia / Creative Commons.

In 1562 an etching by Pieter van der Heyden turned the Dutch art world upside down. Modeled after a painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, it shows a well-known folk story. A peddler lies in the middle of the scene and sleeps under a tree. However, while he is sleeping, he is attacked by a group of monkeys. Small in size but with a distinctly human appearance, they can withstand all kinds of mischief. After rummaging through the shopping basket, some have fun with his goods. You try on children's pants; a second looks at his reflection in the mirror; a third flies away with a set of knives. Another, sitting in a branch, plays the flute while his friends are dancing. Two more have a hobby horse race. Meanwhile, members of the band torture the peddler himself. One urinates in his hat; another is looking for nits in his hair; one steals from the handbag that hangs around his neck; another holds his nose as he exposes the poor man's butt.

Moralizing monkeys

This was not the first time that monkeys appeared in European art. They have always been seen in works of art of all kinds – often as part of moralizing allegories, to give otherwise rather dreary scenes a decorative spice, or simply for pleasure. They can be found in the wall paintings of Egyptian tombs; in Minoan frescoes on Crete and Akrotiri; and in Roman sculptures and friezes. They stand out on the edges of illuminated manuscripts and can even be found on the facades of Gothic cathedrals such as Rouen. After the (re) discovery of the New World by Columbus in 1492, they even had a renaissance. In 1523 Albrecht Dürer had made a deduction with a group of dancing monkeys for his Protestant friends in Geneva; and in 1540-45 the Vicentine engraver Niccolò Boldrini – probably after a design by Titian – made a woodcut of the recently rediscovered one Laocoönin which the human figures were replaced by monkeys. Bruegel himself had carried out several studies on monkeys before studying them Sleeping peddler occupied by monkeys, including one with two chained Colobus monkeys in a window overlooking the port of Antwerp, which is widely believed to be an allegory of reserved passion.

However, something new began with the etching by van der Heyden. It was not the first artistic representation of monkeys – or even the first treatment of the Sleeping peddler fairy tales – his appearance marked the beginning of a veritable madness for monkey art. Dutch collectors searched for paintings and etchings. The demand was so great that within a few years monkey pictures were considered a separate genre that later became known Lingerie ( "Monkey games"). The appearance of the monkeys also changed. Where they used to be mostly used for metaphorical or ornamental purposes, they were more common in parodies. They were dressed in human clothing, performed human actions, or actively interfered in human affairs. They were used to mock aspects of human life or certain people, often cruelly.

The merchant robbed by monkeys, by Pieter van der Heyden, after Pieter Bruegel the Elder Ä., 1562 © Bridgeman Images.

The enthusiasm for monkeys that van der Heyden aroused was inspired by his contemporary Pieter van der Borcht. After producing his own version of the Sleeping peddlerhe engraved a series of everyday scenes in which monkeys took the place of men. That was the most admired The kindergarten (C.1585). This satire, with familiar pink-colored portrayals of child-rearing and a strange warning against the idealization of children themselves, was rich in spikes that were to become the hallmark of later underwear. It wasn't until a generation later that the genre's potential was fully exploited. In the early 17th century, Frans Francken the Younger launched a devastating attack on contemporary customs Monkeys in the kitchen (1620) and Monkeys playing backgammon (Date unknown); Jan Breughel the Elder replaced van der Heyden's rather raw, bear-like monkeys with carefully drawn portraits from life; and Jan Breughel the Younger extended the scope of the monkey satire even further with a broadside against Tulipmania (1640). By far the most talented of all was David Teniers the Younger. Teniers, the son-in-law of Jan Breughel the Elder Ä., Has made lingerie his specialty and in paintings like The guard room with monkeys (around 1633) succeeded in raising monkey painting to new heights of perfection.

Art comrades and clans

But where does this fashion for monkey painting come from? According to Bert Schepers, a leading expert in Dutch lingerie, there should not have been a single cause. Rather, it was a combination of different factors. Of these, two are often said to have been particularly important. The first is the emergence of the art kamer – in the truest sense of the word an "art space", but perhaps better translated as "chamber of wonder". Although the exact origins are still under discussion, this came to fruition in the late 16th century and was particularly popular with the wealthy citizens of Antwerp. As the German artist Gabriel Kaltemarckt found in 1587, every art camera should contain three things: curious objects from abroad, artifacts from strange animals (claws, antlers, narwhal tusks, stuffed crocodiles, etc.) and – crucially – works of art. This could belong to any topic as long as it stimulated the imagination or the humor. Genre scenes, "gallery pictures", landscapes, still lifes and interiors were very popular. But lingerie – which combined a wise observation of nature with a biting joke – ideally suited the special requirements of such rooms.

The second reason is the dominance of certain artistic families. During the late 16th and 17th centuries, a close group of closely related clans that focused on Antwerp exerted a disproportionate influence on the development of Dutch art. The most important were the van der Borchts, the Breughels, the Franckens and the Teniers. Although not all of her works had the same success, they were so famous that what they preferred became fashion. The fact that they shone monkeys was a guarantee for the success of lingerie.

Impoverished humanity

But while these reasons can be responsible for the popularity of lingerie after the appearance of The sleeping peddlerThey do not explain what sparked the spark at all – or why monkeys were suddenly exposed to parodic rather than allegorical or decorative purposes.

Egyptian monkey statue, c. 1st century AD Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The most plausible explanation is that the Dutch saw monkeys in a new way. When van der Heyden produced his engraving, the Dutch Republic entered a period of economic growth; This was mainly fueled by trade, especially with the East Indies. After several successful trips to India, the first Dutch expedition to Indonesia set sail in 1595. and 1602 the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC, or Dutch East India Company) was founded in Antwerp. Although the VOC made its shareholders very rich, the main effect of its activities was to increase the Dutch experience with monkeys. While they had known only a relatively small number of species from North and West Africa and – to a much lesser extent – America in the past, they have now been introduced to a dizzying array of new varieties. Smaller, more sociable monkeys such as macaques and langurs aroused enormous curiosity, not least because of their intelligence and ability to imitate. Brought back to Europe by naturalists, seafarers and smugglers, they became a familiar presence. Some were kept as pets, others in menageries. The less fortunate were bought by street musicians and forced to perform on the street.

While this stimulated artistic imagination so that Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Pieter van der Heyden started adding more (East Asian) monkeys to their scenes, it also provoked a dramatic shift in philosophical stance towards primates in general. Before the 16th century, the European perception of the animal kingdom was shaped by the Bible. While God created man in his image and likeness, he had created animals as a smaller, more imperfect form of life. However, monkeys were sometimes considered a special case. Even though they were obvious Not Man, they shared enough qualities with humanity to be thought of as form of humanity, even if devalued. After all, as the Flemish anatomist Andreas Vesalius emphasized, they had a strong physiological similarity. They also had similar social habits and could be trained to behave strikingly human.

However, this began to change in the early 17th century. When the philosopher René Descartes observed the new species of monkey brought in from the east, he was more impressed by their difference than by their similarity. He emphasized that monkeys were fundamentally irrational Beings. While they were able to imitate human behavior with remarkable ease, they did so without understanding. You could therefore be treated with contempt – even contempt. Nicolas Malebranche went further. Building on Descartes' denial of reason, he argued that monkeys like other animals could neither experience pain nor experience emotions. As such, they did not deserve moral consideration. They could be mistreated, brutalized, or even vivized at will.

Dürer's monkey, 16th century © Bridgeman Images.

This had a serious impact on the representation of monkeys in art. As long as they were viewed as a lesser form of humanity, there was nothing to prevent them from being used as a metaphor for our “more animal” impulses or as charming Divertissements, There was no need to present them as anything other than themselves, or to behave them in any other way than their own. But now that they were considered separate from humanity, it seemed logical to take advantage of the perceived differences for mockery. By placing them in human situations, it was possible to mock the irrationality or stupidity of those they were supposed to represent. In fact, the more "human" it looks, the more ridiculous and clearer it is.

Long shadows

Unfortunately, such dark clouds cast long shadows. In the following centuries, the fascination for monkey scenes grew throughout the 18th century and well into the 19th century. After they originated in the Netherlands, they now spread to France and England. and although they were inspired by Dutch contact with the East Indies, a new passion for India was gradually being overlaid on them Chinoiserie, The types of monkeys shown also changed. The unpleasant philosophical attitudes on which lingerie was based remained the same. Although the wickedness of the monkeys sometimes caused some affection, there was still an insurmountable gap that separated them from the men. The focus was on their perceived irrationality. Christophe Huet used them to mock French landowners; Edwin Landseer wants to mock English naturalists; Honoré Daumier, to make fun of King Louis-Philippe; and Jean-Baptiste-Henri Deshays, among other things, to laugh at painters themselves.

Only with the publication of Charles Darwin's revolutionary work About the origin of the species (1859), monkeys (and monkeys) emerged from the shadow that Dutch artists of the Golden Age had cast for the first time. After a clear connection was established between monkeys and humans, it was recognized that all the differences outweighed them – and the use of monkeys to parody, mock, and decay began to decline. However, the correction is far from over. Just as Darwin’s views of creationists like Samuel Wilberforce have met with resistance, our monkey cousins ​​continue to be treated with contempt and cruelty in some areas – and portrayed in a way that neither honors them nor us. That needs to change. If we don't want to look as stupid as van der Heyden's peddler, it's time we made a monkey out of us and treated the monkeys with the respect they deserve.

Alexander Lee is a fellow at the Center for Renaissance Studies at the University of Warwick. His next book, Machiavelli: his life and times, will be published by Picador in March 2020.

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