I was struck by how strangely individualized Velasquez's painting of a stag was. Painted for Philip IV in the mid 1620s, it would seem to be some kind of gruesome trophy- a spectacle guaranteed to fill the heart of any animal-lover with anger and desperation. It seems that Philip was in the habit of asking his artist to render works in oil of animals that he had either killed, or, literally, had in his sights. Looking at the painting I can't make my mind up about its status: is it is a representation of a dead stag; or is it a "portrait" of the animal before it was cruelly dispatched. If it was killed, was it stuffed and then painted. If Phillip had the real trophy on his palace walls, then why request a version in oil paint?
There's an intensity about this work that fascinates me, an interest generated in no small way by reading the Marxist critic John Berger's original essay on the estrangement of animals from man- 'Why Look at Animals'? Berger first contextualised the plight of animals in his paradigmatic Ways of Seeing, broadcast in 1972- a book followed with ideas from the series. In that book Berger argued that animals- especially those rendered in oil- were symbols of capital; in a memorable phrase he called cows seen in elegant 18th century landscape "furniture with four legs". With this phrase Berger was signaling the way that the animal has become assimilated into the bourgeois culture of object desire and possession. Later in his animals essay of 1977, Berger unfolded a whole cultural history centred on the denaturation of the world. Animals lost their magical, ritual value; they were consequently reduced to economic units within a utilitarian society.
"This reduction of the animal, which has a theoretical as well as economic history, is part of the same process as that by which men have been reduced to isolated productive and consuming units. Indeed, during this period an approach to animals often prefigured an approach to man. The mechanical view of the animal's work capacity was later applied to that of workers. F.W. Taylor who developed the "Taylorism"of time-motion studies and "scientific" management of industry proposed that work must be so "stupid" and so phlegmatic that he (the worker) "more nearly resembles in his mental make-up the ox than other type."
I wonder if the phlegmatic ox in Durer's celebrated Melancholia I could be seen in such terms?
"No animal confirms man either positively or negatively. The animal can be killed or eaten so that its energy is added to that which the hunter already possesses. The animal can be tamed so that it supplies and works for the peasant. But always its lack of common language, its silence, guarantees its distance, its distinctness, its exclusion, from and of man.
Just because of this distinctness, however, an animal's life, never to be confused with a man's, can be seen to run parallel to his. Only in death do the two parallel lines converge and after death, perhaps, cross over to become parallel again: hence the widespread belief in the transmigration of souls."
In Velasquez's century, it was the philosopher Descartes who held that animals were soulless, and therefore relegated to the status of a machine. But I don't see Velasquez's animal in such terms at all. There's something acutely vital about this painted stag: this animal seems to be confronting the spectator, and while there may be a silence here between the human observer and the regarded animal, it's so eloquent. To me the painted stag has an almost Albertian presence about it- Alberti said that portraits of the dead kept them in the minds of the living. In that sense, I think Philip IV's stag would qualify as a portrait because there seems to be a convergence between the animal kingdom and the human world. As Berger says, man becomes himself by returning the look of the animal.