The Modernist Bestiary: a new life for an old form of expression

Timothy Mathews, Emeritus Professor of French and Comparative Criticism, UCL, offers insight into his latest publication ‘The Modernist Bestiary’, a collection which engages with animals, art, and aesthetic, exploring “productive dialogue between thought and art.” The contributions, co-edited with Sarah Kay (New York University), centre on the work of French-Polish poet Guillaume Apollinaire, French artist Raoul Dufy, and British artist Graham Sutherland.


Why return to very old forms of expression? Perhaps because however old, they are still being used, and for that reason they still speak to us. What is the shape of history as it’s lived? Is it made of a concern with context and enlightenment, or is it rather a question of appropriation and ideology? In our rush to progress, we sometimes ignore this entanglement between old and new, past and present, but paying attention to form might be a way to address it – as well as something, perhaps, of the tensions in the social fabric.

A bestiary is a hybrid book with words and images in dialogue, and has a long tradition stretching back to antiquity. It twins descriptions of nature with allegorical and mythological insights, which spread over time into Christian teachings. Bestiary books were produced from Alexandria to the Middle East and were born in the diversity of these many elements, which over time come to include the history of poetry with Orpheus as its champion. Orpheus is the charmer of the animals in Ancient mythology, and a figure whose music epitomises lyricism as well as the human-animal relation. What might be some of the mediations and translations involved in this indeterminate nexus, which stretches into contemporary culture? And how does the hybrid symbolism of the bestiary continue to resonate?

The starting point of our group was to work together on an artefact that itself doesn’t stay together. Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918) was a French-language poet, a story writer and essayist of Polish descent, celebrated for his pivotal part in the explosive European avant-garde prior to World War I. He was responsible for introducing Braque to Picasso and setting off cubism, and for coining the word ‘surréalisme’. Integral to his aesthetic, as well as his character, is an investigation in form and content of the constricting as well as the energising effects of the past on the present, and on hope for the future. In 1911 he composed a bestiary with the artist Raoul Dufy (1877-1953). Together they explored the French Medieval traditions of the bestiary, adapting the book of nature so that each creature speaks the truths as well as the falsehoods it embodies. The woodcut is Dufy’s chosen medium for the book, and it’s well suited to such an enterprise in that it reverses the expected relation of dark and light: the carved out is made light, the untouched left in the dark. Will we be able to find our way through the labyrinth? And what does Apollinaire’s and Dufy’s way of working suggest about knowing, or not knowing, or un-knowing the past; about our relation to each other, and our relation to the environment?

In another striking gesture, a dominant figure in post-World War II British rather than French modernism was invited to make his own pictures in response to Apollinaire’s bestiary poems. In 1979 Graham Sutherland (1903-1980) produced eighteen aquatints, and his Procession of Orpheus, translated from the original French subtitle, was his last work. It is a varied, sustained, inventive, formally suggestive, engaging, disconcerting, at times distressing account of myth and machinery, the body and its bruising, nature and its brutalisation, and the labyrinths of the human-animal exploitation, all of which authors in the book address in varied ways and drawing on a variety of domains. But at the back of the mind there’s still a question: for all Sutherland’s engagement with French and European traditions, what is revealed in his dismissal of Dufy from the scene, from this history in miniature of the bestiary, and its travels across epochs and cultures?  

And yet taken together, how much openness and eagerness to explore there is in this tripartite, centrifugal relation involving Apollinaire, Dufy and Sutherland. In response to the light-hearted and ephemeral-seeming compositions of Apollinaire and their dialogues with visual art, authors in our book draw on poets from Euripides to Vergil, to Ovid, and to Mark Strand; on the music of Milhaud, Poulenc and Tailleferre; on iconography from the Ancient, to the Judaeo-Christian, to the modern and including circus poster art, which emerges as yet another form of humancentric representation. All the way through, expression interacts disturbingly with suppression.

Perhaps that interaction of the heard and the unheard, and an awareness of it, has driven the emergence of translation as a dominant metaphor of the way thoughts travel; also anxieties, not least anxiety in relation to the interdisciplinary. Is there such a thing as unmediated transfer of knowledge, made of pure illumination and free of shadows? But what opportunities to re-invent are provided by translation nonetheless, and in our book writing, translating, thinking, imagining, shaping and re-shaping all combine. It ends with an original bestiary composed especially for the occasion by the poet George Szirtes, drawing on his experiences of Sutherland. At that point the book comes full circle and opens up again. And as I write this, what is the overriding feeling I’m left with in these distressing times? Certainly a combination of hope and despair, but weighted in favour of hope nonetheless, even though generosity of approach, practice and spirit may always remain just beyond our reach. 


Read more about Timothy Mathew’s latest publication with UCL Press here:

The Modernist Bestiary, Translating Animals and the Arts through Guillaume Apollinaire, Raoul Dufy and Graham Sutherland, Edited by Sarah Kay and Timothy Mathews, UCL Press, Comparative Literature and Culture, 2020.


The cover photo is the book cover of The Modernist Bestiary.


NoteThe views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.

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