Portraits of Dogs review – pass the pooper-scooper, this one’s a stinker
The Wallace Collection’s lavish, even epic survey of canine portraiture down the ages is the kind of exhibition I thought galleries had grown out of: a sickly cocktail of brittle snobbery, fey “fun” and naked desperation to please. At least, to please dog lovers, who really do appear to be the target audience. “Why not pamper your pooch with a gift from our shop?” suggests the website. Why not? Because I’ve never owned a dog and anyway they’re not allowed in our flats.
Obviously, the dog in art is a valid subject, even if it lacks the pedigree of the cat, which goes back to ancient Egypt. The problem is that Portraits of Dogs frames the image of the dog in a silly, facetious way, like some pretentious pet food commercial.
For a moment I was fooled. The show starts with a drawing by Leonardo da Vinci of a dog’s paw seen in detail, from different viewpoints: a superb example of his scientific eye for nature. Nearby is a life-sized ancient Roman marble sculpture of two skinny dogs licking each other: the Townley Greyhounds, as they’re known, are so lifelike they could almost be guard-dogs preserved in the ash of Pompeii.
Then it all turns to dogshit. Seriously, bring your aesthetic pooper-scooper. You walk into an entire room of trite, nauseous, overglossed paintings by the 19th-century animal artist Edwin Landseer. I can see the temptation to “reassess” Landseer: he wasn’t just a Victorian sentimentalist, but a product of the Romantic Age, his sympathy for animals mirroring ours today. Or some such rubbish. But Landseer is awful. His paintings are congested and cynical. Not even Jeff Koons could ironically reclaim them.
I hoped the Landseer room was an aberration, but there’s more of his work – much more – throughout the show. So, to love this exhibition, you need to love him, and own a dog. The sickliest section, called The Royal Dog, juxtaposes Landseer’s portraits of Queen Victoria’s pets with the monarch’s own drawings of them. What are we supposed to do – coo and gasp at these banal little watercolours? They’ll be giving King Charles III a solo show next. So add fanatical monarchist to dog owner and Landseer lover, and the exhibition’s profiling of its audience gets ever-more specific – which is a shame, because buried somewhere here is an important truth.
Dog portraiture is just as radically varying, in purpose and quality, as the portrayal of humans. Paintings of dogs can transcend all the pet-pampering silliness to attain profundity. Lucian Freud’s little portrait of his dog Pluto achieves that. How wonderful to be a sleeping dog, suggests Freud, what a mystery is in that furry being.
But it is the 18th-century artist and animal anatomist George Stubbs who absolutely takes you into the soul of a dog. His 1787 painting Lady Archer’s Maltese Terrier makes you see the world from the animal’s point of view. The little fancy pet is rearing up with energy and fear, surrounded by dark, towering vegetation: you feel its nervous energy and compulsion to yap. The world for it is vast and nameless.
Related: Rather fetching: classic portraits of dogs – in pictures
Yet the exhibition does Stubbs a disservice, putting other dog portraits by him in a section labelled The Aristocratic Dog. This is like calling his great rearing portrait of Whistlejacket a “posh horse”. Yes, the Liverpool-born Stubbs made his living portraying the horses and hounds of the Georgian upper crust, but he always looks past snobbery and cliche to see animals as autonomous beings with their own awareness of the world, different from ours yet equally valid.
The show’s inability to see the true nature of Stubbs and its insulting implication that he’s a lesser artist than its hero, Landseer, reveals a failure to engage with animals at all. Isn’t the sentimentally smeared lens of pet ownership actually an oppressive human lack of respect? I may not like dogs, but at least I know they are different from me. They deserve better than to be dressed up in a white bonnet with a pipe stuck in their mouth in Landseer’s horrible 1836 painting Comical Dogs.
Portraits of Dogs: From Gainsborough to Hockney is at the Wallace Collection, London, from 29 March to 15 October