There is something tremendously sad at the core of our relationship with the animals that serve us or keep us company. They are mute, we cannot thank them, and we can never really know whether there is any kind of reciprocity of the love we feel for them.
Charlotte Dumas’s photographs of the horses that draw the funeral caissons at Arlington National Cemetery have some of the same intense emotionality as Chekhov’s story. On display at the Corcoran Gallery through Oct. 28, “Charlotte Dumas: Anima” is the Dutch artist’s first solo exhibition in the United States, and perhaps because the subject is so local and so fraught with emotion, her images push at the boundaries of sentimentality. The large white horses are seen against inky backgrounds, captured at the end of a day pulling coffins, and the photographer depicts them almost at the point of lapsing into sleep.
One image, “Peter,” shows the beast with his nose just touching the ground, his front legs tucked under his body. He looks as if he is praying. “Amos” captures the head of another animal from the side, with one eye facing the viewer, filled with what seems to be sadness. In “Repose,” the horse is on the ground, its head facing the viewer, its entire body a study in exhaustion.
Dumas has done everything possible to photograph the horses in the liminal state between wakefulness and sleep, so the suggestion of fatigue may have nothing to do with work or overwork. Rather, it’s a strategy for heightening their vulnerability, a dreamlike suggestion of death as they pass out of consciousness and into a defenseless but restorative oblivion. Without the wall text to explain the photographs, one might well think these horses are dying, rather than relaxing after human burial rites.
It is almost too much, almost cheap, like the little lambs that used to be carved atop the headstones of dead children. Grief is so potent, so universally felt, that artists risk exploitation anytime they tread this ground. But Dumas’s photographs challenge the viewer to think about our anthropomorphizing of animals and the conventions of portraiture. Rationally, we know that these animals’ lives revolve around hay, oats, water, sleep and the repetitive (and to them utterly meaningless) task of pulling heavy objects. If they are aware of the human grief all around them, it is in a very minimal, impressionistic way, rather like dogs may sense you’ve had a bad day.