There is only one thing wrong with "The Animal Image: Contemporary Objects and the Beast," the current exhibition at the Renwick Gallery. It is inadequately beastly. Its smile-button cuteness could easily transform the most sweet-tempered viewer into an irritable grouch.
All bears are not teddy bears, all ducks are not daffy, all animals, let's face it, are not nicey-nice. But you would not guess that here.Far too many of these objects -- of shining bras and silver, of wood and clay and glass -- are extremely silly. The nature they portray isn't red in tooth and claw. It wears mittens on its paws. Boxer dogs wear gym shoes here, hippos dress in sailor suits, reptiles play pool. It is stuff like this that makes the pathetic fallacy pathetic.
Esthetic snobs for many years have tried to draw a line between mere craft and high art. That line, it's true, is often blurred, but here one sees it clearly. Of the 114 objects that Milchael W. Monroe carefully selected for this exhibition not one is ill made; these artists weave cast and carve with extraordinary skill. but though their craftsmanship is splendid, their whimsy often cloys. Something in their art is painfully unserious. The muse that has inspired the makers of these "Polka Ducks," these "Supersonic Chickens," roller-skating penguins and macaws dressed in clown's clothes (with dead fish on their hats), does not sing, she yuks.
The most impressive objects here -- Deborah Butterfield's blue-legged horse, Walter Easton's "Big Black Bee," Charles Eldred's owl of brass, and Genna Watson's martyred dog -- are those that are least funny. In the context of this show it is peculiarly refreshing, and not at all upsetting, to see Harold Hoy's wooden half-squashed frog.
Animals, of course, have been portrayed by artists since well before the Ice Age. But the painters of the caves, the sculptors of old Rome, and the cat-worshippers of Egypt, approached their beasts with reverence. Artists of our day -- who see their beasts in zoos, or who may have learned from Disney that rodents wear white gloves -- have lost that sense of awe.
Three other exhibitions now on view in Washington poignantly suggest that same relatively recent loss of veneration. All are filled with animals, but the two that show us older things manage to recall a time before nature's birds and beasts were portrayed for fun.
One is the show of paintings by Elizabeth Gwillam now on view in the rotunda of the Museum of Natural History. She was an Englishwoman born in Hereford in 1763. She died in Madras, India, in 1807. Until her pictures were discovered in an antique shop in London in 1924, her art was quite unknown. Gwillam painted birds, herons, shags, hummingbirds, vultures, owls and eagles. Her brushwork is not wonderful, she clearly was an amateur, but she had a fine sense of design and her seriousness is grand. Gwillam never jokes. She cared more for science than she did for laughs. She approached the birds of southeastern India with the same care and devotion that John James Audubon, a far greater painter, would some decades later' bring to those of our own land.
The second exhibition here that treats its beasts respectfully is the show of American folk art organized by John C. Newcomer and Thea Westreich for the gallery of Angus Whyte, 406 7th St. Nw. The elephants and squirrels, the birds and dogs and lions. portrayed in these rugs, these weather vanes and carvings, are almost never cuddly. The horses here are swift and strong, the storks are nicely ulgy. These duck decoys suggest not cartoons but killing. Even that carved goat, made in 1880 for a circus carousel, is an animal of grandeur. This is a well-selected show, its quality is high.
Berthold Schmutzhart, the Washington artist now showing at Franz Bader's 2001 Eye St. NW., might well have been included in the Renwick exhibition. Like most of its participants he is a craftsman of high skill. He carves walnut, cherry, oak and popular, he works with stone and steel, but the craft here, once again, is more impressive than the wit. "Birds and Merbirds" is the title of Bert Schmutzhart's show. All the feathered things within it, the foot-finned albatross, for instance, and the sail-tailed dodo, are birds he has invented. They tend to be half-human. Most have woman's breasts.The viewer who at first smiles at this work will, before he's through, feel his smile-muscles tire. Much modern art, it's true, is difficult, abstract, arcane and hermetic, but these amusing pieces are not Schmutzhart's theme, the breasted, semi-human bird, is the same theme that's explored by Jugo de Vegetales, whoe goose-headed and full-breasted gandress is one of the works displayed in the Renwick Gallery's show. That exhibit closes Aug. 30. The Gwillam exhibition will run through March 29. the folk art show at Whyte's comes down on April 9, and Schmutzhart's show at Bader's will close March 28.