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Grays Best

From Taxidermy to Fine Art

The other side of Carl Akeley.
by Brooke Chilvers 
From the May/June 2006 issue.

Since opening its doors 70 years ago, the Akeley Hall of African Mammals at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City has formed the vision in millions of minds of the game-rich savannas and dark jungles of that bewitching continent. My earliest childhood memory is of its posse of huge elephants sweeping toward the entrance of the dim great room, as hallowed as a church.

Only decades later did I learn about Carl Ethan Akeley (1864- 1926), the tireless, inspired, temperamental, innovative taxidermist whose rare bronze sculptures have not earned him his rightful place in art history.

Image

“Wounded Comrade” (1913), Bronze,
by Carl Ethan Akeley (1864-1926). Gift of the 1999 Collector’s Circle, National Museum of Wildlife Art Permanent Collection, Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

Akeley’s long list of accomplishments runs both broad and deep. Along with elevating taxidermy from a craft to an art by supporting animal skins with an anatomically faithful model and setting nuanced groups of animals in authentic habitat dioramas, he personally pulled the trigger on four museum-sponsored expeditions to British Somaliland, British East Africa and the Belgian Congo between 1896 and 1926.

He’s also the inventor of the double- chamber liquid-cement spraygun that helped build the Panama Canal. And of a motion-picture camera that could track horizontal and vertical movement while changing focus, making possible movies like King Kong and Nanook of the North. Observing Africa’s game diminish markedly with each safari, he is directly responsible for establishing the continent’s first national park in 1926 in the former Belgian Congo— what is today the Virunga Mountains National Park, famous for sheltering the mountain gorilla.

But despite accolades in every domain from architecture to industry, recognition for his most personal of gifts—sculpture—eluded Akeley then and now. Various publications state that the sculptures he created to support his Hall of Mammals are “prominently displayed throughout the AMNH.” True, The Old Man of Mikeno has its rightful place at the entrance of the Hall of Primates, and I found Wounded Comrade in the museum library. But his dramatic, life-sized triptych of Nandi warriors spear-hunting lion has been exiled to storage in New Jersey, replaced by more politically correct dinosaur bones.

Although prestigious galleries are glad when an Akeley work appears on the market, Googling him generates remarkably little about his art. Akeley felt that his art was “tainted” by the “trade” of taxidermy. “Taxidermists can’t talk art,” he wrote. (Ironically, today his standing is tainted by the label “big-game hunter.”)

Born into a hardscrabble New York farm family, Akeley came within a breath of going to Paris to sculpt. But the patience, dexterity and mechanical skills he was already demonstrating at age 12, when he skinned and mounted a neighbor’s dead canary, propelled him instead to Ward’s Natural Science Establishment in Rochester, New York, a Victorian taxidermy emporium that provided “stuffed and upholstered” mounts to budding natural-history museums, fairs and advertising campaigns in the bear-in-a-ballet-skirt tradition. “Handling macerating skeletal material scooped up from the sludge at the tub’s bottom was an excellent way to learn about [animal] anatomy,” writes Penelope Bodry- Sanders in her excellent biography, African Obsession, The Life and Legacy of Carl Akeley. She notes that Akeley kept pets like muskrat and deer to study their movements and attitudes.

A completely self-educated man, Akeley’s first defining moment took place in 1885, when he was called upon to mount the famous Barnum circus elephant, Jumbo, who’d been killed in an accident by a locomotive. P. T. wanted him full-size so he could forever lead the circus parade. (Jumbo ended up at Tufts University, where he was destroyed in a 1975 fire.)

What better education for a taxidermist—much less an artist—than to handle an animal’s organs, meat, bones, skull and skin? By 1896, Akeley was on a ship carrying the first museum expedition ever to Africa.

He returned from each grueling safari with not only hundreds of animal skins and photographic negatives but also singular experiences and insights into animal behavior. He had observed firsthand the hierarchy of species around the waterhole, and the alert bearing of elephants, lions and the great apes when hunted by man.

Outfitting specimen-collecting safaris with all the necessary camels, porters, and staples in places like Somaliland required superhuman qualities, and Akeley had these, too. Mauled by a wounded female leopard, he saved himself by shoving his arm down her throat, straddling her and breaking her ribs. “To kill a leopard, you have to kill him clear to the tip of his tail,” he wrote in his book, In Brightest Africa. In 1909, he was gored by an elephant in the damp bamboo forests of Uganda, saved only by his going-crazy but still intrepid first wife, Delia.

Obtaining perfect specimens of elephant for his family groups became Akeley’s obsession, his personal Moby Dick. (Delia, author of her own book, Restless Jungle, collected two big bulls for him, including a world-record tusker.) He tracked elephants, smelled them and interpreted their actions. With his .475 Jeffery, he downed them (or sometimes not; one elephant needed 25 shots) and skinned them; he scraped and salted their skins, lashed them to poles and carried them out of the bush. He soaked them for weeks in brine and then tanned them for a dozen more. Rubbed with oil, the hides became soft as glove leather for mounting.

Referring to his measurements, photos and memories, Akeley worked modeling clay on the lifesize armature into an anatomically perfect, muscle- tensed body. He then covered the original model in plaster, which hardened and was removed in two pieces for casting the final manikin. The skin was stretched over the manikin, then worked with wet glue into wrinkles and veins. Akeley knew elephants inside and out.

No doubt there was great carryover in technique between his taxidermy and the lost-wax method of making bronzes, which starts with a clay model from which a firstgeneration atelier plaster is made. (Subsequent moulds are called foundry plasters.) Each bronze cast (actually a second-generation positive) was then chiseled and given its typically dark, rich patina. Despite some claims, his sculptures were not maquettes for his taxidermy, although in both disciplines he searches for the elusive personality of each animal: alarmed, curious, playful. His bronzes go much further, more freely expressing what can only be called “soul”—both Akeley’s and his subjects’.

In 1913 he cast his first work, Wounded Comrade, and it earned him a prestigious membership in the National Sculpture Society. In this tabletop-size piece, two elephant bulls support and carry away their dying companion. Although considered a Realistic, Akeley expresses the heavy forward momentum of this task with conspicuous, stylized finger work that also visually unites the base with the bulls; he suggests, rather than fastidiously reproduces, the texture of their furrowed hides. Rather than encapsulating his knowledge into generic elephants doing generic things, he portrays specific animals at specific moments, many of which he had personally observed.

The dignity of the single-tusker Akeley killed is immortalized in Patriarch. In Jungle Football, four juvenile elephants toss around a termite mound. Charging Herd expresses the cooperation between elephants defending themselves. Going shows a surprisingly light-footed young bull in flight, while the one in Stung gingerly tramples a snake. Lion and Buffalo is a strongly composed Barye-like struggle to the death.

Akeley’s oeuvre consists of only 20- some pieces, and no exact count of his unnumbered casts has been compiled. “There just isn’t enough Akeley to create a deservingly active market,” one gallery owner told me, which might explain Akeley’s relative anonymity outside of specialists or connoisseurs.

Akeley started his career with birds, rodents and deer, but his fate was ultimately tied to the mountain gorilla, and he traveled several times to that messy corner where today’s Zaire, Uganda and Rwanda meet. The first person to capture the gorilla on film, Akeley also collected all five specimens still immortalized in Manhattan. But it is his bronze of the silverback, the Old Man of Mikeno— the first gorilla he killed, skinned and skeletized—that is the most haunting. “I envy that chap his funeral pyre,” wrote Akeley of that odd Eden. Akeley’s envy was sated five years later to the day, when he expired from exhaustion and a cocktail of African ailments near that same spot.

With hardly an opportunity to disassemble a duck these days much less a lion, how can any artist match the experience of an Akeley? Taxidermy gave him the animal’s skeleton, muscles and sinew; his field experience gave him its stance and habitat; his character gave him the inexhaustible drive to create; and his talent gave him the magic to transform animal spirit into art.


Contemplating how she got to where she is today (married to a professional hunter in the Central African Republic), Brooke credits elementary-school field trips to Akeley’s Hall of African Mammals.

 
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