Dogmatism Days – or Character Canines
Reflections on my life with dogs- an essay by Brian Keeler
A portrayal of our canine friends has somehow been part of my oeuvre for most of my career. Although it is certainly not one that was given the official stamp of approval from early on, it nonetheless became a subject to plumb. It is understandable, this disdain, as there are so many sentimental if not incredibly hackneyed versions out there. We wont go there. Suffice it to say I could relate to my art history professor at Keystone College, Mel Rosen, when he conveyed that he passed a commission on to a student that was for a cat portrait. Some in the class wondered why. I mean just the portrayal of cats and dogs was so far removed from the serious aesthetic goals we were aspiring to achieve.
Then again, I know of an artist formerly from Wilkes-Barre who has made these stylized doggie portraits an artistic triumph of sorts by making them sort of graphic ironies but done with humor and panache. I am recalling now, that I illustrated a children's book too many years ago, titled the Fool Book that was centered around a little boy and his dog; so there were several dozen drawings and watercolors included here.
Our lives with dogs are undermined simply by the fact that they don’t live long enough. Well for those of us lucky enough have had great dogs, and to have these furry friends around for a decade or so- especially when they have become such important parts of our lives and members of family we can attest to impact and importance of animals.
I have portrayed dogs for many years, sometimes my own but more often others, much as I do life in general, which is part of the everyday scene. Genre scenes if you will. On the streets of our American towns and part of the land and cityscapes are the contexts which I have favored in the examples shown here.
Growing up, my family always had dogs as part of our home and I can remember them all. There were of course many stories and adventures associated with them all. And some very sad partings as well. One particular tragic one was when I was about 10, our hounddog, Jill was hit by a car. A group of college students was returning to Mansfield College after the Christmas/New Year break when Jill ran in front of their car on Route 6 in front of my father’s newspaper office in Wyalusing.
The way dogs have been portrayed by others in books, film and paintings and even politics too have all been part of the mix. Take that statue of Orpheus with the three-headed dog Cerberus that is in the MFA in Boston. I have used this image as a reference for one of my own myth related paintings. Cerberus, of course is the beast charged with guarding the passage across the River Styx, which leads to the underworld. Another Greco-Roman myth that inspired a few works was the Diana and Actaeon story and a statue from the MET was used here for these. Then more mundane but touching reportage like John Steinbeck’s, “Travels with Charlie” that I read during art school comes to mind. It didn’t have the same poignancy and relevance as Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, and the subsequent movie of the same name, yet it still conveyed something unique. Then there is oldest of dog stories, the Argos aspect of Homer’s Odyssey, the 2500 year old epic. In this story the 20 year old arthritic dog is the only one to recognize Ulysses upon his return to Ithaca other than the maid.
I’ve never been much into those so-called sporting portrayals of bird dogs and such on wetland shores with ducks in their mouths. But the truly iconic painting by Norman Rockwell stands for something special. I am referring to one of his Saturday Evening Post cover illustrations. My father had a wall of his art studio covered with these. This painting depicted a father and son on a bench at a train station with a collie leaning its head on the son’s knee. The boy is about to depart for college and already has the school emblems fixed to his suitcase. The emotion of sadness his heartfelt, genuine and palpably expressed- there is veracity in every color choice and brushstroke. I offer this defense of Rockwell as he has often been criticized as being overtly sentimental. I see some of his work as being on a par with those great painters of the Dutch golden age like Vermeer and De Hoogh.
I’ll mention a couple of other artists who have portrayed dogs with memorable results. One is Andrew Wyeth whose painting of a sleeping yellow lab in front of a barn window in a nocturne also goes down as one of the greats. Once while looking at this painting with an artist friend years ago at the Brandywine Museum, my friend asked if this work caused me to look at my own dog, Steinway as new source of art. Then there are some of Rembrandt’s etchings and some of the other Dutch artist’s paintings of the 17th century who took away any penchant for sentimental idealizing of dogs, by portraying them nonchalantly defecating while Biblical narratives are played out as the main theme.
Within politics, a dog became famous with Nixon’s famous Checkers speech back in the early 1950’s, which served as a smoke screen of sorts to get him out of some of his early transgressions. And now it is often mentioned among the mountain of pilloried notations of the offenses of the current resident of the White House- which is to say that a fellow who does not like dogs is truly not fit to be a leader.
My brother wrote a column many years ago about his basset hound, Lucille that always struck me as true. He opined that dogs made us all more human. And over the years, reflecting on how dogs inspire us to be kind and patient we can see how this increased capacity to improve our virtue is given allowance by dogs.
Then there is the famous incident of a Zen Master with regards to dogs. A student or one of the abbot’s monks asked in an interview, “Does a dog have Buddha Nature?” To which the Zen Master simply replied with a loudly bellowed, “Mu.” This of course is presented as one of the conundrums known as a koan in Zen parlance, which is to shake the student out of rational thinking. Still the story inspires reflection. For example, after years of contemplation and arduous study, a disciple may still not have received transmission of enlightenment. Yet again, there is somehow the wisdom and spark of sentience that is visible in the dog’s eye. Not fair, right? Then there is the very etymology of the word animal, which of course means with a soul or an animated creature.
Still another attribute, is the emotional sensitivity, love and empathy if not downright cognition that dogs show. I’ve heard that Labradors are supposed to be the most emotionally attuned of the breeds. I can attest to this as well as the Labs that I have owned seem to be in that evolved level.
Aside from the loss of people in our lives, there is perhaps nothing quite as heartbreaking as having to say goodbye to a beloved pet. On Facebook recently there have been some posts of owners having to bid farewell. One dog owner referred to her canine companion as a source of unconditional love. We can relate. Our own Lab, Gracie, a chocolate lab of 13 years has had some serious setbacks recently and she now needs lots of care. It is saddening to see the gradual loss of her physical activity. On the other side though, it reminds us of how short of time all of us really have. I see her shaking with much less vigor that just a few months ago, it recalls Ulysses dog Argos.
Then there are cats- this another story for sure, but again a few recollections here seem fitting. A friend once said that dogs are here to give love and cats are here to absorb negativity. Hmm, interesting. Where this came from I cannot say, but it had the ring of something being handed down from a psychic. And then I was engaging in a conversation with a friend about the pros and cons of dogs versus cats. My main criticism was with the cruelty of cats- especially with how they tortured the hapless mice they had caught by throwing them in the air and batting them around etc. Eck and ugh. My friend, who owned both cats and dogs came back with how her two female dogs were often obsessed with peeing in the same spot as the other one. Hard to figure. Dogs for beneficial purposes or nefarious deeds as well and can be trained to be vicious and aggressive too. We see the way pit bulls are trained by their masters to be lethal and shudder at this perversion fostered by their human owners.
Anyway, I am thinking of Dogs as a gift to humanity as they may inspire us to strive to a higher level of our own selves.