Before we begin, let me just say I'm a mega dog lover. I watch the Dog Whisperer, sit with the "boys" and critique Eukanuba Best in Shows, sign up to work with dogs at the HSPCA, and enjoy reading books about dogs like Jon Katz's latest A Good Dog: The Story of Orson, Who Changed My Life. So it's not surprising that the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston's (MFAH) canine exhibition would eventually capture my attention.
Long before William Wegman's photography proclaimed the beauty of Fay Ray, dogs had not only been hailed as man's best friend but also bore on their furrowed, furry brow the crown of the artist's best friend. Now Houston celebrates the dog with MFAH's Best in Show: The Dog in Art from the Renaissance to Today. The exhibit, which began in October, runs through January 1, 2007. If you're a dog lover, an artist, or simply someone in need of something to do, add this to your list.
The idea of dogs being such wonderful subjects for artists somehow escaped me. Until, that is, the mid-'90s when I attended the first Private Eye Writers of America conference and joined a group of writers who trekked over to the AKC Museum of the Dog. (An entire museum devoted to dogs? Who knew?) At the time there was talk about a short story anthology with each writer choosing a specific work of art and creating a story. We roamed the halls, chatted about canine personalities, and shared our murderous thoughts spawned by the artfully rendered dogs.
While the halls of the Houston exhibition may not reverberate with ominous barking, canine visions will definitely compete with the annual sugar plums for your attention. Pugs, Spaniels, Greyhounds, Dalmatians...Name your dog. The pampered, the working, the playing, the sleeping, all aspects of dog life are depicted. Yale University Press has issued Best-Show-Dog-Renaissance-Today, the accompanying book that features the exhibition's works. Buy it ahead of time or pick it up at the museum.
The paintings are sure to suggest snippets of stories. I'm looking forward to viewing Valyer-Coster's The Favorites, Marie Antoinette's pampered trio, and Reinagle's funny Portrait of an Extraordinary Musical Dog. Then there is Calderon's A Lady of Quality described so eloquently by Scott Rose in the Pampered Puppy:
Brit painter William Frank Calderon came from a Spanish lineage with roots in Villafranca de los Cabelleros, Toledo. His A Lady of Quality is the pièce de resistance of this exhibit. The lady in question is a Russian wolfhound, a borzoi, shown in dreamy repose atop a plush white fur throw decking a tapestry divan with gilded, polished wooden legs and arms. Queen Alexandra had received Russian wolfhounds as gifts from Czar Alexander III; the lady in this painting appears to be serenely aware of her breed's elevated status. Golden highlights in her coat harmonize with her amber eyes, from which comes a look of fashionable ennui, that is, boredom. She extends one forepaw along the divan as though preparing for a plié, which she nonetheless is too enervated to execute. The sumptuousness of her surroundings, so warmly rendered, provide a fitting frame for the depiction of her profoundly pampered soul.
What triggered my canine fascination? My mom says it's Asta's fault. Apparently my first best friend was a dog. Asta, a trained German Shepherd police dog who later accompanied my dad to Korea, took it upon herself to become my canine nanny. When my mom put me outside in the playpen on the front lawn, Asta stationed herself right alongside the pen and dared anyone to approach. None did. (Of course, that didn't seem to stop her from slowly easing a paw forward to snag one of my toys and slowly drag it through the rails toward her...)
I haven't seen the exhibition yet but plan to use the trip to spend time with family. My granddaughter is insistent that she become a vet. Both she and her older brother love animals and delight in drawing. A trip to the museum should make for a fun outing. Who are "the boys?" Well, they're Beau (my big, bold, beautiful ball-obsessed dark gold 115-lb Labrador retriever), Riley (my rock-loving, hole-digging, fluff-bucket of a 24-lb cocker spaniel), Teddy (aka Little Theodore Roosevelt, the feisty 12-lb black and white Shi Tzu with a lion heart), and Freddie (aka Frederick, the white, dancing-on-hind-legs, bear like 6-lb white Maltese).
What about cats? Yes, yes, I love cats, too. Had quite a few in my day but today my hours are taken up with my canine friends. Will there be a cat exhibition? I don't know. You'll have to take that up with the museum. No, the short story dog anthology never came to fruition but it was fun speculating. For now, I'm wondering if the museum will let me bring the boys...
Now, dog lovers--here's your chance. Sing the praise of the dog. And while you're at it, chime in with news of other Houston dog-friendly spots.