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Dogs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Updated: Apr 16, 2020


Oak and pine veneered with mahogany; Ebonized pine; patinated bronze; gilded metal; modern upholstery, c. 1810, probably by Thomas Hope

Carousel figure of a Greyhound

Painted wood carving, c. 1905, by Charles I.D. Loof

Your Dog

Fiberglass mould, black paint, 2003, by Yoshitomo Nara

Attempting to navigate the seemingly endless galleries, halls and corridors of Boston’s colossal Museum of Fine Art, I eventually found myself in a state of satiated delirium, drunk with splendor, disorientated by an ecstasy of artistic wonder. It all becomes a blinding amalgam. Then, perhaps because my own dogs are so sorely missed, I started to discern a discreet pattern emerge which acted as a subtle lodestar to anchor my waywardness, because dotted throughout the museum there are canines to lead the way, to guide me through and onwards. There are paintings, for example, Courbet’s La Curée and Snyders’ Boar Hunt, both depicting hunting dogs, and then there are canine companions included in the portraiture of any number of fashionable society families, but there are also a few extraordinary objets d'art which I found – in the midst of this otherwise swirling grandiose euphoria – to be not only totally captivating but also momentarily sobering.

Take ‘Bed’ for example. A simple bed but bookended by two statues of sleeping greyhounds, so one slumbers with a dog at your feet and one above your head. Yes, obviously it capitalizes on a decorative motif which feeds not only into the domestic familiarity of idealized country living, and also abides by the rigid symmetrical properties common in interior design of the Regency period, but there is additionally something so tactile and proportionally direct about their inclusion that you can’t help but find yourself smiling with abject delight and nostalgic longing. If the purpose of a furniture designer is to make you feel comfortable, to entice you to rest and relaxation, to engender a sense of domesticated bliss and succor, then Hope has hit upon something ingeniously crafty here. This is subliminal messaging in an age way preceding any psychoanalytic determination: if the hounds are at rest, the house is at rest too, all is well; come and sleep peacefully and contentedly, safe and protected. The imagery of the guard dog proliferates here, but it also makes one consider the rationalization of the Cerberus mythology; the ‘taming’ of the tri-headed hellhound beast into two normal, tame and protective hounds (Cerberus and Orthrus) which, in the neo-classicist age, was essential if man was to be placed at the centre of all; the consummate and controlling master of his domain, including his household and the beasts that do his bidding. Also, Odysseus’ faithful pet Argos comes to mind; while one is asleep dreaming, journeying cerebrally, your loyal dog awaits your return to consciousness.

Loof’s Carousel Greyhound and Nara’s Your Dog, meanwhile playfully disconcert the normal ‘man and his best friend’ trope. Your Dog is huge in scale and apparently evokes the Japanese “lion dogs” placed at the entrance to Shinto shrines to ward off evil spirits. Really? Such a floppy, loveable, Disney-like mutt hardly seems capable of dissuading any maleficent ghoul hell-bent on mischief making and thus appears to be an obvious ironic joke: the sanctified rendered comically but also redundantly secular. It’s the ceremonial made cartoonish, but also the mystic rendered rational. The carousel greyhound, however, is pure Americana escapism. So friendly, so handsome, decked in his bejeweled fairground attire, he somehow epitomizes the lost age of childhood innocence, that placeless, irredeemable time we wistfully hark back to before the squat, bland digitized materialism of the iPhone era came along and seemingly corrupted sentimentality forever. This greyhound is a working dog, though, and somehow considering this aspect only cements the very suggestive metaphor he services: alert, struck with energy and eager to please, he embodies a work ethic which we sense was a mainstay of his age and time, carried too by his human handlers, when physical toil and labour translated into success and prosperity. On the other hand, one can only hope he is not stuck on a merry-go-round, incapable of freeing himself from the madcap circus which surrounds him.

Images courtesy of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.


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