Though seals are probably the gateway to aquatic mammal fandom, connoisseurs of the genre all agree that otters are best in class. These furry powerhouses are not only capable of tender intimacy and novel tool usage, they often just seem to be having the best time ever. So it’s no wonder that they have been a recurring motif throughout art history, and not just a mainstay of aquarium gift shops and Etsy stores. Join us as we offer a salute to our favorite member of the Mustelidae family in various visual media! It would be shellfish of us to keep it to ourselves.
Though better known for his bird illustrations, John James Audubon’s last major work was The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, produced in collaboration with his friend, the Reverend John Bachman, who wrote the text that accompanies his illustrations. On his final drawing expedition in 1843, Audubon traveled with his son up the Missouri River to document and depict the four-legged mammals of North America — including, of course, otters.
But the love of these little water scamps goes back much further than a couple of centuries. On view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art is just one example of otters as a common motif during the Late Period and Ptolemaic times.
“The pose of raised paws signifies the otter’s adoration of the sun god when he rises in the morning,” reads the label on this Ancient Egyptian bronze statuette, dating to between 664 and 30 BCE. “In myth otters were attached to the goddess Wadjet of Lower Egypt, whose cult was centered in Buto, in the northern Delta.” How did I not know until today that there is a cult of otter-worshippers, and where do I sign up?
For high otter drama, you can hardly do better than the standoff in Pieter Boel’s painting “Otter Harassed by Dogs” (c. 1600) currently in the collection of El Museo del Prado in Madrid, Spain. It’s pretty terrible to see two of animalkind’s most playful creatures locked in a death match, but art does not always come here to make friends, it comes to tell harsh truths. And the harsh truth is, otters could mess you up at any time, so try to stay on their good side.
Obviously, otters are a common motif in ancient and contemporary animal fetish carvings, such as this example of an “otter toy” from Cape Prince Of Wales, Alaska, part of the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History collection. According to the Toh-Atin Gallery, otters as a fetish animal represent “balanced femininity,” and maybe that’s what makes them so irresistible!
For the painfully literal seeking out otters in museum collections, nothing can hold a candle to the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York, whose permanent River Otter installation and background mural in the Hall of North American Mammals was captured by AMNH photographer Denis Finnin. “As morning mist veils a lake in Algonquin Provincial Park, a young female river otter comes ashore and inspects a spider web,” reads the AMNH image description — and it’s true, it’s really true.
Speaking of meditative otters, a beautiful painting on silk from the Meiji period, the work of Japanese artist Seki Shūkō, is sure to meet all your needs for minimalist marine mammals. You can practically hear the noise of the rushing river, and if you listen closely, perhaps the otters will whisper their furry secrets to you.
But otters need not only be social animals, they can also be voices for animal welfare, as a woodcut by South Korean artist Shumu demonstrates.
“Animals are different from humans in language and appearance,” the artist said in a message to Hyperallergic. “But animals feel the same or similar pain as humans, and they have emotions. Species discrimination against animals must stop. I hope that by continuing to work and share the life of veganism, it can become a small but resonant message.”
But of course, otters in art are not relegated to the past. Indeed, with new artificial intelligence image-generation technology, the possibilities of fine art otters (fine artters?) are limitless. And I, for one, couldn’t be happier.
Al-Hadid’s new mosaic features the famed clock that hung at the entrance of the original station until the building was demolished in the 1960s.
The excavation project also yielded Old Kingdom-era amulets, stoneware, and daily-use tools.
Join the New-York Historical Society on February 10 for a virtual conversation about our changing relationship to the natural world with Julie Decker, John Grade, and LaMont Hamilton.
The steel spike clad in gold and silver commemorated the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869.
Thanks to a $3.3 million grant from the state’s Creative Corps, artists can now apply to bring the project to their neighborhood.
Your list of must-see, fun, insightful, and very Los Angeles art events this month, including Alicia Piller, Brad Phillips, Mulyana, the MexiCali Biennial, and more.
Her solo exhibition at the Los Angeles institution demonstrates how natural light can turn an overlooked, everyday setting into a sublime landscape.
Presented by Northwestern’s Block Museum and McCormick School of Engineering, this new exhibition seeks empathy at the boundaries of life. On view in Evanston, Illinois.
Nicola López and Paula Wilson’s exhibition Becoming Land considers anthropocentric relationships with New Mexico’s desert landscapes.
A festival dedicated to Davinci’s The King Show celebrates the LA artist’s trippy remixing of stock footage, Hollywood cinema, and theater.
Located in Des Moines, Iowa, this residency for emerging and established artists includes studio and living space, a $1,000 monthly stipend, and more.
20th Century Indian Art: Modern, Post-Independence, Contemporary surveys the many distinct aspects of art in South Asia.
Moving too fast on your commute, looking out of the corner of your eye one second too late, and you might miss HOTTEA’s yarn installations.