The Animal Gazer

Written by Edgardo Franzosini
Review by Imogen Varney

This is a prize-winning fictionalised biography of the sculptor Rembrandt Bugatti (1884-1916).  In his brief life Bugatti created over 300 bronzes, nearly all animal studies. He exhibited at the Venice Biennale and was awarded the Legion d’Honneur.  The book includes photographs of ten of his works.

This intense artist’s only friendships were with fellow animal sculptors and his more famous brother, Ettore Bugatti.  He compulsively observed zoo animals, sitting for hours in front of cages to capture not the anatomy (which interested him little), but the movement and character of the creatures, using a more pliable and slow-drying material than clay to create a maquette by the cage. He engaged with each individual monkey, antelope, flamingo, kangaroo or any of the many other creatures he sculpted. The results have been described as animal portraits. Only in his work, he wrote, did he find complete happiness.

The author reveals Bugatti’s singular attitude towards animals. He sees an Egyptian frieze depicting animals and humans and observes approvingly that they are presented as equals. In 1906, when living in Paris, he writes that ‘an amazing rhinoceros’ has arrived at Antwerp Zoo. At once he decides to leave for Antwerp and makes his way through pouring rain to the zoo, still carrying his suitcase. He was to stay in Antwerp for many years.

In 1914 Antwerp was about to surrender to German invaders, and the zoo director was ordered to shoot all the animals. Horrified, bereft of his animal companions, and now suffering from tuberculosis, Bugatti volunteered as a stretcher-bearer in the war-ridden city. He observed that the requirements for the job were three: delicacy, precision and resilience to human suffering. Sadly he did not have the third, and died by suicide in Paris in 1916.