Published January 11, 2019, in Degree Critical.
On a foggy, grim October evening in 1913, the famous Barnum’s Circus was transporting its animals and equipment through the cobblestone streets of Leipzig, Germany, when a streetcar collided with one of its carriages. Inside this particular carriage were eight Barbary lions from North Africa, all of whom escaped and disappeared into the mist. For four long hours, wild beasts haunted the city’s dark alleyways, before the lions were hunted down and killed by local police.
This little-known incident was subtly expressed at Walton Ford’s recent exhibition titled “Barbary” at Kasmin Gallery in Chelsea within a new context. Composed of five large-scale watercolor paintings, all approximately five by ten feet in size, the exhibition conveyed a dark and gripping story about the convergence of human culture and the animal world at specific moments in history when people directly encountered the Barbary lion.
Native to the Atlas Mountains but now regionally extinct, Barbary lions were irresistibly alluring to Europeans as early as the Roman Empire, since they were just across the Mediterranean. The animals soon came to symbolize esteemed qualities such as ferocity and nobility. The same species inspired Western visual culture throughout centuries. Having served as a muse to masters such as Delacroix and Rubens, the Barbary lion has now become a central theme of Ford’s paintings. The reality Ford creates in his paintings, through studious details, allows time and space to warp around these majestic creatures, and for a moment, impossibilities appear to become possible.
In 1925, the French photographer Marcelin Flandrin, on a plane flying from Casablanca to Dakar, took a picture of a glorious Barbary lion sauntering through a valley below, generating what is now acknowledged as the last known visual record of the Barbary lion in the wild. In Ford’s “Barbary,” this incident came to life in La Dernière Image (2018), in which postcards including Flandrin’s defining image spill from a plane over the Atlas Mountains, drifting past the very same lion captured in the photograph. In Leipzig 20 Oktober 1913 (2018), the curious, confused lionesses who had escaped from the circus carriage, instead of terrorizing the city, walk serenely down the streets of Leipzig. The titles LaDernière Image and Leipzig 20 Oktober 1913 are inscribed on the paintings in large, vintage-looking script. The other three works also feature inscriptions, giving the viewer clues to the historical events that inspired them.
Ford’s earlier work is reminiscent of old, illustrated natural history books, with their untouched backgrounds and calculated poses. His paintings in “Barbary” are much different in style, content, and scale. He still uses watercolor on paper, the prime medium of choice for natural history painters since Albrecht Dürer’s wild hare from 1502. But the five “Barbary” watercolors are notable for their unusually large size, and looking at them, one feels that they are true to life. Even though Barbary lions were much bigger in reality, the way Ford constructs his narrative creates such a glitch in the viewer’s perception that his paintings of the animals achieve an exaggerated sense of grandeur, looking down on the viewer almighty and fearsome. The figures and landscapes are rendered in meticulous detail and brilliant handiwork, making it possible to see visual features and simultaneously experience more abstract emotions. In MVNERA (2018), scores of tiny brushstrokes come together on the paper’s surface to depict the glory of a lion’s mane, with many tones of red, brown, black, yellow, and white; the strength of his paws and the fear in his eyes as he realizes he’s being hunted. Majestic as the animal may be, MVNERA conveys the panic and hopelessness of a cornered animal who will soon be killed.
Another painting, Un Homme qui Rêve (2018), reimagines French painter Eugène Delacroix’s 1832 trip to North Africa, which in reality ended with a safe return and a lifetime of inspiration, but here depicts a pride of lions devouring the famous artist, caught on an excursion sketching in the wild. An enormous, formidable male lion looks to the horizon, his mouth dripping red with the painter’s blood, while others still feast. It was the only painting in the exhibition that straightforwardly expressed the viciousness of these lions. As Ford says in an interview, it is “an image borne of blood, of violence, of conquest, of a lot of difficulties that we have inherited,” and this violence is visible in every strand of fur, string of light, and drop of blood. It is easy to look at such a painting and conclude that these lions were the predators, but the conflict Ford seeks to convey feeds on the arrogance of man’s desire, not that of the lions. An inscription on the upper left side of the painting that reads: “Un Homme qui Rêve et qui voit des choses qu’il craint de voir lui échapper:” A man who dreams and sees things that he fears will escape him. No matter which version of the Barbary lion’s history is true, these wondrous creatures are now gone because of humankind’s destructive fascination. The lions never cared who admired them, or what they symbolized. But we did, and perhaps still do. And no matter what, those complicated facts will not escape those who experience Ford’s paintings. Walking through “Barbary” was like falling through a wormhole, experiencing a variation of humankind’s history that never happened, even though a very real and human bloodlust was there still, in the eyes of a predator who became prey.
Walton Ford’s “Barbary” was on view at Kasmin Gallery, 509 West 27th Street, October 10–December 22, 2018.
 Interview with Walton Ford by We Are Our Choices platform, published on December 10, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RSm7wmZ7SCo