Dogs have been loved for millenia.
A small exhibition at Ashmolean Museum celebrates and analyses this history.
Cultured Canines is a collaboration between artist Allison Ksiazkiewicz and Attic Black | Thetis Authentics. It combines ancient techniques and modern designs.
“Developed from the artist’s keen interest in cultures of natural history and the special role that dogs play in our lives, each vase is dedicated to the unique stories of a specific breed.”
Allison is a UK-based artist trained as a printmaker and as an historian of art and science. She studied the vase collection at the Ashmolean, working with Dr Marianne Bergeron, to prepare her designs. These were then sent to the Thetis Authentic workshop in Athens, were the vase was produced under the expert eyes of Dr Eleni Aloupi. Allison then painted the design, with support from Dr Aloupi and her team to create an object that encapsulates the magic of ancient Greek ceramics.
There are four vases on display with the history of particular dog breeds. This is history as it should be done: challenging and multi-levelled, engaging and appealing.
The Watson Volute-Krater depicts two Greek youths lolling about, with an archetypal Greek building in the background. Three playful and friendly chihuahuas play before them, their tails almost visibly wagging. One dog peeps from the folds of clothes.
The Chihuahua, a Mexican dog, possibly descends from the Techichi, a dog popular with Mayan and Toltec society. The Mayans considered the Techichi a guardian of the dead and they often buried them alongside their departed.
On the backside, the dogs attack a lizard.
The McNeill Amphora is an intriguing cup, depicting the Scotch Poet Ossian in his bardic get up. Ossian was supposedly a traditional bard from the mists of time, discovered and translated by James Macpherson. He was likened to Homer and his work had a massive impact and inspired many people. He was of course a fake, but he became the genius of a new romanticised view of Scotland in the Eighteenth century.
On the other side of the vase is a hunter in 18th century clothes, a gun slung over his shoulder. Hinting at the terrible events of the 18th and 19th centuries which saw mass depopulation of the Highlands. Many formerly well populated places became ‘desolate’ hunting grounds for the rich and wealthy, some of whom made their money from imperialist and capitalist exploitation.
In the top register, two hunting dogs chase kangaroos highlighting the complex imperial connections between the Scottish highlands and the British Empire.
A lot, as they say, is going on and yet it is a beautiful vase, with graceful curves, and a delicate painting.
The Richmond and Gordon Eye-Cup depicts a Pekingnese dog with creatures from the Cambrian Explosion.
According to Chinese legend, a lion fell in love with a marmoset. He asked the god Ah Chu to make him smaller. Ah Chu made the lion small, except for his heart which remained big. The creature was a Pekingnese dog, smol but very fierce.
The Amherst Hydria depicts a Saluki, a hunting dog with a long pedigree. This vase also features the constellations of Orion the hunter and his dog Canis Major. Maybe I was reading too much into the work, but it felt profoundly topical combining our contemporary interests of dogs and astrology with such nuance and wit.
Further along in the museum, you can also see some of the objects which likely inspired Alison. A cup by the Euergides Painter depicts a greyhound type dog, scratching his ear with his paw. An amphora painted by the Diosphos Painter, depicts a dog playing at the feet of a warrior about to depart for war.
Studying these works, you realise what Alison brought to the table.
A profound, masterful show. More please