Exhibition | Clara the Rhinoceros

Posted in books, catalogues, exhibitions by Editor on November 21, 2022

Jean-Baptiste Oudry, Clara, the Rhinoceros, 1749, oil on canvas, 306 × 453 cm
(Staatliches Museum Schwerin)

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From the press release (11 July 2022) for the exhibition:

Clara the Rhinoceros: Superstar of the 18th Century / Clara de Neushoorn: Superster van de 18e eeuw
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, 30 September 2022 — 15 January 2023

Curated by Gijs van der Ham

Clara was strange and new, huge and awe-inspiring—she was utterly unlike any other known animal. This fall, the Rijksmuseum presents Clara the Rhinoceros, an exhibition about an animal who travelled far from her native land of India and became the most famous rhinoceros in the world.

Saint-Germain, J.J., and F. Viger, Clock with Rhinoceros as Carrier, 1755 (Parnassia Collection).

The exhibition shows how new knowledge changed perceptions of the rhinoceros, and how art played its part in this process. The 60 objects on display include paintings, drawings, medals, statues, books, clocks, and a goblet. Very few of these artworks have been displayed before in the Netherlands, and never before have so many exceptional objects devoted to Clara the rhinoceros being presented together. They range from the first-ever European print depicting a rhinoceros—made in 1515 by Albrecht Dürer—to a life-size, full-length portrait of Clara by Jean-Baptiste Oudry dating from 1749. Clara the Rhinoceros runs from 30 September 2022 to 15 January 2023 in the Phillips Wing of the Rijksmuseum.

Clara may not have been the first rhinoceros to come to Europe, but she did become the most famous one. After her long voyage from India, in 1741 she arrived in Amsterdam. Her owner, Douwe Mout van der Meer, was soon showing her to anyone who would pay for the pleasure, whether at fairs, markets, carnivals, or royal courts. For the next 17 years she travelled around Europe in a custom-made cart, accompanied by her entourage. She travelled far and wide: to Vienna and Paris, and to Naples and Copenhagen. Upon her return to the Netherlands, she lived in a field in the North district of Amsterdam. Eventually, Clara died in London in 1758.

People touched, teased, admired, and studied Clara. She prompted this sensational level of interest because no one in Europe had ever been able to see a real live rhinoceros. She was a hyped up, must-see cultural phenomenon, and Mout used print advertising and medals to pump that hype to the max. Until Clara’s arrival, all that Europeans knew of her species was from a print made by Dürer in 1515. He based his drawing on a sketch of a rhinoceros that was briefly in Lisbon, though the sketch wasn’t entirely accurate: it depicted the rhinoceros with an extra horn on its back, for example, and skin that resembled a suit of armour.

Clara’s appearance on the scene changed all this, leaing to a better understanding of the rhinoceros and to more accurate portrayals. Scholars studied her in minute detail, from head to tail, and artists became fascinated by every fold of her skin. A remarkable number of likenesses were made of Clara, in many forms and using many different materials. This exhibition presents an outstanding selection of these objects, including an impressive life-size portrait painted in Paris in 1749 by Oudry (on loan from Staatliches Museum Schwerin), a painting by Pietro Longhi showing Clara standing in front of her audience in Venice (from Ca’ Rezzonico, Venice), a large marble statue by the Flemish artist Pieter Anton Verschaffelt (from the Rothschild collection at Waddesdon Manor), and an exceptionally rare clock mounted on a Clara figure (from a private Dutch collection) made by the Parisian bronzier and clockmaker Jean-Joseph de Saint-Germain.

Clara was almost never free to walk or run. She depended on humans for her survival, and was rarely able to display natural behaviours—except for example the occasions when she needed to cross a river by swimming, and clearly enjoyed the water. In 1750 the Neurenberg biographer Christoph Gottlieb Richter published a conversation between a rhinoceros and a grasshopper, in which the rhinoceros bemoans the way people treat her and stare at her. This book presents a role-reversal, with the rhinoceros appraising and studying people rather than the other way around. And in her 2016 installation Clara, the contemporary artist Rossella Biscotti uses the rhinoceros’s story to interrogate the relationship between humans and animals. The installation, which is also part of the exhibition, shows that Clara’s story is also about colonialism, exoticism, and globalisation, as well as exploitation and power.

The exhibition design for Clara the Rhinoceros and Crawly Creatures is by stage designer Theun Mosk | Ruimtetijd. Graphic design for the exhibition is by Irma Boom.

Gijs van der Ham, Clara the Rhinoceros (Rotterdam: nai101, 2023), 208 pages, ISBN: 978-9462087477, $40.

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