Animal paintings and sculptures in 'conversation' at YCBA

Visitors to the Yale Center for British Art — home to one of the world’s largest collections of British animal paintings — regularly have artistic encounters with lions, horses, zebras, and dogs, as well as fantastical griffins and unicorns. A special exhibition opening Nov. 14 places 18th- and early 19th-century animal paintings from the center’s collection “in conversation” with sculptures of creatures by contemporary British artist Nicola Hicks.

This bear, titled “Black,” is among seven sculptures by Nicola Hicks on view in the exhibition. (Photo by Richard Caspole/Yale Center for British Art)

Located in the fourth-floor galleries, “Sculpture by Nicola Hicks” features seven of Hicks’ creatures. The exhibition will be on view through March 9; admission is free and open to the public. 

Typically executed in straw and plaster, and often cast into bronze, the sculptures selected for the center’s exhibition — including two from Hick’s recent “Aesop’s Fables” series — were all made in the past decade and exemplify her long-standing interest in capturing the emotional essence of living beings. Hicks chose works from the center’s collection to pair with her own sculptures, based on her personal, subjective responses to historic paintings.

“The exhibition offers a rare opportunity to look afresh at some of our most famous historic animal paintings by considering their contemporary relevance. Nicola has responded to the collection not as an art historian, but as an artist interested in how emotion and expression can be conveyed in works of art,” says Martina Droth, associate director of research and education, and curator of sculpture at the center. “The selection offers visitors an opportunity to reflect upon the juxtaposition between contemporary objects and historical traditions.”

Works from the center’s collection selected by Hicks range from famous paintings by celebrated animal painters, such as George Stubbs, James Ward, and Sir Edwin Landseer, to modest sketches by lesser-known artists, including Jacques-Laurent Agasse, and Henry Bernard Chalon.

Hicks noted that she resonated with the small studies, which she considers “paintings by an artist for an artist.” She went on to say that “I love connecting on a shared level. The center is full of staggering, cinematic masterpieces, but where I connect is the point where an artist is still making a picture for themselves.”

Artist Nicola Hicks with her sculpture, “Foal.” (Photo by Julienne Richardson/Yale Center for British Art)

The internal vistas of the center’s Louis Kahn building allow the visual dialogue to extend throughout the galleries, notes Droth. One sightline, opening from the exhibition down to the Library Court, connects large-scale animal paintings by Stubbs with Hicks’s sculptures.

“Sculpture by Nicola Hicks” was organized by the artist in conjunction with Martina Droth, and with the assistance of Lars Kokkonen, postdoctoral research associate in the center’s department of research.

About the Artist

Born in 1960, Hicks studied at the Chelsea School of Art (now Chelsea College of Art and Design) before completing her master’s degree at the Royal College of Art in 1985. From the outset she worked in a figurative mode, tenaciously building her career as a sculptor of animals at a time when abstract and conceptual trends dominated British art.

She has since become celebrated for her life-like creatures, which have been collected widely and exhibited at leading museums and galleries in Britain and around the world. In 1994, she was awarded an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) for her service to the arts.

In creating her animated sculptures both in three dimensions and as large-scale drawings in charcoal and pastel, Hicks draws on the study of anatomy and observation from life. But she is not concerned solely with mimetic representation. At times realistic, at other times fable-like, her creatures capture something of the physical and psychological power of living beings, animalistic in form and body yet uncannily human in character, notes Droth.

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