Walton Ford, “Die Ziege”, 2016 watercolor, gouache and ink on paper, 41 1/2 x 59 3/4 inches unframed.
Picture it: Winter in Switzerland. The year was 1933. A black panther, held against her will inside the Zürich Zoo. Described as “extremely timid,” she was had been captured in the wild and brought in as the mate for a male already living in captivity. Within two weeks, injuries were discovered on her forepaw and right hind leg. On the morning of October 11, her cage was discovered empty.
According to the investigation, the panther squeezed her body through a break in the roof bars and out of the building through a partly open slatted ventilator. The panther had vanished without a trace. In the traps set for her, a few half-wild dogs were caught. For nearly ten weeks, this great creature of the tropics alluded capture, surviving by her wits and instinct in a foreign and hostile environment.
Dr. Heini Hediger, the director of the Zürich Zoo, recounts in his book, Wild Animals in Captivity, the inability of the Swiss to track a foreigner on home turf. He reveals, “…the information was often received that the panther had been seen here, there and everywhere, yet the whereabouts of the great cat could never be pointed out with certainty, suspicious tracks always turning out to be those of dogs. The most incredible suggestions were made by the public to the zoo authorities; for example, the help of a clairvoyant should be sought to search for the escaped animal, or that it should be exorcized by the representative of a certain religious sect.”
The zoo reveled in the attention thrown its way by local media reports a black panther in the white snowtops. With the zest to inflame imaginations across the countryside, some 800 articles were written during those two and a half months. Dr. Hediger reveled in the publicity’s impact, observing, “At all events, the Zürich Zoo, then in its early days, sprang to fame overnight thanks to this incident. The propaganda value of the escape was incalculable.”
Unsurprisingly, it was the panther who would pay for freedom with her life. One day in December, a casual laborer on the boundary between Zürich Oberland and St. Gallen, discovered her hiding under a barn. He killed her for food. Thus ended the story of the black panther—until her story was resurrected by American artist Walton Ford. Known for his grand scale watercolors of animals in the tradition of 19th century naturalists, Ford has created a new series of six paintings inspired by Dr. Hediger’s account of the panther’s escape, presented for the first time at Paul Kasmin Gallery (Stand C16) at Frieze New York. The works, which are priced between $485K and $675K sold at the preview on May 4, 2016.
“It is a rare chance to see a small but important show by Walton Ford,” Paul Kasmin observes. The work, produced in 2015–16, continues with Ford’s distinct approach to subverting the narrative of naturalist art. Ford’s complexly layered images offer a contemporary critique of the modes of thinking that define the hypocritical, egotistical ideals of colonialism, industrialism, politics, and humanity’s impact on the environment.
Ford’s female black panther, on the run from the man who would have her locked behind bars with a male she didn’t want to mate, is perfectly in tune with the times. Her story embodies a truth few wish to admit: that the natural world does not exist for our consumption. In Ford’s paintings we see the panther as a refugee in alien world, surviving against all odds. It is an inspiration to us all.
All artwork courtesy of Paul Kasmin Gallery, New York.
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.