Dana Meyer is a collector. The artist prefers to gather the materials for her steel sculptures as found objects. She forges her animal or human figures of varying sizes and effects from discovered steel plates and leftover pieces. Analogous to this working process, the composition of the conceptual basis of her works also seems to behave: In the conception of the steel sculptures, the sculptor draws inspiration from anecdotal “fragments” that she collects through curious research and an open view of various media. Radio features, reports, newspaper articles, and narratives often provide the material from which she develops the initial idea for one of her works.1
Meyer’s series “Wilhelm’s Great Hunt” is no exception in this regard. It is rather an excellent example of the way in which the artist selects remarkable narratives, connects them with traditional representational motifs of art history, and finally translates them into visual works. In the case of the rust-brown heads of wild animals, which the artist assembles in her usual manner from a patchwork of steel segments, narratives from the Prussian hunting cosmos form the basis.
The historical figure mentioned in the title, Emperor Wilhelm II, seems to be particularly interesting for a collector of anecdotes: The proverbial “Travel Emperor” with a penchant for magnificent uniforms was often attributed a tendency for self-presentation, presumably attempting to compensate for a disability in his left arm in the perception of the public. There is no shortage of humorous, biting, or ironic narratives that provide insight into the self-perception, perception by others, and political behavior of the last German emperor.2
Wilhelm II also sought to stand out through hunting. As a poor rider and inhibited shooter, the prestigious hunting success had to be achieved through detours and various means. Firearms with a particularly slender grip were adapted to his handicap. In the emperor’s driven hunts, big game was driven into a relatively small, fenced-off area and there “shot down from every buttonhole by His Majesty.”3 The results of these hunts, in which the emperor was handed four shotguns alternately ready to fire, were carefully documented. In the course of four days, Wilhelm II shot 28 deer, 578 hares, 60 wild boars, 4 fallow deer, 2609 pheasants, and 85 foxes.4 The records of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s hunting successes can still be read on marker stones in German forests today: “Our most illustrious Margrave and Lord Emperor Wilhelm II felled his 100th noble stag here on October 12, 1904, in the Great Schoenebeck Heath.”5 Former imperial hunting areas like the Schorfheide near Groß Schönebeck have often become nature reserves and biosphere reserves today. Hunting, historically reserved for a few powerful individuals, ironically contributed here to preserving vegetation from further human intervention. These historical footnotes about Kaiser Wilhelm’s shooting achievements and their consequences move within the larger theme of hunting and thus within a motif circle whose pictorial tradition is probably as old as art itself – probably not least a reason for Dana Meyer to make such narratives the focus of her series.
Already in cave paintings in the Spanish El Castillo Cave, whose age is estimated at more than 65,000, but at least 30,000 years according to recent research, a bison struck by spears and a trapped stag can be recognized.6 Such representations mark the earliest known human artistic expression, illustrating the relevance of the hunting motif for humanity based solely on its age. In addition to prehistoric paintings of hunted animals, depictions of hunting in art history range from mythological representations and hunting deities to connections with Christian iconography. Here, the hunted deer becomes a symbol of Jesus Christ, dying in sacrificial death.7 In medieval art, hunting played a prominent role, especially in the construction and representative staging of courtly ideals and the assertion of the rulers’ prerogative. In art history, the hunting motif has undergone numerous layers of meaning, from allegorical and moral meanings to erotic allusions.8 In more recent times, the “roaring stag” in kitschy-idyllic landscapes framed by heavy golden embellishments may come to mind when discussing hunting in art. Despite the significant change in the status of hunting as a cultural practice, the theme of hunting can still be an interesting subject for contemporary art.
Throughout history, hunting has evolved from immediate subsistence through the procurement of resources for food and clothing to the securing of property and status. The ruling classes determined who was allowed to hunt in which areas, thereby maintaining the inequality of the class society for a long time. Historically, hunting has been rooted in expressions of power and power relationships. This applies not only to the relationship between the hunting human and the hunted animal but also in interpersonal interactions. During the practice of courtly hunting, business deals were concluded and politics were conducted. This practice can be traced back to the 20th and 21st centuries as well. An example of this is Erich Honecker, who met with party leaders for hunting in the Schorfheide and denied the citizens of the GDR the same right. With 32 pieces of game hunted within nine days, he may not have reached Wilhelm II’s level, but he impressively demonstrated that hunting can also function as an elitist leisure activity and a means of maintaining status.9
Dana Meyer uses this charged hunting motif to her advantage and incorporates historical power relationships in Wilhelm’s Great Hunt, representing many other rulers; within the broad field of hunting motifs, she also finds other images and points of connection for current as well as timeless questions.
In the series “Wilhelm’s Great Hunt,” the artist depicts the heads of big game in different life stages and genders. Deer with expansive antlers, a more delicate deer with smaller horns, and a small, young, and vulnerable-looking fawn are unmistakably interpreted as lifeless trophies, severed from the body with tongues hanging out. The typical translucency of the depicted animal bodies in Meyer’s sculptures, created by assembling the steel segments, takes on a morbid quality in this context. Observers can associate it with decay. The glorifying representation and proud display of a hunting trophy would probably look completely different. Instead, Meyer’s unvarnished presentation of the severed animal heads brings a bitter irony to the anecdotal hunting practices of Kaiser Wilhelm II, contrasting with his glorious self-presentation.
Another treatment of the hunting trophy motif in Meyer’s work consists of various sculptures of animal hides. Under the title “The Phlegma,” the sculptor presents highly realistic depictions of the skins of a pig, a hare, and a zebra. The rusty surface texture and reddish-brown color of the steel used partially give the mimetic impression of real suede. Despite the weight of the substantial material, which adds significant weight to the large-format skins, Meyer has managed to evoke the impression of lightness and tactility inherent in animal hides in her “Phlegmata.” However, the titles under which the animal hides are grouped pose an initial puzzle. The Duden defines “phlegma” as a “mood that is difficult to excite and move to any activities.”10 This inactivity is quite literally true for the depicted lifeless animal skins but comes across as cynically euphemistic in light of the likely violently induced deaths of the animals.
In contrast to Wilhelm’s Great Hunt, the presentation of the “Phlegmata” more strongly adheres to the representative tradition of the trophy: they can be displayed lying on the ground or mounted on the wall, thereby suggesting a parallel between the practice of exhibiting hunting trophies and works of visual art. Desired trophies in the world of hunting often exceed the value of the hunted game. This circumstance underscores the shift of hunting from subsistence to status preservation and continues beyond feudal times. Thus, the motif of the zebra hide, as taken up by Meyer, evokes thoughts of big game hunters in steppe regions and opens up a view of imperialistic global power relationships.
In the works described here, the artist explicitly places dead animals at the center of the composition. These differ from the otherwise highly lively-seeming animal sculptures of the artist, seemingly bursting with energy from every suggested muscle fiber.
When portraying trophies, which also represent historical events and cultural practices for Dana Meyer, the sculptor becomes a preparator in a sense. Just as animal bodies are small-scale dismantled, reassembled, and preserved for study and decorative purposes in taxidermy, the artist undergoes a similar process during the creation and composition of the sculptures.
The artist’s engagement with the hunting motif draws on a long tradition in art history. With this theme, Dana Meyer can combine formal artistic interests such as the analysis of movement, tactility, and plasticity through nature studies with conceptual content such as collected anecdotes and the power relationships reflected therein. The use of the hunting motif provides viewers with a broad associative space for existential questions that revolve around life and death, victory and defeat, violence and preservation, and culture and nature.
1 All statements of the artist mentioned in the text are based on personal conversations of the author with Dana Meyer on March 03, 2020.
2 cf. e.g. KOHLRAUSCH, Martin: (Ed.): Samt und Stahl. Kaiser Wilhelm II. im Urteil seiner Zeitgenossen, Berlin 2006.
3 Quasi Verrückte. Deutschlands älteste Jagdzeitschrift hat Jubiläum, in: Spiegel 46/1994, zitiert nach: https://www.spiegel.de/spiegel/print/d-13693427.html ( Last call off on 3. Mai 2020).
5 This inscription can be found on a memorial stone in Schorfheide. Cited after: Kaiser Wilhelm II schießt 1000. Hirschen, in: BR online Archiv, 20. September 2010: https://www.br.de/radio/bayern2/sendungen/kalenderblatt/2009-Kaiser-Wilhelm100.html ( Last call off on 3. Mai 2020).
6 Klein, Stefan: Jagen, sammeln, malen. Höhlenmalerei, in: Zeit Magazin 26/2018, https://www.zeit.de/zeit-magazin/2018/26/hoehlenmalerei-neandertaler-tropfstein-hoehle-suedeuropa-entdeckung/komplettansicht ( Last call off on 3. Mai 2020).
7 Stutzer, Beat: Jagd. Der Hirsch als Motiv der bildenden Kunst, in: Bündner Schulblatt 43/1983–84, S. 12.
8 Einen Überblick der unterschiedlichen Bedeutungskontexte gibt der Ausstellungskatalog: Perse, Marcel / Wiegmann, Karl-Heinz (Ed.): Die Jagd. Ein Schatz an Motiven, Städtisches Museum Schloss Rheydt / Museum Zitadelle Jülich, 2019.
9 Husemann, Ralf: DDR-Führung. Bonzen auf der Pirsch, in: Süddeutsche Zeitung 19.05.2018, zitiert nach: https://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/jagd-und-macht-in-der-ddr-1.3973800 ( Last call off on 3.5.2020).
10 Art. „Phlegma“, in: Duden online, https://www.duden.de/node/111200/revision/111236 (Last call off on 3. Mai 2020).
About the author
curator Frommanscher Skulpturengarten Jena, projekt Prof, Dr. Verena Krieger chair for art history Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena (Germany)
props manager Thüringer Landes Theater