06 June 2018

Curator Ilka Voermann is currently preparing the exhibition “King of the Animals. Wilhelm Kuhnert and the Image of Africa”. Therefore, she travelled to Texas and the Rocky Mountains, to rather unusual locations.

By Ilka Voermann

“An African Wildlife Collection by Wilhelm Kuhnert” stands in large letters at the entrance to the Portraits of the Wild Art Gallery at the zoo in Fort Worth, Texas. Despite it being November I am standing in front of the gallery in a T-shirt because unlike in Germany the winters in Texas are relatively warm. The reason for my visit to the zoo is my preparations for the exhibition “King of the Animals. Wilhelm Kuhnert and the Image of Africa” which will be on show at the Schirn as of October 25. And my search for items to loan has initially taken me to this unusual location. In fact, the Portraits of the Wild Art Gallery is not a museum, but an events room which can be hired out for dinners, banquets and cocktail parties, where guests will be surrounded by Kuhnert’s paintings.

From the end of the 19th century Kuhnert was mainly painting and drawing African animals in the German colonies of East Africa. Only a few art museums such as the Rijksmuseum Twenthe in Enschede have collections of Kuhnert’s large-format animal paintings. Nowadays, most of Kuhnert’s work is to be found in private ownership, in natural history collections or – as in this case – in zoos. 

One of the most extensive Kuhnert collections in quite an unusual location

The paintings, drawings and prints hang in the round gallery building on walls clad with bamboo. An extremely unusual presentation, but one whose atmosphere suits Kuhnert’s paintings very well. The collection, which is one of the most extensive in the world, was amassed by F. Kirk Johnson sen. and his wife Elizabeth, “Bess”, as their granddaughter Debbie Head tells me when I meet her there.

Entrance of the Portraits of the Wild Art Gallery
View of the Portraits of the Wild Art Gallery

Johnson, a game hunter and sometime president of the zoo’s management board, traveled to Africa for the first time in the 1950s. During their stopover in London he and his wife bought their first painting by Kuhnert without being at all familiar with Africa’s nature and its wildlife at first hand. Upon their arrival in Africa, they were both astonished at how well Kuhnert had captured the mood and the light of the African landscape, as I discover over the course of my conversation with Head. After Johnson’s death in 1963 his widow donated part of the collection to Fort Worth Zoo with which Johnson was closely associated throughout his life. Johnson definitely had a predilection for Kuhnert’s large-format paintings, in which the animals look somehow like “idols of the big-screen”. I find “The Lion” and “African Buffalo in the Steppes” extremely impressive – these paintings will soon be on show in Frankfurt, as well.

Twenty degrees colder: Heading on to the Rocky Mountains

Two days after visiting the zoo I land in Jackson, Wyoming. Snow covers the peaks of the Rocky Mountains and it is at least 20 degrees colder than in Texas. Jackson is not only a famous ski resort and hiking destination on the edge of the Yellowstone National Park, it is also home to the world’s only museum specializing in the artistic portrayal of animals. The National Museum of Wildlife Art towers over the highway like a fortress, with herds of buffaloes and moose drifting by across the surrounding grazing land.

Wilhelm Kuhnert, Lion, n.d., Fort Worth Zoo
Wilhelm Kuhnert, African buffalo in the plains, n.d., Fort Worth Zoo

Contrary to what the museum’s name suggests, its permanent exhibition shows not only American artists but also art from all over the world, dating from primeval times right up to the present day. Kuhnert’s paintings, along with the work of his contemporaries Richard Friese, Carl Rungius and Bruno Liljefors, go to make up the “big four” in animal painting, making it clear to me once more to what extent this highly specialized discipline developed over the course of the 19th century. Unlike their predecessors, they did not conduct their observations of animals exclusively in zoos, but studied them in their natural habitats in order to be able to produce images of their environments and their behavior that were as realistic as possible.

Meticulous studies of the animal world

Like Kuhnert, Friese, Rungius and Liljefors are largely unknown in Germany although their art was unbelievably popular at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century and was to be found all over the place. Even today, Kuhnert is still considered one of the most important exponents of academic animal painting. This makes it all the more exciting that his work and thus one aspect of Modern painting that has pretty well been consigned to oblivion will be on show at the Schirn this coming fall.

Wilhelm Kuhnert, Elephants, 1917, JKM Collection®, National Museum of Wildlife Art
Wilhelm Kuhnert, Zebra, undated, Photo: Jens Weyers
Wilhelm Kuhnert, The old laggard, undated, Photo: Jens Weyers
Wilhelm Kuhnert, African Lions, c. 1911, National Museum of Wildlife Art, Jackson, WY