Artibus et Historiae no. 54 (XXVII)

2006, ISSN 0391-9064

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MAREK ZGÓRNIAK - Fremiet's Gorillas: Why Do They Carry off Women?

The paper considers two sculpture groups by Emmanuel Fremiet (1824—1910), each showing a gorilla abducting a woman. The first of them (1859) was prevented from being shown at the Paris Salon; doubts were raised about its artistic quality, and there were fears of offending public morals. However, thanks to help from Count de Nieuwerkerke, director of the Imperial Museums, it was put on display next to the entrance to the exhibition at the Palais de l'Industrie, amidst an atmosphere of scandal. The second sculpture (1887) met with a wholly different reception: support from the jury of artists, and hostility from the Ministry of Fine Arts. The artists awarded the sculptor a Medal of Honour. The authorities first declined to purchase the work for the national collection, and when they finally agreed, they ruled out casting the plaster in bronze and placing it in the Natural History Museum in Paris, for which it had been created. The paper treats Fremiet's work, and its subject matter, within the broader context of changing views on the nature and behaviour of gorillas, which were a topic of lively discussion in the nineteenth century. The parties to the argument invoked contemporary writings on natural history and travel, in which these primates often appeared in connection with the controversy over Darwin's theory. The paper considers the extent to which Fremiet, usually regarded as a dispassionate and scrupulous illustrator, was in tune with the state of scientific knowledge in the case of the two sculptures, which were created almost thirty years apart. The paper explores the reasons for the state administration's reserve toward the second sculpture, and mentions some instances of the gorilla myth's appearance in popular culture. That the gorilla myth is a powerful and attractive one is manifested in repeated returns to the theme, such as the many remakes of King Kong.

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