Wild: Michael Nichols (at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through September 17, 2017) is an exemplary show for a major art museum in the 21st Century; “exemplary” but not very satisfying.
Nichols, a renowned photographer of wildlife as well as a zealous advocate of habitat and species preservation, is also one brave dude. He ventures into the most remote, forbidding and dangerous environments throughout the world. He is also an admired technical innovator whose experiments and inventions have made possible images previously impossible to realize.
What he is not is an important artist. But that isn’t the point the Philadelphia Museum of Art really wants to make though it tries to have it both ways.
Mounting a huge exhibition of oversized prints of wildlife and habitats seeks to draw a broader audience than do the usual sanctified works of, say, Impressionism or 17th Century Holland. Think of this exhibition as part of the PMA’s new outreach program intended to encourage people not normally disposed to visit traditional museums of art to visit and find works that are immediately accessible and pleasing. Nichols’ work is certainly that, but
it is not particularly challenging intellectually or rewarding aesthetically.
Documentary or advocacy photography has had a long, sometimes tenuous relationship to the traditional art world of painting and sculpture. Today, however, Walker Evans, Eugene Atget, or Sebastiao Salgado among many are revered, exhibited and collected by both worlds. All of them made photographs on assignment or for commercial purposes that were later divorced from their original contexts and displaced into the museum or gallery. Their entry into the pantheon of artists is secure yet few viewers regard their work in its original terms, documenting the Farm Security Administration (Evans), making documents to sell to artists (Atget), or documenting the gold mining industry (Salgado).
As if to lend further credence to the notion that Nichols’ work fits into that broader tradition, the PMA shows a number of paintings and sculptures from its own collection alongside the photographs. Among these are Edward Hicks The Peaceable Kingdom, Henri Rousseau’s The Merry Jesters or Tommy Dale Palmore’s Reclining Nude. Yet each of these works is not rooted in advocacy, cataloguing or the making of documents. (Interestingly, one need only walk down the hall from the Nichols’ exhibition to the concurrent, magnificent show of Goya prints to recognize where documenting ends and art begins.)
Nichols’ work is flat aesthetically. Big cats leaping towards the lens are dramatic while images of orphan elephants covered by handlers in protective clothing do evoke sympathy, but they do not excite the imagination the way Rousseau’s dreamy invented landscapes inhabited by oddly acting creatures do. Nor do his photographs exhibit the spiritual origins of Hicks’ biblically inspired painting in which the leopard, kid and children “lie down” together in harmony. Instead, Nichols gives us a pride of lions devouring its prey as a matter-of-fact statement about survival. And compared to the high irony of Palmore’s Reclining Nude, a huge ape assuming the pose of a classical nude, Nichols’ unambiguous photographs of apes are prosaic.
Photographs of Jane Goodall, monkeys and apes seek to educate and inform. The series on elephants revolves around the dire conditions created by poachers, who have imperiled the population of wild elephants despite efforts to stop this illegal practice. Nichols does reach the viewer emotionally, challenging our complacency about disappearance of habitat and the animals living within, but on a level we associate more with appeals from the World Wildlife Federation or the huge number of nature shows on television rather than the ways in which we respond to, say, Durer’s enigmatic and fantastic Rhinoceros. This is not a bad thing. Indeed, judging from the good attendance I saw on an early, hot Saturday morning in mid-July, I would say the show is a success. It just isn’t especially memorable.
A version of this article first appeared in the Broad Street Review