Chimeras have affected modern art in various ways as described in another page of this site. Some contemporary artists have sculpted or painted their own interpretation of the myth; for instance Arturo Martini with his rabid and angry male Chimaera. Others, as Annette Messager and Thomas Grunfeld, have been called “Chimeras” their pieces, even though their work may have little to do with the ancient myth. A different case may be that of an artist who has not explicitly mentioned (or not even thinking of) chimeras, but in whose work we can find chimeric elements nevertheless.
Anne Shingleton, British artist living in Tuscany, is such a case. As far as I know, Ms. Shingleton never sculpted a Classic Chimaera. Yet, there is something in her art that deserves a note on a site which deals with chimeras.
First of all, what is exactly a “Chimaera”? If we intend it as a juxtaposition of animals: goat, lion and snake, it is a pointless exercise in the anatomy of the impossible. But the fascination with the concept goes well beyond the anatomy mix; it has to do with the message. The Chimaera is not a freak; it is a symbol. As such, it carries meaning for those who can read it.
The ancient used animals or mixtures of animals to carry their message; a feature of ancient art which has persisted through the middle ages in Europe. It was lost with the Renaissance, when artists purposefully turned away from the previous, medieval, models to reinvent everything again. Renaissance artists thought they were returning to the Classical tradition of Greek and Roman art, but what they were doing, instead, was to develop an original and never seen before way of painting and sculpting. A way that had man as practically the only subject worth depicting. Animals had no place in the finely painted and sculpted pieces of Renaissance artists. This attitude has remained with us to this date.
The very conception of Shingleton’s art makes a clean break with the Renaissance tradition. It goes back squarely to a world of art closer in conception to that of the ancient artists who sculpted or painted those magical creatures that in some cultures are called “chimeras”. Anne Shingleton rarely shows human beings in her work. She shows to us animals; to be more exact creatures which are anatomically animals, but which are no pointless exercises in anatomy. They carry a message, they are symbols for something deeper.
So, Shingleton’s flute playing mantis of the “Wedding Sonata” is a perfect rendition of a real mantis, but it is much more. It is a singing mantis, a pensive mantis, a mantis who is thinking about the meaning of the whole universe and who, like us, cannot find a logical reason for it to exist. Virgil defined the classical Chimera as “vain”, and this term applies perhaps also to this mantis, apparently so happy to be eating her companion.
A deep meaning is apparent in several of Shingleton’s works. In many cases we see animals, frogs, insects and – often – cats; all sculpted or painted with loving care and attention to the details, but all carrying a meaning that goes well beyond the anatomy, well beyond the pure naturalistic representation of the creature.
Our remote ancestors were surrounded by animal spirits; entities which shaped human life as benevolent spirit guides or, at times, as tricksters and evil spirits. Over time, the artificial environment in which we live has caused the spirits to fade away. Anne Shingleton has this ability: the capability of communicating with the spirit world. Maybe it is something that she has inside, maybe it is the fact that she lives in a Tuscan farmhouse in the middle of the Chianti region. Whatever the case, her work is a precious gift for all of us. Chimeras may be a bit silent nowadays, but they haven’t gone away for those who can still hear their voice.
Anne Shingleton was born in Salisbury in 1953. She studied zoology, but she turned professional painter, etcher and sculptor. She has been living in Tuscany since 1980.