Giant ants, insects and other crawling creatures in the Rijksmuseum and Clara the rhinoceros

With two new exhibitions, the Rijksmuseum delves into the animal world. Featuring ancient and modern art, from tiny insects to a famous rhinoceros.

Kees Keijer

You can already see them in the passage under the Rijksmuseum. Along the facade, huge ants crawl across the glass. Further on in the atrium, the procession continues. But things are going crazy in the exhibition wing’s great hall. Hundreds of ants crawl over the walls here. The insects were created by Colombian artist Rafael Gomezbarros. His ant colonies have already settled in many places around the world, and now it’s Amsterdam’s turn. The animals are almost a meter long and made by hand.

The title Casa Tomada (Occupied House) refers to the symbolic meaning of the colony. Gomezbarros created his ants in response to the Colombian civil war, which forced millions of people to leave their homes. But the work is also about migration and forced displacement in a general sense, especially under the influence of political unrest or climate change.

rotting flesh

The idea that ants always seem to be on the way and that they can lift several times their own weight represents the heavy burden people carry when they have to leave home and hearth. Interesting detail: each ant consists of two casts of human skulls sprinkled with sand from different parts of Colombia. The legs are made from jasmine branches, which were used to cover victims during the war to mask their scent.

The ant colony leads to the start of two exhibitions in the Rijksmuseum focusing on the animal kingdom. creeps is about small, crawling creatures such as snakes, lizards, toads, scorpions, spiders, beetles, ants and caterpillars. They were previously seen as lower animal species, which in creation had to settle for a place far below man.

Therefore, in the Middle Ages they were associated with death, the devil and with sins. Depictions of hell teemed with snakes, toads and lizards. Worms and flies mainly feasted on corpses. According to popular belief, all kinds of insects and other crawlers were even born from rotting flesh, without any propagation prior to this.

Flying deer

In the 16th century, attention changes to undergrowth. They were described, depicted, collected and studied. The pioneer was Albrecht Dürer, who for the first time chose an insect as the main subject of a work of art. In 1505, Dürer drew a stag beetle, a small but monumental animal crawling across the paper. The drawing came into the possession of Emperor Rudolf II, became a much-copied icon and a watch model for depicting insects in general. Artists also worked remarkably illusionistically.

Interest in small animals was further fueled by the rise of science and the culture of collecting. Curiosities were filled with lizards in liquor, trapped butterflies or special beetles. The cabinets were also repainted, such as the famous copy by Domenico Remps from around 1690. Nothing is as it seems, the spatial illusions topple over each other.

On the other hand, the magnifications of Robert Hooke, Curator of Experiments at the Royal Society in London, were confrontingly harsh, conducting research with a microscope of his own design. In 1665 he published a book in which, among other things, greatly enlarged fleas, lice, mites and flies were included. A flea turned out to have a gigantic scaly body, hairy legs and mischievous eyes. Many people from the 17th century could not sleep because of it.

Image processing

Albecht Dürer also left his mark on a parallel exhibition at the Rijksmuseum. It is about a particular animal, the rhinoceros Clara, who came to the Netherlands from India in 1741. Clara was an instant sensation, as no one in Europe had seen a rhinoceros at that time. For seventeen years, Clara toured from Amsterdam to Warsaw, from Naples to London, attracting a lot of attention everywhere.

The exhibition in the Rijksmuseum is therefore also about imaging, because until then a print by Dürer from 1515 had set the tone for the depiction of rhinoceros. Dürer, in turn, relied on reports of a rhinoceros that had arrived in Lisbon that year. He had never actually seen the animal in person. The Dürer rhinoceros looks like an animal in knight’s armor. He also had two horns, one on his nose and one on his neck.

Clara suddenly moved that picture. Her arrival was announced by print in all sorts of cities. Here she is remarkably often reminiscent of Dürer’s version. That changes when local artists start drawing her from life. In Paris, where Clara was absolutely crazy, Jean-Baptiste Oudry painted her on a 4.5 meter wide canvas. Clara has been watched all her life, but here she looks at the visitor with some wonder.


The arrival of Clara’s rhinoceros was heralded with prints, as here in Venice in 1751.Statue Palazzo Leonari Montanari

Clara and the Creepers. From Horror to Astonishment, Rijksmuseum, until 15 January

Modern art

The Rijksmuseum combines the historical works of art in the exhibitions with contemporary art. For example, the Italian artist Rossella Biscotti created the installation in 2016 Clara, inspired by the famous rhinoceros. Stacks of bricks equal the weight of an adult rhinoceros and represent the ballast of the VOC ship that transported Clara to Holland. Tobacco leaves refer to the strange foods she ate.

Tomás Saraceno shows a frame with cobwebs. He emphatically presents this artwork as a collaboration between his studio and spiders. “You are invited to enter into a new, symbiotic relationship with these bodies with which we share our damaged planet,” the artist said.

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