Published on - Lotte Poté

Artistic giraffes through the ages

Four-legged predecessors to René Magritte

This giraffe in a champagne glass is the star of our exhibition ‘Histoire de ne pas rire’. René Magritte was not the only artist to be inspired by the long-necked creature. Where did he get the idea from? Who preceded him and who followed in his footsteps? A journey through time on the back of six giraffes.

The giraffe as a panther camel

The giraffe was already appealing to the imaginations of the Greeks and the Romans. They named it camelopardalis, which roughly translates as camel with panther print. None other than Julius Caesar brought the first giraffe to Europe to exhibit it to the Roman people.


The giraffe as a mythical creature

In the early 16th century, the Dutch master Hieronymus Bosch painted the monumental triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights. Right beside the Fountain of Life he depicted an enigmatic giraffe. It is not without reason that Bosch is sometimes described as a ‘surrealist avant la lettre’.


The giraffe as a symbol of power

Perhaps the most frequently depicted giraffe is that of the powerful banking family and art patrons De Medici. In the 15th century, the Sultan of Egypt presented it to the family in the hope of receiving their support. It was the first living giraffe in Europe since the Roman era. This inspired Renaissance painters such as Domenico Ghirlandaio and Giorgio Vasari to immortalise him al fresco in the halls of Florentine palazzos.


The giraffe as a match

We skip a few centuries and come to Salvador Dalí. And what do we encounter but a burning giraffe. The artist first used the image of the giraffe in his film The Golden Age, together with director Luis Buñuel. “The male cosmic apocalyptic monster,” is how Dalí is said to have described the giraffe. He believed that it was a harbinger of war.


The giraffe as a toast

Not only Dalí, but also Magritte was fond of having unusual objects catch fire in his work. He did this with a tuba, an egg and a key. Was Magritte inspired for his Cut-Glass Bath by Dalí’s giraffe? That is as great a mystery as the work itself.

Because why is a giraffe standing in a crystal glass? How on earth did it get there, and why is the glass so big? This is Magritte’s typical method for taking objects out of their context, placing them in a new, often absurd context and blowing our minds.


The giraffe as a tragic tale

This giraffe was a star attraction at Documenta in Kassel in 2007. Brownie was one of the public favourites at Kalkilya Zoo in the West Bank. She died when the town became the centre of a military offensive and Israeli troops attacked a Hamas camp. The Austrian artist Peter Friedl did not take sides with this work. He adds an aesthetic experience to the stream of photos that appeared in the media.


Would you like to see Magritte’s giraffe and the work of the Surrealists for yourself? There’s still time! Histoire de ne pas rire. Surrealism in Belgium is on view until 16 June.

Are you a fan of Surrealist film? We can’t give you a burning giraffe, but do have another Surrealist masterpiece: An Andalucian Dog. The film is a collaboration between Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí and is being shown in a film concert on 19 May, with live accompaniment by the Brussels Philharmonic.