Dogs: History, Myth, Art by Catherine Johns Hardcover

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When dog lovers stroll through the halls of any major museum, it’s easy to guess where their eyes will land: the foxes in a Japanese woodblock print, the magisterial canine face of the Egyptian god Anubis, the Terrier at the foot of a beggar in a European watercolor. Imagine, then, an exhibit that—instead of lingering on the vibrant colors of the Renaissance, the ancient textiles of Babylonia, or the shadows and light in a Hopper—is assembled just for the dog enthusiast with a sense of aesthetics.

In her new book, Dogs: History, Myth, Art, Catherine Johns has done just that. A retired curator of the Romano-British collections at the British Museum, Johns time-travels, picking up a Victorian brooch here, a Peruvian ceramic vessel there—each object d’art emblazoned with a dog, a wolf, a jackal. And the collection is astonishing. Hounds endlessly pursuing hares around the circumference of a pottery jar, a precise charcoal Saluki dipping her paw into a puddle— Johns’s book is alive not just with images of dogs, but also with their spirits.

Johns takes the reader on a journey behind the cute facade to the allegorical, the symbolic, and even the pragmatic. Against the richness of the book’s images, one might expect to find florid language, but Johns’ tone is that of the matter-of-fact museum docent: “Our first reaction to the 1831 print reproduced here, of two ‘Alpine mastiffs reanimating a Traveller,’ is to roll our eyes. But this is an interesting picture.” Using each two-page spread to contrast two works, Johns’ purpose is art history, not sentimentality. Indeed, the art lover will find the book a worthy read on its own terms and not just as a vehicle to showcase dogs.--

Dogs: History, Myth, Art

Harvard University Press, 208 pp., 2008; $35

Reviewed by Sacha Zimmerman Scoblic, May 2009,

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