According to the Book of Isaiah, an era of peace will eventually dawn when “the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together”. Though nothing is mentioned, per se, about a gorilla lounging with a young woman while the two enjoy videos of baby gorillas on a smartphone, a photo captured this week at the Louisville Zoo in the US state of Kentucky, depicting precisely this unlikely scenario, is doubtless a profound sign of something significant. But what?

In the Frame

Each week Kelly Grovier takes a photo from the news and likens it to a great work of art.

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While an almost invisible protective barrier separates the two figures in the photo (which has gone viral after Lindsey Costello posted the image on Instagram along with the exclamation “My new friend and I enjoy watching videos of baby gorillas!”), a slight glossiness in the glass allows the young woman’s reflection to ghost gauzily into her gentle companion’s dark, muscular shape. The result is an image that shuttles between a tenderness of touch and the cautiousness of an unbridgeable distance.

What unites the two figures is their shared amazement at the wonders of technology that illuminate the screen of the gadget that the young woman is holding – a bond that is particularly poignant at this moment in the history of mankind’s relationship with that species. According to an article published last year in Wired magazine, miners in the Democratic Republic of Congo searching for the metallic ore columbite-tantalite, “a mineral used in almost every kind of electronic device”, are largely responsible for the drastic decline in gorilla populations. Seen in that light, the photo is indeed a sign of something: the alternating warmth and cruelty, kindness and greed, of which humans are uniquely capable.

By offering observers an unexpected vantage on man’s relationship with the creatures that share our planet, Lindsay Costello’s affecting photo with the gorilla Jelani calls to mind an extraordinary painting commissioned by Queen Victoria in 1839. Enthralled by a series of sold-out shows of a lion-taming act performed by the American animal trainer Isaac van Amburgh, Queen Victoria hired the popular animal painter Sir Edwin Landseer to capture the spirit of Amburgh’s sensational act.

By placing us inside an enclosed pen, amid a scrum of fearsome beasts, Landseer’s absorbing painting blurs the boundaries between the tamed and the untamed, what is civilised and what’s wild. The artist has orchestrated an intriguing reversal of anticipated perspective, where the people passing by outside the cage have, from our unexpected vantage, become the exhibit under scrutiny. Intensifying our disorientation is the classical garb worn by the lounging lion tamer, who is said to have concluded his performances by enacting a live tableaux of the Book of Isaiah’s famous verses foretelling the harmonious coexistence of all of God’s creatures. The result is a work, like this week’s photo from Kentucky, that forces us to reflect on what is truly exceptional in the frame: the peacefulness of the animals or the peacefulness of humankind?

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