Dominic Hills’s latest print, ‘Les bestes et les gens’ (‘Beasts and people’), presents a disconcerting vision of an individual enveloped by rats and frogs. To my eyes, this image, inspired in part by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, is also reminiscent of Hieronymus Bosch or Arcimboldo or even of Sartre’s descriptions of nausea.
The verbal prompt for the print comes from a piece of nonsense by Bruscambille, in which the comedian takes his cue from Rabelais. The master had slipped a blink-and-you-miss-it insult into an episode of gibberish – ‘Quand le soleil est couché toutes bestes sont à l’ombre’ (‘When the sun is wholly set, all beasts are in the shade’) – which the apprentice incorporates into one of his speeches, to toy with his audience:
L’autre soir comme le Soleil estoit couché, toutes les bestes, Messieurs, estoient à l’ombre, comme vous estes, je rencontray un grand petit homme rousseau, qui avoit la barbe noire, lequel venoit d’un pays, où excepté les bestes & les gens, il n’y avoit personne
[The other evening as the sun had set, all beasts, gentlemen, were in the shade, as you are, I met a tall short man with red hair, who had a black beard, and who came from a country where, except beasts and people, there was no-one]
The insult is more obvious in Bruscambille’s version but still the audience would have had had to keep up with him so, deliberately and perversely, only the clever ones would have got it that he was saying they were idiots. Equally, a moment’s thought tells us that a country where, except animals and people, there is no-one, is any country you might care to visit. Unless, that is, you push the meaning of ‘no-one’ and end up in the dystopian world depicted by Dominic Hills’s subtle knife.