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 Haludar’s Bengal drawing of a sloth bear circa 1800 has a delightfully lively quality rarely captured in European works.
Haludar’s Bengal drawing of a sloth bear circa 1800 has a delightfully lively quality rarely captured in European works.

IF there’s something worse than a bear market, we are surely heading for one of those. In financial terms, though, bears are as bad as it gets. Amid all the health-crisis talk is the underlying fear that only one situation is worse than death — and that’s financial turmoil. Why is the bear to blame? Why is the bull upheld as the bringing of glorious gain while the bear is the bearer of economic pain?

Not surprisingly, considering the essential pessimism of mankind, the bear concept came before the bull. Although many observers now say the term comes from the bear’s habit of swiping down for the kill — while the bull lifts its horns up — the term was used before people started studying graphs. In the 18th century, there was not the same obsession with growth targets, yield curves and all those other economists’ jargon.

 This jade carving from around 2,000 years ago embodies the spirit of the bear rather than the panda.
This jade carving from around 2,000 years ago embodies the spirit of the bear rather than the panda.

The bear was, for centuries, a useful, tradable commodity. Their skins were highly prized long before winter dwellers could rely on Uniqlo Heat-Tech undergarments. There are relics of bear dependence still.

Anyone who has looked at Queen Elizabeth’s scarlet-clad Guards regiments will have noticed their towering hats. They are still made of bearskin as well as being called “bearskins”. Officers wear a warmer version than the regular soldiers. Both types require an entire bear skin to make.

From the artist’s point of view, bears have never been easy to study in their natural habitat. Sadly, the examples they saw tended to be street performers or circus attractions.

There are still plenty of pubs in England with names like the Dancing Bear or Bear and Staff (not meaning their employees). These give an indication of their activities, which meant that few ended up as assets to artists unless they were trying to show the general level of inhumanity to animals at the time.

APPEAL OF BEARS

 The peoples of the Arctic have a long admiration for polar bears. This carving of a swimming bear could be anything from 500 to 1500 years old.
The peoples of the Arctic have a long admiration for polar bears. This carving of a swimming bear could be anything from 500 to 1500 years old.

There were some kindly folk in the past who kept bears as pets without turning them into a freak show. The Bear Inn, in Oxford, is one of the oldest pubs in England, going back 800 years. In the 16th century, it acquired this name as the owners kept an imported bear, which became a much-loved part of the community.

There have always been people who have seen the appealing side of these massive animals. It’s not just modern National Geographic photographers taking pictures of stranded polar bears on the ice. There are occasional examples of earlier artists being more curious than afraid.

Among these was Haludar, a 19th -century artist from Bengal. His drawing of what is actually a sloth bear is one of the biggest attractions at the British Library. It has also been turned into countless fridge magnets at venues such as the Wallace Collection, where it was recently the star of an exhibition about India in the time of the East India Company.

 A charming bear from ancient Greece, created by a potter more than 4,000 years ago.
A charming bear from ancient Greece, created by a potter more than 4,000 years ago.

In the 20th century, bears assumed the cuddly image that they have now, partly because of Winnie the Pooh but more because of the teddy bear. Let us not forget that this was originally called “Teddy’s Bear” in 1902 as a tribute to US president Teddy Roosevelt. He was a big-time bear hunter who showed mercy to a bear and has forever since seemed to be an early animal-rights activist.

A STICKY RELATIONSHIP

 Bulls and bears featured in the gladiatorial games of the ancient Romans, as seen in this mosaic.
Bulls and bears featured in the gladiatorial games of the ancient Romans, as seen in this mosaic.

For most artists, and people in general, the bear has always been something to be hunted. Two societies that drove them close to extinction while also being fascinated by them were ancient Greece and Rome.

Their writers were intrigued by the similarities between bears and humans, especially their hands. Apparently they work in a similar way to ours. Being able to walk upright also made the ancient Greeks and Romans think that bears might be a remote cousin.

China doesn’t always get a good press out of its treatment of bears. At least these days there are many cute paintings of pandas. These don’t seem to have happened in the past, when for thousands of years it was the more standard brown bear that featured in many media, especially jade.

 Although this ancient Chinese pillow is in black and white, the bear being baited is, again, not a panda.
Although this ancient Chinese pillow is in black and white, the bear being baited is, again, not a panda.

Bear hunting for sport was not practised as much in China as in medieval Europe. There wasn’t only the possibility of getting a decent hat out of a dead one. The meat was something that went into many a medieval stew, when there were still enough bears to go around. It was a treat mainly for the aristocracy as they were the ones doing the hunting. Reviews of the quality of the meat have always been mixed.

Although bears everywhere have generally learned to stay away from humans, they have always been treated as a threat. The fears just keep on coming. Bears have another meaning among a community that is unnameable in Malaysia. The bear market is nothing to do with them though.

 Bear hunting was a popular pursuit in the European Middle Ages. An orphaned cub makes a sad sight to the right of this 15th century Dutch tapestry.
Bear hunting was a popular pursuit in the European Middle Ages. An orphaned cub makes a sad sight to the right of this 15th century Dutch tapestry.

What bears are really good at is not interfering with humans unless there is no alternative. They are not sociable with each other either. With social distancing being the watchword of the moment, perhaps we should all do what bears do best: hibernate for the next few months.

Follow Lucien de Guise on Instagram @crossxcultural

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