To paraphrase the old rhyme: "There is one great big lion called Maurice, in very strange art show he stars. He lies in a somnolent posture, gazing at paintings hung behind his bars."
Maurice, and his companion Georgette, are among a score or more animals whose cages have been decorated, or invaded, by works of art.
The ostriches share their enclosure with a copper sculpture of a grand piano, decorated with golden busts of female heads which look rather like ostrich eggs. The orang-utangs live with blown-up photographs of three of the official artists of Nazi Germany. The vultures have large reproductions of dollar bills stuck to their tree, like leaves. The owls, wisely, co- habit with busts of the French philosophers, Rousseau and Descartes. The sloth has a full-length human portrait, which has been hung upside down, so he can see it the right way up (if he can be bothered).
This is the first time an art exhibition has been held behind the bars of animals' cages in a zoo. For Braco Dimitrijevic, 49, the show is the realization of a 20-year dream and the culmination of 10 years of pestering the French authorities.
The Sarajevo-born artist is celebrated for his sometimes dotty, often startling form of post-historical art, which seeks to squash fixed categories and pre-conceptions. His previous exploits include taking photographs of passers-by in the street, blowing them up, Stalin-like, to 30ft high and hanging them on public buildings. He also got in trouble with the British tabloid press for an exhibition at the Tate, in which he used original Turner and Cezanne canvasses to prop open cupboards.
The exhibition at the Menagerie in the Jardin des Plantes (beside the Seine near the Austerlitz station, a brisk walk from Notre Dame and open until 10 November) is the ultimate statement of his guiding principle. In 1979, he declared: "Seen from the moon, it's no distance from the Louvre to the zoo..."
During a brief, guided tour Mr Dimitrijevic enthusiastically recalled what the lions ("fauves" or wild animals) did when they first found reproductions of celebrated fauviste paintings in their cage - they made love. When the camels found mock marble pillars carved with the artists' favourite aphorisms in their enclosure they smashed them to bits. And when the male orang-utang saw a portrait of Hitler's architect Albert Speer he slapped him in the face.
As Mr Dimitrijevic rattled the bars of the lions' cage with his umbrella to persuade them to move into better positions for the Independent's photographer (Maurice and Georgette are old friends by now), he explained the meaning of his work. "In the 19th century, man categorised everything. He separated the museum from the zoo. The human from the animal. Nature from culture. People from their environment. I believe these are false categories, which must be broken down if we are to understand our true nature."
Each display - there were 20 before the camels got the hump - has its own subsidiary message, some of which are obvious (vultures/dollar bills), and others rather moving. The lions share their cage with six paintings by celebrated fauviste artists of the thirties, whose works were condemned as decadent by the Nazis and, in some cases, publicly burned. The artists include Leger, Chagall and Mr Dimitrijevic's father.
"The reproductions in the cages are strengthened to withstand rain but not to withstand attacks from the lions," said Mr Dimitrijevic. "In fact, the lions have left them completely alone. Humans destroyed the art; the lions did not."
As a man who admires animals, does he not share the aversion to zoos of many other animal-lovers (and some French arts journalists, who refused to attend because they hated the smell)? "I understand what animal lovers say. The zoo, like man, is neither purely cultural, nor purely natural. It is a statement of the human dilemma. Look at Maurice here. He was born in the zoo. He is the third generation to be born in the zoo. Could we really release him into the wild?"
By this time, Maurice had slumped in what seem to have become his favourite relaxed posture: head against the bars, eyes half-open, staring at one of Mr Dimitrijevic's gilt-framed reproductions of Thirties art.Reuse content