Leonardo DiCaprio is a global superstar; he is also a dedicated environmentalist. His interest in green issues has evolved into a determination to work on conservation issues. Not many people can name animals that have been driven to extinction – apart from the dodo, and maybe the woolly mammoth. It is a sign of how serious he is that, even as a child, DiCaprio could put together a more specific list. ‘As a kid, I was obsessed with animals that had been hunted to extinction by man such as the Thylacine, the Passenger Pigeon, the Moa, and the Quagga. I remember looking at pictures of them and thinking, "No matter where I go, no matter how far I travel, I will never see these animals alive in the wild."’ He has been working for the past fifteen years on this problem with his foundation. This May he will be hoping to raise a considerable amount of money through a charity auction at Christie’s to take this mission even further.
DiCaprio is meeting the artist Walton Ford in his Manhattan studio to see how he’s coming along with a piece he is creating for the auction. Their love of animals, their fascination with natural history and their reverence for the planet leaps out; with someone as talkative as Ford it can appear in a dazzle of conversation. Anthroponosis, a two-metre high watercolour of an orang-utan swinging on a branch as a naked woman walks by with two other orang-utans and a city burns in the background. It is, typically of Ford’s work, so large it pushes the execution to the edge of possibility: creating a work of this size is technically an extraordinary achievement, let alone the beauty and precision of the image depicted. He deploys these technical demands as a challenge to himself, ‘what comes easy, make it come hard.’
The painting is an exploration of the exchange between human and animal kingdoms, an exploration that seems uniquely appropriate for this particular auction. There is also an enormous sheet prepared for a new work. Ford is sketching what will fill this paper when we arrive. It is to be a tiger, but told through a Vietnamese legend about how the tiger got his stripes (by breaking free from burning ropes). Again, at the centre of this vision is an animal and his relationship to man. But then Ford himself describes his work as depicting the ‘imagined animal’. How could that not force an Leonardo DiCaprio and intertwining of man and beast? small cluster of pictures: photographs of orangutans, National Geographic covers and a photograph of a sculpture in a natural history museum in Europe. DiCaprio’s eye lights on it while he sits in front of the painting admiring the work. He asks Ford if it is his photo. DiCaprio explains he was looking at just this sculpture a few weeks earlier and he thought Ford would enjoy seeing it so he has it on his iphone. Ford got there independently but there is clearly a synthesis between these two artists, both of whom are preoccupied with the natural world. As Ford says, ‘When he started talking to me about animals it all came together; he’s really got his head screwed on about how to save them.’ That’s why he is entering this work for auction.
Ford believes that the Natural History Museum in New York, with its exceptional dioramas that display some of the finest landscape painting, taxidermy, sculpting and modelling you will see, ‘is one of the great things in the world’. He first started looking at them when he was a child, as an escape from his suburban upbringing, and it influenced the way he conceived the world. ‘I could picture animals in my mind in 3D, and draw them when I was a kid and I thought everyone did until I got to school.’ Learning about the environment and learning how to paint are, in a sense, connected. It is a connection that runs through every element of this auction, from its outcome of funding innovative environmental projects and engaging individuals with conservation projects to the art that has been included for sale. Loic Gouzer, a specialist at Christie’s who has collaborated with DiCaprio on this auction, has worked carefully on what they gathered. ‘The selection grew quite organically. It was a mixture of Leo’s taste and my taste – we didn’t agree on everything at first but through the process I believe we managed to convince each other on all artists. We also approached artists we believe would be sensitive to environmental problems.’ The artists who have contributed, from Sterling Ruby to Mark Grotjahn, indeed speak for themselves. For DiCaprio, ‘art is an expression of the human experience, which is deeply shaped by our world and our environment.’ No wonder it has made sense to him to raise money for conservation projects through an art auction and, as he explains, the timing is critical. ‘Nature is abundant, and it is resilient, but there is a tipping point and we need to take action now to protect our environment before it’s too late.’