Image reproduced by kind permission of the artist: Sam Toft
It’s a warm evening in a quiet church square in Andalusia. Opposite the church is a bar. There are usually people at one or two of the outside tables, but rarely more. Often, one of these tables is occupied by a tall German man with sparse and closely cropped white hair. He likes to sit and watch, his thin face registering passers by. Or, when there are none, he watches the pigeons shifting on the church ledge. At his feet is a cocker spaniel, mainly white with some brown patches arranged as though to make him even more appealing. The spaniel has a narrow, soulful expression. Both are probably around 80 in their species’ years. And they seem to belong together utterly.
So what? You may ask. This picture – of a man and his dog – is replicated everywhere, every day. I have learnt this dog is called Bonito, because I stopped to admire him and this was the first piece of information proffered in a very short exchange. Bonito translates literally as ‘pretty’ but in the case of this male dog the intention was more likely ‘cutely attractive’.
One day I saw the German at the bar without Bonito – and I worried. I could only have raised an eyebrow from some distance, but the German knew. “He is alive,” he said, “in the park with my wife”. I felt disproportionately relieved and a bit foolish.
Another dog in the village resembles a teddy bear as much as any dog could – so much so one might expect it to be under the arm of a little girl. And it stands on legs that, although the full quota of four, stick out like an irregular tripod. Its owner, though, is also a man, and they too sit daily at the same table – of a different bar.
I’m not sure why the man-dog connection touches me so. Millions of women love their dogs. And every dog adores its owner, male or female. Perhaps it’s that this particular pairing allows men to come close to a public display of love which, though rarely overt, is clearly implied. And the quieter and more nonchalant it is, the more moving too.
The artist Sam Toft completely gets it. She has created a character (Ernest Hemingway Mustard) who she usually depicts with a Jack Russell. They are rarely doing more than ‘being together’. There’s one painting called Our daily mooch in which they simply stroll past a row of beach huts. Ernest always wears a large billowing coat. And the portly terrier replicates the shape. Strange how often that’s true, that one appears as an echo of the other. It can be more subtle than resemblance. More of an air. Like human couples who’ve been together forever.
Film Director Carlos Sorín gets it too. His movie Bombón: El Perro, tells the story of a struggling Patagonian mechanic who develops a growing affection for a large, white and ugly dog. The abiding image of the film for me is the two of them sharing the bench seat of his truck driving through Argentina’s wide landscape into an uncertain future.
Each example of this silent symbiosis is pure visual poetry. It’s not so much the dog that stays with me. But the man who is enriched just being by his side.
From Bombón: El Perro (2004)
For more on Sam Toft, visit https://samtoft.co.uk