Bird Watching: Art that can help save the planet

Just weeks before Pope Francis, in his inaugural homily, explicitly urged listeners to protect the environment, two art exhibitions opened in New York City, both of which explore the environmental theme through extraordinary renderings of birds. Surely Pope Francis, whose namesake is the patron saint of ecology and a world-renowned lover of birds, would be pleased. The two exhibits, one by an American artist, the other by Japanese artists, are mutually enhancing. They illustrate the vital, though limited, role of art in helping viewers first to appreciate, then to save, the planet.

Audubon’s Aviary: The Complete Flock is a major curatorial event. The first installment was recently on view at the New-York Historical Society and is part of a three-year undertaking that will by the end of 2015 present 474 original paintings by John James Audubon (1785-1851). The first part included paintings (many of which are viewable online) from which Audubon, a self-taught naturalist, selected 435 to be engraved for The Birds of America, his life work. Most of the prints were made in London from plates engraved and hand-tinted by Robert Havell Jr., an English master printer. This exhibit marked the first time this collection was shown in its entirety. Part I contains 220 works, including early drawings by the artist.

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One need not be a birder, a watercolorist, an art aficionado or a historian to be exhilarated by the show. For Audubon crafted beautiful, lively works in vivid, accurate colors and arranged his subjects in dramatic compositions, as if caught unaware in the very act of living. You can see, for instance, a redtailed hawk flying in midair with a rabbit in its clutches as another hawk shows menacing interest in the meal. In other paintings a family of yellow-breasted chat busily feather their nest; a flock of bobwhites flee across the landscape when a hawk attacks; and a house wren feeds her brood nestled inside their cozy domicile, a man’s felt hat. In one unforgettable image a young turkey vulture struts out of a tree cavity as if onto the stage of life, clutching his coat of orange fluff. To enhance your viewing experience, the society offers a headset with corresponding bird calls and songs for many of the birds.

As a whole the exhibition communicates Audubon’s reverence for nature through his love of birds. The artist took pains to learn the taxonomy and anatomy, to measure and record each bird’s size, to note male/female distinctions, diet and mating habits. A French immigrant who became a U.S. citizen during his 20s, Audubon was a pioneer and trader who walked through rural Pennsylvania, Ohio and Kentucky and boated down the Ohio River and the Mississippi as far as New Orleans, painting as he went. His knowledge of nature came from decades of observation.

Sometimes one is moved by the sheer beauty of Audubon’s paintings, which combine graphite, watercolor, gouache, pastel and ink. In a dramatic image Audubon passed over for Birds, a great egret stands alone on a branch; the bird’s white feathers, yellow bill and curled back neck stand out against a Paynes grey sky. The scale of the paintings also enthralls. Audubon habitually drew life-size birds, a requirement that made production of Birds expensive and complicated. Yet each volume, its pages 40 inches by 27 inches (known as a “double-elephant” folio), is grand indeed! The scale is most impressive when showing large birds—eagles, falcons, buzzards, herons, owls and wild turkeys.

Part I also includes “Early Birds,” a collection of Audubon’s juvenile paintings. Most are of birds he had shot and hung on string or wires. One set comes from the Houghton Library at Harvard and another from the Musée d’Histoire Naturelle de la Rochelle, Collection Société des Sciences Naturelles de la Charente-Maritime, in France. The latter includes pastels never before seen in the United States that were discovered in 1995 in a museum attic in La Rochelle.

The more you read about Audubon and his relentless quest against formidable odds to create and publish Birds, the clearer is his concern for the environment. Audubon once urged Daniel Webster, who was U.S. secretary of state at the time, to set up a national institution of natural history to conserve the environment and proposed himself as director. At least three of the species he included are now extinct: the Carolina parakeet, the great auk, the passenger pigeon and possibly also the ivory-billed woodpecker.

Ironically, it is thanks to English and Scottish subscribers that The Birds of America was published. The huge volumes finally brought the artist honors and income, though he courted bankruptcy along the way. His was a labor of love. In 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, Audubon’s destitute widow, Lucy, sold Audubon’s originals to the New-York Historical Society for $4,000. The society made an astute investment. In 2000, a complete copy of Birds was sold at Christie’s in New York for $8.8 million.

Birds in the Art of Japan, on show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York through July 28, 2013, contains 150 works by different Japanese artists from many centuries. Here is fine art without the scientific cataloguing. Yet the aesthetic—despite cultural differences, distance and time—is remarkably similar to that of Audubon’s work. These artists also revere their subjects, whether exotic peafowl or humble hens. Their reverence for creation is visible in each artfully made image on rice paper, silk screens or scrolls, or on sliding doors.

In this show as well, one discovers a world inhabited not by humans (though a few sages and others do appear) but by birds. The birds appear singly, in pairs and in groups, and sometimes in scenes with other animals. Suzuki Kiitsu (1796-1858) uses colored inks to depict a single crane flying above a stylized pine tree at sunrise. By contrast, “Flock of Cranes,” an 18th-century screen by Ishida Yutei, is a crowd scene. Each crane makes an individualized gesture: one pecks, another is about to land, still another lifts a wing; yet the group strides across the gilt panels as one flock. Particularly impressive and imposing are the large birds of prey by Kawanabe Kyosai (1831-89) in black ink on paper: in one an eagle plucks out the eyes of a monkey; in another an eagle attacks a mountain lion. Kyosai’s crows demonstrate memorable calligraphic brushwork. “Three Crows in Flight and Two Egrets at Rest,” by Shibata Zeshin (1807-91), is a study in black and white on gold paper.

The exhibition also includes colored woodblock prints, some bold, others delicate, including prints by Utagawa Hiroshigi, a 19th-century artist still popular in the West. In addition to paintings, bird-themed photographs, sculpture, kimonos, baskets and lacquer boxes round out the exhibition. Two modern sculptures are especially noteworthy: “Flight,” by Honma Hideaki (1996), which is a contemporary bamboo sculpture, and “Upright,” by Fukami Suehaaru (2012), a glazed porcelain feather shape. In their spare essence both works recall Constantin Brancusi’s “Bird in Space” (1923).

The Japanese exhibition has the polish and understated depth of centuries of avian observation. The focus, as in “Audubon’s Aviary,” is on a natural world that deserves, as Pope Francis reminds us, our observation, appreciation and protection.

View images from "Audubon's Aviary"  and "Birds in the Art of Japan."

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