Birdwatching at the MIA

You are all here for a lecture on James James Audubon, the great American bird artist. He is the first great bird art in America, but artists have been portraying birds long before his time and all over the world. What I propose is that we all go on safari together, to discover how birds have been depicted in the arts of the world – and get a sense of the scope of the MIA’s collection while we do so.

We will start on the 3rd floor, with some of the American bird species that Audubon painted.

Decoys, of course, came into existence to help hunt birds, not watch them, but that’s a closer connection to Audubon than you might think. Audubon himself must have been an excellent shot, for that is how he collected the birds he then painted. What, you may ask, are decoys doing in an art museum? The definition of “art” is expanding all the time, and folk art is one of the growing areas of our collection, as we display in the gallery behind us. The other question you might fairly ask is why is this short-legged decoy labeled a “curlew,” when the model next to it, with the long legs, is mislabeled as a “sandpiper”? That’s a question I’ve been asking the curators for two years.

We will now move through our galleries of Minnesota and Midwestern art, stopping next in our gallery of Western art, for another bird mystery.
In the 19th and early 20th century, artists tended to put birds in the skies of their landscape paintings, a practice that has gotten lost in more recent years. Charlie Russell, one of the great popularizers of the Western scene, has added drama and a feeling of motion to this painting of Voyageurs by including a swarm of birds approaching the cliff at right. What kind do you think they are? They swarm like crows but have the size of eagles. Russell took many liberties in his art, and these birds may be such an example.

The eagle, if that’s what these are, is a popular bird in America, but when we go back to 18th-century Italy, we’re more likely to encounter depictions of another bird – can you guess what?

Aha! Here we see a white dove representing the Holy Ghost in this painting of the Trinity by Corrado Giaquinto. Across the way, the Holy Ghost is giving Mary the good news in Agostino Masucci’s painting of the Annunciation. Considering how little we think of the domestic pigeon, it is impressive that the dove has acquired such symbolism. How well do you think each artist has done in his efforts at being a bird painter? Or does Giaquinto’s dove look more like the duck that used to descend on Groucho Marx in You Bet Your Life?

Italian art from the Renaissance on is characterized by ideal beauty; while Northern European art is characterized by greater attention to naturalistic detail. That’s the one bit of art history simplification I will give you on this tour. For proof, compare Masucci’s dove with the barn owls in this painting of Diogenes by the German artist Johann Carl Loth. This is the closest we will get to Audubon on this safari. Diogenes carried a lantern in the daytime – when asked why, he said, I am looking for an honest man. Owls, of course, are creatures of the night; so I am not quite sure why Loth has painted Diogenes in a night scene, but the realism of this pair of owls is spectacular.

Our collection is not just paintings, of course, and we will look at one of our most important sculptures next. Bertel Thorvaldsen was a Danish artist working in Rome in the early 19th century, at the height of what we call the neo-classical period. Pompeii and Herculaneum had disgorged their treasures and ancient Rome was seen as the height of fashion and sophistication; so sculptors worked in white marble and chose subjects from Roman mythology, like the story of Zeus and Ganymede. Zeus descended to earth disguised as an eagle, then took the beautiful young shepherd boy away with him to serve wine to the gods. What fascinates me is the exacting detail in the eagle: not just the feathers, but look at his talons, his beak. The eyes are just as alive as those of Mme Sevilly by Houdon, nearby.

Not all the birds look so alive, as you will see when we move to our Dutch 17th century galleries. Remember what I told you about Northern European art – compare the realism of this work by Delff with the idealism of Ganymede. And pity the poor bullfinch with the red breast that has been trapped and will likely be boiled up in one of these beautifully rendered copper pots.

We will see some more birds destined for the kitchen if we move quickly, but first I want to take you back in our collection to the Renaissance in Northern Europe.
Continuing our theme of Northern European naturalism, look at the finely detailed flowers and animals in this painting of the Virgin and Child, commonly attributed to the Master of the Embroidered Foliage, and note the beautiful peacock. Almost every object here carries religious symbolism, and the peacock, with its glorious feathers, represents the paradise that the Christ Child offers to mankind.

As we leave this gallery, we will see large tapestries hanging on the walls, much as they did in a 16th-century chateau or castle, serving simultaneously as insulation and decorative wallpaper. This style is known as “millefleur” because of the thousand flowers that form the background. Notice the upper register, populated by a procession of birds – not artfully drawn but carefully rendered as distinct species, such as the quail second from the left.

Our two most famous bird paintings take us to two countries we have not yet visited: France and England.
No trip to the MIA is complete without visiting our galleries of Impressionism, and no Impressionist is more popular than Claude Monet. You may remember a show we had of Monet’s winter at Vetheuil, when Monet ventured onto the Seine to paint the rare sight of ice floes. That same cold winter he also painted inside, and this still life of pheasants and lapwings dates from that period. As beautiful as the pheasants are, look first at the tablecloth and see how Monet has used other colors to paint white. And how varied are the brushstrokes, thick here, thin there. Now look at all the colors in the pheasants’ feathers, and how they blend so well from a distance.

James Tissot is another Frenchman painting at the end of the 19th century, but for social and economic reasons he moved to England, where he also painted on a river, but in summer and with a very alive bird in the foreground. This is a grey heron, much the same as our great blue heron, and it is rendered very accurately – undoubtedly from a dead model just as Audubon would have done. But what, if anything, strikes you as odd about this image? The bird appears directly in front of us, while the two girls must be rather a bit behind the bird. Yet they are huge, and the bird is small. This appears to be a trick Tissot has picked up from Japanese woodblock prints, which were a revelation to many French artists around this time. Objects in different planes could be presented as one flat surface in a decorative manner: the human eye would not rebel, it would admire, and Tissot has certainly used this technique to stunning advantage.

We will see some Japanese works at the end of our tour, but first I want to introduce you to three other areas of our collection that are found on the second floor.

Native Americans have a special relationship with nature, so it is not surprising that birds figure prominently in their art. The interrelationship of man and animal is nowhere clearer than this raven mask: when closed, the dancer is a raven; when opened, he becomes a man – with a snake on the side. We have a case of Pueblo pots, all depicting a bird that we are told is a roadrunner. Ornithological accuracy is not the aim here; and only this one can convince me he is in fact a roadrunner. For ornithological detail, however, my favorite is this tableau by an Inuit carver. We see reindeer swimming, a ptarmigan sitting on the ice; then look at these nesting ducks. Swing them out, and there are their eggs.

African art is also oblivious to realism, finding power in symbolic representations. These birds of no identifiable species are tangible references to the power of women. This crown is worn only by a Yoruba king in Nigeria, who acknowledges in this sacred headgear that without the support of women he is nothing.

Quickly look inside our gallery of Greek and Roman art, for I want you to see this profusely decorated cinerary box from 3rd century Rome. The eagles and gryphons and rams provide a suitably imperial majesty to this production, but what is that you see, carved in shallow relief in the bottom registers on all three sides? Humble songbirds, maybe thrushes. And look at this pair on the front, how they balance but break up the static symmetry that prevails above and around them. The one with its beak toward the ground, picking up a berry to eat – what a symbol of life for a box to hold your mortal remains.

We end in this gallery of Japanese art, and I find myself in birdwatcher heaven. A school of art in 18th-19th century Japan depicted natural objects with scientific accuracy in detail, but in a purely decorative, or symbolic setting. Many of the themes in this art were taken from China, but they are given a Japanese twist. On this large screen, the crane, the pine and the tortoise all relate to ancient Chinese belief in immortality, as the crane is thought to live for a thousand years. But showing a newly hatched crane on the left suggests, to my mind at least, more the cycle of life than immortality. For the birders, I’d ask you to look closely at the heads of these cranes, then compare them to the cranes in the hanging scroll by Okyo on the opposite wall. It is the same bird, the Japanese crane, but one artist has more carefully studied his subject.
On the side wall is a remarkable small painting of crows by the greatest Japanese artist of the second half of the 19th century, Shibata Zeshin. Look at the original way he has left most of the paper blank and has the crows flying off the top of the page.
Another artist with an offbeat, and I think quite humorous, take on birds is Nagasawa Roshu. Look how he has paired the pompous peacock with the lowly wagtail. One can almost imagine the Aesop Fable that should accompany this juxtaposition. Paired with this kakemono is this other work dripping in birds – I count five separate species. Each bird, from the tits above to the sparrows below, is painted with field-guide precision – not in a realistic landscape like the best of the Audubons, but in a decorative tableau, more suited to the Japanese taste.

We’ve covered four continents and seven centuries and barely glanced at the MIA’s holdings, but we’ve spotted some good birds along the way. As you listen to the lecture, I hope you will think of how Audubon’s way of painting birds is different, or isn’t, from that of other artists in other cultures, and I hope we’ll meet again, in the museum or in the woods. Thank you.

December 11, 2008

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