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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Avian Art

Phoenix, the Bird of Life, Igor Paley                                            
Japanese Bird Painting,
ca. 1750-1850
There are three or four basic approaches in studying art. One is to study the artists themselves, and through them, their work (I do a lot of that here). Another is to study each art medium and through that the artists and their work. The third means is to study art from strictly a historic framework, not necessarily chronologically, but by stylistic periods or ethnic, national, or political eras. If you're a history buff, that's fine, otherwise you'll be bored to death. And finally, you can study art with regard to various content areas (perhaps the most interesting approach). There are major types of content with each of those content areas breaking down into several minor ones. Take the painting of animals, for instance. There's wildlife and...for lack of a better term, "tame" life or domestic animals which itself can be broken down into livestock and pets. Over the years in writing I've covered such content areas involving animals as bovine art, equine art, feline art, canine art, and most recently juvenile humanoid art broken down by gender (the two items directly below). Now that's really exploring a content area with a fine tooth comb. Yet even those two categories could be refined down to studying them by age, ethnicity, by country, and even by era--English Victorian pre-adolescent female portraiture.

Roseate Spoonbill, John James Audubon
Egyptian wood falcon sculpture
representing Horus, ca. 945 B.C.
When it comes to animals, I've still got a number of classifications to explore. I've never dealt with porcine art, marine art, reptilian art, ovine art, or avian art. So, let's talk about the last one--better known as birds. When we associate art and birds, the first name to come to mind is John James Audubon. That's good. Audubon's work (above) stands head and shoulders over that of any other avian artist of his time. But speaking of time, Audubon was not the first nor the last artist to paint birds. The earliest "birdwatchers" were probably Egyptian, some of their oldest surviving images and objects (left) dating from roughly 1,000 BC. There may be some Chinese and Japanese bird art (above, right) with roots nearly as old.

A 1st-century BC. Roman mosaic depiction of birds
(and their mortal enemy, bottom, right).

The Romans didn't paint birds, or model them, but their mosaics (above) were rich in a avid appreciation of avian art. Also, like the United States today, the Romans chose the same powerful bird as their national symbol. Moreover, as with virtually every other creature in the animal kingdom, birds have found their way into both ancient and modern folklore, everything from Igor Paley's expressionist Phoenix (top) to Fritz Freleng's 1947 Tweety Pie (right). Artists M.C. Escher (below, right) has used the bird's streamline shape juxtaposed with the similarly streamlined fish on several occasions to tessellate into fascinating designs. Opposite Escher harmonious grace, Donald Gialanella has chosen to depict in scrap steel the clumsy movements of his "pet" Dodo (below).

Metamorphosis--Fish and Birds,
1938, M.C. Escher's
Dodo, Donald Gialanella,
steel sculpture.
Drippy Bird, Rich Johnson
Speaking of clumsy, with the exception of the DoDo, it's hard to imagine a more ungainly avian creature (at least on land) than the "tuxedoed" penguin out for a stroll in Richard Johnson's watercolor (below). Besides being clumsy at times, all birds are "drippy" as seen by Rich Johnson (left, not the penguin artist, Richard Johnson, mentioned just above). Yet it seems to be the most colorful of the avian aristocracy which tend to captivate the painters among us who dabble in illusionary feathers. The artist Vera Cauwenbergh of Flanders, Belgium, paints Macaws (bottom) with much the same color flourish as Igor Paley's mythological Phoenix, the Bird of Life (top), except that hers, with their Technicolor plumage, actually do exist.

Richard Johnson's watercolor penguin painting
Vera Cauwenberghs' Macaws


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