Archive for John James Audubon

The Beautiful Vagabonds: Birds in Art

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, XC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 30, 2010 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

The very idea of a bird is a symbol and a suggestion to the poet. A bird seems to be at the top of the scale, so vehement and intense his life. . . . The beautiful vagabonds, endowed with every grace, masters of all climes, and knowing no bounds — how many human aspirations are realised in their free, holiday-lives — and how many suggestions to the poet in their flight and song! — John Burroughs (1837-1921)

Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, center panel, detail,
c. 1503-04
Oil on wood
The Prado, Madrid

In his mysterious and enigmatic allegorical triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights, Netherlandish master Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450-1516) painted enormous fruits and giant birds cavorting with tiny people of all races in a sumptuous garden. This painting presents a complex labyrinth of seemingly contradictory ideas and motifs. The triptych has been interpreted as a critique of the Catholic Church, a panorama of the Creation or a reflection on the humanist writings of Thomas More. Whatever his intent, Bosch’s giant birds are wonderful examples of the way that painters throughout history have used birds—as symbols of nature and the soul, as go-betweens, harbingers and messengers—and as intriguing examples of the wonders of nature.

Here are some of my favorites.

Roman garden painting, detail, first century A.D.
Casa del Bracciale d’Oro, Pompeii

Roman garden painting, detail, first century A.D.
Casa del Bracciale d’Oro, Pompeii

Gardens were often depicted in tomb and wall paintings in the ancient world. There is evidence that many types of gardens flourished—domestic gardens for both relaxation and as sources of food, gardens with sacred and religious meaning, cemetery gardens, opulent orchards and parks. Where there are gardens, there are birds.

Hans Holbein, A Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling, c. 1526-1528
Oil on oak
National Gallery of Art, London

German painter Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/8-1543) was a very versatile artist who did portraits, religious paintings, frescoes and woodcuts, as well as designing jewelry and metalwork. Holbein first traveled to England in 1528 with an introduction to Thomas More from the Renaissance Humanist scholar Erasmus, whose portrait Holbein had painted in  1523. Holbein moved to England permanently in 1532, as court painter to Henry VIII, and there he perfected his art as a portraitist. This wonderfully detailed painting is a study in contrasts, the serious pose of the sitter playing against the lively squirrel and starling (which may have represented the lady’s family coat of arms.) A luminous and rich blue background sets this enigmatic and fascinating portrait off like a jewel.

Georg Flegel, Fruit and Dead Birds, n.d.
Oil on canvas
Private collection, Germany

German still-life painter George Flegel (1566-1638) specialized in paintings of tables set for meals with food, wine and flowers. I find this particular painting of Flegel’s very unusual and idiosyncratic. The elements of the composition are very deliberately laid out on the table and amidst the dead birds, feathers and fruits—all rather scientifically painted in a presentational manner—is perched a little goldfinch, very much alive.

Melchior d’Hondecoeter, The Floating Feather, c. 1680
Oil on canvas
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Melchior d’Hondecoeter (1636-1695) was a Dutch Baroque painter who specialized in painting animals, particularly birds. What is interesting to me about d’Hondecoeter is that he didn’t paint birds merely as trophies of the hunt or table, but as creatures with moods as well as relationships, feelings and inner lives.

Jan van Kessel, Concert of Birds, c. 1660-1670
Oil on copper
National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Flemish painter Jan Van Kessel (1626-1679), the grandson of the great floral painter Jan Breughel the Elder, did beautifully detailed intimate paintings on copper. He was an avid student of the scientific naturalism of his day and excelled at painting insects. I am particularly interested in his panoramic scenes of birds—with their attention to detail and rich coloration, they have a cabinet of curiosities ambiance. Van Kessel also did some very beautiful still lifes, like this one, which includes a lively little bird that is depicted with wonderful movement and energy.

Carel Fabritius, The Goldfinch, 1654
Oil on panel
Royal Picture Gallery, Mauritshuis, The Hague

This delightful painting by Dutch painter Carel Fabritius (1622-1654) is very much a portrait—you feel he has captured the essence of a particular bird. Fabritius, a student of Rembrandt, was very interested in exploring spatial effects and trompe l’oeil. This little goldfinch looks like he could fly off his perch at any moment—if he was not held captive by the little chain attached to his leg. Fabritius very much created his own style. Eschewing the dark backgrounds and dramatically lit subjects popular at the time, he applied paint thickly, using a light-colored textured background and subtle lighting on his subjects.

Indian miniature, Akbar period, 1600-1605
Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Royal figures with their falcons are a fairly common theme in Indian miniatures. In this beautifully naturalistic portrait, the bird is imbued with a definite personality and temperament. Only a member of a royal family would have worn such a magnificent robe. The silk brocade, which depicts animals, birds and plants in a lush landscape, was probably woven in Iran.

Mark Catesby, The White Crown Pigeon, The Coco Plum
Natural History, Volume 1, Plate 25
Hand-colored Etching, London, 1727-1731

Mark Catesby (1682-1749) was an English naturalist who spent 10 years in the American colonies observing the natural history of the New World and collecting specimens. The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands, which he wrote and illustrated, is a magnificent achievement. Catesby’s etchings were innovative—whenever possible, he drew from life, and he often portrays his subjects in flight or in motion, with bits of plants and landscape that suggest their native habitat. His fascination and love of the natural world is evident in each illustration, especially the ones from the original edition, which he personally hand-colored.

John Anster Fitzgerald, The Captive Robin, c. 1864
Oil on canvas
Private collection

At first glance, the work of  Victorian fairy painter John Anster Fitzgerald (1819-1906) is very deceptive—the intense, saturated colors and the beauty of the images initially distract from the often macabre, nightmarish or sadistic subtexts. There’s plenty of evidence that Fitzgerald’s imagery owed more than a little to opium and laudanum use, not an uncommon vice in Victorian England. Robins have a complicated role in fairy-lore which is often ambiguous—they are variously allies and enemies. Fitzgerald painted a number of paintings about robins. As was often the case with fairy paintings, The Captive Robin is mounted in a large hand-made gilded twig frame that is quite extraordinary.

Paul Klee, Twittering Machine, 1922
Oil transfer drawing on paper with watercolor and ink on board with gouache and ink borders
Museum of Modern Art, New York

Swiss artist Paul Klee (1879-1940) brings us into the modern era, which reveals a new kind of menace. His Twittering Machine seems to be about the uneasy alliance between nature and the mechanical, with the distinct possibility that mayhem will ensue. Klee’s nervous, edgy line, contrasted with the soothing blue and violet background, adds another layer of meaning to this unsettling fusion of bird and machine.

René Magritte, The Natural Graces, c. 1961
Oil  on canvas
Private collection

Belgian Surrealist painter René Magritte (1898-1967) transformed and juxtaposed every day things—the changed context jolts us into seeing things we thought were familiar in a new light. Magritte described painting as:

…the art of putting colors side by side in such a way that their real aspect is effaced, so that familiar objects—the sky, people, trees, mountains, furniture, the stars, solid structures, graffiti—become united in a single poetically disciplined image. The poetry of this image dispenses with any symbolic significance, old or new.

Remedios Varo, Troubadour, 1959
Oil on masonite
Private collection

Remedios Varo (1908-1963) was a Spanish-born Surrealist painter who adopted Mexico as her home. Varo’s imagery was drawn from nature, and she had an intense and abiding interest in science. As a child she often visited the Prado with her father, and it there that she discovered Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, whose mixture of wit and menace she found inspiring. Birds play a large role in Varo’s personal iconography and appear often in various stages of transformation in her work.

Walton Ford, Eothen, 2001
Watercolor, gouache, pencil and ink on paper
Courtesy Paul Kasmin Gallery, New York

American watercolorist and printmaker Walton Ford (1960-) creates beautifully rendered large-scale images of nature gone amok. At first we are seduced by the beauty of the image, then we realize that the work is haunted by a sense of impending doom—something sinister and violent is taking place. Ford’s work operates on several levels at once, seeming to celebrate the romantic beauty of the work of naturalist John James Audubon while it satirizes colonialism and consumerism, mourns the extinction of species and dispassionately chronicles the destructive forces inherent in nature.

Darwin’s finches from the Galapagos Islands

No other creatures in nature represent as complex and intriguing a variety of qualities as birds. Artists have pictured them in many guises—as harbingers of doom, symbols of resurrection and as intermediaries between man and the Divine. They represent dreams, magical powers, clairvoyance and the mysteries of the unconscious. With their enormous variety and often spectacular beauty they embody the infinite and fearful powers of nature. As Charles Darwin wrote:

We behold the face of nature bright with gladness. We do not see, or we forget, that the birds singing around us live on insects or seeds, constantly destroying life.

Venetian Red Notebook: Don Hong-Oai’s Arresting Photographs

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Contemporary Art, Liz Hager, Painting, Photography with tags , , , , , , on November 6, 2009 by Liz Hager


Don Hong-Oai, Only Me Yellow Mountain, 14×11,”
sepia-toned gelatin-silver print (courtesy Gallery 71).

Though the landscape genre has long been appreciated in Western art, “nature art”—the depiction of nature and her species—has struggled to be taken seriously as a fine art form.  Not to be confused with domesticated animal portraiture, essentially a form of still life (i.e. animals as possessions), “nature art” is most often categorized as “illustration.” Perhaps that’s because, in the West, the depiction of the natural world has historically served science.  Even Audubon thought of himself as a scientist first; drawing and painting were just the means of documenting his findings.

John James Audubon, Belted Kingfisher, Havell plate no. 77, ca. 1812; 1822 (courtesy New York Public Library).

Asian masters seem to have been free from such constraints, no doubt because of the long tradition of purposeful reverence for nature there. Taoists believe that harmony with the Tao can only be achieved by living in accord with nature. Nature should be understood, befriended, not conquered or exploited. Additionally, Sung Dynasty (960-1979) Confucianists sought knowledge through “things,” reflecting their interest in observation and understanding of the world through nature.

Fan K’uan (990-1030), Sitting in Contemplation by a Stream, ink on silk.

Long before the Impressionists then, Chinese tradition dictated that a painter actually observe nature for long periods—notice how animals behaved, interacted with flora; record how the landscape changes with the seasons, distances, and times of the day—so that it would deeply resonate with him. In China’s tradition ofbird and flower painting,” which dates from the Tang Dynasty (8th/9th centuries), the birds and flowers are but one among many elements in an overall composition. The image isn’t meant to convey specifics, but the emotional impact of nature. Eventually two main trends evolved, one, Gong Bi, in which artists focused on small details, careful application of color and meticulous technique, giving their art a realistic and ornamental feeling; the other,  Xie Yi, looser and more expressionistic.

Don Hong-Oai, Winter Fog, 14×11,”
sepia-toned gelatin-silver print (courtesy Photo Eye Gallery).

With the rise of photography as a fine art medium at the dawn of the 20th century, it was only natural that photographers would at first imitate the motifs and techniques of painting. Stieglitz and his contemporaries did much to champion American “pictorialism, ” recognizable through its soft-focus, painterly style. (See Venetian Red’s The Birth of Photographic Pictorialism).

In the 1940s, possibly in Hong Kong, photographers popularized a style of composite image, which came to be known as “Asian Pictorialism.”  The images, based on the motifs of the “bird and flower” paintings, made extensive use of double negatives and montaged elements, all assembled in a vaguely realistic way.  Like the paintings, realism was not the goal; these photographic images were supposed to communicate the emotive power of nature.

Don Hong-Oai, Hoops, 11×14,”
sepia-toned gelatin-silver print (courtesy Photo Eye Gallery).

Don Hong-Oai (1929-2004) was one of the last photographers to work in this tradition.  Although the influences are recognizable (down to the “chop,” or calligraphic signature on the photographs), Hong-Oai’s images are truly unique. The photographer managed to create idealized scenes through hauntingly-specific details. He’s suggested whole worlds through the sparsest of details. His images are often atmospheric, although never overtly sentimental. However, the penultimate magic of these images lies in their alluding to the passage of time without being rooted in any specific time. Time passes; time is arrested.

Don Hong-Oai, Returning at Dusk, 11×14,”
sepia-tone gelatin-silver print.

Born in Canton, China, Hong-Oai was the youngest in a family of 25 children. His early life was dominated by poverty. As a young child, after the sudden death of his parents, he was sent to live in Saigon. Beginning as a seven-year old, Hong-Oai apprenticed to a photography studio, where he learned the basic techniques of photography. He nurtured an interest in photographing the landscape, which he did on his time off with the studio camera. (Who knows how long it must have taken him to save the $48 necessary to buy his first camera?) Later, he studied at the Vietnam University College of Art, eventually becoming a teacher there.

He studied with an earlier master of the Asian pictorial style, Long Chin-San. Chin-San had been trained in the techniques of “bird and flower painting,” and searched for ways to translate the overall effect into photography. He is reputed to have perfected the negative layering method around 1939.

Long Chin-San, Longevity, 1961, photograph.

Hong-Oai remained in Vietnam through the war. In 1979, however, because of disturbances between China and Vietnam, the photographer fled the country by boat, arriving at the age of 50 in San Francisco speaking no English. For years, he lived in Chinatown, where he had a small darkroom. He sold his prints at local street fairs.  Periodically, he returned to China to replenish his inventory of images.

Don Hong-Oai, Solitary Wooden Boat, 11×14,”
sepia-tone gelatin-silver print.

Only in the last decade of his life was Don Hong-Oai discovered by a wider public. These days, print of his work often start at $2,600 and a first edition of his book, Photographic Memories, now out of print, was recently offered on Amazon for $1,242.

Photographer Don Hong-Oai

Wider Connections

Utata—Don Hong-Oai biography

The Nonist—The World According to Chin-san Long

Birds: The Art of Ornithology

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