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Drawn from Paradise by Richard Attenborough and Errol FullerDrawn from Paradise: The discovery, art and natural history of the birds of paradise, David Attenborough and Errol Fuller (Collins 2012)

A book about feats for the eyes that also is a feast for the eyes. The second set of eyes are human; the first are avine – specifically, the eyes of female birds of paradise. The gorgeous plumage of the males has been created by female preference over many generations. The more attractive a male’s feathers and the more energetically and skilfully he displays, the more likely he has been to mate and leave offspring. As the most attractive males in each generation are selected, so the features that make them attractive grow ever more exaggerated, even – or especially – if they become a handicap in escaping predators and so on.

Darwin called this “sexual selection” and it’s most famous in the peacock. Peahens are drab and inconspicuous by comparison, but they are the driving force for the spectacular feathers of the male. If peacocks didn’t exist, would any artist have been able to create them? I don’t think so. The same goes for the birds of paradise: it’s not just their beauty and extravagance that are astonishing. So is their variety. Some have golden feathers, some have scarlet, some have celestial blue. Some have plumes, some ruffs, some sprays, some wires and some “flank feathers” that rise “to form a perfect ellipse”, framing the male’s head during courtship (ch. 6, “The Sicklebills”, pg. 142).

That’s the brown sicklebill, Epimachus mayeri. The superb bird of paradise, Lophorina superba, does something even stranger, raising a cape of feathers on its back to create a kind of cone around its head, in the shadow of which two white head-feathers glimmer like eyes. But it wasn’t until artists saw these birds in the wild that they knew precisely how to represent them. Before that, they’d used guesswork and inevitably got many things wrong. For a long time, as Attenborough describes, artists were working from dead specimens, sometimes traded several times before they reached Europe and sometimes lacking their wings and feet. This gave rise to the legend that the birds floated rather than flew, living permanently in the sky till they died and fell to earth. Hence the name “birds of paradise”:

In 1522 the first of many, many bird of paradise plumes arrived in Europe. Within just months they attracted the attention of a celebrated artist, Hans Baldung Grien. His picture may have been a comparatively flimsy affair, but it began a tradition among artists that has continued to this day. The list of artists who have felt compelled to paint or draw birds of paradise is studded with some illustrious names: Brueghel, Rubens, Rembrandt, Millais. Then there are men who actually specialised in painting birds: [Jacques] Barraband, [Josef] Wolf, [William] Hart, [John] Gould, [John Gerrard] Keulemans. And, of course, there are modern painters. Walter Weber produced a series of iconic images for The National Geographic magazine during the early 1950s. William T. Cooper illustrated two major monographs on birds of paradise, and Raymond Ching is known throughout the world for his poetic and highly charged paintings. (Introduction, pg. 32)

The work of these artists illustrates the book. There are no photographs, just paintings, drawings and engravings from the six centuries during which Europeans have been fascinated and dazzled by the Paradisaeidea. Errol Fuller, the co-author of the book, is one of the artists. He’s a skilful painter, but he has to be: birds of paradise are challenging subjects, the visual equivalent of a complicated piece for violin or piano. An artist has to have full command of colour and line. The artists here do: you can almost smell the jungle in some modern paintings.

Jacques Barraband, Petit oiseau de paradis

Jacques Barraband, Petit oiseau de paradis


But that realism is the influence of photography and of personal observation. The Frenchman Jacques Barraband (1761-1809) never got to Papua New Guinea or northern Australia, so he never saw the living birds, but he remains one of the great paradiseans, able to bring dead specimens to life on canvas. The biographical section at the end of the book, describing “People Associated with the Discovery and Visual Representation of Birds of Paradise”, says this:

Despite the incredible beauty of his images, and the great influence they have had, comparatively little is known of Jacques Barraband and it has not proved possible to find a portrait of him. He was the son of a weaver, and it seems he worked originally as a tapestry designer at Gobelin’s, and later turned his hand to decorating porcelain at the famous factory in Sèvres. (pg. 236)

So we know he existed, but we don’t have an image of him. The opposite applies to some birds of paradise: we have images, but don’t know whether they ever existed. Some paintings and drawings are mysterious. Are they are invented or based on real specimens that are now lost? Birds of paradise often hybridize, adding more phantasmogoric variety to the family, and a few species may have gone extinct or be awaiting re-discovery.

Those are tantalizing prospects, but the biological interest of this book isn’t confined to birds. The biographical section at the back contrasts with what’s gone before. Birds of paradise come in many colours and shapes, but the “People Associated with” their “Discovery and Visual Representation” are overwhelmingly white males of northern European ancestry. They’re the ones who have created the beautiful art and run the enormous risks. New Guinea has always been a dangerous place, with its fast rivers, mountainous terrain, violent tribes and tropical diseases. That’s why it attracted one of the twentieth century’s greatest adrenalin-junkies:

Adventurer, bar-fly, beachcomber, boxer, brawler, drifter, entertainer, freedom fighter, lover, platypus and bird fancier, prospector, self-confessed thief, sailor, writer, Hollywood icon, Errol Flynn [1909-59] packed every conceivable human activity into his whirlwind tour through life. He starred in almost 60 films, wrote two novels and an autobiography, before dying at the comparatively early age of 50 from the effects of a totally worn-out body. (pg. 240)

I was surprised to find Errol Flynn here, but his presence and the quote about collecting birds of paradise from his memoir My Wicked, Wicked Ways (1960) make the book even stranger and even more satisfying to read. White men like Flynn are as spectacular for their achievements as male birds of paradise are for their plumage. Perhaps sexual selection explains both sets of phenomena. Certainly some kind of evolution does, because genetics are responsible for the feats of both. There is much more to this book than birds, but phantasmagoric feathers are why it’s such a feast for the eyes.

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A Face to the World by Laura Cumming
A Face to the World: On Self-Portraits, Laura Cumming (HarperPress 2009; paperback 2010)

An interesting, erudite and enlightening book. And I didn’t come to it hoping for the best: Laura Cumming “has been the art critic of The Observer since 1999”. The Observer is the Guardian-on-Sunday, and is more of the same. Only more so: it’s even more pretentious and more politically correct than its weekday partner. And sure enough, Cumming uses that special dialect of English known as Guardianese:

Jan Van Eyck was here. It is not strictly accurate in terms of tense, of course, for Van Eyck has to be right here now as he paints his story on the wall. (ch. 1, “Secrets”, pg. 20)


But it’s endurable Guardianese and I managed to read the whole text as I looked at all the pictures, which ranged from the heights of genius, like Van Eyck, Dürer and Caravaggio, to the depths of dreck, like Philip Guston, Wyndham Lewis and Egon Schiele. I don’t think much of Van Gogh or Artemisia Gentileschi either. Gentileschi led a more interesting life than other female self-portraitists like Adélaïde Labille-Guiard (1749-1803) and Élisabeth Vigée-Le Brun (1755-1842), but she didn’t paint as well.

And though I like Velázquez, I don’t like Las Meninas (c. 1656), his study of a moment of life in the Spanish court, with the painter himself included. But Cumming has some interesting things to say about it, setting it into its historical, cultural and biographical context. And you’ll see Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ (c. 1602) in a new way when you learn that the figure on the right holding up a lantern is Caravaggio himself:

He is on the very outskirts of the picture, struggling to see and make the gospel story visible, this artist evangelist. But his light also aids the soldiers he appears to accompany. Is he not in some sense their accomplice? (ch. 4, “Motive, Means and Opportunity”, pp. 65-6)

Caravaggio, Cattura di Cristo (1602)

Caravaggio, Cattura di Cristo (1602)


Careful thought goes into great art and it takes an intelligent critic to draw it out. Cumming does so with skill and subtlety and sets a good example for people with lazy eyes like me. I found myself looking ahead in the book, trying to understand the pictures better before I read what she had to say about them. I didn’t do it very well, but I’ve learnt the error of my ways. I just wish she would learn the error of her ways in terms of “in terms of” and other items of Guardianese, because it would make the text worthier of its subjects. And the text didn’t convert me to the greatness of Rembrandt and Goya. Their genius remains veiled: I just don’t like them. Not so for Van Eyck, Dürer and Caravaggio. I thought they were geniuses before I read this book and I understand them better now that I have.
Philip Guston, The Studio (1969)

Philip Guston, The Studio (1969)

But to understand them even better, we’ll have to use science and genetics. White European males have supplied a disproportionate share of greatness to art, just as they have to literature, science and mathematics. There’s something to explain there, though I’m sure that Cumming would be horrified at the suggestion of male and European superiority. She certainly doesn’t hint at it here, but her choices speak for themselves: Frida Kahlo is one of the rare exceptions to the white-male-European rule. And I don’t think she was a good artist, though she was a powerful one. Self-portraits have a special power and this book helps you understand it better.
Portrait of a Man by Jan van Eyck (1433)

Jan van Eyck, Portrait of a Man (1433)

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