I recently read a comment (or was it a "tweet"?!) about the supposed "over-use" of bird images in art right now. I, for one, beg to differ- and so do Portlandia's Lisa and Bryce:
Ha! I love that!
Birds have been a favorite subject and symbol portrayed in art since the beginning of... well... art. In fact, what may well be the earliest rock pictograph ever incorporates a bird image.
According to archaeologist Robert Gunn, "...a rock painting that appears to be of a bird that went extinct about 40,000 years ago has been discovered in northern Australia. If confirmed, this would be the oldest rock art anywhere in the world..." (Robert Gunn, 40,000 Year Old Rock Art Site Depicts Extinct Bird, News Junkie Post.)
one of many identical stenciled birds at Djulirri Rock Shelter
Why have birds so captured our imaginations? Not so long ago, if you think about it, humans must have believed them to be magical beings, perhaps related to gods or spirits. No one could have comprehended their amazing and mysterious gift of flight; even a rudimentary knowledge of the underlying physics didn't exist until the 1600's. Their melodious songs and beautiful, sometimes brightly colored feathers would have only reinforced this perception.
Birds have always played an important part in the symbolism, myths, and folktales of many cultures. "Rising above the earth and soaring through the skies, birds have been symbols of power and freedom throughout the ages. In many myths and legends, birds link the human world to the divine or supernatural realms that lie beyond ordinary experience." For more information about the role of birds in mythology, go here.
Roman wall painting, about AD 70
John Burroughs (1837-1921) wrote, "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!"
Ivory-billed Woodpecker by John James Audubon
When you think of art and birds, one of the first names to pop into your head might well be that of John James Audubon (1785-1851), a famous self-taught scientist and artist who spent 18 years of his life in an attempt to paint and describe all the birds of America, and discovering many unknown species along the way. The result was "The Birds of America", a collection of 435 prints of his naturalistic and extremely detailed life-sized paintings.
White Gyrfalcons by John James Audubon
I feel I would be remiss if I didn't mention Charles Darwin, particulary because of his use of bird drawings to illustrate and support his theory of natural selection. Darwin noted that the beaks of several species of finches living on the Galapogos Islands varied from island to island, but correlated to the type of food available to them on each island.
Darwin's drawing of the beak shapes of some finch species on the Galapogos Islands.
There are so many ways in which artists have 'put a bird on it' that I never grow tired of looking at them. I'm completely amazed and intrigued by the limitless variety of methods, media, and styles that have been used to portray birds. Here are a few examples:
Inuit artist Mayoreak Ashoona, Tuulirjuaq (Great Big Loon), stencil and stone cut
Ancient ibis painting copied by Howard Carter (discoverer of King Tut's tomb) from a tomb in Egypt.
Elfi Cella often includes birds in her brilliant mixed media paintings. If you're not familiar with her work, click on her name to check it out.
Lynne Hoppe never fails to touch me... something about the mixture of emotions it evokes, which I can 't quite put into words...
One of my favorite pieces by one of my favorite collage artists, Dick Allowatt- Navigator.
The Ornithologist, 2008, acrylic with mixed media by Donna Iona Drozda
Diving Bird by Erika Giovanna Klien, 1939
Nova by Megan Schliebs
If you're a regular reader of my blog, you may have noticed that I have quite a propensity to put birds on things, myself...
Palimpsest: Language (detail)
Before There Was Anything, Heron and Crow Were There...
Don't worry, I haven't run out of birds yet... Stay tuned for the second installment of "Put a Bird on It"!