On Auks and Audubon

Blitz Magazine, January 1999

Consider the auk;

Becoming extinct because he forgot how to fly,

And could only walk.

Consider man,

Who may well become extinct

Because he forgot how to walk

And learned how to fly

Before he thinked.

                    Ogden Nash

 

          When we see a guy shooting birds out of the air, we say “That jerk’s needlessly killing wildlife to compensate for a lack of, er, something else.”

Two hundred years ago, people probably didn’t think that way, but they did note that James Audubon’s favourite hobby was shooting birds — hundreds at a time. He’d then select attractive corpses, wire them into life-like poses and paint pictures of them. People called him a ‘romantic figure’, likely not imagining that he would become history’s greatest wildlife painter.

          He was born Jean-Jacques Audubon, the bastard son of a French naval officer. In 1812, he dodged the Napoleonic draft and headed to the US, where he posed as the son of a Louisiana plantation owner. He blew all his wife’s money, did time in debtors’ prison and was running a Kentucky grocery store when he saw the work of nature artist Alexander Wilson. Audubon realized that his life-long habit of sketching wildlife produced far superior results.

          Off he went to paint birds, walking 50,000 North American miles. Along the way, he identified 35 new species and sub-species and revolutionized the way his world saw and portrayed nature. He respected birds as predators and gave them personality and character. While others had shown birds in life-like poses, or in their environmental context, or in their true sizes, he was the first to combine all elements. Although he was entirely self-taught, his work is highly-stylized and textured and exhibits the realism, scientific accuracy and artistic merit of a technically-disciplined painter.

          After completing 453 paintings, Audubon headed to Scotland in search of cash and production capabilities. In Edinburgh, then London, his work was engraved, printed and completed, by hand, with watercolours. It took 12 years but, in 1844, the 29” x 39” Birds of America became one of the greatest illustrated book of all time.

          Ever the hopeless entrepreneur, Audubon only sold 200 copies. But he created a huge market for wildlife art and, while he dressed up in buckskin to lecture at such august institutions as the University of Edinburgh (where Charles Darwin was in the audience), other people pirated his work and profited handsomely. The 11th Mayor of Toronto, however, bought an original, and it remains in the Toronto Reference Library. It includes the result of Audubon’s Canadian travels, the 100-plate Birds of Canada collection, and it can be seen at the Vancouver Art Gallery until January 24th.

          Even if you’re not a bird lover, the exhibit is worth a look. Audubon left us a record of the New World as it was before humans got hold of it. In his time, there were 5 billion passenger pigeons and he recorded a flock so large that it took three days to pass. The last one died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914. He reported a two-month period in which a Halifax man sold 400,000 auk eggs (at .25/doz.). The last auk died in Iceland in 1844; now, there are more Audubon auk prints than there are auk museum specimens.

          Humans hunted four Audubon subjects to extinction — there was also the Eskimo Curlew and the Labrador Duck. Some of his other subjects are now endangered, including the Whooping Crane, Peregrine Falcon, Harlequin Duck and Northern Bobwhite. So this may be your only chance to see what those birds look like. And the next time you see some guy using his shotgun to commune with nature, ask him if he can spell ‘Viagra’.

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Three Cultures, Three Icons

Blitz Magazine, July 2002

They epitomized individualism. They didn’t belong to any ‘school’. Their styles were indefinable. Today, they are among their respective countries’ most famous and respected artists.

They are Emily Carr, Georgia O’Keeffe and Frida Kahlo, three extraordinary artists who, while appearing to have little in common, shared a singleness of spirit and a fascination with the themes of nature, culture and self. Their work reinvented traditional imagery relating to the natural landscape, and conveys the sense of the landscape as female, from Carr’s symbolic forests, to O’Keeffe’s anthropomorphic plant forms and Kahlo’s earth-mother self portraits. They also interpreted and expressed the characters of their regions, defining, for the period, a distinct Canadian, American and Mexican experience. Collectively, their work played a critical role in defining the art of the Americas by linking region and nationality.

Emily Carr (1871-1945) was born in Victoria, studied in Europe, then returned to British Columbia and spent four years on Haida Gwaii (the Queen Charlotte Islands), the Skeena River and the islands off northern Vancouver Island, sketching and painting carvings, and recording the lives and rituals, of aboriginal Canadians. She depicted the region’s vast natural beauty, going beyond the presiding misty landscapes by creating a unique visual idiom. She was viewed as a rugged individualist—and scandalously unladylike. This could have contributed to the bust that was her 1913 Vancouver exhibition, after which she quit painting and opened a rooming house. It wasn’t until she was ‘discovered’ in 1927, that she resumed painting. Today, she is one of the world’s most famous female artists.

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Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) never sought recognition. In fact, when she sent samples of her work to a New York friend in 1915, she asked that they not be shown to anyone. But the friend showed them to painter/ photographer/exhibitor Alfred Stieglitz, who promptly included them in a group show and then gave O’Keeffe her own show. Her reputation was immediately made. She and Stieglitz married, and remained happily married until Stieglitz died in 1946, but Stieglitz was a New Yorker; O’Keeffe could only work in New Mexico. There she stayed, creating work characterized by sensually smooth forms and stunning colour. Her animal skulls and desert landscapes are famous icons of modernism and her plant forms distinguish her highly personalized style. (She too was known as an eccentric, wearing nothing but black and associating one with people whom she deemed to be talented and interesting.)

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Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) taught herself to paint while recovering from a 1926 streetcar accident that left her permanently pain-ridden. This pain, and her endurance of 30 operations, led her to create 200 paintings, including many harsh self-portraits, marked by jarring colour and odd spatial relationships. They also chronicle her turbulent relationship with famed Mexican painter Diego Rivera, whom she married in 1929.

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At this time, ‘Mexicanidad’, the embrace of pre-Hispanic Mexican history and culture, gave great currency to the notion of native roots. At the same time, being seen as a primitive provided an avenue for recognition for women artists. While they shared a devotion to communism and a passionate interest in Mexico’s indigenous cultures, the two moved in the most sophisticated circles, with Rivera extolling Kahlo’s work as authentic, unspoiled and primitive. He stressed her Indian heritage (she had Indian blood on her mother’s side, but was of Hungarian-Jewish descent on her father’s), and she encouraged the myth, in part by adopting traditional Mexican dress. Still, she didn’t achieve the recognition of her contemporaries—Rivera, Orozco, Siqueiros, and wasn’t ‘discovered’ until 1980. Today, her stature as an artist and icon is at a level unprecedented for any Mexican figure, male or female.