"The brief hope offered by nature": Four birds

Kenojuak Ashevak, Drawing for The Owl, c.1969. Felt pen on wove paper, 45.5 x 61.1 cm. Gift of M.F. Feheley, Toronto, 1984. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Dorset Fine Arts Photo: NGC

“A world without birds would lay waste to the human heart,” so declares Mark Cocker, one of Britain's foremost writers on nature, in his 2013 tome Birds and People, his study of humanity’s relationship with birds, past and present. It is no revelation that birds beguile and fascinate us. We find rich symbolic possibilities in their beauty, their musical talents and, most powerfully, their ability to take flight. We aren’t merely passively awed by these avian wonders, we consistently – persistently – engage with them. We depict "birdness:" we attempt to recreate it, even to inhabit it, through art.

In his famous essay on aesthetics, The white bird, the English art critic and writer John Berger shares his delight in a folk-art sculpture he owns: two pieces of wood cleverly transformed into a bird, with tail feathers and wings that fan out. In discussing the pleasure derived from considering such an object, he comes to this conclusion: “The white bird is an attempt to translate a message received from the real bird … Art does not imitate nature, it imitates a creation, sometimes to propose an alternative world, sometimes to amplify, to confirm, to make social the brief hope offered by nature.”

The universality of that attempt at translation, that imitation or proposition of hope, is poignantly apparent when considering four particular works in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada. Each of these is, in part, a portrait of a bird. The works span nearly a century, hail from a range of artistic traditions and social contexts, and embody strikingly different sensibilities.

William Harnett, Mallard Drake Hanging, 1883. Oil on canvas, 85.7 x 52.4 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa Photo: NGC

William Harnett’s 1883 oil painting Mallard Drake Hanging, a still-life from the popular 16th- and 17th-century tradition depicting “after the hunt” subjects. This painting may have actually drawn its inspiration directly from similar scenes shot by the French 19th-century photographer Adolphe Braun. It is a simple tableau: a dead mallard hangs by one foot via a length of twine tied slung over a nail in a board. What is remarkable about this painting is its hyperrealism and three-dimensional quality. The grain of the untreated wood seems carved into the canvas, and the fullness of the bird’s body is palpable, a white incandescence pulsing beneath its wing, its every feather textured and tinted with such ornithological faithfulness that, paradoxically, the sense of life in this felled waterfowl is shocking to behold. It almost seems to heave with its final efforts to push through air, before the shot rang out.

Emily Carr, Graveyard Entrance, Campbell River, 1912. Oil on canvas, 77.7 x 53 cm. Bequest of Alan and Marion Gibbons, Ottawa, 2007. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa Photo: NGC

Fast-forward three decades and fly over several state and provincial boundaries to Canadian artist Emily Carr’s Graveyard Entrance, Campbell River. Also an oil painting, yet so far in style and intent from the detailed exactitude of Harnett’s work as to almost suggest a different medium at play. The bird in this painting is a looming, carved thunderbird, a powerful figure in West Coast Indigenous cultures, poised atop a cemetery gate. Missing a wing and one ear tuft, it stretches its single, massive wing outward in a gesture at once welcoming and warning. The work –one of 31 pieces by Carr included in the Gallery’s seminal 1927 exhibition Canadian West Coast Art Native and Modern – is a remaking of a more subdued 1909 watercolour called The Battered Guardian of the Graves. When Carr revisited this painting she was testing techniques picked up on a journey to France: the brightness and expressive brushwork of Fauvism. The colours and forms of a towering stand of trees in the background are echoed in the bird, and with good reason – one is made from the other. The thunderbird bears the quality of an actual avian lifeforce released from the tree it once was. Standing before it, taking it in, one can’t help but think of the souls of those buried beneath, and where, following the thunderbird’s lead, they may have flown.


Joseph Cornell, The Hotel Eden, 1945. Assemblage with music box, 38.3 x 39.7 x 12.1 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation / VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS) / SOCAN (2020) Photo: NGC

In sharp contrast to the wild glory of the thunderbird is the small green parrot – also carved of wood – perched on a dowel in Joseph Cornell’s Hotel Eden, one of this popular American artist’s famous box assemblages: a bird, essentially, in a cage. But this is a cage that, magically, seems to contain a multitude of worlds. Made in 1945, Hotel Eden, like most of Cornell’s box sculptures, is divided into compartments – in this case gritty, discoloured and paint-peeled, like an old cupboard that won’t come clean. Within them is displayed a metal spiral, a yellow ball on a white track, a half-disintegrated Hotel Eden poster, a dozen cylindrical wooden blocks and a glass vial. In the parrot’s beak is a string. A music box handle protrudes from the box’s right side, stuck in a map like a pin. One can imagine turning the handle and launching the tableau into action: the bird tips on its dowel, tugging the string, spinning the spiral, setting the ball rolling. Birds were frequent inhabitants of Cornell’s boxes, which are sometimes described as “object poems” that blur the line between the dream world and reality – that liminal place where we may cross paths with birds and share something of their remarkable experience of the world.

Kenojuak Ashevak, The Owl, 1969. Colour stonecut on japan paper, 61.8 x 92.7 cm. Gift of M.F. Feheley, Toronto, 1984. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.  © Dorset Fine Arts Photo: NGC 

Come another 25 years nearer the present and fly north, way north, to marvel at the creature in Kenojuak Ashevak’s iconic print The Owl, which was made in 1969 and hangs in the Canadian galleries alongside its preparatory drawing. It is interesting to compare the earthy greens and browns of the print to the bright felt-pen orange, red, green, brown and purple of the drawing, a colour arrangement Ashevak would have designed by painstakingly selecting colours and laying her pens in an order that pleased her. A treasured and internationally acclaimed Inuit artist who died in 2013, Ashevak was born in Ikirisaka on Baffin Island in 1927 and gained prominence when her 1960 print The Enchanted Owl was reproduced on a stamp by Canada Post. Revered for her lively portrayals of animals, humans and spirits, Ashevak turned most often to birds, particularly owls, of which she made in excess of 100 prints, many of them sporting intricately textured and exuberant plumage and proud titles such as Audacious Owl, Observant Owl and Sentinel Owl. This owl may be one of the few in her vast output not assigned an adjective. “Bashful” might be appropriate, for unlike many of her boldly outward-peering owls, it casts a downward glance and seems to shyly curl its talons.

Compare this shuffling, open-winged owl to Harnett’s dead, upside-down duck: Ashevak, too, evokes the brush of feathers, with less precision yet more air and a sense of otherworldly majesty. This bird is not caught or sculpted so much as met: it has, for a moment, foregone flight and, in a sense, offered itself up for translation. It recognizes our wonder and accepts our gaze.


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