This exhibition explores birds in visual art as cultural symbols and graphic icons.
With more than thirty artists and works in diverse media, Aviary Aesthetic explores the fascination birds have long held for artists and designers across different cultures and in different eras, ranging from late nineteenth-century France to the late twentieth-century United States. Selected from the permanent collection, the works on view reflect a variety of stylistic influences, from realism to surrealism, folk art to scientific illustration.
The artists and makers come from diverse cultural backgrounds. They include Native artists in North America, who incorporate birds as symbols of tribal identity and manifestations of the spirit world, as well as contemporary artists, whose depictions of birds convey mood or draw attention to environmental issues. The exhibition also includes Jewish ritual objects ornamented with cast, hand- drawn and embroidered birds.
All of the works reflect the many ways in which the beauty of birds enhances human design, whether in paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings or ritual objects, and by extension our lives. Through these avian creatures, humanity seeks to understand and communicate its place within the natural world.
Birds at Home, in the Wild and in Between
Will Barnet admired the intimacy achieved by the seventeenth century painter Vermeer and his works share the mystery of the Dutch master’s enigmatic interiors. Barnet frequently used a composition with a figure to one side at a table. He also used his family as models like his daughter, Ona, who may be depicted here, in profile, and included pets or other animals, in this case a pair of doves, a classic symbol of love. This graphic work is from an edition commissioned by The Jewish Museum, New York, and sponsored by Vera and Albert List on the occasion of the Jewish New Year. The still life objects include an open book, apple and an engraved kiddush cup and its mood suggests the period of self-reflection that marks the holiday.
Jon R. Friedman has become best known for his portraits, including public figures such as Bill and Melinda Gates, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and other luminaries in the sciences, politics, finance, medicine, media, technology and other professions. However, he has also been passionate about painting nature. In these painterly, yet detailed, animal “portraits,” a duck is almost camouflaged as it moves dynamically through a body of water rendered in icy blue hues and the plump peahen’s white feathers contrast boldly with the lush green landscape. In the latter work, the peahen nestles into the vegetation, delineated by bold brushwork of alternating wide and narrow multidirectional strokes.
David Weidman created a series of prints featuring cranes and other water birds in the 1970s. While he produced many prints and poster designs, he began his career in Los Angeles in the 1950s and 1960s as an animator. His mid-twentieth century aesthetic led to his work being featured in backgrounds on the highly popular television show Mad Men, which ran from 2007-2015.
Birds are a frequent motif in the work of Dutch artist Anton van Dalen. For the artist, who emigrated from The Netherlands and first settled on the Lower East Side in 1966, they symbolize migration, freedom and community. The artist kept his own pigeon coop on the roof of his lower Manhattan building and made them the subject of other works, such as B.F. Skinner with Project Pigeon (1986). In that life-size painting, van Dalen focused on the behavioral psychologist’s efforts during World War II to train pigeons to identify missile targets.
In this circular, or tondo, shaped canvas, Hunt Slonem has depicted exotic birds as if seen from inside an aviary with plants that help to simulate a natural environment. The overlapping bars and sections of the enclosure create a lively, dynamic series of irregular grids across the canvas. Slonem has kept pet birds—up to 60 at one time—in his New York studio and is known for his many works depicting them, as well as series of bunnies and butterflies.
The title, Tapovan, may have been inspired by trips Slonem made to India. It is a Sanskrit word that has been translated as “forest of austerities or spiritual practice,” which in India traditionally refers to any place that has been used as a spiritual retreat.
Surrealism, Fantasy and Folk Art
Naftali Bezem explores themes of emigration, resettlement and collective memory of the Holocaust using symbols that include candlesticks and often boats, which represent the immigrant’s journey. His frequent portrayals of figures seated at a table recall the final Sabbath the artist spent with his parents before he immigrated to Israel as a teenager and they subsequently were murdered in Auschwitz. The title of this print, from the series Gates of the Immigrants, refers to a central processing camp for immigrants to Israel shortly after it became an independent state.
At lower left, the couple, seated at a sparse table set with a plate and Sabbath candlesticks, crane their necks to look up as a large, mythic bird soars above a walled city. Sporting the distinctive crest of a peafowl with “eyes” on its feathers, the fantastical creature casts a long shadow. Below the city, a leafy tree is abruptly cut off. Rendered in a monochrome black and white, the couple are isolated from both the landscape and the domestic setting. The European-style cupboard evokes the lost world of the artist’s parents. It contains a grid of fractured images, representing Bezem’s memories—a boat, a face, a fish—a personal lexicon of visual symbols whose identities and meanings are enigmatic.
At lower right, the Hebrew letters lamed and vav refer to the 36 righteous souls living in every generation who are privileged to see the Divine presence and responsible for the fate of all the world.
In Lars Bo‘s A Sea Change, two human figures—mirror images of one another—stand in a vast, barren landscape on a puddled shore. One faces and one has its back to the sea. With a low horizon, most of the composition is taken up by the sky dotted with birds. The bodies appear to be disintegrating, but upon closer inspection, one sees that they are made up of individual birds breaking into flight. Perhaps the artist is reflecting on fractured identity and the finite limits of existence. The term “sea change” refers to a metamorphosis or alteration, such as the experience of the figures in this print.
This is one of a series of ten prints from a portfolio accompanied by the poem, “Proverb and Moral” by Israeli playwright and translator Nissim Aloni (1926–1998). A Viennese refugee from a secular Jewish family, Yosl Bergner settled in Israel in 1950. From then on his work is populated by immigrant families. Many figures sport a stylized version of the tembel hat worn by Israeli pioneers. Its name also relates to a slang term in Hebrew meaning fool.
The surreal world of Bergner’s prints includes a child rocking on a broken hobbyhorse and blind figures. Birds correspond to motifs in Aloni’s poem: blind birds proclaim “Springs” and the good fortune foretold by a bird on one’s hat is overshadowed by the presence of trains, an allusion to displacement or, more ominously, to the transport of Jews to ghettoes and death camps during the Holocaust. As Aloni wrote: “Look not that he has birds on his hat:/In his head run trains.”
Miguel Ortiz Berrocal’s interactive puzzle sculptures are meant to engage the viewer. Often, they can be taken apart and reassembled into something else. This articulated sculpture transforms from a dove perched on a Corinthian capital into a jet with landing gear that is engaged when the wings are lifted. The bird’s body is a container for water or tea, the spout revealed when the head is lifted, and the capital can be used as a cup.
It is rare to find depictions of Jewish themes in the work of artists during the Soviet period. Anatoli Kaplan is an exception. While it appears there are many versions of a Yiddish folk song imploring a “little bird” to sing a song, in this one the bird knows the little girl wishes to find a bridegroom and suggests they must tell the matchmaker. “You understand me,” the little girl exclaims in response.
In Jewish folklore, the goat is a symbol of the Jewish people. The animal’s presence at the couple’s feet suggests their union will help to insure the community’s future.
Kaplan adapted the style of the Russian lubok–a popular printed sheet or broadside with images accompanied by text–in his composition, which adds to the nostalgia of the scene. A dove, a symbol of love, appears on the decorative stanchions connecting each of the illustrated cartouches of the border. Above the pair is a cockerel on a branch, a symbol of fertility.
Artists in the Soviet Union like Irina Belopolskaya frequently worked as commercial graphic artists illustrating children’s books based on fairytales and folklore. This work in a naive style depicts a scene from a 1954 play, If You Are Afraid of Grief, You Will Never See Happiness, by Samuil Marshak (b. Voronezh, Russian Empire, 1887–d. Moscow, Russian SFSR, 1964), in which Anfisa, daughter of the Tsar, combs her father’s beard.
In the play, the characters, including the Tsar, who has been having bad luck, try to avoid experiencing pain or disappointment. Prior to this scene, the Tsar goes on a hunt where live birds, here depicted in cages, were intentionally set out on tree branches in advance to ensure his success. However, the moral of the play is that it is the human condition that happiness cannot be known if sadness is not experienced as well.
Garden of Eden is one of twenty-four lithographs from Drawings for the Bible based on drawings Marc Chagall originally created in 1938/39. The lithographs were published in a double issue of Verve, a magazine of art and literature. Garden of Eden refers to Genesis 2:8-9:
8 And the LORD God planted a garden eastward, in Eden; and there He put the man whom He had formed.
9 And out of the ground made the LORD God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
The bird at upper right has a human face resembling the artist himself.
Spirit Symbols and Identity in Native American and First Nations Art
Clemence Wescoupe was a member of the Saulteaux First Nation, a branch of the Ojibwe Nation. His paintings and prints typically represent birds with delicate curvilinear lines against a simple white or color ground. Though not native to Canada, the Sunbird is a small and slender bird with a beak that curves down to facilitate sipping nectar from flowers and eating spiders and other insects. The bright hues in Wescoupe’s print capture the bird’s iridescent blue, green and yellow coloring.
The artist’s technique reflects his emergence in the mid-1970s as part of the Woodlands Style or School, whose practitioners, including Anishinaabe artists, which includes the Ojibwe, in parts of Manitoba and Ontario, were inspired by their history and cosmology. Wescoupe’s work focuses on the birds, animals, legends and spirituality of the Ojibwe.
Rachel Concho is the granddaughter of one of the matriarchs of Acoma pottery, Dolores Sanchez (1888– 1991). She is best known for painted seed jars, such as this one, and from drawing inspiration from ancient designs associated with the Mimbres culture. The classic period of the southwestern indigenous population, known for its black on white pottery of geometric forms and figures, is dated from 1000 to 1130 A.D., and can be traced back to 200 A.D. This jar includes a stylized roadrunner, the eponymous clan to which Concho’s family belongs.
Loretta Huma is from the village of Sichomovi (Sitchumovi), one of three villages on First Mesa, which is located on the Hopi Nation in northeastern Arizona. The painted design on this jar features a hummingbird, which in Hopi culture represents peace, love and happiness. A legend in Hopi culture associates the hummingbird with the bringing of rain.
The roadrunner is a frequent motif found on vessels by Zia potters for more than a hundred years. As in this example by an unrecorded Zia artist, the bird is depicted in a boldly simplified form in two colors, a warm russet for the main part of the body and a darker brown used as outline and to articulate the legs, wings, tail feathers, crest and a single eye in profile. Other designs on the small, red clay olla—an unfired ceramic with a short, wide neck and wider belly—including a common Zia step motif, are in the same two colors against a creamy white ground.
Gregory Izrailevich began making prints with the Leningrad Experimental Workshop in the Soviet Union in 1955. The Workshop fostered an environment of creative freedom at a time when artists were constrained by the dictates of Soviet Socialist Realism.
In a series of lithographs of owls with clocks initiated in 1960, Izrailevich explored the theme of time rapidly slipping away and wisdom, symbolized by the birds. He created about ten different images in which the owls fly or perch holding mechanical clocks or hourglasses. In the example here, one of the owl’s eyes is itself a clock face.
One of the largest owls in the Western Hemisphere, Mel Hunter depicts with precision the typical features of the Great Grey Owl, with x-like arcs between its yellow eyes and concentric circles shaping its face. Self-trained as an artist, Hunter illustrated science fiction as well as scientific and technical works. After moving from New York City to southern Vermont in 1967 he dedicated himself to depicting animals, birds and the changing landscape.
This tempera drawing by Vladimir Gedikyan depicts a scene from a Russian fairytale in which an evil witch kidnaps the eponymous protagonist of the title, Tereschenka, a Pinocchio-like character made of wood. Poised to snatch Tereschenka while he is fishing, the witch imitates his mother’s voice to lure him to shore. Above the central scene, an owl—a symbol of bad omens in Russian folklore—perches ominously, watching what is about to unfold.
Ultimately, Tereschenka escapes from the witch after burning her daughter to death in a fire intended to cook him. Afterward, he pleads with a flock of geese to take him home and one small gosling obliges. He returns home and the story ends happily ever after.
Zuni potter Nellie Bica is especially noted for her owl figurines. She learned to make pottery as early as 1917. Bica has been credited with keeping the craft alive in the Zuni culture and passing it on by teaching it to her daughter and three granddaughters. Zuni Pueblo has a long tradition of making figurative ceramics. Owls were found in Zuni figurines produced for hundreds of years and became popular items for tourists in the southwest by the 1920s. Bica’s cream-colored figure is created from local clay with brown and terracotta detailing.
Realism and Scientific Illustration
“My work with the birds has been a joyful thing. In this tortured world one of the happiest ways of spending a life is to work closely with nature. Although the miraculous perfection of birds and flowers, and indeed all wild things, is beyond the power of man to portray in any medium, he or she who strives towards it, learns to see even more deeply, to glimpse something of the Infinite, and to feel a privileged and very humble person.” —Dorothy Doughty
Dorothy Doughty was a ceramicist who designed popular bird figurines manufactured in limited editions under her supervision by the Royal Worcester Porcelain Company. Creating the molds and achieving the finished products were part of a team effort at the factory. Interest in the complex, delicate and colorful porcelain birds no doubt intensified when Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip gifted a pair of parula warblers to Mamie Eisenhower, the wife of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, during their visit to England in 1957.
Doughty was also a naturalist and ornithologist. She lived in Falmouth, England. According to her obituary in The New York Times, there she studied birds in her own garden and in cages that she kept in her home. For most of her career, Doughty focused exclusively on American birds. Thirty-six pairs and three individual models were designed between 1933 and 1960. They were reproduced, accompanied by descriptions of each, in a book published in 1962.
A painter and etcher, Félix Henri Bracquemond played a key role in the revival of printmaking among the French Impressionists. From the duck in the foreground to the ducklings following and the others in the reeds, Bracquemond’s composition creates a gentle c-curve. Bracquemond, who has been credited with introducing the vogue of Japonisme to France, was a careful observer of nature. The simple rhythm, along with the flatness and patterning in this print, reflect the influence of the popular Japanese painter and printmaker Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849).
In both of these works on paper, Fugi Nakamizo’s composition is dominated by a mostly empty space in the center, with tree boughs asymmetrically framing a bird. The tree limbs and lower foreground elements also act to compress and flatten the pictorial space. Nakamizo’s watercolor technique is delicate and lyrical, emphasizing the softness and delicacy of nature. In one work, the main focus of the composition is a crane, also known as a Japanese crane or Manchurian crane, a rare East Asian bird, which in some cultures is recognized as a symbol of luck, longevity and fidelity.
This unique print of shorebirds by Valentina DuBasky reflects her interest in both abstraction and the naturalistic rendering of birds and the landscape. She explores the relationship between ancient art and the contemporary imagination using vivid colors, bold shapes and expressive lines. Dubasky has written that she incorporates experiences from her travels and research on Buddhist cave paintings and ancient sites in Asia and Southeast Asia in preparation for her work. In her bird paintings and prints, she depicts “waterbirds and warblers that are juxtaposed with petroglyphic marks within layers of ‘strata-like’ paint and suggest a natural ecosystem in which all life is interdependent.”
Working primarily as a landscape painter since the 1980s, Dan Bruggeman has described his work as straddling “the conceptual gap between art, science and history.” Bruggeman explores the conflict in the encounters between humans and the natural environment. Here he has painted on a page from a damaged nineteenth-century ornithology book, creating “a conceptual link between art and science, form and content, certainty and uncertainty.” The bird illustrations are juxtaposed with a tree stump atop which sits a bird’s egg. Its precarious position alludes to the delicate balance between nature and the built environment.
Since childhood, Paul Greenfield has been interested in birds. After receiving his BFA from the Tyler School of Art at Temple University, he moved to Ecuador in 1972. His prints reflect his work with co-author Robert Ridgely on a 20-year project, The Birds of Ecuador. Greenfield also co-authored Birds of Western Ecuador: A Photographic Guide. He has been involved in conservation efforts in Ecuador to preserve avian diversity and habitats and has worked to promote birding tourism.
Birds in Secular and Sacred Jewish Art
The Jewish marriage contract (ketubbah) is a written agreement presented by the bridegroom (chatan) to his bride (kallah). Traditionally, the text is written in Aramaic on parchment. It may be surrounded by decorative and symbolic elements. This marriage contract was given by the bridegroom, Menahem ben Abraham, to Sarah bat Abraham on Monday, the 12th of the Hebrew month of Nisan in 5651 (1891). It is decorated with birds, including a peacock—a common motif in Persian art—which may symbolize eternal life and was associated with the Persian royal court, called the Peacock Throne.
The design of this lamp is typical for Warsaw in the late nineteenth century. The cartouche-shaped back plate is enlivened with a Rococo border. Rampant lions with human-like faces flank a seven-branched menorah, while a pair of doves adjoins the central crown motif. The lamp bears the marks of a Warsaw silversmith R. Hersz Szyldberg whose workshop was located on a street in the former Jewish quarter of that city.
Both secular and ceremonial items were created at the Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts, which was founded in Jerusalem in 1906. Souvenirs, jewelry, vessels, carpets and other items for personal and domestic use often were decorated with themes connected to the Land of Israel. This picture frame is etched with leaves and vines, clusters of grapes and peacocks, as well as the words Bezalel and Jerusalem rendered in stylized Hebrew characters.
In many Jewish homes, a mezuzah is installed on the door post or frame. It contains two texts from Deuteronomy handwritten on parchment. Observant Jews will “kiss” the mezuzah by touching it and then bringing their fingers to their lips each time they enter or leave a home or other room or building. There are no prescriptions for the design of the cases and they often reflect the styles of the times and places in which they are made.
The crown atop this mezuzah is a common symbol in Jewish art including on mezuzahs and can symbolize the Torah or God. The design emphasizes the curving forms of the foliage and branches balanced at top and bottom by two birds.
This blue velvet three-pocket matzah bag is edged with silver threads and decorated with floral and animal motifs, including birds, executed in fish-scale embroidery. The technique was an inexpensive way to imitate pearl embroidery. It was made at a girls’ orphanage in Jerusalem in the early 20th century. The matzah bag is used to hold the unleavened bread that is part of the traditional ritual dinner (seder) during Passover. The holiday commemorates the Jewish people’s liberation from slavery in ancient Egypt.
This exhibition is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council.
All works from the collection of Derfner Judaica Museum + The Art Collection.