Birds in Art

The more I look at the painting, the more my gaze wanders from the face of the old, shabby-looking woman to the owl at her shoulder. The owl here stands for drunkenness and bad, vulgar behaviour. In the 18th century there was the expression “as drunk as an owl”. The picture hangs in the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin, which was painted by Frans Hals in 1630 is called Malle Babbe1, 2. Owls are also considered wise because of their sharpened senses and night vision abilities, which already fascinated the ancient Greeks. The owl was the companion animal of the goddess Athena, the patron goddess of Athens and the goddess of wisdom.

People have been fascinated by birds for more than 40,000 years.  This is known from various cave drawings, for example those from Chauvet in France. It is said that the soul of mankind is reflected in birds and this is expressed in art in its diversity. Frank Matthias Kammel, General Director of the Bavarian National Museum, sees the bird as a partner, because it assists man acoustically, by singing. Today I will take you on a journey into the representation and symbolism of the bird in art. It is more of a short journey, a weekend trip, so to speak, because the subject is huge. Birds are aesthetic individuals in their own right in art. 

In a programme broadcast on the German station 3sat3, the speaker reported that the bird is a symbol of purity and freedom because it can fly – a human longing. But it is also a symbol of peace and vanity because many birds look so beautiful. All this along with standing for drunkenness and, we will come to this later, alluring eroticism.

We all know representations of the white dove, which in Christian mythology represents the Holy Spirit (see the Gospel of Matthew) and is still considered a symbol of peace today. But why has the dove become a symbol of peace? While Noah was on his ark for 40 days and 40 nights, he released 3 doves. One came back with an olive branch in its beak, which made Noah realise that land must be near and that God had made peace with mankind. But the contribution of Pablo Picasso, who joined the Communist Party in Paris in 1944, seems more important to me. Communists and pacifists organised the first “World Congress of Fighters for Peace” in 1949, for which Picasso was asked to design a poster with a peace symbol4

The swan is one of the most beautiful and noble of water birds. If you get too close to its young, it can turn powerfully belligerent. In art, it stands for purity on the one hand. On the other hand, it has an ambivalent meaning: white plumage and dark flesh! A hunting publication wrote about the consumption of swan in former noble houses: “After roasting, the dead animal was clothed in its own plumage again and the swan was restored to its natural shape with wire”.13 This antithesis of dark and light runs through art and science to this day. Peter I. Tchaikovsky dedicated an entire ballet to these contrasts with Swan Lake. Nassim Nicolas Taleb created the term “Black Swan”. The term describes rare and unpredictable, outlier events—and the human tendency to find simplistic explanations for these events, retrospectively. Where does the term come from? The natural habitat of black swans is Australia, which was only discovered in the 17th century. In ancient times, a faithful wife was considered a black swan, a bird that was not yet known in Greece.

Susie Green writes in her book Bird Messages: “The swan tells us, ‘Do I look as if the dichotomy is a problem?’” (The phrase kind of reminds me of James Bond – “Do I look like I care?”) ‘I flourish and prosper in black and white.’” And Jeff Koons has yellow, red, pink, blue and green swans that you can buy for a great deal of money5.

The swan has also gained notoriety as an erotic object, inspired by Greek mythology. Leda’s refusal to surrender to the god Zeus caused him to approach her in the form of a swan, which enraptured her so much that she gave herself to the swan… What was wrong with Leda’s eyes all of a sudden? So is the divine swan a skilful seducer or a testosterone-addled rapist? We don’t know, but for many centuries the swan was regarded as a symbol of nudity. You can buy the picture Coreggio painted of it around 1532 as a print for a few dollars on etsy.

While we are on the subject: in the genre paintings of the 17th century one often finds birdcages with and without birds, with open or closed doors. Birdcages are said to have been signals for men that the coast was clear. Voegelen, by the way, was a Middle High German term for sexual intercourse7. So much for international understanding.

And then the peacock! The old show-off! To impress the female, he puts up 150 feathers and makes them vibrate. This drives the inconspicuous females quite mad.

In the art of the 15th and 16th centuries, the peacock, among other figures, symbolises resurrection and immortality. This symbolism of rebirth was also known in antiquity. In the Christian tradition from the late Middle Ages onwards, the peacock was a symbol of Mary as Queen of Heaven and also of love for God.

The above-mentioned courtship display of the peacock, its iridescent head, neck and breast plumage as well as its magnificent back plumage naturally also make it a symbol of sensuality, vanity and pride. Incidentally, adorning oneself with borrowed plumes comes from the Roman fabulist Phaedrus (born around 20 BC), who combined the theme of vanity with a story about the peacock. According to this story, the peacock belonged to the mother of the gods and was thus the most beautiful bird in the animal world.

In Johann Heinrich Roos’ Still Life with Dead Birds (17th century) it becomes clear what a challenge the painting artist had to master8. Feathers are very difficult to draw because they are so filigree and always varied. The finely painted ones do not come anywhere close to the plumage of real birds. Sometimes the bird also serves as an experiment with colour, as in the case of Claude Monet9, who in one of his first paintings worked particularly with coloured shadows and for this purpose placed a magpie in the focus of the observer of a wintry landscape.

How strongly Max Ernst identified with his avian alter ego “Loplop” was described by the artist in his diaries and has been sufficiently researched. The auction house Christie’s has published a short text on this phenomenon10. The artist really did have a bird, which he needed to be able to depict his surrealist Dada art11, 12.

Johann Andreas Naumann’s Naturgeschichte der Vögel Mitteleuropas, 1905 1st edition, is a classic and central work in ornithology. It was not until 2018 that the amazingly detailed drawings and watercolours in these books were considered art objects. Before that, they were considered merely reproductions of nature. In general, painted depictions of birds are often more true to nature than photographs, which is why the current Kosmos Bird Guide also features drawn pictures.

There is so much more to say about birds in the performing arts, but at a later date. At the moment I am researching the topics “Birds in Film” and “Birds in Music”. Look forward to more.

Until then, I wish you from the bottom of my heart: Have a swinging New Year’s Eve and an inspired new year.

1Malle Babbe:
4 – continue-reading
5 Example:

Original text: HFI
English Translation: BCO


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