The use of birds as a theme in artwork is as universal as the human desire to look up into the sky. Birds embody such concepts as lifting up above what weighs us down, freedom of thoughts and ideas, and even the exhilaration of the act of flying, something that people have aspired towards ever since the Wright Brothers proved it was possible. This impulse is reflected all around us, in popular culture as song lyrics, as fashion prints, as feathered costumes and haute-couture, in advertising where a famous caffeinated beverage promises it “gives you wings”, and as a theme in some of history’s most compelling literature. Artists across all time periods have relied on imagery of birds to carry messages of hope, of peace, of love, of political communication, of shifting half-discernable musings of human emotion, or of epiphanies of experience only relatable through visual expression. Whether with humor or grace, silence or fanfare, birds seem to have the ability to convey deeper meanings than simply what meets the eye.
Oiseaux Noir and Les Oiseaux IV – Georges Braque, 1960 and 1959 stone lithographs
Georges Braque has an extensive repertoire of work involving birds, a subject he revisited over and over again, and a regular player in his toolbox. Looking through his oeuvre reveals frequent exploration with abstracted or semi-abstracted bird forms, always lyrical utterances that say a lot with a little. These two pieces Oiseaux Noir and Les Oiseaux IV are stone lithographs from 1960 and 1959 editions of Derriere le Miroir, powerful in their simplicity.
Printmaking Council of New Jersey – Ben Shahn, 1979 silkscreen
Ben Shahn often made persuasive use of animal imagery to translate his rich, complex and distinctive narratives. His work somehow never fails to relate common truths about humanity, his humorous lines and dark, energetic scratchwork feeling particularly resonant. Even in this poster for the Printmaking Council of New Jersey advertising the opening of a new resource center, many themes begin to arise.
Bird of Fire – Niki de Saint Phalle, silkscreen
For Niki de Saint Phalle, whose figures are more often than not half lifting up into the air already, a piece with a bird seems right on key. Her playful lines and joyous colors are effortlessly floating, conjuring feelings of happiness and inspiration. Her Bird of Fire looks like sun, wind and water, all contributing to a buoyant, invigorating drama.
Jazz - Pierre Beres – Henri Matisse, 1959 Mourlot stone lithograph
Matisse, another frequent bird admirer, lets loose his signature style of mastery of drawing with simplified shape. He goes to the bird form to communicate the sensation of jazz music in the piece Jazz - Pierre Beres, a perfect analogy that transcends written description.
Two Parrots – Walasse Ting, 1990 framed offset lithograph
Walasse Ting’s piece Two Parrots is a brilliant large scale poster that does justice to his careful color choices and sensitive, weightless line quality. Ting’s adeptness with his material imbues his paintings with a certain way of surrounding the viewer, as though the birds themselves are fluttering in the space.
Paean – Will Barnet, 1978 SIGNED silkscreen
And a gorgeous silkscreen from Will Barnet with a figure and four doves is titled Paean, which means ‘a song of praise’. He alludes to a song, a feeling of spirit, and a quiet influence of positivity. The smoky, atmospheric backdrop, something difficult to achieve with the silkscreen medium, enhances the mood he strikes within the scene, and subtly calls attention to the layers of atmosphere that exist within the birds themselves.
The Bird In Art – Antonio Frasconi, 1964 silkscreen
The Big Beautiful Bird has Been Shot by the La Grande Famille – Ugly Little Bird – Deloss McGraw, offset lithograph Rene Magritte, offset lithograph