Stepping out of Audubon's shadow

John James Audubon is the Shakespeare of bird artists. What can a contemporary artist hope to reveal about birds that his brush failed to capture? Fortunately there are some who have braved his shadow, even as they follow in his footsteps.

Currently on view at the National Collection of Fine Arts in Washington is rare bird of an Exhibition, "Birds: Works from the 1979 Annual EXhibition of Art Depicting Birds." The 47 contemporary oils, watercolors, drawings, and wood carvings on display through May 6 were selected from a larger exhibition held last year at the leigh & Yawkey Woodson Art Museum in Wausau, Wis.

The museum was founded in 1976 to display art depicting wildlife, and its inaugural exhibition was devoted to birds. The show was so popular that it has become an annual event, requiring selection by three jurors from the Plentiful American, Canadian, and European Submissions.

According to NCFA curator Martina Norelli who served as a juror for last year's exhibition, the snow was of such caliber that she felt it deserved a wider audience and brought a portion of it to the NCFA. As Miss Norelli explains, and this exhibition illustrates, bird art has undergone several major changes since Audubon set the style back in the 19th century, with European painters such as Bruno Liljefors exerting a major influence.

Audubon was, of course, an illustrator, and illustrations impose certain constraints upon an artist from which these painters have liberated themselves. For example, instead of floating the bird in close-up profile on a page, many of the artists have painted the bird in its natural habitat. This emphasis on the relationship of the bird to its environment opens up a range of both scientific and aesthetic possibilities.

From an ornithological point of view it enables us to study the bird's adaptation to this environment through such means as coloration, as in David A. Maass' "Autumn Day -- Woodcock," in which the woodcock flutters amid the birches as if it were a leaf; of shape as in Roger Tory Peterson's "Puffins," whose soft , round, feathery bodies exude warmth against a background of palpably cold water.

The aesthetic implication of situating the bird in its habitat is a much greater freedom of composition, even to the extent of depicting it in motion. In William Zimmerman's "Late Afternoon -- Sharp-shinned Hawk" the composition is very nearly abstract, with the hawk a horizontal projectile streaking past the columns of vertical trees. Or in Martin R. Murk's "Winging Through," the duck in flight is an evocation, even an extension of the waving strand of wheat.

Although a few of the works conform to the Audubon tradition, these are for the most part paintings rather than illustrations, and even the sculptures, mostly of wood which is remarkably well-suited to creating the illusion of feathers, are more interpretative than literal. However realistic their renderings, these artists, who come from the ranks of ornithologists, sportsmen, and museum personnel, tend to be more romantic than scientific in their attitude. Whether they work from life or photographs, they have succeeded in setting the bird free from the cage of the page.

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