By John Green in Britain:
The wonder of birds
Saturday 17th May 2014
With their high visibility, bright colours, varied songs and ability to fly, birds have always inspired our study and contemplation. JOHN GREEN reviews an exhibition in Norwich which does precisely that
This unique and pioneering exhibition mounted by Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery is an imaginative attempt to document our complex and special relationship with birds through art, taxidermy and photography.
The curators have brought together an amazing range of beautiful objects and illustrations that provide an insight into the multi-faceted ways birds have impacted on our lives throughout history.
It’s accompanied by a lusciously illustrated catalogue with introductory text by BBC naturalist Chris Packham. Don’t be misled that this is only of interest to bird fanatics — there is something here for everyone, young and old.
Eliciting a wide range of emotions from awe to fear, pleasure to cruelty, birds have intrigued humanity since the earliest of times. With loans from local and national collections, this exhibition spans the centuries and includes some 220 works by major artists and illustrators, natural history, archaeology, fashion and social history.
A 19th-century feather pellerine coat and a hat made entirely of feathers is a reminder of how the Victorians blasted many birds almost to extinction in order to harvest their feathers.
There’s a delicate Indian painting of Tibetan cranes, a robust bronze British-Romano duck cup and examples of the taxidermist’s skills. Some of the best works by contemporary bird artists and photographers provide an overview of how differently birds have been visualised and portrayed throughout history.
This monumental exhibition’s six sections each highlight a different aspect of birds and it begins by asking exactly what a bird is and how humans have studied, portrayed, preserved, endangered and used them.
The section features Hans Holbein’s stunning Lady With A Squirrel And A Starling, back in Norfolk for the first time since its acquisition by the National Gallery in 1992. It’s complemented by another beautiful Renaissance work of art, an exquisite 15th-century drawing by Andrea Mantegna, which portrays a bird from the artist’s imagination, illustrating how birds have been used decoratively and heraldically through the ages.
The section Predators And Prey examines the traditional symbolism of the eagle, from kingship to fascism, exemplified by a darkly humorous Russian propaganda poster from the second world war in which the fascist eagle is demoted to crow by the act of being strangled by a Russian soldier.
Birds are also closely associated with our ideas of place and as such may be strongly connected with local identities. This is especially true in East Anglia which, boasting a wealth of wetland and other habitats of worldwide importance, houses unique groups of species.
Birds are also closely linked with the sea, travel, distance and migration. Some travel phenomenal distances annually and the section Migrants And Ocean Travellers examines the seasonal behaviour which may take migrating birds from Norfolk to the Arctic, Africa or south America.
The final section Realms Of The Spirit illustrates how songbirds and their relatives have symbolised the idea of an immortal soul and been seen as heralds of the seasons, messengers from heaven or as magical beings. Major exhibits include a gold Colombian shaman’s necklace portraying half-human, half-bird figures, a star exhibit in the recent British Museum show Beyond El Dorado.
Such a wealth of treasures — too numerous to catalogue here — make this a must-see show.
The Wonder of Birds runs until September 14. Admission free. For opening times, visit www.museums.norfolk.gov.uk.