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There’s Something About Birds

A collection of more than 30 hand-colored prints taken from John James Audubon’s masterwork “The Birds of America” are on view at the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield. Here in the museum’s spacious galleries are Audubon’s audacious, life-sized portraits of birds, created over a 13-year period with the help of many friends, above all his wife, Lucy, and the brilliant British engraver Robert Havell Jr., on the largest paper available at the time, “double elephant” size. The eye-catching prints — his fabulous flamingo, evocative owls, a contemplative crow (one of my favorites, actually) — mostly crowd a single wall in the largest room of the exhibit. Consciously or not, it seems an appropriate throwback to the way of displaying art in Audubon’s time, the mid-19th century.  On a table in the center of the room is a gallery of stuffed specimens, mostly from the museum’s own collection, matching the species on the wall. In other places we find samples of work by Audubon’s predecessors, among them, Alexander Wilson and Mark Catesby. These highlight how Audubon’s painterly style revolutionized bird art in America, combining the sensibility of a Romantic artist with that of a scientific naturalist and keen observer of wildlife. No wonder “the Birds of America” is the most expensive book in the world. A completed double-elephant folio sold at Christie’s the week before last for $7.5 million; the highest ever paid was $11.5 million. In a video playing on a monitor, contemporary painter Walton Ford demonstrates Audubon’s novel technique: He would use freshly-dead specimens, usually ones he shot himself, and wire them to a cork board in vivid, “lifelike” poses, resulting in bird portraits that are dramatic, if occasionally tortured.  (I could not find a label for the video, a slight oversight by the museum.) The last room of the exhibit, “Taking Flight: Audubon and the World of Birds,” is devoted mainly to basic information about birds.  Given the vastness of the topic, this display is necessarily cursory, but well-organized nevertheless. The show’s curator, Maria Mingalone, has done a nice job letting the art speak for itself, while providing abundant background information. The impetus for the exhibit, she said, came from the museum staff while it was considering ways to highlight the museum’s collection. The prints are on loan from the Shelburne Museum, National Audubon Society, Arader Galleries, Williams College and individual lenders.  “We have a huge collection of bird specimens,” Mingalone said, likening the museum to a “mini-Smithsonian,” which combines natural history, fine arts and history.  “I saw the double-elephant folio and thought, ‘Wow!’” she continued. Bringing the Audubon prints taken from the folio was the perfect way to bring together aspects of art and science to the Berkshires, she said. Also on display in a neighboring gallery is Bird Story, a series of paintings by Berkshire-born artist Morgan Bulkely.  In a style that recalls American primitivism, leavened with elements of Cy Twombly and Philip Guston, whom Bulkely calls his “artistic heros,” Bird Story juxtaposes fanciful but detailed bird renderings with snippets of everyday culture.  “It is about nature and culture colliding with each other,” he says. Bulkely was brought up on the slopes of Mt. Washington, and his father, now 88 and still going strong, was a devoted ornithologist.  There really is something about birds.

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