The Inspiration of Birds Throughout History

January 23, 2023

A review by Lori Potter

Bird: Exploring the Winged World, edited by Phaidon

Phaidon Press, 2021

652 pages, hardcover

ABA Sales-Buteo Books X2282

When I first hefted Bird: Exploring the Winged World, all 11 square inches and six pounds of it, I deemed it a coffee table book and braced myself for the kind of tome that is gorgeously illustrated but whose covers are rarely cracked.

I was wrong. Bird is many things, but, for starters, it is captivating. Its unusual organizing principle is the editors’ pairing, on facing pages, of two images containing birds, printed to fill about three quarters of the large pages. The book explains that the arrangement in pairs is meant “to highlight interesting comparisons and contrasts based loosely on their subject, age, purpose, origin or appearance.” For example, there is a traditional 19th century oil painting of a Golden Eagle paired with an Andy Warhol screen-print of a Bald Eagle. Another set includes the Frida Kahlo self-portrait, Me and My Parrots, paired with a sober black and white photograph of a German ornithologist holding her three domesticated Eurasian Jackdaws. Trying to reduce these images to words is a losing proposition, to be sure, especially because the images have been chosen carefully for their quality and significance.

Another organizing principle of Bird is the place of birds in our collective imagination and culture over the millennia. A Northern Lapwing made from Legos appears, as does Big Bird from Sesame Street. To drive home the point, Bird contains a timeline spanning 34,000 BC to the present that shows, selectively, how birds have intersected with art, fashion, technology, design, and literature. From the earliest cave paintings to the Twitter bird, the timeline suggests that birds have a firm lock on us.

The reproduction of the images lives up to the track record of Phaidon, a renowned global publisher of books on the creative arts. They are sharp and crisp, with true colors. The images retain the ratio of their original composition, instead of being cropped to fill every speck of available space.

What really separates Bird from the average coffee table book is the intelligence and thoughtfulness of the captions accompanying each image that fill the bottom quarter of the page. A still from the Hitchcock movie, The Birds, muses about how Hitchcock could weave the entire plot of his horror masterpiece around birds attacking people and why he used real birds, not mechanical ones, to carry it out. A poster of a toucan balancing a pint of stout on its bill recalls an ad campaign by Guinness beer, “Lovely Day for a Guinness.” We learn that Aesops Fables has a New Zealand knockoff, Aesops Kiwi Fables, in which a kiwi takes the place of tortoise. From a wood engraving of a Eurasian Magpie by the Englishman Thomas Bewick, the namesake of Bewick’s Wren, we learn that Bewick was foremost an artist and illustrator, not an ornithologist.

Is Bird an art book for birders? Or a bird book for art lovers? Yes, to both, and then some.

–=====–

Lori Potter practices conservation law, writes for a variety of publications, and combines birding and bicycling at every opportunity. For Birding magazine, she has contributes several book reviews and a profile of Dorian Anderson's Big Year by bike. Lori is based in Denver, Colorado.