Audubon and Gould:
Images from the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century
A fascination for exotica always has — and always will — deliver huge delight. Bird feathers, animal pelts, as well as flora and fauna of every variety, are all intriguing to people — particularly if they emerge from areas that are uncharted. The Spice Islands and Zanzibar, for instance, are still capable of conjuring images of palm trees, beaches and dazzling goods from a primordial and unreachable land. That particular brand of delight is so ancient that it’s aboriginal in a deep sense best described by the Latinate ab origine. It’s wholly real but exists independent of places because it’s a psychological yearning for beginnings.
John James Audubon (1785 – 1851) and John Gould (1804 – 1881) are two artists who tap into that impulse with images of birds that, during their lifetimes, were nearly impossible to witness in the wild. Thus, Audubon was determined to study and document American birds in a more realistic manner than other artists had done. Gould had similar ambitions; however, he worked in England and traveled to Australia in search of material for his passion of creating reproductions of strikingly foreign creatures that were the topic of conversation among genteel society.
While both men created work that was meant to aid scientific inquiry, it also operates on an artistic level that’s still very much alive and well. There’s something about seeing brightly colored birds perched on branches with berries that brings out the childish wonder in everyone. It’s part of our own “unchartered terrain,” an interior landscape of unspeakable depth. Thus the images found at Riddell Rare Maps and Fine Prints offer a genuine voyage of sorts. The experience operates as a usual gallery outing but it’s different in that it reminds us of a glistening physical world.
In a time when our lives are preoccupied with a digital life, including email, Facebook and Twitter, these older pieces can remind us of a thronging and lovely outdoors that holds a fascination because it’s unabashedly rife with loveliness.
At Riddell you can see plenty of bird images; however, there are also maps of every variety as well as antique books, some of which document James Cook’s voyages. There’s plenty to plunder and enjoy and it’s a different, but very welcome, kind of gallery excursion. It reminds us of the bygone days of leather journals, toothy paper and watercolors. Actually, it’s, well, glorious.