Wednesday, 21 May 2014

World of Birds exhibition

The Wonder of Birds

Because of their high visibility, colourfulness, varied songs and ability to fly, birds have always provided a fascinating subject for study and contemplation. 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 is also 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 for everyone, young and old. 

The Wonder of Birds explores the cultural impact of birds upon humankind.  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 include 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, reminds us of how the Victorians shot many birds almost to extinction in order to harvest their feathers. A delicate Indian painting of Tibetan cranes, to a robust bronze British-Romano duck cup, examples of the taxidermist’s skills to 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.  

The exhibition comprises six sections, each highlighting a different aspect of birds, their meanings and our relationships with them: what is a bird, introducing the exotic, migrants and ocean travellers, birds and landscape, predators and prey, the realms of the spirit, but it is impossible to enumerate all aspects of this monumental exhibition.

The show begins by introducing the visitor to the breadth of this fascinating subject: what is a bird; what do they mean to us; how have we studied, portrayed, preserved, endangered and used them?  This 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.  This work is complemented by another beautiful Renaissance work of art, an exquisite 15th century drawing by Andrea Mantegna, portraying a bird from the artist’s imagination, illustrating how birds have been used decoratively and heraldically through the ages.  

Predators and Prey examines the traditional symbolism of the eagle, from kingship to fascism, exemplified by a darkly humorous Russian propaganda poster from the Scond 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 boasts a wealth of wetland and other habitats of worldwide importance housing unique groups of species.  In addition, birds are also closely linked with the sea, travel, distance and migration.  Some birds travel phenomenal distances annually and the section on Migrants and Ocean Travellers examines the seasonal behaviour which may take migrating birds from Norfolk to the Arctic, Africa or South America.  

The Realms of the Spirit, the final section, illustrates how songbirds and their relatives have symbolised the idea of an immortal soul, been seen as heralds of the seasons, messengers from heaven, or as magical beings.  Major loans include a gold Colombian shaman’s necklace portraying half-human, half-bird figures.  This work was a star exhibit in the recent British Museum show Beyond El Dorado.

If you are anywhere near Norwich over the coming months, don’t fail to visit this exhibition - you won’t be disappointed. 

Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery
The Wonder of Birds 24 May to 14 September 2014

Farley Mowatt - a great writer and socialist dies

The Canadian author Farley Mowat was a socialist and passionate environmentalist. He wrote with humour, keen perception and passionate social commitment, completing over 40 books and numerous articles. He is sadly not so well known in Britain but deserves to be. His family came from Scottish immigrant stock and he retained a special fondness for Scotland.

His works were translated into 52 languages, and he sold more than 17 million copies. He achieved fame with his books on the Canadian North, such as People of the Deer (1952) and Never Cry Wolf. Mowat's advocacy for environmental causes and his own claim to ‘never let the facts get in the way of the truth,’ earned him both praise and criticism. Nevertheless, his influence is undeniable: Never Cry Wolf, a fictional narrative of a man living among wolves in the sub-arctic which was made into a successful film. It is credited with shifting the mythology and fear of wolves. After the Russian version was published, the government even banned the killing of the animal.
His stories are fast-paced, gripping, personal, and conversational. Descriptions of Mowat refer to his ‘commitment to ideals,’ ‘poetic descriptions and vivid images.’

His first non-fiction work People of the Deer became a classic. In it he documented the disappearing communist way of life of Canada’s native Inuit people, among whom he lived while writing the book. He showed how a colonial arrogance and an exploitive system had driven the Inuit and their culture to the edge. The Siberians, written almost two decades later in 1970, showed how the Soviet Union, in contrast, was attempting to help the Inuit maintain their way of life but at the same time inter-relate with an industrialised society. He became a lifelong advocate of indigenous people’s rights, labelling Canada's treatment of them as ‘abominable’. Never one to shy away from controversy, Mowat was outspoken about many environmental and social issues.
During the Second World War, Mowat was commissioned as a second lieutenant, rising to the rank of captain. After the war he returned to Canada, desperate to escape from ‘what had been and seemed likely to remain, a world run by maniacs’, and fled north to live among the Inuit people.
Many of his works are autobiographical, such as Owls in the Family (about his childhood), and And No Birds Sang (about his experience fighting in the Second World War).
Mowat published a denunciation of the destruction of animal life in the north Atlantic entitled Sea of Slaughter in 1984. In 1985, as a part of the promotional tour for the book, Mowat was invited to speak at the university in Chico, California, but US officials denied him entry. His security file indicated he should be denied entry ‘for violating any one of 33 statutes.’ Reportedly, these statutes included being a member of a group considered radical by the US government. The result was a media circus, which brought worldwide attention to Mowat. The negative publicity eventually forced the Reagan administration to allow Mowat to enter the US, but he declined because to accept would be undignified as the permission was valid for only one visit—his book tour. Mowat documented the reasons why he was refused entry to the United States in his 1985 book, My Discovery of America. 
He won a number of prestigious awards for his books and environmental work. The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society ship RV Farley Mowatt was named in honour of him.
Mowat was a strong supporter of the Green Party of Canada. 
His friend, the author, Margaret Atwood said: ‘So sorry to hear that [Mr Mowat] has died. Wonderful colleague and friend of many years.’ 
Farley Mowat died on May 6, 2014, less than one week before his 93rd birthday.