The Audubon Folio
John James Audubon
To take a fresh look at the whole phenomenon of Audubon just now is almost as difficult as it is painful. A single print, even in the best of modern reproductions, as in the lovely folio brought out now by Harry N. Abrams (a selection of thirty from the 435 engravings in the original Birds of America) is hard enough to see straight. The female Broad-winged Hawk spreads one wing to expose the barred and speckled underside, of such a pattern as Cavallini gave to angels’ wings balanced by the somber brown mass of the male, wings closed in a point that crosses the spectacular black-on-white stripes of his tail-feathers, and both forms are superbly part of a diagonal composition of which the basic line, upper left to lower right, is from the branch of pig-nut hickory. How has haute couture resisted these designs? The most demure, the pair of Cat Birds, for instance, with their subtle swatch of brick-red at the tail against a sprinkling of ripe and unripe blackberries and as nearly always with the land birds such an elegance of greens in the leaves would make the hit of a Paris season. Not to mention the somewhat operatic Flamingo, or that total wonder of composition, the Carolina Parrots, in a spray of cockleburr: brown sticks, sea-green feathers and heads with the plastic value of seven little nectarines. The question is whether we can really see them, or even remotely get at the man and the world that created them.
The human stature in this case is nearly incredible, but so have others been; and it is only a minor difficulty that in this century Audubon has been honored and institutionalized into a dim negative of the original, a nothing and everything, from the national conservation movement through the Saturday group scamper with notebook and binoculars; bird-addiction is one of our contemporary diseases, like alcoholism, and it bears his name. You can get through all that, even without giving up feeding the birds. The real trouble is that this mighty figure strikes at a point neuralgique of our present condition—the twin squeeze and sense of shrinkage that we live in, both in the physical spaces around us and inwardly. He is glorious where it hurts most. Not just in the reminder of what a horrid little schoolish and museum word Nature has become, or even the hideous dream of a place we have made and continue to make for ourselves out of the wonderful country he knew. Plenty of other pieces of Americana recall those losses. The special pain of thinking about Audubon these days, squashed as we are between the bull-dozer and the “identity crisis,” derives from the bizarre luck of his having had the combinations of genius exactly suited to the wild freshness and grandeur of the land in his time, and on the same scale, the physique and the moral guts equally necessary to his undertaking. As a monument to hardships of various kinds …