Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Shore Birds: feathers, fashion and trash

"... all creatures of tidal rocks are hidden from view, but the gulls know what is there, and they know that in time the water will fall away again and give them entrance to the strip between the tide lines."

Rachel Carson, The Edge of the Sea

Penguilly l’Haridon, The Little Gulls, Belle Ile (1858, Rennes Museum of Fine Arts)  

A remarkable painting, The Little Gulls, Belle Ile (1858) by Octave Penguilly l’Haridon depicts an un-peopled, rocky inlet on the Breton island of Belle Île. Charles Baudelaire remarked, upon seeing it at the Salon of 1859, that the rocks make "a portal open to infinity.” And he marveled over the “wound of white birds, and the solitude!”

In this uncanny landscape, a colony of gulls move as if with one mind, streaming through the rocks and keeping to a sunlit section of the strand. Protected in this spot from waves and wind, and knowing where and when to look, the birds gather at the edge of a lively tidal pool revealed by the receding tide.

On this unpeopled beach in Penguilly’s painting, there is an oscillation between extremes of scale: from the large, implacable rocks, to the darting, tiny movements of detail in the birds that momentarily adorn them, almost mistakable for drifted snow or blooming flowers. In this marginal space, where the rocks act as sun dials, showing the time of day, the slow geologic time of the granite meets the fleeting seasons of a shore bird and the diurnal tide.

Seeing this painting in Rennes set me thinking about images of seagulls and our relationship to them.
Silver Gulls, illustration from Le Monde de la Mer, 1866.

The sea gull is a much maligned animal today, often thought of as a "trash" animal, or a "flying rat" -- much like pigeons, raccoons and squirrels, gulls are canny creatures who have proliferated on a diet gleaned from the mountains of waste generated by consumer societies.

Félix Braquemond, Seagulls, 1888 etching

But can we see the nineteenth-century seagull free of our own trash? In the etching by Braquemond or the studies of motion by Marey, this is a vibrant, powerful creature, soaring through the air on its powerful wings.

Jules-Etienne Marey, Flight of a Seagull, 1887, chronophotograph.

Marey, Flight of a Seagull, 1887, bronze. Musée Marey et des Beaux-Arts, Beaune.

In paintings of dead seagulls by Jules Breton and Gustave Courbet, the birds are not disgusting or filthy. Breton, depicting one of his favorite peasant-models from Douarnenez, Marguerite Moreau, imagines a peasant’s compassion for a wounded sea-bird. As a woman of the coast, Moreau, with her dark hair and strong, working arms seems a powerful female force, allied to coastal nature. The tips of her penn-sardin coiffe (the local costume) are caught by the wind, mimicking the wings of the creature in her arms and the one who flies above the sea behind her.

 Breton, The Wounded Gull, 1878 (left). Courbet, Girl with Gulls (Beachcomber's Daughter) 1865 (right).

Courbet described his painting as “an impression of the sea shore at Trouville, [with] the daughter of a beachcomber." He creates sensual contrasts of the girl's lush and untamed hair with the hanging deadness of the birds, swinging from a stick. Their outstretched wings mirror each other, in dead symmetry, almost creating a monstrous triad of parts. Did she find them in her beachcombing or stone them on the shore?

  In 1865, Courbet painted a portrait of the Hungarian Countess Karoly at the beach resort of Trouville, Normandy. She is seated at the seashore, wearing a hat plumed with ostrich or egret feathers.

Seeing these two paintings side by side puts me in mind again of what John Berger wrote about Courbet in the 1970s, that the materiality of his works insisted on expressing
 “a large part of what exists” that served to “challenge the chosen ignorance of the cultured.” 

Hair, ever the emblem of feminine beauty, is here in contrast with animal plumage.  The countess's carefully coiffed locks are topped with a carefully selected feathers, while the wild blond mane of the Norman beachcomber are so very close to the feathers of the gulls that still cling to their animal forms. Class and closeness to the animal emerge from this pairing of paintings from the beach at Trouville in 1865.

But why collect dead seagulls? In just about 1865 the  female consumer craze for feathered hats had begun. By, 1900 plumage hunters had exterminated many species of birds worldwide.

Danish painter Anna Archer, who was a native of the artists colony at Skagen and often painted the lives of fisherpeople, in 1883 depicted an elderly couple in a dim interior filling a basket with the plucked feathers of seagulls. This is likely related to millner's demand for bird feathers. By the 1890s, gulls wings, and even entire taxidermied birds were common on women's hats.

Anna Archer,  Plucking Seagulls. Lars Gaihede and old Lene. 1883. Hamburg.

Hat with an entire dead shore bird.
A Swan and Dove hat, c. 1905.

Birds were trapped for the cage trade and limed, shot, bludgeoned or poisoned by the thousands of underemployed rural poor who provided raw materials for the milliner. Few species were spared the unwelcome attentions of the plumage hunters. Seabirds were especially in demand, and populations of gulls and kittiwakes were decimated to sustain the fashion for birds’ wings in women’s hats. As London and provincial dealers offered one shilling each for the wings of ‘white gulls’ in the 1860s, excursion trains left London for locations as far apart as Flamborough Head and the Isle of Wight carrying beer-swilling plumage hunters and their rook rifles towards the killing grounds. Some hunters abandoned any notion of ‘sport’ and contrived to catch gulls and kittiwakes on their nests. Subsequently, as one observer put it, ‘cutting their wings off and flinging the victim into the sea, to struggle with feet and head until death came slowly to their relief.’

R. J. Moore-Colyer ‘Feathered Women and Persecuted Birds’ (2000)

Outcry against this practice and the nascent conservation movement of the 1910s came too late for some species. The bobbed hairdos of the 1920s finally did in the vogue for embellished hats.

From fashion adornment to flying rat, gulls and other shore birds have not escaped the clutches of modern consumption and waste.

Chris Jordan's film Midway (2014), filmed on the remote island, documents the death of tens of thousands of albatrosses, killed by ingesting plastic from the Pacific Garbage Patch. We still need to insistence on expressing “a large part of what exists” to “challenge the chosen ignorance of the cultured.”

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