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Robin Hill Artist & Naturalist

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Commentary (continued)

Nor can art be defined by subject matter. We cannot maintain that as soon as birds, flowers, or mammals appear as the focus of interest in a painting, some kind of purity or seriousness is sacrificed. Those extraordinarily rich flower pieces of the seventeenth and eighteenth century Dutch School are undoubtedly art.

We find the work of George Stubbs, the eighteenth-century animal painter, exhibited in fine art galleries, and certainly not to be considered as mere illustration. His work has a primitive quality, giving it power that transcends the simple depiction of a prize bull or a lion attacking a horse.

A few of Audubon's best pictures have something of this same unsophisticated strength. His birds are usually anatomically and structurally bizarre and placed in dreamlike settings that remind us of the real world, but are subjective creations of the artist. This subjectivity, the liveliness of the depiction and the drama of his compositions give the images that certain mysterious something. We know as we gaze at them that we are looking at art. The work of Stubbs and Audubon, like that of all true artists, whether primitive or sophisticated, has a highly personal quality. The whole painting is a signature.

It is generally true that much of wildlife painting has an awful sameness to it. Simply depicting the observed world, as most wildlife painters do, is not enough. The base metal of the objective world, however attractive in itself, must be transmuted by hand, eye, and inspiration into the gold of art.

The apples in a Cezanne still life painting are no ordinary apples. The artist has created that which has a significance and an existence independent of the original fruit lying on the plate. This is not to be explained simply by his somewhat unrealistic style. Michelangelo, working in a perfectly realist manner, made precise chalk drawings of the human figure, from which one could give an anatomy. Yet these drawings have a splendid mastery that transcends mere accurate description.

Two Birds On the Table

And so, we discover intent as a key ingredient. If the intention is simply to record; then, however, excellent or delightful it might be, illustration is usually the result. Artists, on the other hand, interpret what they see through a deeply felt, personal vision. In looking at such artists' work, our way of seeing the world is changed and enriched, as some of this interpretive vision is transmitted to us.

It might be argued from the foregoing that few people with the capacity to be artists have been attracted to natural history subjects. I suspect this is true; it is the singer, not the song that is questionable. An artist makes Art of any subject.

I will step out onto thin ice — I think that from Audubon to the present, there have not been a dozen true artists painting wildlife as their chief subjects. What these few have done is to quicken the world of nature with a spirit that rises from some wellspring within each of them. Their creatures, like Cezanne's apples, have a glow of inner life which sets them apart from mere illustrations; which is not to say that every picture an artist creates will have that special quality. Many of the best artists will illustrate occasionally, for commercial or other practical purposes, without necessarily compromising themselves. To illustrate a book or design a poster is to step outside the usual boundaries and precepts of fine art, but it is not demeaning, and in some cases, it is arguably Art.

I have tried to explore carefully this matter of art and illustration, but I also feel that a good deal of energy might be misspent in worrying about it. The question is, without a doubt, pertinent, although rather more for critics and viewers than the practitioner. The boundaries may be ill-defined, but we pursue our craft. Illustrator or artist, our task is to keep striving and, in striving, trust that we create beauty and give pleasure.

As I write these last paragraphs, I can look out of the window and down to the icy lake. Now and then a honking flight of geese comes in, twisting and turning, parachuting down to join others. The growing flock swims in a hole of black water that they have kept open in the snow-covered ice. If I lift the window, I can smell the frosty tang of winter in the still air and hear the plaintive, conversational whistles of the widgeons that are standing in mated pairs on the edge of the ice. Beyond the lake the thick stands of leafless oak, wild cherry and maple have a smoky lavender bloom in their tops that glows in the pearly light.

The dog is begging for a hike; the birds are calling; I have been sitting here too long. It is time to walk across the fields of crisping snow, with binoculars and sketchbook. Being out of doors will refresh mind and spirit, so that I may continue to celebrate the natural world.

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