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The Wings of Spring: Avian Imagery at NMWA

Blog Category:  From the Collection
Rendered in loose, impressionistic brushstrokes in muted pastel tones, the still life painting depicts a brass birdcage with two small birds cuddled next to each other on a perch. The cage sits adjacent to and partially obscures a bowl of lush red, yellow, and white flowers.

A chorus of birds hails the first day of spring, prompting a look at avian imagery in NMWA’s collection.

Using loose brushstrokes, a woman seated at a table in front of a window with her back to the viewer. The table is set with a teapot, creamer and plates with pasties. Outside the window is a winter scene with five birds perched upon the snow-covered branches of a barren tree.
Gabriele Münter, Breakfast of the Birds, 1934; Oil on board, 18 x 21 3/4 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS)/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

As a popular motif throughout art history, birds can signify freedom or transition. But keep in mind—these works are no mere flights of fancy.
German expressionist painter Gabriele Münter’s Breakfast of the Birds may indicate this seasonal change. Seated at a breakfast table, a solitary woman gazes through a window at a brood of birds perched on snow-covered branches. Perhaps the snow is melting and migratory birds have just returned. Sometimes interpreted as reflective and peaceful, the figure in this work, with her back to the viewer, has alternatively been seen as isolated and lonely. Scholars have conjectured that the depicted woman may be Münter herself. Münter’s style of heavy lines, simplified forms, and compressed space adds to a feeling of coziness—or entrapment.

Rendered in loose, impressionistic brushstrokes in muted pastel tones, the still life painting depicts a brass birdcage with two small birds cuddled next to each other on a perch. The cage sits adjacent to and partially obscures a bowl of lush red, yellow, and white flowers.
Berthe Morisot, The Cage, 1885; Oil on canvas, 19 7/8 x 15 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Where Münter’s work depicts birds outdoors, Impressionist painter Berthe Morisot’s The Cage includes two enclosed birds. This still-life displays a bronze birdcage and a bowl of flowers set against an otherwise ambiguous background. With a spring-colored palette of soft browns, whites, and greens, Morisot’s oil-on-canvas work takes on a watercolor quality.
Morisot’s paint application is sketchy and unrestrained, due in part to her experimental use of an unprimed canvas. The two nestled birds are nearly lost amid the choppy dabs of color.
Contemporary Brazilian sculptor Frida Baranek’s dense iron construction, Untitled, 1991, resembles a wiry nest. As one of her large-scale abstract metal sculptures, her work explores the tension between organic forms and inorganic materials. Built from rusted industrial wire and weighing 90 pounds, Baranek’s sculpture appears surprisingly light and airy. Long wires protruding horizontally from the sculpture seem to lift the work—like its very own set of wings.

Large, abstract sculpture, fabricated of rusted iron wires, conveys an organic form. At center is a mass of thin, tangled wires shaped into a thick disc, sitting on edge. From either side of the center disc a mass of slightly bent, thicker wires juts straight out.
Frida Baranek, Untitled, 1991; Iron, 44 x 75 x 46 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Museum purchase: The Lois Pollard Price Acquisition Fund; © Frida Baranek / Galeria Raquel Arnaud, © Frida Baranek

What other works in NMWA’s collection conjure images of spring for you?

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