Vasari Diary

Vasari Diary: Judith Bernstein, ‘The Animal Gazer,’ and Birds in Art

Judith Bernstein in her studio, 1975.


Little Shop of Herrors

Loud- and sure-handed ultra-feminist penis painter Judith Bernstein was celebrated at the CUE benefit last Wednesday together with the nuanced, long-entrenched NYU Grey Art Gallery curator Lynne Gumpert. The un-subdue-able Bernstein, a founder of A.I.R., who is coming increasingly into her own today, at the age of 75, has hit the right moment with a bang, attacking her prey when they are down with, among other weapons, huge metal buttons emblazoned with slogans targeting the harassing set in general (but you know who in particular). They proclaim in scary scrawls: “Cabinet of Horrors,” spelled out in dripping letters; “Frankenschlong,” a phallus face with a swastika on its forehead; and “Judith Bernstein in 2020” (Imagine!). Brutal and witty, Bernstein’s acceptance was cheerfully ebullient and succinct. As she told T Magazine recently, “I have the zeitgeist of my time.” And so it seems.

Rembrandt Bugatti, Python, 1906.


Animal House

Another rediscovery—this of less-recent vintage and far stranger—is to be found in an eccentric book, The Animal Gazer by Edgardo Franzosini, to be released in January by New Vessel Press.

The Animal Gazer is based on the life of an Italian sculptor of the early 20th century, Rembrandt Bugatti (1884 to 1916), who was born in Milan, moved to Paris and then Antwerp, where he volunteered at the onslaught of the first world war.

We enter the near Surrealist but painfully realist world of Bugatti, a strange, shy, and reclusive figure who had a profound fascination for and empathy with animals’ confinement, although not in a sentimental fashion. His stylized, sensitive sculptures are somewhat reminiscent of those of the French artists Les Lalanne. Bugatti’s muscular yet subtle animals border on the imaginary.

The artist would go to the zoo every day and sit face to face with the caged animals, capturing their expressions in sketches and then cast them. In Paris, he’d met Rodin at the foundry.

The tragic circumstances that threw Bugatti into a tailspin were the ferocious German bombings of the city. The threat of the German bombs striking the zoo next to the train station arose, there was fear that the zoo would end up releasing all the wild animals who would end up “defecating on the townhouse stairs” and “bathing in the fountains.” And, Franzosini writes, “There was a danger that the marabou ostriches, and leopards might come to the tables of the Café de l’Union, where the businessmen played dominoes, or make it as far as the banks of the Scheldt to drink from its waters.”

So the government determined to kill all the caged animals. Soldiers lined up with guns. It was devastating, and yet people went about their ordinary business in the midst of it. Bugatti was grief stricken, and after he returned to Paris at the age of 31, he committed suicide.

Today, Bugatti’s animals are receiving belated acclaim. There was a 2014 exhibition of Bugatti’s work at the Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin. The actor Alain Delon auctioned off his collection of Bugatti sculptures at Christie’s in Paris last year, and eight of Bugatti’s sculptures were auctioned off at Christie’s New York last week.

Antonia Munroe, An Imagined Blue Finch, 2017, pigment dispersion on panel.


For the Birds

What qualifications should a bird meet to be regarded as an artist?

Take, for instance, the sprawling installations of the late sculptor Jason Rhoades, like the one currently on view at the Brant Foundation in Greenwich, Connecticut. These come replete with pieces of wood string, paper, Legos, wire, machine parts, mirrors, and CD disks for starters, as well as segments of sound and bagels and doughnuts, all seemingly randomly arranged. But look closely, and you’ll find there is little that’s truly random. Red pipes and objects, for example, appear as strategically positioned as the dots are in a Corot painting, to hold your eye and shape the parameters of the composition.

Then consider what birds do. In the illuminating book The Genius Of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman, there are extraordinary examples of creativity, taste, and planning. Ackerman writes of finding in the forest a small bird with a blue back and a bright purple eye: “Behind him is an elegant little twiggy architectural hall about a foot high, formed by two parallel arched walls of upright sticks, like a toy tepee built by a child. All around him the ground is stippled with colorful objects that that pop out against a carpet of half-colored twigs. . . . There are blossoms, fruits, berries, feathers, bottle caps, straws, the wings of a parrot, a tiny toy Bart Simpson skateboard, and . . . a turquoise glass eyeball. The bird picks up a flower and drops it nearby. He arranges a feather, nudges a bead, pokes at a straw—apparently sorting his booty by color, size, and shape.”

Ackerman points out that there’s often motivation for such scheming. “Females like decorations, a lot of them, so males hoard their bling.” They’ll even steal from neighbors—blue bus tickets, pens, “a baby-blue pacifier.”

“Each species of bowerbird has its preferred ornaments and colors carefully selected for contrast.” They even create perspective, arranging their booty by size.

Examples abound throughout the book demonstrating how this shrewdness and the birds’ designing sense and building skills are used to social ends—to attract the opposite sex. Beauty matters. Birds discern colors: they love blue, and they use them to control their environment.

Not only do they have their own aesthetic, but their own beauty is arguably unrivaled in the natural world. And we celebrate the dazzling creatures in the artificial universe of art. Artists dating back to cave painters have depicted their elegance and grace, and little can match the painstakingly exact renditions of Indian miniature painters. Recently, contemporary artist Antonia Munroe has compulsively and exactingly copied Rajput depictions even mimicking traditional methods of mixing pigments and using a binder to create gouache, for example.

But then, it turns out, some species actually crush vegetation and use it to paint the walls of their nests.

One bird, found in Australia, paints “a chest-high band on the inside of his twig hall using dried hoop pine needles he has chewed and crushed in his beak.”

It would be correct to say, the subject of birds is in the air today, but then so are they, and, more and more we can explore their creative abilities and measure them and see them as more like us—and different.

As the English ornithologist Charles Dixon wrote in 1902, “A bird’s nest is the most graphic mirror of a bird’s mind. It is the most palpable example of those reasoning, thinking qualities with which these creatures are unquestionably very highly endowed.”

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