Review of ‘Birds of America’ Film: Lost Paradise in the World’s Second Most Expensive Book
Sotheby’s New York auction in December 2010– the surprising news spread. Birds of America, which contains 435 views of 1,065 birds of 489 species living in the United States, had won the title of ‘the world’s most expensive book.’ At that time, the auction price was USD 11.5 million. The record was maintained until the first American-printed The Bay Psalm Book ($14.2 million) was sold at Sotheby’s in November 2013.
There is a reason why Birds of America was once the most expensive book in the world. It took more than 30 years for this book to come into the world. In particular, it took 12 years (1827 – 1838) to make a book through printing excluding paintings. It was the result of John James Audubon’s long-term fascination with birds. He persistently observed and painted from the age of 11. The bird’s habitat and natural enemies are also pictured (of course, the fact that many birds were stuffed to draw in detail is still being criticized). Thanks to these efforts, Birds of America was completed in a total of four volumes. It was highly valued not only for its ecological value but also for its artistry. This book remains a great guide to human history and an ornithological achievement. Although 200 copies of the first edition have been published, many of them have disappeared and only 120 incomplete first editions remain. The book that was sold at Sotheby’s was a fully preserved copy of the first edition.
Pre-industrial America viewed by a bird-loving artist
The documentary film Birds of America (2021, Director: Jacques Loeuille), recently released in Korea, is not a documentary that highlights this Audubon. There is no indomitable Audubon here, who woke up at 3:00 AM every day, observed birds until the afternoon, and repeatedly depicted them in pictures for decades. The documentary instead explores the surroundings where his footprints appeared. The story unfolds around the Mississippi River, where Audubon, who left Europe in 1803 and arrived in America, came to observe birds. The documentary, which began by scanning modern-day heavy industrial complexes and wetlands near the Mississippi River, contrasts with the days when Audubon explored birds. In fact, life, Native American people, and nature, which were in the background of Audubon’s adventure of chasing birds 200 years ago, are the main themes of the documentary.
Audubon’s painting is not just a historia naturalis. The American birds described by the observations and records of Audubon, one of the great American artists selected by the Smithsonian Institution, are colorful and dynamic. The same was true of the environment in which birds lived and flew. It contrasts with the dryness of the industrialized artificial world. Of course, this should not be simply interpreted as nostalgia for America’s past. The implications of the bird paintings are not so simple.
The documentary also follows the birds in the book. In particular, extinct or hard-to-find birds such as passenger pigeons, Carolina parrots, and ivory-billed woodpeckers come out. This is important for the historical material of the book because we can check the ecology of birds that lived in America at that time. There is another important value to Audubon’s paintings. As mentioned earlier, he captured birds as part of the natural world. He did not neglect his relationship with Native people as well as nature and life that coexisted with birds. It was part of an effort to understand the bird’s ecology and habitat. Was Audubon aware that the ecosystem is a connection as well as a process for painting and book completion? That’s why this book is praised as a great guide.
To follow the story of birds facing extinction, the documentary shows that extinction is not simply due to changes in the natural environment. The same is true of the Native people who were kicked out of their homes. An interesting point is that the past and present of the Mississippi River Basin are revealed through modern and contemporary American paintings. We can witness how the destruction and invasion of mankind, especially white people, has changed this ecosystem. In particular, the ‘religious fatalism’ of immigrants from Europe who drove out birds and Native people even leads to laughter.
The sad roar of the lost paradise
Let’s recall. This documentary is not about Audubon. It is a documentary of history and nature projected into art. It deals with changes in modern and contemporary American history and environment through bird-loving painters and works. I think there is no art beyond the times and society. Therefore, the bird guide containing detailed drawings of birds is a historia naturalis that records the times. There is a “lost paradise” that was destroyed under the pretext of pioneering spirit. Paradise Lost by the British poet John Milton bets hope on Christ’s atonement for human original sin, but is there such hope in this lost paradise?
Birds of America, on the other hand, is a documentary about American history. The ‘clear fate’ cited by migrant invaders was harsh. This is not a sign of God or a higher power, but force. Native people and nature were helplessly driven out by such force. Tribal chiefs warned the American president that nature should be cherished, but it was not. In addition, the tyranny of the huge oil capital in the Mississippi River Basin eliminated wetlands and disturbed the ecosystem.
There was a shadow of death, but nature did not back down. Hurricane Katrina hit the southern United States in 2005. Katrina, which devastated New Orleans, also had a relationship with Audubon. Audubon Zoo and Audubon Aquarium, named after the artist, were severely damaged. Reasons for dealing with this situation followed. Natural disasters do not discriminate, but after natural disasters, discrimination came as a secondary offense. Disaster relief and compensation did not reach many people of color, making them second-class citizens during New Orleans’ recovery. Lost paradise continues its brutal history for the weak and marginalized.
Watching the documentary, the sad roar of lost paradise hums. Mural paintings modeled after Audubon paintings in a block in New York appear, and emotions and sadness flood in. What did we do while the birds that Audubon chased disappeared and were stuffed in Birds of America? Kerry James Marshall also came to mind. Marshall, whose Past Times won $21.1 million at a Sotheby’s auction in 2018, presented his 2020 Audubon-inspired work (Black and Part Black Birds in America). Considering the world of Marshall’s work, which expresses social responsibility through art and maintains a critical view of society, it seems to point out that destruction continues even after Audubon.
I’m not saying that the past is unconditionally beautiful. Perhaps this documentary is a story of mourning for the place and the ecosystem that formed it. Audubon’s bird painting looks like a tearful struggle to resist extinction even as the Mississippi River flows slowly, even as Birds of America became the most expensive book in the world. Maybe that’s why the New York Historical Society has 435 original paintings! The same may be true of why Google celebrated the 226th anniversary of Audubon’s birth in 2011, and the National Audubon Society is named after him, and the John James Audubon State Park exists in Kentucky.
The documentary was invited to the 50th International Film Festival Rotterdam (2021) and the 47th Deauville American Film Festival (2021). If you have a chance to see a beautiful and delicate painting in Birds of America, you may want to see this documentary first. And if Birds of America is auctioned again, Sotheby’s is likely to be in charge. Though Sotheby’s is now famous for art, the company, founded in 1744, began with books. Samuel Baker, who ran a small bookstore, auctioned off hundreds of rare old books. The first auction total reached GBP 826 (about $290,000 today). Thanks to this, Sotheby’s took book auctions as its main business, which continued into the 1950s. Books are sometimes thought of as art. Some books and works of art move the heart of the person who encountered them and change their behavior. This is also the starting point for changing society and the world. It is recommended to follow a two-century documentary journey led by a ‘bird-loving painter.’
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