Picking up Nobrow’s recently published tome, Audubon: On The Wings of The World will already give you an impression that the book is a unique project. It’s large, as large as one of the famous naturalist’s folios, really, and the cover artwork, crowded with all manner of birds, is knocked forward by a white paper background. In the middle, we see John James Audubon, looking bemused, perhaps a little overwhelmed, like a stranger in a strange land.
This book, created by Fabian Grolleau and Jeremie Royer, takes you on a harrowing but fascinating journey through Audubon’s life. If you imagined the life of an early naturalist and conservationist on American soil was likely to be a little uncomfortable, that’s only the beginning of the truth. If you’re familiar with how hard artists lives often are, struggling for financial support and driven by the need to create their work, combine that with founding a movement in appreciating wild creatures in their natural environment at a time when people were only interested in “specimens” and you have double the trouble. Poor Audubon was caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.
I came to this book ignorant of the man, but familiar with his beautiful work, many of which I saw in fine galleries in Washington DC and New York City, and their serene tone, with flashes of wicked liveliness in his subjects, made me assume they were composed in drawing rooms, in times of leisure, or maybe on a nice summer walk in cultivated woodlands. Instead, they were composed living rough on log rafts, or sleeping on the ground, or in decay-ridden garrets where the artist starved to buy the correct pigments to use on paintings of his more flamboyant subjects.
But this story is not all extremities of suffering–it has a real human heart to it–albeit one that addresses the problems of human relationships and the natural outcomes of obsession. We catch up with the French expatriate in Kentucky, and follow him through different points in his life, hearing allusions to his failed business ventures, meeting his incredibly understanding wife, and later his children, woven through Audubon’s great and terrible journey to document the birds of America in a quickly disappearing wilderness. Then we also follow Audubon through his trip to the UK seeking support for color plate printing for his project–the goal of this all being a large book of printed plates showing the birds of North America in a naturalistic way.
It’s quite clear that Audubon is a little crazy–prone to obsessive goals to the point of self-destructive behavior–but it’s also clear that he’s in the grip of a vision that has merit. He wants to eclipse a previously published book whose philosophy he radically disagrees with, and place a new idea–and a new way of appreciating wildlife–in the hands of the public.
Arguably, Audubon’s momentous success, after many years of work and suffering–did change our appreciation of wildlife drastically, and set many people on the path of conservation that is still in place today. The relevance of the book to modern experience is direct–when Audubon comments on the fading wilderness, and compares the destruction of the American West over a period of years during his journeys–we can only be aware of how much more extreme the destruction is now and what slim areas of wilderness remain compared to the the mid 1800’s.
Grolleau and Royer tackle not only the difficult subject of Audubon’s life–a life where a man left his wife and children to pursue his own goals–but also Audubon’s experiences among Native Americans, which are necessarily going to be tinged by cultural bias. They present both the open-minded attitudes he displayed as well as his limitations unflinchingly and avoid attempting to fully explain native perspectives–sticking to the framework of the biography. In this, I think the creators of this book acknowledge their own outsider status in conveying the difficulties of native life during this period, and at the present time in relation to the natural environment, which is wise.
Another problematic area the creators address without shying away from it is the radical disregard for actual bird life Audubon displayed in pursuit of his painting, often killing hundreds of birds per day and sometimes dozens for a single work of art. Not to mention his gruesome tendency to wire up the corpses in lifelike poses to use as models, while leaving a reek of decay not too far off from Leonardo Da Vinci’s own workshop for similar reasons.
The artwork and storytelling style in this volume preserves this slight distance in tone about all of this–allowing the reader to pass judgement and draw conclusions about Audubon’s motives and behavior, whether marveling at his bravery or in being shocked by his continuous fall in and out of destitution. The creators tell a story, but the story they want to tell is more impacting because of this room they leave in the narrative to think, reflect, and react.
All in all, this book is an intense journey that you are invited to take part in, and there’s a relief in knowing it’s not one that’s laced with fiction, made more comfortable, or missing key elements of Audubon’s biography. Grolleau and Royer present the life of a very flawed person whose extreme efforts made lasting impact and leave you with plenty to think about regarding conservation as well as the nature of art.
You can find out more about Audubon: On The Wings of The World on Nobrow’s website.