As I write, I’ve forgotten how I first connected with Ladislav Hanka, his work and writing. I do remember a phone call after I’d had time to read some of his writing. As we talked on the phone, a question—one of those shots in the dark—suddenly popped up, did he know of or have any relation with Erazim Kohák? Kohák is the author of
The Embers and the Stars, a difficult book to classify. Subtitled
A Philosophical Inquiry into the Moral Sense of Nature, it’s a deep and moving meditation that had been recommended to me by Ivan Illich’s intimate and remarkable friend, Lee Hoinacki. So I asked my question.
“He’s my uncle,” came Hanka’s reply.
Oh, my. It all made sense.
Over the years I’ve published excerpts from Hanka’s own meditations, and so it was a nice surprise to receive a copy of his book
In Pursuit of Birds. Hanka’s sketches, drawings and etchings are masterful and always a treat to look at. And rather than attempt a review of the book, I thought nothing could be better than letting it speak for itself. Ladislav was kind of enough to allow us to publish the book’s opening essay. —r. whittaker
There have been moments in my life when birds have played a pivotal role as omen and sign. There have also been moments when splendid and otherworldly apparitions of great art have intruded, like signs from above, and changed the course of my life. Occasionally they have come packaged together. A modest painting of a goldfinch by Carel Fabritius had such an effect upon me. A 17th-century Flemish painter from the workshop of Rembrandt, Fabritius’ painting of his captive goldfinch, attached by a delicate chain to its perch, was no groundbreaking masterpiece. Yet it was an awakening—both his, and three centuries later, mine.
I still recall rounding the corner of a staircase at the Mauritzhuis in the Hague and coming face to face with the canvas. I stood staring at the work, mesmerized for ten minutes, maybe longer, and returned again in an hour for another look. I don’t remember what I did the rest of that day: perhaps I took in the other sights around town, maybe a museum, or a walk on the waterfront promenade. I probably ate some pickled herring and French fries, but it was the painting that has stayed with me. I remember that I stopped in again at the Mauritzhuis before looking for a hostel. I had saved the entry ticket and hoped to get in again. “Just a quick look before closing time. You wouldn’t turn away a poor art student would you? “I said to the guards. They didn’t. In the next days I scooted over to Amsterdam; traversed all the many galleries and famous works on display at the Rijksmuseum; marveled over the brilliant paintings and expressive pen and ink drawings at the Van Gogh Museum, jewels I’d only ever seen in reproductions; I reveled in the graphics at the Rembrandt House, and of course I also wandered the red-light district, canals and hashish dens like any wide-eyed mid-western college kid. It was all eye-popping stuff, but curiously in the midst of all this eye-candy, I was still being drawn back to Fabritius and his goldfinch.
I did manage to get back to the Hague once more a few days later. And again I walked around the museum to examine all the great works of art, but this time only perfunctorily. I was very soon back again before the staircase to find the goldfinch—wondering to myself what it was about this painting that so drew me in. And then a day later, I was back once more, before finally departing from Holland altogether. It felt so silly, so obsessive. “Fill your eyes once more with it, if you must, but are you seeing anything new? Is it worth an extra entry ticket, the hostel bill, another train ride?” What happened to me there? Was I being bewitched by a long-dead artist’s soul—or was my future being revealed to me in a great gift emanating from a mysterious collective consciousness? It has been thirty years, but it might as well have been this morning.
What had happened there in the Mauritzhuis? The painting was after all just a modest piece depicting a common bird, and no allegory of man’s inhumanity to man. It made no pretense of teaching or imbuing its viewer with the great lessons of life. I had done the Louvre in Paris a week before—the treasure vault of Western civilization, housing the great allegorical historical and biblical paintings. The Massacre of the Innocents
, Judith with the Head of Holofernes
, the solemn oaths of revenge being sworn against the Turks upon the mounds of gruesomely slain Greeks—none of it really moved me with the strength of this one modest painting of a goldfinch.
Fabritius had done something both subtle and monumental at once. He had truly seen the soul of the goldfinch. The scales fell from his eyes, that morning so long ago in Holland, when the light was just so and the birds were just being birds—not symbols standing for something else. He truly entered the fold and understood the spirit of a bird just attending to goldfinch matters of a sunny morning. That encounter became engraved in memory—enough to overcome the inertia of unfinished tasks, impending debt, long-overdue commissions and short-term memory loss—the kinds of distractions to which most ideas fall prey—and then this early morning avian epiphany actually became paint on canvas. Then, miraculously, in a further concatenation of improbable events, the painting survived all the floods, wars, inheritance struggles, human ignorance and art restorers, to be on display just when I happened by—ripe for the gift.
What did it mean though? The goldfinch was clearly no great earth-shaking statement, but hardly mere decoration, either. It had become a mysterious doorway. I was being introduced to how myth works, how the most meaningful statement doesn’t have to stand for something else; something conducive to words and abstraction—experiences that can be pruned back to a pithy quote or a memorable aphorism. I was opening up and learning to see.
I have been looking at birds and at art with that new set of eyes for three decades now and that still includes the periodic fluctuations that take me from seeing portentous implications in the appearance and movements of birds to my becoming impatient with all human attributions and just wanting to get at the essence of the living, breathing, chirping being itself—and then again back to symbolism.
My symbolist side (still alive and well) is enamored of the place of the augur in Roman society. In ancient Rome, the augur held an honored post at the center of imperial decision-making, where he divined the future from the auspices—favorable signs, discerned from the movements and behaviors of birds, even from examining the entrails of a bird, purposely sacrificed for an important or auspicious occasion. I too am an augur in that I often see birds as oracles; I find portents in their flights, see omens in their migrations and prophecies in the way they soar into dreams. Both sides of the symbolism/naturalism divide are there for me.
There is just something about birds, something ancient, something located back of the forebrain, buried beneath the limbic system, deep within us, known to our ancestors and captivating the land-bound. What must it be like, to be so free, to just spread one’s wings and fly—denying gravity, escaping taxes, conscription, quarterly reports, slipping the noose, the necktie, taking a ten-year lunch break. Ah, to be the condor, straightening out my wings, stretching out those primary feathers to play with the updrafts and circle on a thermal straight up—up and out of sight.
I have watched birds for decades. I received my first real adult binoculars as an inheritance when my great uncle Pavel Neugebauer died in Montreal. He left me a first edition of The Birds of North America
and a pair of big, generous Zeiss 10 x 50 field glasses; they scooped in the light of dawn and dusk, making warblers and ducks visible in ways that I had never imagined possible. He hardly knew me, but I was the chosen one; others got money, family jewels or perhaps houses, but I had field glasses and a lifetime with an intriguing old bird-book, crammed with arcane observations from another time and the exquisite paintings of Louis Aggasiz Fuertes.
The olden days of the plume hunters were documented in my new book with period photos of the slaughter and stories about the excesses of old-time market hunting and egg collecting, followed by harangues against the mindless practice of the now long-forbidden spring hunts—slaughtering the surviving adults, already paired-off and ready to breed, just before the nesting season. These hunts were conducted from sunken batteries of offshore blinds, disguised with mirrors and employing permanent decoy sets, numbering in the hundreds. Men swung boat-mounted swivel guns in the gigantic bores no longer even manufactured today—the blunderbusses in four and six gauge ranges, whose recoil a man’s shoulder couldn’t take and which would loose a hailstorm of lethal shot on passing family groups of ducks and geese. Monstrous bow-mounted punt guns took out whole flocks of migrating birds at a time. Doves, sandpipers, swallows, meadowlarks; it was all fair game back then. “If it flies, it dies.” Museum specimens were often purchased from itinerant skin collectors. Even scientists regarded a rare sighting as an opportunity to collect a type specimen. The pages of my book contained recollections of those who still remembered now-extinct species: anecdotal information from orchard growers on the depredations of the long-gone Carolina parakeet, on hunting greater auks and Labrador ducks. There were pictures of Martha, the last passenger pigeon living out her days in the Cincinnati zoo. It is amazing that anything survived. The book is jampacked with old-time bird lore and exquisite artwork. It was an auspicious gift that helped set my course.
As a result of a lifetime of birding, friends and neighbors see me as “the bird guy” and every cute thing that happens at a bird feeder nearby gets reported to me—but it’s not all sweetie-tweetie. People are moved by blood and guts, too. The red-tailed hawk swooping off a telephone pole and squeezing the guts out of a field mouse gets people’s attention. And they tell me all about it. They feel privileged to have seen a sharp-shinned hawk nail the cardinal at their kitchen-window bird feeder—the little raptor with its wings spread around the mess of blood-smeared red-fluff in a mantling position, tearing at the head and entrails. I still get the same thrill as well. We shiver at the cold clear look, and the complete, composed, unruffled sovereignty of these elegant predators. What a delicious chill to hear a screech owl wailing from the nocturnal woods; or the short, deep hoots of the great horned owl, brooding and omniscient, in the dark; cranes, the first birds to return in the spring, trumpeting and circling high overhead; soon after them the bare-headed turkey vultures, eternally on the lookout for signs of death—or out in the winter corn-stubble, gleaming coal-black crows, cawing, calling to one another. They seem to know things that we do not.
If a raven comes into my life, I cannot ignore it. They show up at crucial moments, the crossroads, turning points and moments of truth. I recall a horrid argument that took place at my in-law’s house in southern Bohemia, in a valley about fifteen kilometers, as the crow flies, from the mountainous border with Bavaria. I stormed out of the house in a blackened mood, not caring if the whole lot of them were to be hit by lightning or abducted by little green men—maybe even wishing it.
In the woods out back, I scrambled up a nasty jagged rock, breaking through the thin soil of this poor, hard-scrabble country, and skinned my elbows pulling myself up by the twisted roots of stunted junipers and brittle branches of spindly young pines to the top of the rock pile. There I stewed, seeking for a sign, no, begging for a sign—any sign that there was a point to all of the nonsense I put up with.
In several minutes, I could hear a croak-croak-crux approaching from the direction of the Bavarian border—from no-man’s land. Appearing on the horizon was a large black bird, flapping its wings steadily, purposefully—coming straight for me. It was no crow, nor a jackdaw, not even a rook, but an honest-to-god raven. The raven arrived overhead, my heart pounding as it circled directly above, calling out steadily in its raspy voice, telling me what I needed to know. I received my sign. The spell broken, my raven flew back from whence it had come. Nobody would be maimed or forever offended. I could come back down off the mountain.
When I stopped into the nearby Šumava International Biosphere Preserve, and asked about ravens, they looked at me condescendingly and patiently informed me that ravens hadn’t bred anywhere close to these parts for well over a century.
Aristocracy. Heraldry. Signs of Majesty. Does the King emblazon his ramparts and shields with guinea fowl? It’s eagles he looks to. Falconry, the sport of kings, is alive and well where kingdoms survive: Saudi sheiks treasure, not only their stallions with impeccable bloodlines, but their peregrine falcons, as well. When royalty ran Europe, a lesser noble might be allowed to fly a clumsy buteo or a small sparrow hawk, but peregrines and gyrfalcons were strictly reserved for the cream of aristocracy, for those people who had earned that right—through an auspicious birth.
Birds, clearly, carry potent symbolic connotations. Once, they were even my bread and butter, as I supported myself through graduate school by teaching ornithology and conducting avian monitoring for environmental impact studies. I set out mist nets, banded the ensnared birds and released them, prepared study skins, mounted taxidermy specimens, conducted population censusing, monitored nest sites, mapped territories, performed necropsies. I did all the things a scientist does to gather data and understand the population dynamics and physiology of birds. Though I haven’t stayed current and must certainly consult books in matters of plumage, anatomy and taxonomy, the knowledge gained as a scientist-in-training continues to serve me as the technical backbone upon which I construct my drawings. Ultimately though, there exists a soulful dimension to these denizens of the sky, a symbolic spiritual truth, for which science is not an adequate conduit. This other dimension, the mystery, is what moves me and that can only be approached subjectively. It takes an artist.
In the year 2000, I began seriously etching birds (lots of them) in response to an art dealer’s request to stop sending him dead fish, and send him instead some cute chickadees to sell in the slow season. The commission, however, soon outgrew its initial mercenary impetus, as I became enchanted by the harlequin-like patterns in the plumage of my old friends the wood warblers. These birds, known mostly just to fellow birders, when stripped of their jewel-like colors, took on graphic qualities with a grand scale of subtle variation. Then I began looking at all the other birds, as if through a stark black-and-white lens, and the series expanded. Even sparrows became transformed into fascinating black and white puzzles. Soon wrens, titmice, woodpeckers, waterfowl, nuthatches, meadowlarks and bobolinks followed. The copper and zinc plates kept multiplying; nearly a hundred of them roosting in my studio, as I continued to capture images of the birds whom I met on my walks, the old familiars who have left emotional traces, engraved in my essence. This selection might just as well have included nighthawks and towhees too, but at a certain moment the muse was done with me, and it was time to move on.
There is no evident symbolism in this series of etchings; nonetheless, they are a symbol: of a place, a time, a space in a parallel dimension. These birds flew in from across the great divide, arriving from the other side—that place we long for when we tire of our own clever pompousness, that place we look back to in search of the child we once were, when we simply picked up a crayon and crawled beneath the kitchen table to inscribe our own Sistine Chapel on its underbelly, a place lost, a daydream, pure bliss.
Next to me in this place is Fabritius, the psychic stowaway, come back with me from my studies abroad, when as a wet-behind-the-ears college kid—thrashing about in foreign languages and alien ideas—I confronted my future vocation in the museums of Europe. The long-ago encounter with Fabritius (whose name is itself a fabrication, reflecting his vocation as fabricator) reminds me that sometimes things are fine as they are, that simple beauty is excuse enough to take materials in hand, and lose myself in the most common of sentiments—in my joy over the company of birds. u
See more at: ladislavhanka.com/