Impressions: Birds of America, Audubon Prints from the Shelbourne Museum

April 27th, 2011 § 0 comments

John James Audubon Pl. 251 - Brown Pelican

John James Audubon Pl. 251 - Brown Pelican

The exhibition Birds of America, Audubon Prints from the Shelburne Museum opened at the Grand Rapids Museum of Art (GRAM) on April 14th, 2011 and I had the the privilege of attending. The show will be on display through August 14th, 2011

The Grand Rapids Art Museum is a modern architectural marvel. Designed by Kulapat Yantrasast as the world’s first LEED Gold Certified Museum, architectural critic Cathleen McGuigan cited the structure as one of the world’s six best new buildings in the Newsweek Article “Well Built”. The modern structure houses important works by many modern masters such as an immense Ellsworth Kelly and a gleaming orange Calder sculpture. The GRAM served as a unique juxtaposition against the antique Audubon engravings in both its structure and the company it provided the prints.

Beginning my journey to the exhibition, I moved through the GRAM toward a series of steps leading me up to the second floor exhibition space. Shining at the top of the steps, like butlers in starched bow ties and white gloves, greeting guests for a formal ball, were two large Audubon Havell prints. They were dressed in early American-style 22k gilt frames and simple, elegant white mats. Resplendent in their frames, the prints were surprisingly at home sharing space with a gleaming orange Calder sculpture. Upon reflection, of course Audubon and Calder work in symphonic harmony in the same space, both men’s work are some of the most recognizable and influential in America.

As I looked left, large gallery walls loomed a light green grey, reminiscent of colors seen in interior Federalist era homes. I was informed by Dr. Axsom that the intent is to evoke a sense of time and place, the color an interior wall hue present during Audubon’s life. Entering the gallery space, a map guided me through Audubon’s travels as he executed each bird drawing on display. The well-spaced prints are presented in cherry wood frames, again a nod to materials available in 19th Century America.

A second companion space gives dimension to Audubon and his life’s work by displaying his lesser known editions while jointly hinting at the arduous task of producing Birds of America. Items rounding out the exhibit include an early Bien Edition set of Audubon’s Birds of America, on loan from Joel Oppenheimer, Inc., a printing press, a volume from an Octavo set signed by Audubon, Octavo uncolored proof prints, and a large screen displaying all 474 of Audubon’s original drawings (Courtesy of the New-York Historical Society).

As a final delicious treat, Dr. Axsom gave a brilliant lecture on Audubon’s Birds of America, eliciting laughs and a few “ooohs” and “ahhhs”. GRAM has done a wonderful job of revisiting the wonder of Audubon with new eyes in a fresh space.

- Jennifer Tobits, Director of Conservation and Framing

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