Masterworks’ Birdsey retrospective is ‘a must-see’
Alfred Birdsey is a national treasure.
Although he departed this life some 26 years ago, the value of his achievements lives on. Indeed, the monetary value of his painting, as indicated by art auctions, has accrued considerable value. However, this does not necessarily make one a national treasure and in the case of artist Birdsey, there are other considerations to examine.
He was arguably Bermuda’s first modern artist. Although self-taught, he was mentored by another local artist, Donald Kirkpatrick, and visiting artist Joe Jones. Additionally, he was influenced by the German-American and Bauhaus professor, Lyonel Feininger. The influence of the latter two artists is evident in Birdsey’s mature art style. There are also aspects of Asian art in his mature work, which may have come to him indirectly through either the work of Jones or Feininger. In his watercolours, there is a poetic effervescence that resembles certain Asian ink drawings. At the same time there are hints of the cubistic; this may seem an unthinkable combination, but Birdsey did the unthinkable.
Birdsey’s kind of modernism came to him instinctively; his kind of abstraction seemed to be as natural to his way of seeing the world, as it was for him to breathe. I am not aware that he was in any way concerned with theoretical underpinnings.
One of Birdsey’s achievements was his ability to paint quickly; although I would not have you believe that he just “knocked them out”. Certainly he did not always attain the standard he sought and was known to discard those he saw as not meeting that standard. More often than not, he did produce an acceptable quality and when he did, it was remarkably beautiful.
Another notable, albeit rare accomplishment as a Bermudian artist was the fact that Birdsey was able to earn a living by his art. But what was it that attracted so many to his studio/gallery? To a certain degree, it was his art, but more than that, it was also his personality. When I think of Birdsey such qualities as people-person, hospitable, generous, good humour and friendliness come to mind. Visitors to the Birdsey studio came away with more than a souvenir painting; they came away with the memory of a delightful experience.
People are drawn to creativity and as such Birdsey was an incredible asset to the Bermuda Department of Tourism. It is known, certainly in the US, UK and Europe, that more people attend and are attracted to cultural events than sporting events. It is therefore not surprising that the Birdsey studio was such an attraction.
All the above leads to the Masterworks Museum of Bermuda Art hosting a retrospective exhibition of the work of Birdsey curated by Carole Reed along with the Masterworks team of Jasmine Lee and Sara Thom. The title of this exhibition is “Birdsey: Stories and Sentiments, A Retrospective”.
In the 1980s there was another Birdsey retrospective which was hosted by the Art Centre at Dockyard, however the current Masterworks exhibition covers a much broader range of Birdsey’s career. Included in the show are examples of his early 1930s paintings, along with examples of work by his mentors, Donald Kirkpatrick and Joe Jones.
Reading curator Reed’s exhibition comments, I noted that she likened Birdsey’s use of gesture as being comparable to that of a fashion designer and “almost a Haiku expression”. She also said that his work had Asian influences; apparently he even used Japanese ink which he applied with the “lightest touch”.
Birdsey was also a printmaker, which is perhaps less well known He made woodcuts; one example being on show in this current retrospective. He was also a lithographer.
Lithography was accidentally invented by Alois Senefelder, a Bavarian playwright around 1796. It is based on the fact that water and oil or grease repel each other, but the whole process is chemically quite complicated. Senefelder used slabs of Bavarian limestone as the ground upon which he drew or wrote.
Birdsey also got involved with this process, but at first he experimented unsuccessfully with marble. Perhaps unknown to him was the fact that very hard Bermuda limestone had been used in lithography with success. There is, in the Natural History Museum in Flatts, a lithograph on Bermuda limestone.
Subsequent to his failure in using marble, Birdsey was given two lithograph stones from New York. It is reported that he along with family, travelled via the Queen of Bermuda to New York to fetch the precious stones.
In order to make a lithograph print, however, a special press is needed which Birdsey did not have. Being creative, he then worked with his son-in-law, Sjur Linberg, an architect, to create a simple lithograph press. Birdsey lithographs are also included in this exhibition.
A number of years ago I was walking along a street in New York past an art gallery. In the gallery window was a Birdsey painting. About the same time I was in Key West, Florida where I met a women who asked if I knew Birdsey. He continues to have a growing international reputation.
This exhibition is timely, for it seems a generation of young Bermudians has grown to adulthood without knowing about Birdsey. This exhibition therefore provides opportunity to learn about one of our significant artists. This is a must-see retrospective which continues until February 25.