Thursday, October 3, 2013

Bluebird and Castles in the Hair

Bluebird, 2013 and Castles in the Hair, 2013
Ink and acrylic on Khadi paper
Unique artist books, each 15 x 80 cm (open)
Photography by Tim Gresham

When the two artist books pictured on the left were photographed recently, their pairing was quite arbitrary. Coincidentally, however, they share a thematic link: both take well-known figures of speech as points of departure (one in the form of a pun). They tap into the nature of human aspirations, the first of which is - at best - impermanent, whilst the other, because it has no basis whatsoever in reality, is doomed to be forever unattainable. 

I’ve just finished re-reading Voltaire's timeless satiric masterpiece Candide, or Optimism (1759) and wonder if something of its sentiments (its highly ironic catchphrase is "all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds") were subconsciously absorbed into these two works - more particularly the latter.


In Native American culture the attributes of the Bluebird are happiness, joy, and contentment. Similarly, the Oxford English Dictionary defines Bluebird as “happiness”. This symbology was the basis for the plot of l’Oiseau bleu, or The Bluebird, a 1909 play by Belgian playwright and poet Maurice Maeterlinck, which purportedly introduced the phrase "Bluebird of happiness".

In this context the Bluebird has long been absorbed into popular music, which tends to stress its elusive nature, for example in the lyric Over the Rainbow: (1) "...Somewhere over the rainbow, Bluebirds fly/Birds fly over the rainbow/Why, oh why can't I?". Another song, also memorably performed by Judy Garland is I'm Always Chasing Rainbows: (2) "... I'm always chasing rainbows/ Waiting to find a little bluebird in vain".

(1) Published 1939, Music: E. Y. Harburg/Lyrics: Harold Arlen

(2) Published 1917, Music: Harry Carroll/Lyrics: Joseph McCarthy


The idiom "castles in the air", refers to futile flights of fancy. Two early examples of its usage date from the sixteenth century:

"In a word, whoever will consult common sense upon religious opinions, and will carry into the examination the attention given to objects of ordinary interest, will easily perceive that the opinions have no solid foundation; that all religion is but a castle in the air; that Theology is but ignorance of natural causes reduced to a system...."

Michel de Montaigne, 1533-1592 (Translated from the French)

"And that the Poet hath that Idea, is manifest, by delivering them foorth in such excellencie as he had imagined them: which delivering foorth, also is not wholly imaginative, as we are wont to say by them that build Castles in the aire..."

Sir Philip Sidney, 1554-1586

Bluebird, 2013 and Castles in the Hair, 2013
Acrylic on canvas
Each work: 12.5 x 7.5 cm
Photography: Tim Gresham

Pictured directly above are the miniature paintings that served as studies for the artist books. All the work featured in this post was made especially for the forthcoming exhibition Wonder Room. It will hang alongside works by fellow Wonder Room artists Rona Green, Paul Compton, Heather Shimmen and Filomena Coppola.