a floating feather in the city


a+u #637, 2023

Melchior d'Hondecoeter lived in a time marked by the rise of world trade and profound cultural and social changes in the so-called Low Countries - an area roughly corresponding to contemporary Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg. At the time, merchant ships returning from exotic countries brought a large amount of knowledge that was to have a profound influence on European society in the 17th century. Part of this knowledge was about foreign animals and more precisely about exotic birds. As the transport of living beings was hazardous, a large part of the knowledge brought back to Europe was in the form of naive sketches of the various species. As a passionate naturalist painter Melchior achieved to create his own catalog of foreign species, among his large bird iconography Pelicans, Egyptian gooses and African cranes were often shown in the same position and angle. Rather than embracing totally the general exotic trend, he developed an impressive series of paintings by trying to methodically introduce these new species between local ones, creating as an outcome a picture at once strange and familiar, the fruit of a tense and lively cohabitation between the local and the foreign, the banal and the extravagant. Even if the paintings look the same at first sight, they are all different, sometimes new birds are added, others are removed, a larger canvas is used, a small piece of architecture appears at the back of the painting (…) but the language stays rigorously common. The glorious repetition of similar components (local poultry and exotic birds in a Dutch park) creates a body of work that’s deeper than it appears. More than a simple confrontation, and less than an ideal cohabitation, d'Hondecoeter's paintings deal with the struggle to resolve the opposition between one's own local context and distant fascinations, with, as a beautiful outcome, apparent irrationality as a conscious choice to produce vitality and liveliness above all.

The greatest probability for anarchy to produce vitality and liveliness occurs when buildings (…) replete with totally decorous beauty are submerged in the planlessness of the street.
Kazuo Shinohara , “Towards Architecture”, 1981 (JA8109, p.32)