Show Hide image

Winter’s winged pilgrims: on the migration of swans

It’s impossible to regard the natural world without seeing something of our own caught up in it.

Home from home: every winter swans migrate hundreds, even thousands of miles, from north to south. Photo: Jeremy Wodehouse/Blend Images/Gallerystock

Home from home: every winter swans migrate hundreds, even thousands of miles, from north to south. Photo: Jeremy Wodehouse/Blend Images/Gallerystock

On this Fenland day of frost and low sun I’ve driven 30 miles across fields of wheat, wet ditches and willows to the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) reserve at Welney in Norfolk. I’m on my annual winter pilgrimage to one of Britain’s finest wildlife spectacles. At three o’clock I’m inside the main observatory, a heated and carpeted structure far from the usual ramshackle hide.

Just as unusual are the crowds around me. There are a few wolfish-looking men with spectacular telescopes. But there are also impressively bouffanted ladies of a certain age looking through binoculars so old-fashioned they resemble opera glasses. There’s a woman in a wheelchair who sang joyously all the way down the bumpy slope to the door. There are teen Goths and toddlers and elderly couples and a tiny baby in pink tights and top. All of us stare out of the panoramic windows at a mile of water broken by tiny islands and dotted lines that are the stalks of drowned grasses and huddles of sleeping black-tailed godwits. The mercury-bright lake is patterned with thousands of birds as far as the eye can see: moving dots that are mallard, wigeon and pochard and miniature icebergs that are swans.

The Ouse Washes are a highly engineered landscape: a lake the size of Loch Lomond appears here every winter and drains to wet pasture in spring. Famed for wildfowling and winter skating, it has become a wintering site for thousands of swans that come here to feast on potatoes left in the ground after harvest, on sugar beet, on winter wheat. These aren’t the familiar mute swans of local parks and ponds. They migrate here from the Arctic: whooper swans from Iceland and Bewick’s swans from Siberia.

To get here whoopers cross the north Atlantic non-stop, flying for 12 hours at roughly 20,000 feet. It’s an astonishing feat of endurance. But it is the smaller species, Bewick’s swans, that are the favourite of the WWT stockman Shaun. “The yellow from their beaks continues up and around their eyes,” he says, reverently. “Like yellow eyeliner. They’re such pretty little birds.”

There’s a bronze bust of the WWT’s founder, Sir Peter Scott, in the corner of the room. He loved them, too. Fifty years ago, he noticed that every swan had a different pattern of yellow and black on its bill. Fascinated, he started naming them and painting tiny swan mugshots of each bird. This developed into a “face book”, a visual catalogue of individual swans that is continued today. Even now, WWT researchers memorise birds by sight and Scott’s initial tracing of swans and their family trees has become one of the longest-running wildlife studies in the world. In conjunction with ringing studies and radio tracking, the data it produces is crucial for conservation. While whooper populations are healthy, those of Bewick’s swans are not: climate and habitat changes seem likely factors in their rapid decline.

When I was small, Bewick’s swans had a particular kind of glamour because they migrated here from the Soviet Union, crossing the Iron Curtain with total unconcern. I’ve often wondered what lay behind Scott’s fascination with them. To an ex-naval officer, explorer’s son and champion glider pilot, the heroic North Sea flights of whoopers would certainly appeal. But it is tempting to imagine that a particular strand of English conservatism influenced his desire to individuate Bewick’s swans, turn them into families rather than flocks, trace their family trees and give them names such as Casino, Croupier, Lancelot, Jane Eyre and Victoria, before they returned to the Soviet Union each spring. It’s possible. Politics is so easily caught up in science, the cold war unwittingly pleated into swans’ rushing, beating wings.

There’s a moment of hushed anticipation as Shaun leaves the observatory to push a wheelbarrow along the shoreline and cast great scoopfuls of corn into the water. We crowd at the windows. A vast raft of winter wildfowl are feeding busily beneath us: conker-headed pochards, mallards, scores of whoopers and Bewick’s swans with cloudy pinions and snowy necks. These birds are fantastically wild, yet here they are, tame as farmyard ducks, feeding in the near-dark under floodlights. The experience is joyous but messes with your everyday notions of what a wild animal is, what wildness is at all.

Something is missing. I leave the observatory and head for the hides next door, raise a narrow window to let in the soundscape outside. What do thousands of Arctic swans sound like? Rather like a vast amateur brass band tuning up in an aircraft hangar. My heart soars. Every few seconds comes a carillon of new voices. The swans are coming home to roost in little family groups, silhouettes that rise over the observatory and plane down to the black water. They are calling to each other in the dark, these beautiful migrants, some of their faces stained yellow, some dark with potato mud, their broad, webbed feet splayed to brake as they descend. They land, call, flap their wings, squabble, dip their heads under the water, preen, drink thirstily.

This is my winter pilgrimage; this is why I came. It’s impossible to regard the natural world without seeing something of our own caught up in it. And what delights me, watching these swans, is how clearly they are as at home here as they are in the Arctic. Their presence here challenges commonplace notions of nativism. Forget Christmas. The swans’ visitations are to me the happiest of winter celebrations. 

Helen Macdonald’s “H Is for Hawk” is published by Jonathan Cape (£14.99)

This article first appeared in the 19 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Issue 2014

ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG FOUNDATION, NEW YORK
Show Hide image

"Someone was screwing here": the cryptic art of Robert Rauschenberg

Dense with allusion and synecdoche, Rauschenberg's art work reveals an extraordinary “stream of unconsciousness”.

Before he was established, Robert Rauschenberg had the following jobs. He was a neuropsychiatric technician in the US navy at San Diego. (Unsurprisingly, he preferred the patients when they were insane.) He worked for Ballerina Bathing Suits as a packer and at the Atlas Construction Company in Casablanca, where he conducted inventories of stock for $350 a week. As he made his way in the art world, he was a janitor at the Stable Gallery. He did window displays at Bonwit Teller on Sixth Avenue, as well as Tiffany & Co and Reynolds Metals. (When window-dressing in penurious tandem with Jasper Johns, they used the pseudonym Matson Jones.) Rauschenberg was also stage manager and lighting designer for the Merce Cunningham dance troupe. He was an occasional emergency choreographer (Pelican). You see? Hand-to-mouth, improvised, a “career” made from whatever was ready to hand.

Then, in 1964, he took first prize at the Venice Biennale and arrived. The jobs are, in their way, a perfect emblem of Rauschenberg’s art – unrelated, aleatoric agglomerations of items that happened to stray into the force field of his personality. In Alice Oswald’s long poem Dart, we hear at one point the voice of a stonewaller: “. . . you see I’m a gatherer, an amateur, a scavenger, a comber, my whole style’s a stone wall, just wedging together what happens to be lying about at the time”. This, too, could be Rauschenberg, ransacking the junkyards, with one eye on the gutter, for the found object, the overlooked, the discarded, the down-at-heel detail of daily life. In the Tate catalogue (but not in the exhibition) is a work called Hiccups. One visual burp after another, it consists of separate, one-size, totally heterogeneous items silk-screened and zipped together. Rauschenberg was said by Jasper Johns to have invented more things than anyone except Picasso. A slight exaggeration. Rauschenberg’s central inventive coup was the combine: that notorious stuffed goat with the automobile tyre round its middle will serve as an example.

For the New Yorker critic Calvin Tomkins, this was the legacy of the European surrealists – Breton, Duchamp – who took refuge in America during the Second World War. Rauschenberg’s combines are as arbitrary as the unconscious. His scrolls, his late work The 1/4 Mile or 2 Furlong Piece, are a kind of stream of unconsciousness, works of instinct and intuition held together by his assumed authority. (He once forgot to make a portrait of the Paris gallery owner Iris Clert, so sent a last-minute telegram: “This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so – Robert Rauschenberg.” The French loved it.) The results are a deliberate unconscious chaos, which, like dreams, give off the sensation, but not the substance, of reason.

This important and vibrant show at Tate Modern usefully complicates this accepted narrative – with its implicit emphasis on the artist as magus, performing a kind of magic, of visual hypnosis. To give one example, there is a big billowing work called Glacier (Hoarfrost) (1974). It is an emperor-sized sheet, with solvent transfer of newsprint on satin and chiffon. There is a pillow underneath, more or less invisible, to create the billow. It is a work of straightforward representation, of realism. It is a glacier in which the illegible newsprint serves as shadow, as a great and exact donation of texture. There is an Elizabeth Bishop poem, “Varick Street”, which describes a factory at night: “Pale dirty light,/some captured iceberg/being prevented from melting.” All the grime, all the dereliction and detritus of the glacier is captured in the Rauschenberg.

Leo Steinberg, a shrewd but not uncritical supporter of Rauschenberg, rejected the idea, first mooted by Robert Hughes, that Monogram’s stuffed goat forced through a tyre referred to anal sex. Steinberg preferred to think of the work as “funny”. Indeed, just behind it is a brown tennis ball like a (large) goat dropping. I thought of Alexander Calder’s chariot in his Circus: when Calder started to improvise performances around the work, he would scatter then sweep up droppings behind the horses. Here the tennis ball’s appearance is prompted by the representation of the tennis player Earl Buchholz on the hinged platform supporting the goat: providing an alibi. There is also a rubber shoe heel, which has trodden in something – bright-blue lapis lazuli – another ambiguous allusion to excrement, here transfigured and glorified. Here, too, a man is crossing a gorge on a tightrope (signifying danger), and there is a high-ceilinged room with several pillars (easily read as phallic). “EXTRA HEAVY” is stencilled in one corner, a touch not without ­significance, to nudge us away from frivolity. Goats are a traditional byword for lechery. Two more possible indicators: we have to ask why the tyre isn’t whitewall but painted white on the tread of the tyre, a deviation from the norm. Is it prurient to wonder if this represents sperm? The second touch is a man with his arms akimbo, casting a long shadow – a doubling at once different but identical and therefore perhaps a figure for homosexuality.

We are used to the idea that Rauschenberg was interested in eliminating the artist’s presence and personal touch. At the beginning of this show, we have Automobile Tire Print, the black tyre track on 20 sheets of typing paper that was laid down by John Cage driving his Model A Ford; it is an artwork whose execution is twice removed from Rauschenberg by the driver and his automobile. There are, too, the dirt paintings, as arbitrary as Warhol’s later piss paintings – which produce, in Dirt Painting (for John Cage) (1953), very beautiful, random, blue-grey mould. These are works in which the artist cedes agency to natural process. Nevertheless, it is impossible, I think, to look at the Cage dirt painting and not be forcibly reminded of the marginalised artist and his palette with its attractive, accidental accretions of pigment.

Despite this posture of disavowal, Raus­chenberg’s work isn’t devoid of same-sex iconography. For example, he is drawn, time and again, to Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus and Rubens’s Venus. Both are quoted several times, reproduced in silk-screen. Why? Partly an act of magisterial appropriation and a demonstration of self-confidence. (An act of felony itself stolen from the Picasso who repainted Velázquez’s Las Meninas, part of a sustained campaign of annexing the overbearing classics. No false modesty in Picasso.) Rauschenberg’s Monogram goat is also an attempt to replace Picasso’s signature goat – said by Picasso to be more like a goat than a goat – by a monogram, a sign of ownership, like a pair of monogrammed slippers or shirts.

The other reason for the quotation of Rubens and Velázquez is that both nude women are contemplating and presumably admiring themselves in mirrors, mirrors that in both cases are held up by cupidons. The perfect topos of self-love – and therefore of same-sex eroticism. Originally, the stuffed goat (stuffed!), with its horny horns, was set against a painting called Rhyme (a not insignificant title, suggestive of sameness and difference). Rhyme (1956) has an actual necktie on the left. On the tie are grazing cows and a four-bar corral fence. In the centre of the picture are dense squiggles and squirts of colour – again like an artist’s palette, but which here represent a pallet or bed. Above the bed is a bit of lace and adjacent to the lace a red ball. What we have here is an aubade, dawn through lace curtains, and the tie as an indication of (male, out-of-towner) undress. Of course, nothing is explicit. Yet the self-censorship, the furtive and necessary concealment, is represented – by some kind of structure that has been removed, leaving behind trace elements. And what are they? Angular outlines and screw-holes, a sexual metaphor you can find in Maupassant’s Bel-Ami. Someone was screwing here.

Bed (1955) features the famous stolen (and very beautiful, subtly patterned) quilt. At the point where the sheet turns back and the pillow is on view, both are liberally stained with paint. The paint is both fluids and (deniable) paint – paint as itself and a synecdoche. Leo Steinberg wants to restrict the combine to a self-referential aesthetic statement – the flatbed horizontal as opposed to the vertical hang, which he sees as Rauschenberg’s primary revolutionary innovation. But while Steinberg is right to dismiss ideas of murder and mayhem in Bed, the action painting mimicked here is also surely mimicking action in the sack.

None of this is certain. The illegality of homosexuality in 1955 made explicitness out of the question. But I think it unlikely that something so central to Rauschenberg’s identity – his sexistentialism – should be completely absent from his work. Even aesthetically programmatic work such as the very early 22 The Lily White (1950) has references to homosexuality. It is an off-white painting with outlined sections like a street map, each of them numbered. The numbers are sometimes upside down. Steinberg believes this is a strategy to subvert the accustomed vertical hang, because it is not clear which way up it should go. I think the numbers are upside down because they are inverted, with everything that adjective denotes in the sexual context. And the shapes are revealing, too: it is made up of extended interlocking jigsaw shapes that mirror and fit into each other. The title refers to the lily-white boys of “Green Grow the Rushes-O”.

Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953) can be dismissed with Harold Rosenberg’s ­famous quip: “The less there is to see, the more there is to say.” Rauschenberg, the junior artist, persuaded Willem de Kooning to give him a drawing that he would then erase. De Kooning chose a drawing that used oil crayon so that Rauschenberg would have a proper task. It took him a long time. And actually, though no one says this – they are too interested in the sacrilege, in the idea of erasure, in destruction, in the concept – the erasure isn’t complete. It  isn’t the promised blank that you don’t need to see to understand. You have to see it to see the Wunderlay.

What does it mean? Partly, obviously, the picture is Oedipal, an act of aggression against a prior master by a junior. Second, the end product is “poetry”, according to Rauschenberg. You can just make out the ghostly marks so that the surface is like a veronica – or like a romantic fragment. It brings to mind Coleridge’s imitation of fragments of antique poetry, creating an aura of irresolvable suggestiveness. On the surface are extra marks, 12 of them, whose provenance is uncertain, but whose presence is as indisputable as the vague but redolent under-image.

Suggestion is the ground note you take away from this show. In Untitled (1955) there is a sock and a parachute – the combine of paint and actuality, somewhere between painting and sculpture – but also to the left, some crumpled paper, overpainted in white, that reveals an eye, nostrils and a retroussé upper lip with phantom teeth. There is painted cloth, taken from pillow-slips or bedlinen, with a decorative milling effect, which makes this Rauschenberg’s bed scene, a long time before Tracey Emin. Similarly, Short Circuit (1955) incorporates work by Jasper Johns and Rauschenberg’s ex-wife, Susan Weil, hidden behind doors. It is a work all about concealment, reveal and suggestion.

There are many, many beautiful things on show here, exemplary energy, and a few empty failures. Don’t miss Untitled (1958) which hangs, from two tarnished safety pins, a khaki handkerchief, treated and soaked, so that you can make out the pattern in the weave. The humble snot-rag transfigured. Its square is a warp of frail rust, a tuille. Above it is a frame of grey-painted cloth, showing a trouser loop and that milling effect again. It is stunning. And so are his majestic cardboard boxes – Nabisco and Alpo for Dogs – makeshift sculptures that read as solid wood, charismatic brand-name Brancusis.

“Robert Rauschenberg” runs until 2 April 2017. For more details visit: tate.org.uk

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage