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Book Review: Lars Jonsson’s Birds: Paintings from a Near Horizon

Reviewed by Stephen J. Bodio
Lars Jonsson’s Birds review

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Lars Jonsson’s Birds is the first definitive collection of the works of the great Swedish bird artist. It reflects his love of northern and coastal habitats and their inhabitants, and embodies his concept of the “near horizon”: “When I feel in close contact with both myself and the birds I am painting, I sometimes sense a point which, like the horizon, perhaps is an illusion, a point or place where more unites us humans and birds than separates us.”

Jonsson’s style can broadly be called impressionistic. He cites 19th-century influences such as Velasquez and John Singer Sargent as well as more esoteric influences such as the Russian “Wanderers.” His greatest influence, by his own admission, is Swedish naturalist and painter Bruno Liljefors. Thomas Quinn, another fine bird artist, has always said that sketching is essential. Jonsson would agree. “The work filed in a sketch book is extremely central to me. That work is the basis of my personal philosophy of art. The way the hand-eye-brain connection works is crucial for a visual artist. It is my belief that a wildlife artist has to draw from life.” He calls the connection that coincides with intently observing wildlife “the vibrating now.” His friend, sculptor Kent Ullberg, says that Lars “paints beautiful and sensitive watercolors in the field. It appears as if he has one eye on the telescope and the other on the watercolor pad while the paint flows like magic.”

In an amusing essay on Jonsson, art critic Fredric Sjoberg talks about the struggle since the early 20th century for nature painters to be appreciated as artists rather than illustrators. He quotes Vladimir Nabokov: “Does there not exist a high ridge where the mountainside of scientific knowledge joins the opposite slope of artistic imagination?” After a detailed analysis, he unequivocally states that Jonsson is an artist. “[I]t is more difficult today than it has been for a long time, to represent beauty—trivial or not. In this field, Lars Jonsson is a pioneer.”

The selection of work is magnificent, beginning with the incredibly accomplished black-and-white work he did when he was only 15 years old, through sketches, watercolors, oil paintings, and field guide illustrations. Some of the most amazing work, which I almost prefer to the more finished paintings, is from the sketchbooks. I would be happy to hang his sketches of Red Knot and Dunlin on my wall. Maybe even more exciting is his Red-backed Shrike, casual but utterly alive. His feeling for aquatic birds is apparent in his watercolors. He may be the best painter of eiders since Liljefors, and the best painter of gulls ever. My particular favorites are one of the Eurasian Curlew in sunset light, and studies of Northern Pintails painted in my near backyard at Bosque del Apache. Perhaps the most magnificent watercolor, with the dark majesty I usually associate with more formal oil painting, is “The Islands of Dark Fulmars,” painted in the Kuril Islands of Russia. Misty mountains rise behind a slaty sea breaking on black slabs of rock, surrounded by circling birds.

In his oil paintings, Jonsson’s debt to Liljefors is most apparent. Look at the double-page spread of King Eiders racing past in flight. But even here his individuality is apparent. The remarkable thing about his oils is that they generally preserve much of the spontaneity of his sketches.

Even his field guide illustrations, which must to some extent conform to a rigid format, are unusual. His plate of Egyptian Vultures and Lammergeiers in flight against a mountain background, painted for Birds of the Mediterranean Region, is a dramatic composition unlike anything I have ever seen in a field guide. It’s worth noting that Jonsson’s Birds of Europe is the only field guide I have ever bought for its art alone. It may not be the best field guide ever designed, but it’s a great bird art book.

As is Lars Jonsson’s Birds, which all fans of fine bird art should buy.

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