The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger
art

Birdbrained

Thanks to everyone who took a guess on this month’s Crocodile Mystery! As several of you pointed out, the teaser image is of some breed of cockatoo or cockatiel. Although I usually know a hawk from a handsaw, I will leave questions about exactly which species or sub-family of Cacatuidae this artistic rendition is meant to represent to experts.

The hand-colored print itself is an early- to mid-nineteenth-century lithograph of Act III, sc. 4 in Hamlet by artist Henri Daniel Plattel, published by Jean Baptiste Genty and printed by Gobert et c[ompagn]ie in Paris. It features Hamlet as the aforementioned species of cockatoo, Queen Gertrude as some sort of sharp-beaked black bird (a colleague suggested a guillemot), and the Ghost as an owl. It is entitled Revue des Theatres de Province, and subtitled “Tragèdie d’Hamlet (acte V) [i.e., act III, scene 4], oui j’entends sa voix, c’en est fait à mes pieds est-ce vous que je vois?”

Here is the complete image, Folger ART File S528h1 no.27 (size M).:

Tragèdie d’Hamlet (acte V) [i.e., act III, scene 4], oui j’entends sa voix, c’en est fait à mes pieds est-ce vous que je vois?
A closer look:

I was reminded of this print recently when a colleague shared the Museum of English Rural Life’s 2018 tweet thread about an eighteenth-century farm-themed mathematics book, which includes several whimsical illustrations, such as a “chicken in trousers.” Of course, I had to share our own avian-themed item, which was filed in my brain simply as “Bird Hamlet.” I first encountered this piece a few years ago, when searching the Folger collections for interesting items to show to a group of high school students. I remember thinking “…something looks different…” to myself, as I scrolled by the thumbnail in the Luna results page; then wondering what kind of weird fever dream I had stumbled into. I did not bring it out to show the high school class (some things you just can’t unsee), but it did stay with me. How could it not?

As a little reminder, Act III, sc. 4 is when Hamlet confronts Gertrude about her relationship with his murderous Uncle/Stepfather, King Claudius. He becomes physically violent and threatens Gertrude, seemingly enraged by the thought of her sexual relationship. Polonius, hidden behind a curtain, attempts to intervene—Hamlet stabs him to death, then turns on the Queen. Gertrude is wracked with guilt. Hamlet’s father’s ghost appears, urging him to be gentle with her, and “step between her and her fighting soul.” At first (and maybe second or third) glance from a twenty-first century vantage point, it makes no sense that someone would choose to illustrate this pivotal, emotionally intense scene using human figures who have bird heads.

The idea of humans as animals, and particularly human figures with animalistic heads has a long history worldwide. Most relevant for this French print’s purposes, the European traditions around the pre-Lentan festival of carnival often featured characters who were human from the neck down, and animal or monstrous from the neck up. Depictions of animals engaged in human activities in medieval and early modern media were used to illustrate the concept of “the world turned upside down,” or a time when the normal order of society was upended to make way for misrule. The eighteenth-century French tradition of “singerie,” where human bodies engaged in activities the artists wanted to depict as foolish or beastly were topped with monkey heads, follows in those footsteps.

Folger ART File S528h1 no.27 (size M) was likely published circa 1825-1830, within the first few decades following the upheavals of the French Revolutionary Wars and the fall of Napoleon. Caricatures such as these were banned before the restoration of the Bourbons in 1814, then un-banned, and re-banned again intermittently for most of the rest of the century. Even more than words in print, the French authorities seemed to especially dislike being lampooned in art. J.J. Grandville, one of the most famous French caricaturists, was most known for his series of lithographs from 1828-29 entitled Les Metamorphoses du Jour. In this satire, humans from the French middle class with the heads of mammals, birds, fish, and insects engaged in foolish, bloody, or senseless antics. This print of birds in the roles of Hamlet was part of a series of caricatures that appears to take satirical aim at the quality of theatrical productions in the provinces. The dates seem uncertain, according to the Bibliotheque Nacional, but some may pre-date Grandville’s popular work. Perhaps these bird brains inspired the caricaturist, but they could also have been an imitation, since the style and character of Les Metamorphoses was often utilized by other artists.

Today, this avian nightmare makes for a whimsical break from the cyclical dread of the 2020 news cycle. Like nineteenth-century France must have felt for many people, the world today often feels a little upside-down. Although it might be puzzling for modern viewers, maybe caricaturists should try a few bird-headed cartoons?

2 Comments


  • oh boy! I was way off on this one.. both with my type of answer and the accuracy! Thank you for the glimpse into ways to deal with a world upside down! We forget how every generation deals with and has their share of VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity).

  • Aha! Shakespearian Theatre at this period focused a lot on the spoken verse, much admired in France (see composer Berlioz’s reactions.) This is a review of a provincial production, and is a criticism of the ugly voices – cockatoo (like the ones screeching outside my window), crow and owl. Obviously the cartoonist had never heard a kookaburra. Would have been ideal for Polonius.


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