Saturday, October 6, 2012

The flamingo

I have received from the hands of the generous author, my colleague Anne Gray, a copy of the catalogue of her new exhibition in Canberra, Sydney Long: The Spirit of the Land. The postman has delivered it at an especially helpful moment, because I have been contemplating the meaning of flamingoesnot dancing brolgas (above)—in the context of British painting in the Edwardian moment, because that strange but winsome bird makes regular and disproportionately frequent appearances there, never more spectacularly than in Edwin Austin Abbey’s slightly batty Columbus in the New World here at Yale:
I gather Sid Long first saw flamingoes at the Moore Park zoo in Sydney, and was certainly therefore not laboring under the misapprehension that they were in Australia anything other than exotica, but I do wonder if—like the marvelous dancing brolga—he nevertheless felt that the topsy-turvy flamingo had something particular to say to the fledgling Commonwealth. More probably, I suppose, the flamingo (to which he returned frequently) was for him a purely aesthetic motif, the beau ideal of sinuous line, and of chromatic flamboyance. As “Lady Kathleen” pointed out in her regular fashion column for the English Illustrated Magazine in November 1909 (quite a different but telling context): “Pale pink and a curious oriental red shade of flamingo brilliancy are daring colour blendings cleverly handled by certain creators of evening modes.” In a sense the haughty flamingo could not have been engineered by natural selection better to suit the art-nouveau aesthetic to which Sid Long devoted himself.


  1. I dislike throwing a spanner in the works, but aren't they brolgas? Label: Brolgas. Sydney Long may well be drawing on the Edwardian fascination with elongated birds with pink and white colouring, he may even be remarking on the flamingo fad, but an Australian painting called 'The Spirit of the Land' ought, you would think, to contain Australian birds.Also known as the Native Companion, the brolga was in the popular Edwardian mind a bird admired for its dancing movements, which is what is happening in Sydney Long's painting. What I wonder about is, where Pan is taking these brolgas?

    1. Yes, you're quite right Philip. "The Spirit of the Land" does indeed have brolgas, but Long was disproportionately interested in flamingoes.

  2. Thank you, Angus, I hadn't read the essay in full. Ignore the rough draft, here are some more worthwhile reflections. Edwardian Hellenism informs Sydney Long's picture, as it did the work of artists all over the Empire at that time. One wonders how much he in fact knew about the brolga in native songline terms, probably not at all. Such paintings stand in painful contrast to the actual destruction of the Australian habitat going on at that time. Edwin Austin Abbey's painting seems to be looking ahead to surrealism, though doubtless that was not his intention. Freud would have something to say. Your hint at evolutionary theory is worth pondering. The late Romantics had a fascination with unusual colour in nature, and flamingoes stand out in the crowd in that respect. The poets are hung up with the dazzling colour of things, and sometimes the weirder the better. Some of this seems to be an imaginative effort to come to terms with Darwin, whose theories would imply that all colour in nature has a purpose, no matter how weird or prosaic the colour.

    Postscript: Thank you for Tumbrel Diaries, which has been favourite reading of this correspondent for some time. Thanks too for putting up with my sporadic comments.