• Susan Clayton

Centuries of crafted bird lines face current logo times

Susan Clayton

Université Paris Diderot, Université Paris VII, France


Links between birds and humans inspire works of art and literature, as a visit to the recently inaugurated, Musée d’Art Moderne at Fontevraud illustrates. [1] The museum includes depictions of birds from Ancient Egypt (statue of an Ibis), to works of the 20th century (Les Perroquets verts, George Kars, 1935) [2], so confirming a constant in human creative expression. This eclectic private collection shows how works featuring birds, have appealed, and changed owners. With the help of a few illustrative works, visual and textual, we will show how birds have enabled humans to span time and space via crafted birdlines. The second part of this compound word, can refer to something visible, such as lines artists draw, or those written on paper, or invisible. In bloodlines, songlines, or party lines, ‘line’ signifies link. Moreover, both sorts of lines structure our perceptions of reality. With the first part of the compound word, bird, their flight connotes spatial linearity, (“as the crow flies”, for instance), it also inspires human imagination – concretely in the case of Icarus. Responses which bird flight, bird song or other ornithological manifestations prompt, reveal how myriad and tinged with emotion bird / human interactions can be – an edifying example is The Lark Ascending, composed by Vaughn Williams. Thus, “birdlines” signify linking, including emotional, inspiration, and cognitive structuring of the world about us.

Painters and poets have crafted birdlines for centuries - a first point we will consider - before discussing how creative birds themselves can be. But means of communication are being transformed, relying on technology and catchy stylized devices, which in a third part I address, starting with my painting, Wordspree Viaduct which signals the changes by juxtaposing the iconic nightingale of John Keats’ poem and the stylized Twitter logo.

1. Birds in crafted lines of art and literature

The dove comes high on the list of iconic birds. In Figure 1 the dove, signifying inspiration from God, represents a line that connects a person on earth with a deity. A similar “doveline” is used to inform Noah of the end of the flood.

Fig. 1 Saint Gregory the Great (1612-15), Jusepe de Ribera

Source: Wikimedia Commons,

In Figure 2, John Everett Millais centre-stages the bond between the returning bird and Noah’s two daughters, who cherish God’s emissary.

Fig. 2 Figure 2, The return of the Dove to the Ark 1851, J. E. Millais


In Figure 3, the dove is accompanied by an angel, the most bird-like of Christian symbols.The dove as symbol, in fact pre-dates Christianity, appearing in the mythology of the Neolithic Hittites [3].

Fig. 3 Annunciation, 1508-1519, Juan de Flandes, public domain,


For Ancient Egyptians several species intermediated between humans and deities; the Ibis (as displayed at Fontevraud art museum) was one; the heron, duck, falcon and eagle, were others. The eagle also featured in Greek mythology, and is depicted in The Rape of Ganymede, Figure 4, an engraving by N. Beatrizet, after Michelangelo. The eagle has descended to Earth to fetch up the youth to be cupbearer and lover of Zeus.That the youth was transported bodily by the eagle meant a ‘wings-on’ mission by the agent of the deity. We are reminded of Bruce Chatwin’s words in, The Songlines, “that all the to-ing and fro-ing of gods and goddesses who become nightingales or ravens, echoes or narcissi … could all be interpreted as totemic geography.” (p. 130) The eagle, as a construct of “totemic geography”, is more tactile in its mission than the dove. On another occasion Zeus disguised himself as a swan, in order to seduce Leda, who subsequently gave birth to terrestrial / celestial offspring – thus initiating further “to-ing and fro-ing”.

Fig. 4 Rape of Ganymede…, 1542, Nicolas Beatrizet, after Michelangelo

Source: Wikimedia Commons,_his_dog_barking_below_MET_DP844289.jpg

Gustave Moreau’s painting, Leda (1865-75) Figure 5, below, conveys the bustle.The Leda story has inspired other painters, such as Paul Cézanne, Leda et le cyne, (c. 1880-82), also poets. Leda and the Swan, 1923, by W.B. Yeats is one example. In a very different interactive link between several blackbirds baked in pie and their ‘public’, the surreal is even more striking, because when, “the pie was opened the birds began to sing” [4]. The exchanges related in the nursery rhyme confirm how birds can initiate ‘flights of fancy’ in human imagination. Amongst other birds of popular culture, is the songster robin, which haunts seasonal greetings cards. The robin’s popularity on such cards confirms the salutatory quality of birdsong for humans. Both nursery rhymes and greetings cards illustrate the extensive popularity of certain birds.

John Berger describes in, Confabulations, how pleasure is obtained by naming a bird, “The satisfaction of identifying a live bird as it flies over, or disappears into a hedgerow, is a strange one, isn’t it? It involves weird momentary intimacy, as if at that moment of recognition, one addresses the bird – despite the din and confusions of countless other events – one addresses it by its very own particular nickname. Wagtail! Wagtail!” sing”. [5]. For Berger identification is a first satisfaction, even if it requires concentration, (amidst “din and confusion”). Then the calling of the name is accompanied by a sense of elation, not unusual when uttering a name. In other words, naming, or language, is paramount in perception, and instrumental for establishing links.

Poetry is highly productive at disseminating bird / human links. In John Keats’, Ode to a Nightingale, the link spans regions and epochs, because the song Keats heard in 1819 was heard by humans, centuries earlier, and in other lands.

“The voice I hear this passing night was heard

In ancient days by emperor and clown:

Perhaps the self-same song that found a path

Through the sad heart of Ruth …” [6]

Keats conjures up for himself companion listeners in other lands and times, connected by birdsong, and by means of which the poet’s existential questioning is unraveled. These companion listeners increase every time Keats’ poem is read – not least aloud. Similarly, Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1797-99) connects bird and humans across regions, lifestyles and periods. Further the Mariner’s tale endowed him with, “strange power of speech; “That moment that his face I see, / I know the man that must hear me: / To him my tale I teach” (lines 587-590). It is the Mariner’s quest for spiritual relief – he killed the albatross – that compels him to tell his tale, and so broadcast this birdline. Further a birdline repeated by narration stirs belongingness in those initiated. And a feeling of belongingness felt by birders constructs their identity [7]. Finally, in 1877 the French artist Gustave Doré illustrated Coleridge’s poem, so adding image to words in the dissemination process. In the illustration below, Figure 6, the albatross appears hovering below an arc of light, not unlike the dove in the first three paintings (Fig. 1,2,3) so reiterating spirituality, which the Mariner yearns.

Fig 6. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Illustrated by Gustave Doré, 1877


When naming extends to giving a proper name to a bird, we conjecture on the strength of the link between human and bird. In H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald called her hawk Mabel (Ma Belle). She has a symbiotic relationship with Mabel, “I had put myself in the hawk’s mind” [8]. Such fusing of human and bird is also present in Keats’ poem, when he gives to the nightingale a voice, “the voice I hear this passing night” (7.3) and assumes for himself the attribute of flight, “Away! Away! For I will fly to thee,” (4.1). Any individual wanting to fuse with someone / thing else must be open to the ‘Other’, as well as being inventive. The term used by Deleuze and Guattari for such alterity is, ‘becoming’. In Mille Plateaux they not only say what becoming is, but also is not. It is not a wish to resemble or imitate, it is involutional and creative [9]. Deleuze and Guattari say that the skill of “becoming” is of the essence of writers and artists. Amongst several they mention, is Virginia Woolf, who they say is always becoming another – age, sex, element, epoch, as Orlando so well illustrates. Becoming is like a rhizome; it enables individuals to ramify and go beyond themselves. It produces nothing else than itself [10].

We have shown the skill and imagination of crafted birdlines designed by humans. But we should remember that birds, the starting point of all this, themselves demonstrate these traits. Explanations accounting for the richness of birdsong or flamboyancy of bird display generally refer to territorial struggles amongst birds, but some ornithologists go beyond this.

2. Birds themselves craft links

Birds demonstrate skills, whether by song, dance, building (in other words architecture), or decorative display – for instance embellishing their nest. One species decorates its nest with berries, which its partner does not eat, thus indicating an awareness of the decorative role the fruits stand for. Edmund Couchot in La nature de l’art, discusses the musical, kinesthetic, architectural and pictural signs used by birds, and in a section entitled, “Des oiseaux artistes?” he summarizes ornithological and ethological research by saying that birds’ could well have an aesthetic sense that corresponds to a basic need [11]. The mixing of saliva with berries to colour surfaces, instances this [12]. Vinciane Despret shares the outlook of an inherent need in birds for artistic expression, and regrets the limited perception of ornithologists who rate birdsong as simply territorial. For Despret, birds are not just claiming territory, they are not simply saying this is ‘mine’, but this is ‘me’ [13]. Whilst the beneficiaries of these skills are generally other birds, different species can be involved.

A demonstrating bird, like a human artist, also appreciates a public, whose recognition of its skills will add relish to the creativity being enacted. Nor can we exclude that the birds be displaying for the benefit of a human public. The way Mabel, the goshawk, returns to Helen Macdonald’s fist shows this. “One vast, stylish arc, carving right through the barricade of oncoming air, like, Here I come! and she’s back on the fist, grinning like an idiot, and her whole attitude is, like, Well? What did you think of that?” The vibrancy birds demonstrate on such occasions deserves comparison with the vivacity of artists when expressing themselves. Macdonald’s verbal account of Mabel’s engagement and assertiveness, exists in painting. In Figure 7, below, Femme au perroquet, Georges Kars, (already named for a painting at Fontevraud art museum) [14] captures the hypnotic exchange between a woman and a parrot. Like Millais, in Return of the Dove to the Arc, Kars draws the viewer’s gaze to the relationship between the parrot and the woman. The intensity with which the parrot and woman are engaged, conveys their mutual skilled use of channels of communication, and we are struck by the parity in this use by both parties. The parrot fully assumes eye contact with the woman. The bird poised receptively, and with some panache, prompts one to think that it is experiencing pleasure at the interaction – implying a need to be absorbed in an exchange. On other occasions, a link between bird and human can be less direct, more roundabout.

Fig. 7, Woman with Parrot, 1926, Georges Kars

Source: Wikimedia Commons,_%C5%BDena_s_papou%C5%A1kem,_1926.jpg

A more indirect link between bird and human is recorded in Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, when the protagonist is out walking on the heath where, “there were only the rooks flaunting in the sky. A steel-blue plume from one of them fell among the heather. She loved wild birds’ feather. She had used to collect them as a boy. She picked it up and stuck it in her hat.”[15] Orlando’s love of rooks’ feathers, followed by the act of including one in ‘her’ attire in other words, as part of an identity, illustrates how people engage with birds by assuming a trait that symbolizes them. Orlando’s act illustrates the idiomatic expression “put a feather in one’s cap”, which is only one of many idiomatic expressions based on birds. The cognitive hold of this idiom is so strong that it has inspired painters, such as William Etty, in Britomart Redeems Faire Amoret, Figure 8. Etty gives flair to the feathers on Britomart’s helmet, fluttering above Amoret’s cascading hair. Britomart assertive with red feathers, relishes display, whilst being engaged in interaction with another person. We are reminded of Vinciane Despret’s remark that a demonstrative gesture can be saying, this is me; Britomart could be asserting, “I am my knightliness”. In addition to the shared feature of a ‘feather in their caps’, Orlando and Britomart (protagonist of Edmund Spenser’s The Fairie Queene, 1590) are literary tokens of transgenderism. Both are marked by gallantry as well as the questioning of gendered clichés. It is perhaps their openness to others (be it another human in distress, the rooks in the sky or open space) that gives them their perspicacity and exuberance.

Fig. 8 Britomart Redeems faire Amoret, 1833, William Etty

Source: Wikimedia Commons

From the examples of crafted birdlines we have so far presented it would seem birds enjoy an elevated status; they mediate between humans and the deities, or represent pinnacles. A painting to illustrate how birds can fare badly at the hands of humans is Carel Fabritius’ painting of a goldfinch, Le Chardonneret, Figure 9, in which the bird is chained to its perch. Along similar lines, is the use made of a dove in An Experiment on a bird in the Air Pump (1768) by Joseph Wright of Derby. In both cases the bird survives, but is subject to duress. Stress endured by birds is extreme in circumstances such as “gavage” of geese, also poultry raised in batteries, where they are not at liberty to show their skills of expression. It is however the disappearance of habitats that many birds mostly suffer from in the 21st century. It stems from the disregard by humans for other species, and is posing a major ornithological threat throughout the world. This trend is a result of consumerism, so reliant on mass advertising and logos.

Fig. 9 Figure 9, Le Chardonneret, 1654, Carel Fabritius

Source: Wikimedia Commons

3. Rather stylized for logoland, than crafted for edification?

In Wordspree Viaduct, Figure 10 a, I set out to convey the importance of getting things across to others and the centrality of language. For the painting I asked friends and family what their preferred word was, and what colour could represent the word. Hence the different coloured balloons bearing a word. But means of communication are changing and I chose to interpret this by juxtaposing the iconic nightingale of Keats’ poem and the Twitter Bird - this section is magnified in Figure 10b. On one hand the nightingale, standing for crafted birdlines of artists and poets, versus the new stylized art of logos, akin to advertising.

Fig 10a. Wordspree Viaduct, 2016, acrylic on canvas

Source: the author, photographed by Alain Lapoujade

Fig. 10b. A fragment of Wordspree Viaduct, 2016, acrylic on canvas

Source: the author, photographed by Alain Lapoujade

A logo, or trademark is a graphic sign produced to make a company’s product instantly recognisable so that consumers select it, rather than one by competitors. Michel Serres, the French philosopher, says in Le mal propre, that a logo, “soils” the object that bears it, and he deplores the abundance of billboards with logos, texts or advertising which soil landscapes[16]. Logos originate in mass production and prompt marketing warfare, and those brandished by social networking groups soil our everyday environment.

Logos, which echo pop art, and have the same aims as adverts could well undermine centuries of crafted works that constitute our cultural heritage. Logoland amounts to dumbing down. Richard Hoggart in Mass Media in a Mass Society addressing the problem of dumbing down, offers one means of resistance - reading and listening. For Hoggart they help “to bind participants in a sense of shared pleasure…” and he adds, “The occasion has its own stillness” [17] Throughout this discussion we have shown how sharing characterizes those who relish the poems and paintings presented. And appreciating “stillness”, which assists observation, is so essential for birders. Hoggart also feels that resistance is needed to work “against much in society which is instantly attractive but of little worth; such as many of the most popular television programmes whether for children or adults.” [18] The Twitter logo encapsulates dumbing down, and social media can be likened to what is of “little worth” on television. It is no coincidence that one user of social networking took to it like a duck to water. He is the namesake of an anthropomorphic duck, Donald by name. When the platform shut down Trump’s account the cartoonist Plantu drew a cartoon for Le Monde [19]. Plantu’s humour and skilled composition contrast with all we know about Trump’s tawdriness. As Trump sits sulkily on his perch, framed by the bars of the cage, he is silent. Whereas set alongside his cage is a dome shaped flock of Twitter logos, free to tweet in Trump’s direction; each logo bird with its beak uniformly open.

The current Twitter trademark, which has been in use since 2012, is suggestive of a bird, but is striking for its ornithological flatness and artistic shortcomings. Whereas another bird logo, the Penguin one, first devised in 1935 by Edward Young, does reflect artistic flourish.Perhaps because Young, “went straight off to the zoo to spend the rest of the day drawing penguins in every pose”, which we can detect in use on Penguin book covers [20]. The Twitter bird is unlikely to enchant parks, gardens or woodlands by pouring forth its soul in ecstasy. It also lacks artistic signature or masterly stroke of pen,pencil (such as the Plantu cartoon), or paintbrush, such as Picasso’s pigeons. Further Picasso’s pigeon painting, Figure 11, acknowledges works by Matisse, revealing how amongst artists there can be dialogue. In fact, it was Matisse who kept pigeons, and they prompted several of his collages, which are inspirational; he captures flight and movement in striking compositions.Compared with such crafted birdlines, the Twitter logo disappoints, and raises serious questions about the dangers of logoland cancelling out centuries of crafted birdlines.

Fig. 11, The Pigeons, Cannes, 1957, Pablo Picasso

Sourse: Courtesy of, source:


Countering the spread of ‘logoland’ means rejecting the economic system of single-use consumerism – a system that is not sustainable, and one which some economists such as Kate Raworth, in Doughnut Economics, have condemned. If humanity persists with the current economic order the ensuing scenario will be grim for more than birds. Crafted birdlines that are involutional, enrich human imagination and encourage openness to others, especially other species. They have supplied humankind with a panoramic cultural heritage that logos, such as the Twitter bird, undermine. By reinstating the skill of crafting, and stimulating creativity we will circumscribe logoland’s designs, and so address the drawbacks of consumerism, dumbing down, and loss of habitats for birds, other species, and humanity. One instrumental way to achieve this has been suggested by Hoggart, who recommends reading and sharing, which fosters stillness. Access to places of culture, such as libraries, museums and art galleries should be promoted, so should encouraging readings, not least in front of a public. The opening of a new art museum, such as the one at Fontevraud, is to be celebrated. If crafted birdlines are perpetuated and thrive it will be cause indeed for celebration.


[1] It was inaugured 18th September 2021, and is located in a specially renovated section of Fontevraud Abbey. The Musée owes its existence to the Martine and Léon Cligman collections which were donated to the French State (July 2018) and the Région des Pays de la Loire (July 2019). Site of press coverage of the inauguration is given in supplementary notes.

[2] The painting shows two pet parrots on a perch in a decorated living-room, and prompts the viewer to consider the birds, as they communicate together, as well as the omnipresent human setting in which they live.

[3] As Louis Charbonneau-Lassay notes in a section, La colombe dans les cultes préchrétiens, in, Le Bestiaire du Christ, p. 476

[4] The story has inspired illustrators, not least the 19th century one, Randolph Caldecott, who visualized the children’s nursery rhyme Sing a Song of Sixpence, in c. 1880. His drawings are still being used.

[5] Berger, John, Confabulations, 2016, Penguin, p. 17.

[6] Keats, John, Ode to a Nightingale, 1819, p. 7.

[7] Helen Macdonald in H is for Hawk describes such belongingness, “Four men, two women, two eagles, three falcons and a goshawk … this company is suddenly all I’d ever wished for.”, Macdonald, Helen, H is for Hawk, Vintage, London, 2014, p. 232.

[8] Macdonald, Helen, H is for Hawk, Vintage, London, 2014, p. 98.

[9] « Le devenir est involutif, l’involution est créatrice», Deleuze, Gilles, Guattari, Felix, Mille Plateaux, Capitalisme et Schizophrénie 2, Les editions de minuit, Paris, 2004, p. 292.

[10] « Le devenir ne produit pas autre chose que lui-même», Deleuze, Gilles, Guattari, Felix, Mille Plateaux, Capitalisme et Schizophrénie 2, Les editions de minuit, Paris, 2004, p. 291

[11] Couchaud concludes bird behaviour can, “témoigne aussi, selon ces chercheurs, d’un sens esthétique correspondant à un besoin fondamental». Couchot, Edmond, La nature de l’art, Ce que les sciences cognitives nous révèlent sur le plaisir esthétique, Hermann Editions, Paris, 2012, p. 235.

[12] “Ces oiseaux fabriquent même de la peinture avec leur salive, de la terre, un mélange de baies, d’écorce et de charbon (avec une préférence pour le bleu), avec quoi ils peignent l’intérieur de leur nid … » Couchot, Edmond, La nature de l’art, Ce que les sciences cognitives nous révèlent sur le plaisir esthétique, Hermann Editions, Paris, 2012, p. 235.

[13] In her own words, “il s’agit à present de transformer l’espace non tant en « sien’, mais en ‘soi’ », p. 36.

[14] Georges Kars (c1880-1945) also used the names Georg Karpeles, Georges Karpeles or Jiri Karpeles. The painting at Fontevraud was of two parrots in a living room.

[15] Woolf, Virginia, Orlando, 1928, The World’s Classics, OUP, 1992, p. 236.

[16] Serres says about billboards, « … les images et les tsunamis d’écriture, signes et logos, dont la publicité inonde désormais l’espace rural et civique, public, naturel et paysager », p 58.

[17] Hoggart, Richard, Mass Media in a Mass Society, Myth and Reality, 2004, continuum, p. 186.

[18] Hoggart, Richard, Mass Media in a Mass Society, Myth and Reality, 2004, continuum, p. 187.

[19] Trump banni de Twitter, Le Monde, 11 janvier 2021,



Berger, John, Confabulations, 2016, Penguin

Charbonneau-Lassay, Louis, Le Bestiaire du Christ, Albin Michel, Paris, 2006

Chatwin, Bruce, The Songlines, 1987, Jonathan Cape, 1988, Picador, London

Coleridge, Samuel, Taylor, (1772-1834) The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, 1798

Couchot, Edmond, La nature de l’art, Ce que les sciences cognitives nous révèlent sur le plaisir esthétique, Hermann Editions, Paris, 2012

Deleuze, Gilles, Guattari, Felix, Mille Plateaux, Capitalisme et Schizophrénie 2, Les editions de minuit, Paris, 2004

Despret, Vinciane, Habiter en oiseau, 2019, Actes Sud, Mondes Sauvages

Hoggart, Richard, Mass Media in a Mass Society, Myth and Reality, 2004, continuum

Keats, John, Ode to a Nightingale, 1819

Macdonald, Helen, H is for Hawk, Vintage, London, 2014

Raworth, Kate, Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist, 2017, Chelsea Green Publishing (2018)

Serres, Michel, Le mal propre, Poche – Le Pommier, Paris, 2008

Spenser, Edmund, The Faerie Queene, 1590

Woolf, Virginia, Orlando, 1928, The World’s Classics, OUP, 1992

Supplementary reference

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