Oil on canvas, 1897, by George Cope (1855 – 1929)
There is something immediately very disarming about Hanging Woodcock which also invites a certain sense of guilty wonder. Cope has deployed the technique of trompe l’oeil to deceive our immediate perceptions of what has been presented here. Is this a framed section of wood panel over which the birds have been painted? The startling realism of the wood grain certainly suggests this when first viewed at a distance. In fact, the eye is drawn to the painting because it immediately stands out as being antithetical to most other works in its vicinity in that it strikes one as being constructed on a material other than canvas. This brooks the question: how has the image of the woodcocks survived a hundred and twenty odd years without being absorbed into the wood itself, without disappearing or decomposing as, indeed, the slain birds would disappear and decompose if left to nature and the elements? The question of temporality is positioned against the notion of art’s ability to suspend or to capture an image indefinitely. But, on closer inspection we realise that the wood itself is actually painted and thus the trick joyously revealed.
However, there is something here which further deceives our notions of art as we most usually experience it: there is no movement in this piece, there is no flicker of life being captured, no kinetic momentum which parallels art’s mission to represent “life” – we instead have death, inertia, redundancy. It’s almost as if it represents an embodiment of “anti-art” which is still, nonetheless, in itself compellingly artistic. In its very existence as an art piece, it is simultaneously also stripped of art’s mandate to reproduce life. And yet, therein lies its ultimate irony and its captive power: its subjects are “so dead” that the work itself as a whole is actually very much alive. Alive with resonant pathos, horror, regret and guilt which works within us as we view it: our emotions are ever more reactive the more we realise how still and lifeless the birds are.
This comes about through the compositional placement of the woodcock. They are inverted, hanging upside down by a small bit of yarn tied to their feet. This suspension invokes a sense of unbearable pointlessness at their slaughter. We immediately want them to be untied, righted and set free to fly away, their graceful wings now so apparently negated and there is something utterly touching in their long beaks and tightly shut eyes. And yet Cope overtly presents us with the plump breast of the bird on the left, making us mindful of the realities of the grim and bloody domesticity which undercuts our lives constantly: the woodcock have been hunted and now hung ultimately because they are to be a product of consumption by humans; they are food. Why do we view this depiction with any particular horror when the truth is we farm and slaughter other animals we eat without ever really contemplating them? Cope has served us up a truth we would rather deny or at least be spared and this makes the painting attract and hold our abhorrent gaze in a manner which is almost a glaring indictment against us. In a way we are also consuming the woodcock just by staring at the painting and the longer we stare, the more uneasy and guilty we feel.
Image courtesy of the Fogg Museum, Harvard University.