Friday, 24 June 2011

Bite 129: Joseph Wright of Derby - An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, 1768

An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, 1768, oil on canvas, 183 x 244 cm, National Gallery, London
Ten figures emerge from the inky shroud of blackness claustrophobically, comfortably, enveloping them. A single candle behind a skull in glass dimly illuminates the scene - in Wright's signature, highly-contrasting style - of a scientist performing an experiment in the formation of a vacuum. Dramatically, but perhaps unrealistically, a rare white cockatoo is used in the demonstration. It dies from lack of air. The old scientist, mouth slightly open, looks intensely out at the viewer. This is a human, not merely a scientific, drama.

Nine others witness the experiment. All of their faces tell a story, each representing a particular reaction when faced with the stark reality of death. 

A young boy looks on wearily, opening the window to reveal a bright moon. On the left some watch interested but nonchalant, others in wonder or even a hint of confusion. 

Two young girls seek consolation, a well-dressed older gentleman instead instructs them. The youngest of the girls, her face brightly lit, the focus of the composition, looks up at the dead bird with fear and deep concern. In devastation she mourns the small creature, confused and innocent both. Of all the reactions hers is perhaps the most open and honest when faced brutally with the fact of mortality.

But more intriguing still, perhaps, is the man slightly to the side, right; the only figure not regarding the experiment or those in the room. He sits reflectively, lost in melancholic thought. Standing in for us, he meditates on the fragility of human existence, lost time past, the seeming meaninglessness of it all.