Unicorn in the cabbage patch, Desmond Bovey

Aesop’s Kiwi Fables: Paintings 
Ray Ching
David Bateman, $50.00,
ISBN 9781869538453

I spotted Ray Ching’s new book, Aesop’s Kiwi Fables, in our local post office-cum-bookstore. I stopped buying picture books some time ago; they have become so glossily tempting that if I let myself run free, I would buy several a week. When I saw this one, I froze. I’d only come to buy a stamp. I knew that if I picked it up, I’d buy it.

Even before I did, I had questions. Was this a book for children posing as a book for adults, or the other way round? And the photograph on the cover of a taxidermied rabbit on crutches, what did that have to do with Ching’s skilled paintings of native birds? When I peered closer I realised that the photo was in fact a skilled painting of a taxidermied rabbit on crutches. The man is a devil.

Deeper into the book (but still in the post office-cum-bookstore), my unease intensified. I’ve always disliked fables. They seem like glorified proverbs. They remind me of the sanctimonious high-school teachers of my youth. And it is not because the actors in these fables have been dressed up as Kiwi fauna, I thought, that I will like them more.

Aesop’s Kiwi Fables, with its 47 paintings (Ching calls them illustrations), is a tour de force. And this, too, added to my unease. I calculated that the paintings represented two years of effort, if not more. Such a lot of work! It seemed wasted on us Kiwis. After all, there are only four million of us, and most of those of us who still buy books will be buying biographies of rugby men. I worried that the publishers might not get their money back. I hoped that the book would be marketed elsewhere on our planet. And, if it is, that foreigners will turn a tender eye on our diffident browny-green birds.

Many of the birds and animals in this volume look a bit, well, stuffed. The “spontaneity” of their poses suggests a taxidermied stillness. They hang in the air as if on nylon threads, claws and wings flopping. This may be because they are indeed, as the artist cheerfully admits, sometimes based on stuffed specimens.

Ching is so good, however, that these wonky poses do not detract from our pleasure. Indeed they add to it in a confusing way. These creatures in their very wonkiness have a verisimilitude, an integrity that those rendered by more minor artists do not. It takes a magnificent confidence to paint a shining cuckoo as less than sleekly iridescent. And the valley it is flying across, or suspended above, is so familiar and so bitsy and so beautifully observed.

We trust Ching. We know that he knows our birds. His brush is swifter than our eye. And who is to say that magpies do not fall like that? Who is to say that tui do not expire in mid-flight, kiwis not cavort and swim, just like that? And as for huia, how would we know? We have only lumpy ones in museum cabinets left, peering at us with glassy reproach.

Ching, we feel, is playing with us. And winning. So what if his work here feels a little show-offy? So what if we feel that he is saying: “Look what I can do and look how easily I do it.” We forgive him.

Right at the end of the book Ching admits in small letters that he wrote the text himself. His superb confidence does not seem to extend from his brush to his keyboard. The texts are adaptations of Aesop’s ancient stories, short and easy to read. In this upside-down little world, foxes have morphed into possums and tortoises into tuarara (this is perhaps the kiddy part of the book). But their boastfulness, cunning and cupidity are as timeless as homo sapiens himself.

As a child, I would have loved to own a book like this. It has a kind of magic. Perhaps I would not have liked Mummy or Daddy reading to me from it. Mostly, I suspect, I would have lain in bed looking at the plates. Feasting on them. Each little story seems hardly more than an excuse for yet another lovely plate. Never, one thinks, flipping through the pages, have so few words been illustrated so lavishly.

One is tempted to add, more generally, of us New Zealanders, that never have so few birds been so loved, and so painted, so passionately, by so many. We have a curious relationship with our birds, perhaps in part because we are indirectly responsible for the extinction of so many of them. One wonders if they may not today be in danger of being loved to death. Ching does this loving well. These birds and animals are here, we learn, because “they are the ones he wanted to paint”.

Good. He is the boss. No-one can paint birds as Ching can. Those in this book are rendered with a precision that could serve as reference for ornithologists, if only those very birds did not disconcert us by hooning around in human ways and by dialoguing by means of trailing conversational balloons.

It is this, I think, that’s the initial source of my unease about this book, despite my huge admiration for the artist: the combination of hyper-realistic, anatomically correct animals and all too human props. You can’t have it both ways, I want to tell the artist-author, otherwise you get this curio-cabinet diorama reality. Ching’s birds do not smile or cartoonly run about using their wings as hands, but they do wear glasses (despite their lack of ears) and carry bags and impersonate doctors. And tuataras do rear up and stroll along highways with the aid of walking canes.

On this level the paintings don’t quite work for me. On all other levels, they are superb.

So that’s it: it’s the anthropomorphism that irritates me, and I feel it should irritate Ching also. But clearly it does not, so I’d better forget my objections and enjoy the fun. After all, it is the tradition of fables, their essential character, that animals dress up and walk around and behave appallingly. I remind myself that fables have their roots far back in the Olden Days, long before iPhones and twitter, when Nature was all there was. There were only dizzy hens and cunning foxes back then, left alone to chat and cheat and kill.

But here we are in Kiwiland, 2,600 years down the line. What to make of the hoops that Ching has made our dear native icons jump through, of their trailing droopy speech balloons? You wonder what the man is up to, what he has left to prove. If you are going to be comic, we feel like saying, do a comic. Perhaps Ching’s message is simply: “See, I am not just a splendidly clever bird artist. I have a sense of humour. I can be droll.”

And droll he is, as well as splendidly clever. This is not a book, this is a showcase. And if I could do without the anthropomorphical cuteness and just feast on Ching’s birds and landscapes, there is no denying that the man is a master.

His compositions, for example, are startling. They save his work from being labelled academic by lesser wildlife artists and gallery snobs. One of the plates I love depicts a monkey riding a dolphin. The dolphin looks chipper and helpful but the monkey, its tail hooked on the dolphin’s dorsal fin, clearly wants to be elsewhere. On land. And is ready to do anything to get there, including bullshitting about his pedigree. A mistake. The water that the monkey is subsequently thrown off to drown in is exquisitely rendered.

The opening image is of a unicorn rolling in a cabbage patch. It is a tribute to Ching’s talent that we are amazed not by the cloven-hoofed unicorn and its narwhal horn, but by the cabbages. They could use a good dose of Derris Dust, we note, or of whatever it is that cabbages need not to be turned to lace by caterpillars. That is when we realise that Ching has wrong-footed us. Again. Perhaps the book could have included a fable about a reader unable to absorb the moral force of a story because distracted by gorgeous visual detail.

Ching, we learn, is currently working on a companion volume called Aesop’s Outback Fables. I can only imagine what he will come up with using rosellas and cockatoos. I look forward to it.


Desmond Bovey worked for 30 years as an illustrator in Besançon, France.


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