As I was preparing for Passport to the World: France on Wednesday, July 13, I remembered Mordicai Gerstein’s picture book, How to Paint the Portrait of a Bird, the author’s reflection on the nature of artistic inspiration.
A boy wakes up one morning to a bluebird singing at his open window. He takes out a canvas and begins to follow the narrator’s instructions. “First paint a cage with an open door…” Within the cage, the boy must paint “something for the bird, something useful and beautiful, but simple.” Next he is told to take the painting outside, into a garden or park or forest. He leans it against a tree and waits, hiding, without speaking or moving. The bluebird, who has been observing the boy, perches on a branch of the tree above the painting of the empty cage.
If the bird enters the cage (and this is not guaranteed), the young artist is told to erase each bar, “being careful of the bird’s feathers.” He then must re-create the beauty of the summer day, the “smell of the sunshine and the flowers” on the canvas in the hope that the trapped bird will sing.
The text is taken from a poem by the French poet and screen-writer, Jacques Prévert whose poems are widely taught to French school children. But Gerstein has made a significant change in his translation of “Pour faire le portrait d’un oiseau.”
Prévert warns the artist:
Si l’oiseau ne chante pas
C’est mauvais signe
signe que le tableau est mauvais
mais s’il chante c’est bon signe
signe que vous pouvez signer
Gerstein changes the words from “If the bird does not sing, it’s a bad sign, a sign that the picture is bad, but if it sings it’s a good sign, a sign that you can sign [the painting].” Instead, readers are told, “If it doesn’t sing, don’t be sad. You did your best.”
Why did Gerstein alter the text? Do you think it was necessary? I’ve some thoughts, but would love to hear yours.