Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 10, 2021

Becoming a Bird (2021), by Stephanie Radok

It has taken over a whole week to read this short book because the author kept tempting me to explore the work of the artists about whom she writes so enticingly.

As you could see from the Sensational Snippet that I posted last week, Radok reflects not just on art, but on its purposes.  She travels the world (remember when we could do that?), visiting numerous museums both famous and lesser known, relating what she sees and experiences with her own art, her love of poetry, and her home in suburban Adelaide.

The chapters follow the calendar year, and are prefaced by epigraphs drawn from artists, and writers, including words from  Patrick White who introduces December, subtitled ‘Words for Home’:

The kitchen was always a great place to dance. (from Three Uneasy Pieces, Pascoe Publishing, 1987, reprinted 1988, p.15, cited on p156)

and this is followed by Sylvia Lawson:

If it isn’t happiness you can hang onto, it could be a broken garden pot, possibly worth mending, or the state of the cumquat tree. (‘How Simone de Beauvoir died in Australia’ in How Simone de Beauvoir Died in Australia: stories and essays, UNSW Press, 2002, p. 188, cited on page 156.)

January traces her earliest memories, and then February explores museums and the roles they play.

How do you define a museum?  As a place of safety, of knowledge and learning, of excess that can make us small and expand us.  A place where the past is definitely ordered even though the majority of the many objects that outlast people are stored out of sight. A place then of taxonomies, categorising and gatekeeping, selecting and ordering.  There are rules, fashions and objects, and there is the past, piled around our ankles like leaves. (p. 21)

Radok gives examples of museums which derive from some rich person’s estate, such as the Patt Rivers Museum in Oxford.  Museums like this tell the story of that collector’s world, from their perspective.  And these days, of course, there are questions about provenance, the return of some items, removal of artefacts during colonialism and so on.

In Prague, she notices that the National Gallery where art not of Czech origin is called foreign art… and this reminded me of a great day in Rome where as you can see from this quotation from my travel blog, we learned that art being ‘modern’ is relative:

From there we crossed the road to the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna. To us, modern art means 20th century art, but ‘modern’ in Rome means something different, and this gallery is devoted to works from the 18th and 19th century, though there are some from later on. It has works by Kandinsky, Cézanne, Modigliani, and there were many fine Italian impressionists that were unfamiliar to us. We saw Monet’s Water Lilies there, and also a charming portrait of The Bellelli Family by Degas, which is normally at the Musée D’Orsay. Most memorable was one which featured a couple seated in armchairs, with archaeological monuments growing organically out of their bodies and the chairs. It’s ambigous, becuase it depicts people supported and enriched by their ancient Roman culture – but also burdened and taken over by it. If anyone reading this blog knows the name of this work or its artist, please let us know!

(Yes, musing on my own travels was triggered by reading this book!)

Radok’s time in Prague also meant experiencing a place where some of her people had lived, including some who perished in the Holocaust.

Looking for your people, like self-knowledge, is often not smooth or clear, neither satisfying nor conclusive.  I wonder if there is too much emphasis on ancestors, if we can’t find or don’t know our ancestors are we lesser people? Do we belong to one piece of earth or to the whole planet? (p.141)

Becoming a Bird is a lovely book, but it did give me itchy feet, wanting to travel!

Author: Stephanie Radok
Title: Becoming a Bird, Untold Stories about Art
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2021
ISBN: 9781743058022, pbk., 179 pages
Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press


  1. This sounds lovely. 🐧❤


  2. Just Amazing!


  3. Sounds wonderful! Those books which send you off in other directions are often the ones which take longest to read!!


    • Precisely, and then when you go to write a review, the brain is a tangle of her thoughts and your own!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. […] Stephanie Radok’s Becoming a bird (essays): “an unassuming gem of a book” (Michelle de Kretser); “a marvellous book about the freedom of the mind to take wing” (Nicholas Jose) (Lisa’s review). […]


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