when i inserted this image, i imagined writing about its composition & its colors & its forms & the aesthetics of the late 1930s when it was painted & what was going on in the life of the artist (clyfford still–whom, you may know, i love for all of the above reasons, but mostly because his work pierces my gut — & my heart & head. however, that statement could be true about _____ & _____________ or even ____________, because i have a weakness for them all. i suffer from stendahl syndrome whenever i am in their presence; i swear i swoon.)
the more i look at this image with its bent-over-double-with-work men & their sinewy arms & big hands/feet; the defeat of their position & the pain on their faces, the oppressive darkness of the sky pushing them closer to the earth, burying them with its intensity & finality, the more i appreciate the abstract qualities of the image, where its essence & soul are hidden.
if i may direct your attention to the top of the painting for a moment, you will notice that the paint is applied in sharp, stabbing strokes, cross-hatched as if the artist were trying to etch his memory into the canvas (& a remarkable homage to those great print-makers, rembrandt & dürer,) but this application of the paint defines the painting (& the mood.)
the composition as a result is all stark angles, highlighted as it is by still’s choice of palette (& a palette that followed him throughout his life); those simmering reds & bold yellows — shirt & wheat — contrapuntal to the blues & blacks of the foreboding sky (a bruise really.) the harvesters’ faces are studies in repetitive design (all angles on the one hand & that smushed, ground pigment of the other–a heel in the sod,) tortured as they are, one in profile, the other turned toward you (the anguish of an edvard munch subject) reflecting their resignation, exhaustion (if this painting were animated, the next frame would be them tipping over & falling to the ground as it opened its maw to swallow them whole; dust to dust, ashes to ashes.)
the great depression. the great depression on the northern plains. the great depression was never spoken of in my family. when i asked what those times were like, there would be grunts of “hard work, dusty, trying, unpleasant,” from those who were adults then (grandparents) & “hard work, dusty, trying, unpleasant” from those who were but children (my mother, my uncles.) take away: you grew up quick then, because you had to fight to stay alive & it didn’t matter whether you were child or adult–although i see some happiness in photos from those days, i don’t ever recall any mention of happiness from those days.
draw your own conclusions. (but let me help you, that’s my job as i see it): this painting then, although not of my family, or even my family’s struggles during the 1930s (although my mother & her brother were farmed out, farming is perhaps too genteel a word for ranch life in northeastern wyoming, oh there may have been a vegetable garden, but there weren’t fields of wheat to be harvested) represents to me what the depression era was to them. & today, i feel it may represent our future (or even our present.)