Thursday, 21 November 2013

The Sower

The Sower, Van Gogh 1888
Vincent was preoccupied with a particular sower. In his studio, various depictions of this one peasant returning home were scattered like seed in-between successive sunflowers. The latter was his other obsession, with four already complete in one week, and one hung in his artist friend's bedroom. Paul Gauguin, who shared this yellow house in the South of France, was concerned. Relations were stormy, even though Paul understood too well the whims and fixations artists were prone to. He was exhausted coping with swings in Vincent's temperament, and his behaviour, at times, was irrational. No-one can disturb an artist deep in their work, especially when a subject has hold of them.
By day, Vincent was absorbed in mixing colours and laying them on with a palette knife, but still he could not get the colour quite right, and by night he immersed himself in this own painting. He watched the peasant walk home with a huge yellow globe behind him and tried to commit the land to his memory. Some days, he fixed his gaze on the setting sun, the next a knotty tree, while subconsciously he studied the sower. The way he trudged in the fading light through the darkening fields. A cap pulled down low on his head, a shawl covering his shoulders and back, and clutching a sack to his chest. Vincent was particularly struck by how distance and dim light made him featureless. How being faceless gave him an ruthless, almost raw quality. A blank canvas like earth waiting to be tilled. He made a study of this one man, when any man working the land would be perceived similarly.
Inspired by Jean-Francois Millet, an artist noted for his scenes of peasant farmers, Vincent had been made to see the sower differently. His role helped form the ripening fields, which had brought him to the fore of Vincent's artistic eye. The landscape was the sower's backdrop, as it affirmed his sun-leathered skin, calloused hands, and back-breaking toil. Vincent imagined him blessing the seed as he scattered it evenly, praying for good soil. The sower at ease with earth's rhythms, his work done with the setting sun. He is a mere steward, the land is his master, because land has a certainty and man does not.
Yes, it was this attribute that Vincent was envious of: the land flows with nature as does the peasant labourer, and Vincent could not. He felt ill at ease with the sun leaving, its cleansing rays restrained and virtually gone, and so gave in to his intense urge to use unusual colours as he'd seen once in a Japanese print, and which he later scribed in a letter to Theo, his brother:
'immense citron-yellow disc for the sun, sky green-yellow with pink colours. The fields violet, the sower and the tree Prussian blue.'
Even in these delusional years, Vincent knew he needed bright colours and was drawn to yellow. The brilliant yellow of sunflowers and the pure gold of the sun. The feeling it gave of life and light, which was often contrary to his own emotions. For the sower sunset was the end of another day, a chance for him and the land to conserve energy, to rest, whereas to Vincent sunset was witnessing the sun's and his own death. When the sun withdrew, a part of his soul died too, and became clouded with sadness. He withered as sunflowers do when the sun turned away from his face.
Yellowness, Vincent found, could be bright, comforting and melancholic, but yet in his paintings he tried to deny that colours must fade with daylight. Only the sower knows that both must dim, dark must meet light. Vincent always tried to contradict this and so was never cheered by the departing sun on the sower's back.
*Inspired by Jeanette Winterson's Sexing The Cherry