I have made three sower pots so far, without any deep research into the symbolism of The Sower over the ages. In this post I want to go back to the beginning and find three paintings from different periods of time and see how my sower fits in when compared to history.
Near the late phase of the Middle Ages in 1413, the Limbourg brothers painted October – a ‘page’ from 12 ‘pages’ each representing a month of the year in a three dimensional – Luxurious Book of Hours. This format is in itself intriguing because it denotes space and time in such a physical way. The top third of the painting is a separate panel which extrapolates the heavenly skies onto the month of October. The remaining two thirds, is split into two further halves, as if to accentuate the huge class divide that existed because of feaudalism. Here the sower dressed in the colour of the heavens, not only stands as a metaphor for the class divide but also for his complete reliance on nature’s seasonal cycles. 1]
Jean-Francois Millet’s sower probably influenced me most. It was painted at the onset of the Modern Age in 1850, when society was being redefined in a new sense – by the machine, scientific and material progress, reason and freedom – and no longer by space and time. This painting was painted in France, two years after the socio political revolt against its monarchy which ended in failure for the peasantry, who had hoped to be rid of feudalism and be in a position to own land, but that was not to be. Deceived by their leader, their rural way of life soon became more unsustainable and they had no choice but to move to urban areas where industrialization was setting the tone. That must be why Millet painted his peasant sower so darkly and faded against the landscape, as if to point to that betrayal – the silent victim of industrialization. 2]
I think Charles Baudelaire grasped the modern world so well when he wrote, ‘Modernity is the transitory, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art, of which the other half is the eternal and the immutable.’ He called on artists to assert their freedom to create in a new style and define the meaning of their times. 3]
True to himself, Vincent van Gogh, did exactly that with colour. He wrote to his brother Theo, in 1888, ‘I borrowed Millet’s sower…the sowing man that stands for the longing of the infinite’. 4] And then he expresses himself so vigorously through colour, letting it do all the work, and paints infinity in the landscape and transforms the golden yellow sun into the sower’s halo.
Since the Vincent years, we are still changed by ongoing revolutions that continues to hit our half-train of modernity, like waves of progress and cross waves of destruction. Such a cross wave hit the Middle East in August 2014, when ISIL killed 5000 Christian men in Sinjar city and forced 50 000 Yazidis Christians, mostly women and children, to flee to Sinjar mountain, where they were trapped without water and food from 9 to 13 August.
It was shortly thereafter that I made my first Sower pot and like Van Gogh, I borrowed Millet’s sower, with his outstretched arm and placed him on my circular canvas, abstract and unrecognizable to the modern world.
The migrant crises intensified after that and during 2015, we watched as millions of people fled from war torn counties like Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, and from poverty stricken areas like Kosovo, Albania, Eritrea, Somalia, Gambia and Senegal over the Mediterranean sea flooding Europe, Jordan and Turkey with the hope of settling and finding new jobs.
My sower stands here, as abandoned houses are scattered like chaff, while 7 birds fly past that look like stars, waiting, hoping, but still unrecognizable by the half-train of progress.
By 2017, as the validity of Einstein’s theory of relativity is questioned and mitochondrial Eve sheds new light on evolution, the compassion of the West has grown cold. Liberalism is giving way to a new kind of populist-conservatism and the refugee and migrant flood keeps on escalating. Only, last week, Syria’s Assad threw sarin gas onto his own people – the ones too proud or too poor to leave. In my own country, thousands of people took to the streets to protest against our corrupt president, while Trump was bombing an airfield in Holms, impulsively, without having a long term strategy, but hopefully to slow down Assad’s frenzy. Then, on Saturday two Christian churches were bombed in Egypt by ISIL
I had no choice, but to also escalate the size of my third sower pot, while the poor and meek are still trampled underfoot and we are all moved by the present cry of suffering, as it is being measured against the past.
My sower stands prominently, like the Limbourg brother’s sower, but as the sower has today disappeared from our landscapes, so has he from our modern day life, and the longing that Vincent wrote of is ironically, replaced by a not knowing at the onset of the Age of Knowledge.
- Janson, H.W., 1998. History of Art. 5th ed. Japan: Thames and Hudson., p379
- Encyclopedia Britannica. 2010. Revolutions of 1848. [ONLINE] Available at: https://global.britannica.com/event/Revolutions-of-1848. [Accessed 5 April 2017].
- Janson, H.W., 1998. History of Art. 5th ed. Japan: Thames and Hudson., p937
- Charles, V., 1997. Vincent van Gogh. 1st ed. England: Parkstone Press p 73