When I looked at Millet’s 1850 painting of The Sower, it was his large sway over the whole picture plane that caught my eye. I then incised thin lines on a porcelain pot to hold abstract fields of colour, making my sower hardly recognizable as The Sower. That was early 2015, and since then, I have made two more. I have worked intuitively, without really knowing the symbolism behind Millet’s sower, or even Van Gogh’s. So, that’s what I want to do here, dig a bit deeper and see how mine fit in when compared to time.
It was two years after the Paris revolts in 1848. Society was being changed by the new physics of the Industrial Revolution. The peasantry felt oppressed and betrayed by the upper classes. Unable to sustain their rural way of life, they were indirectly forced to find jobs in factories in the cities. Millet then painted his sower, large and prominent against a distant landscape, in the foreground, but strangely as if he was fading away. Probably, contemplating his disappearance from the landscape, but perhaps also thinking about labour’s broken dependence on God to yield the fruits of his labour.
Then, in 1880, Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother, ‘I borrowed Millet’s sower. The man that stands for our longing for the infinite.’ 1] He then placed his sower in a vulnerable position underneath an ominous looking tree and painted infinity in the landscape and transformed the yellow sun into the sower’s halo.
By late 2014, it felt as if Vincent’s tree took on the form of ISIS. Hearing about the brutal beheadings and persecutions permeated everybody’s lives. We were shocked and groaned with those who had to suffer like that, we were all affected. Life felt different, seeing so much suffering has strangely made me also see mercy so much clearer.
Then as I was making my first sower pot, I was reminded of God’s perfect design of all things. Unlike us, who see only the parts of the sum, his symmetry prevails on all scales. He still expands our universe, just so that earth can be steadied on a circle and he can slowly form our spirits in a space that rhymes with time. 2] Even here on the surface of my circular pot, the same hand that sows is also the merciful hand that upholds those who hear. My Sower stands conspicuous in the midst of modern life but seems abstract, as mere fields of colour, making him unrecognizable to the world.
The migrant and refugee crises intensified during 2016. I then made my second sower pot, as more desperate people fled to save their own lives. Here my sower stands as abandoned houses are scattered like chaff, while 7 birds fly pass that look like stars, waiting, hoping, but still he remains unrecognizable to the world.
I made my third sower pot a few months ago. Europe refused to accept more migrants. They would rather pay Turkey to keep them. As compassion is growing cold and Democracy’s high road is giving way to a new kind of Popularism, Science is promising all things, from peace to eternal life.
All narratives seem to circle around our compassion, not only in terms of the migrant crises but also as our illnesses, identity, preferences, temperament and choices are described in terms of genes and genomes. Will we give up our imperfections, our very essence of what makes us have compassion on others? Here, my third sower stands with 7 stars in his hand, as the present is weighed against the past, he still remains unrecognizable to the world.
- Charles, V., 1997. Vincent van Gogh. 1st ed. England: Parkstone Press
- Bible (KJV), Zechariah 12:1 The burden of the word of the Lord of Israel, says the Lord, which stretches forth the heavens and lays the foundation of the earth and forms the spirit of man inside.