A Hay Life List.
Discovering hay images in books and magazines and on the web may be compared to ornithologists being theoretically aware of thousands of avian species only in their libraries. The bird watcher’s so-called "life list" is the product of thrilling visual and auditory encounters with creatures in their environment. Having collected, by December 2005, well over 5000 hay images from secondary sources, I decided that my Hay Life List should consist only of those works I’ve seen in the original, several hundred if I count my own inconsistently artistic photographs of hayfields around the world, only a few dozen if I restrict myself to real art in real museums and galleries. Here’s a report on recent sightings.
In the fall of 2005, I saw Martin Johnson Heade’s first hay painting (Rhode Island Shore, ID 170) at the Los Angeles County Museum and The Great Swamp (ID 222) at the new De Young Museum in San Francisco. Heade's panoramic proportions give his marsh paintings in reproduction a sense of epic scale. In the museum they seem tiny but luminous, especially the LACMA example from 1858. The foggy swamp scene from ten years later is diminished further by its contextual wall, hung two deep with inferior landscapes.
While in Santa Barbara to browse through UCSB’s unrivalled collection of exhibition catalogs and art periodicals and scan dozens of new discoveries for my database, I also visited the city’s museum with its legendary but largely hidden collection. One of its currently featured works, beautifully illuminated and isolated on its own wall, much larger than the Heades though more intimate in theme, was one of the last paintings by Bastien-Lepage, whose more famous Hay-making from the Musee d'Orsay we featured in our recent "Resting in the Hay" essay. A bent old man, back turned to the observer, holding an ancient symbol of mortality, faces the field he is about to mow. The title, Bles Murs, and the cradle attached to the scythe suggest that the material is wheat, but the ragged, earless plants look enough like grass for us to imagine that it’s an uncut hayfield.
In New York for the great retrospective of Russian art at the Guggenheim Museum, I saw Levitan’s mysterious Twilight Haystacks (ID 781), and Plastov’s Reaping, almost certainly mowers in a hay meadow, glorious with impressionistic wild flowers, far more exciting than the flat reproduction seen previously only in a book on Soviet Realism (ID 960) and Harvest, hitherto unfamiliar, depicting an old man at rest with two small children in a field of grainstooks or haycocks (ID 5036). The catalog cover of the Russia! exhibition shows another fine harvest painting, again almost certainly of corn not hay, by Alexei Venetsianov (ID 779).
At the Spanierman Gallery, in an exhibit of American Tonalism, there was an atmospheric Dwight Tryon haystack, backlit by a rising moon (ID 4897). The Spanierman is one of those enlightened art businesses which recognizes that internet exhibitions of fine reproductions immensely broadens the potential market of its inventory. Even better, since the Tryon’s price was a thousand times higher than I could afford, and since the painting will probably disappear into an obscure private collection, the gallery maintains an archive of works which have passed through its hands, allowing students of tonalism (and haystacks!) to continue to have virtual visual access to this silvery, powerfully mysterious work.
The excellent annotation to this drawing, by Dorothee Hansen, includes smaller illustrations of two of the other versions (the oil painting and the drawing shown at the New York exhibit, ID 751), and is worth quoting at length, since it compares this series with another painting/drawing series (ID 748, ID 743, ID 744, ID 752, ID 753, see below) which also includes hay elements and was represented in the Metropolitan show.
“Like the drawing Harvest Landscape [ID 752], this piece, Haystacks near a Farm, is based on a similarly titled study in oil (Haystacks in Provence). The contrast between the broad fields in Harvest Landscape and the immediate presence here of massive haystacks, which distort the view into the depth of the drawing, could hardly be greater. The theme is the work of harvesting in the fields and its end result in the form of huge haystacks outside the farmhouse. Van Gogh himself referred to the two studies in oil used as sources for the drawings as ‘companion pieces.’ They provide both the contextual frame and the points of reference for the entire harvest series executed by Van Gogh in June 1888. In contrast to the distance and depth of Harvest Landscape, Van Gogh emphasizes two-dimensional surface in a close-up view in Haystacks near a Farm. Thus a carpet of ringlets and short pen strokes representing grass and flowers dominates the foreground. The soft spirals of the haystacks are drawn with the finergoose quill and form a flat pattern that takes its shape from the strong contours added with a reed pen. The sizes and positions of the haystacks provide the coordinates of the pictorial space, which is narrowly restricted by the farm building in the background.
“Van Gogh did another drawing based on the painted version of Haystacks for his friend, the [Australian] painter John Peter Russell [ID 751, the one in the New York exhibit, on loan from the Philadelphia Museum of Art]. The style of this work differs distinctly from that of his drawing for Bernard, although the format and technique are the same. The grass and the haystacks in this piece were executed in at least two different work phases, and one sees in the haystacks that dots and short lines were applied over fine curls and spirals. Powerful horizontal strokes in the grass placed above the short strokes of the grass stubble represent shadows. The field and the haystacks are covered with fine dots, as are the road and the sky, which Van Gogh left blank in the drawing for Bernard. In the piece drawn for Russell, he developed a complex, intricately worked, decorative surface texture. The drawing for Bernard looks more spontaneous, more open, and richer in contrast. Together these drawings document Van Gogh’s command of a broad range of styles, which he employed selectively according to function and recipient.” [p.120]
Hansen’s fine essay mentions in passing the unexpected insight that the drawings, not the brightly colored painting, were the culminating phase of the series. The curatorial commentary on the version sent to Russell and ten years later owned by Henri Matisse, gives it primacy over the other three: “The fourth and final version of an image realized in watercolors, oil paints, and pen and ink, this homage to monumental haystacks strives to summarize in one small space all of the visual, tactile, and olfactory sensations of summer life.”
The annotation in the exhibition catalog (Vincent Van Gogh: The Drawings, 2005, catalog 67, p.202-203) amplifies this assessment of the final drawing’s preeminence: “Through these four stages the design evolved from relatively rough to polished, from fragmented to seamless. Remarkably this final drawing, caricatural in its fussiness, of pin dots and needles, fairly vibrates with the thrum of summer farm life, its haystacks tended like idols by peasants and chickens.”
Hansen’s perceptive comparison of the Haystack series with the other great farm landscape series from Provence in the summer of 1888 prompts me to include all five versions of Harvest Landscape, even though the haymaking vignette just to the right of center is barely visible in the more abstract, culminating drawings. (ID 748, ID 743, ID 744, ID 752, ID 753)
Seeing the Van Gogh drawings vibrating “with the thrum of summer life” (a couple of hours after standing in the snow on the other side of Central Park with other John Lennon mourners singing "Hay Jude" and “Hay, you've got to hide that love away” on the 25th anniversary of the Beatle Bard's death) was an exquisite climax to my third year of harvesting the art of hay. But reading and transcribing the two evocative descriptions quoted above was equally gratifying, since they so eloquently express my own persistently powerful attraction to the icons of summer and why, in spite of the inferiority of the vast majority of them to these masterpieces, I continue to collect them, even in digitally diminished form, in their thousands.