I think I took Blog Action Day 2008 message really close to heart this year – for I decided, Los Cuadernos being an arts blog, to research the representation of poverty in art. The research, which was and wasn’t painstaking at the same time, opened up a curious situation, as far as poverty was concerned.
Thomas Nichols’s recent book The Art of Poverty, although an interesting study, highlights precisely this ambiguity in art’s response to poverty. Arguably, there is a difference between pauperism and poverty. They don’t necessarily equal. One may assume that a beggar and vagabond could once be a peasant or worker, but this is not necessarily the case. And so, for my study I chose to draw attention precisely to peasants, house workers and labourers, who don’t beg or wander but are barely making their ends meet.
And here I, who never really researched into sacred (or religious) art, was very surprised and amused to realise that very rarely did painters depict Jesus as a carpenter. In the vast sea of Nativities, Miracles, Crucifixions, and Resurrections there was scarcely an image which would show Our Lord engaged in physical labour. The large picture by John Everett Millais Christ in the House of His Parents didn’t actually show Jesus working, but we nevertheless see him among people who are clearly workers. Surprisingly or not, the painting was decried by none other but Charles Dickens, who found Jesus too ugly, and Maria to be more repulsive than the most repellent tart in Paris. And even though Dickens would later take his words back, his initial reaction survives as the testimony of attitude to both Pre-Raphaelites and – Jesus in the house of a carpenter.
A similar fate in the guise of harsh criticism had befallen Gustave Courbet’s Stone-breakers, which scandalised the Parisian salon of 1850, and Eugene Delacroix’s Massacre of Chios (1824). And the conclusion one draws, after studying all the different images, which timeline spans good six centuries, is that there was a strong inclination to avoid depicting the physical labour and extreme hardships. This is understandable, on the one hand, for man always wants to elevate himself above his quotidian existence. But, on the other hand, art, rather often than not, seems to equal other means of escapism. And therefore, throughout those six centuries we mostly see peasant merriments, bucolic scenes with peasants and shepherds, we see poor classes drinking, resting, smoking, playing cards, and brawling, but very rarely do we see them working physically, let alone actually living, e.g. visiting courts, or taking their children to foster homes.
Poverty and physical labour are inextricably associated, and one is astonished to see that, while imitating life in some ways, painting as art was also masking the areas of life that weren’t pleasant to see. The role of painting can be compared to the role of frescoes in the church: frescoes elucidated the Scripture, while paintings were to elucidate the society.
The images of beggars were a popular subject, for they allowed for a light-hearted humour or moralistic discourses, or else for making the alms-giving people feel good about themselves. However, it seems that it was easier to be either rich – ostensibly or moderately – or to be on the fringe of the society, or indeed, an outcast. Either way, in the nascent or established bourgeois society these two extremes were more favourable, for they clearly showed the degree of God’s love for a subject. The poor classes, like peasantry and workers, seemed to be a difficult case: they worked hard – but were still poor. The art for the most part responded by downplaying their poverty or suffering from it. It may have done so unintentionally, by just describing what was in front of the eyes. In front of the eyes were, indeed, the “jolly beggars”, even when they were actually working. But, transferred onto canvas, the laughing and drinking folk had been taken for granted. And it is perhaps the true irony of the story that the mainstream society chose to draw attention to its extreme – beggars and vagabonds who were outsiders – while practically turning the blind eye to the poorer classes who were nevertheless the members of the society.