Jean-François Millet’s Benighted Past
Or how Futurists stole my patrimony and made me into the Rubenesque creature I am today
In a massive, ecstatic painting of fire-hunting wood pigeons, there are all of two immediately recognizable avian forms. Around the peasants dart and squirm and spin ligatures of brown, grey, black, and flying brushstrokes dash into distortion, the shadows thrashing and tossing in the lambent of a burning cross. Such as they are, the distortions are suggestions of forms mediated by the description of the painting, the title, and the two birds which we do see. The rest is our imagination squinting to fill the blotted sky with eyelashes.
As with the birds, Millet chooses not to show clearly the faces of his subjects. The people are peripheral to the action which is peripheral to the motion. From across the room one could even mistake the work for a gloomy Ernst, a 33 Little Girls silent and brooding as wizened sunflowers. The painting asks a question which much of the art of the next century will reckon with: how does the human form, its gestures and mechanics, fit into what is so utterly outside of its boundaries — and in certain ways, in a massive reversal of renaissance thinking, greater than it? Years after Millet’s death, a new aesthetic will rush like an embolism through the quickening taste of Italy: Futurism. The Futurists will explore where humans as aesthetic and ontological objects fit into a rapidly industrializing world. Unlike the realist Millet, the futurists will live and die on a techno-cult altar, transforming bulls into engines, motion into geometry, and the old order into a benighted past.
Likewise the Futurists and their use of “force lines” and complicated geometry will rely heavily on the impressions of forms stamped by the imagination. Off the canvas and outside the workshop, motion exists in a tumult much like it does in Millet and the Futurist’s depictions, but the realist tradition preceding the futurists, and the renaissance before it, as well as iconography and the unblurred unblemished unsmudged presencing of landscape and person as in Brueghel conditioned the fine art paradigm as a perfect moment in which time can be reflected upon as silent and still as a rosary. As such, Millet’s emphasis on motion and obscurity and de-emphasizing of strict form stands out. Millet and the Futurist both, in a way, buck their relative pasts.
Just as in Bird’s Nesters, Balla paints the motion of atomized light in Streetlight. Others focus on the tracking of motion which can range from orderly and staid (Depero’s Ciclisti) to chaotic, speciating entirely from its ordinary fixed form (Boccioni’s Dynamism of a Cyclist). Obscurity yields and reflects back reality.
Comparisons to the black paintings of Goya might also be made: the effrontery of violence as seen in Fight to the Death with Clubs, the faces lost amidst dreamy darkness, flames the only source of light, all appear in Millet’s work. In fact, the obscuring of face and gesture, emotion and situation, which gives Goya’s paintings its sleep-paralysis like malignity, imbues likewise in Bird’s Nesters a fear of the unknown, a religious unknown, a dream state.
But with his dark tones, Millet plays right into the stereotype of realism that the futurists ultimately reject. While the futurists douse everything in light, illuminating every force line, every geometric spike and spine, making every brush stroke a peon to enlightenment, Millet remains ambiguous. His use of Christian iconography, the burning cross, reinforces this. Just as the bell tower of The Angelus sits apart in gloomy obscurity causing the viewer to wonder at the role of prayer in the life of the peasants depicted, so does the cross in Bird’s Nesters equivocate.
Part of the reason for this is almost certainly literary, but there are others, including the painting’s origin. Of the painting Millet said, “When I was a boy there were great flights of wild pigeons which settled in the trees at night, when we used to go with torches and the birds blinded by the light could be killed by their hundreds with clubs.”
The practice described in Millet’s painting is arcanely known as “fire-lighting” or “fire-hunting” and has long been outlawed in Europe and the United States. But by 1904 when Henry Clay Merrit famously raised his voice for the birds in the United States, comparing Adam’s fall from Eden to the destruction of the New World’s earthly paradise, it was already too late. The populations had plummeted. Marketplaces for birds and the rapid advancement in killing technology spelled doom for the legendary sky-blotting flocks, whether those pigeons be wood as in Europe or passenger as in the US. By Millet’s death, scenes as in Bird’s Nesters would remain only as deteriorated or fanciful images of memory stored in old thin-paged books alongside pictures of punt guns, brimming wildlife markets, and freckled youths arrayed with bundle after bundle of lifeless drakes.
Millet’s painting — much like early nature writing found in the likes of Leopold’s Sand County Almanac — is elegiac. This interpretation might explain some of the precocity of the painting. While an easy target of the futurists as a nostalgic depiction of backwards provincialism, Bird’s Nesters manages to anticipate many of the crimes futurists would come to laud as humanity’s ingenious mastery over nature. This, along with its clearly influential study of motion, gives the Futurists’ distrust of the oeuvre of the past a nettling irony. Many decades later we still revel over new technology and speak in transhumanist terms about our cellphones being part of our brains, but we also certainly lament the disappearance of animal life which once soaked our earth and interlarded our memories with religious profundity.