Before the Impressionist painters and the advent of photography, the depiction of human labour, in its causes, consequences and tragedies, was rare.
Six days before the Passover festival in Bethany, the sisters Martha and Mary gave a dinner in honour of Jesus who (the gospels tell us) had raised their brother from the dead. Martha worked in the kitchen while Mary sat herself down at the feet of their guest, to listen to his words. Overwhelmed by the many tasks to be done, Martha asked her sister to come and help her. “Martha, Martha,” said Jesus. “You fret and fuss about many things, but only one thing is necessary. The part Mary has chosen is the best, and it will not be taken from her.”
The scene in the house in Bethany casts its long shadow across our many centuries, Christian and non-Christian alike, dividing those who tend to daily tasks and those who are tended to because their occupations take place on a higher plane. At first the dichotomy was understood to be spiritual—between the contemplative and the active life, between the amassing of treasures in the next world and in this one—but this rapidly came to be understood (or misunderstood) as a division between those whom privilege sat at the feet of divine power and those who were left to busy themselves in the kitchens of the world. Jorge Manrique, writing in the fifteenth century, recognized that only death would make equal the world split between “los que viuen por sus manos/ e los ricos.”
Mary is exalted in her many guises: as princes and potentates, wise men and mystics, priests and heroic figures, all those to whom fate has allotted “the better part.” But Martha is never absent. Accompanying the pharaohs in their sumptuous resting places, surrounding the Chinese emperors as they travel across the magnificent length of a bamboo scroll, embedded in the mosaics of the courtyards of the Pompeii well-to-do, carrying on her un-obtrusive life in the background of an Annunciation, pouring wine at Belshazzar’s feast, half-hidden in the capitals of Romanesque church columns, framing a seated god on a Dogon carved door, Martha perseveres with her daily task of providing food, drink and some measure of comfort. W. H. Auden, in his poem “Musée des Beaux Arts,” remarking on this laborious life that continues around “the better part,” noted:
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance:
how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to go to and sailed calmly on.
For the longest time, the notion of hardship seems to have been absent from these representations of labour. While gods and heroes, saints and martyrs suffer visibly for their causes in paint and stone, rare are the depictions of workers under any kind of physical or mental strain. The Egyptian farmers, Greek fishermen, Roman masons, medieval labourers shown either centrally or on the margins appear merely as part of the landscape in which the Mary-like chosen exist. They accomplish their tasks repetitively and decoratively, solid as rocks or with the lifelike quality of animals or trees. But they have no stories. Only when they borrow their subjects from literature or religion do the artists feel justified in animating the everyday activities of labour. (This is also true in China, where the earliest pictorial representations of actual work occur in the twelfth century and stem from state examinations in which candidates were asked to paint a scene suggested by certain lines of poetry.)
The ancient discussion around ut pictura poesis (“as is painting so is poetry”) serves in part to explain the absence, at least according to the classic distinction made by the German philosopher Gotthold Lessing: that the visual arts benefited from a restriction of emotion, while the graphic display in a poem of what a character felt was deemed not only permissible but necessary in literature. Workers evoked in even the earliest texts are described in particular emotional moments that lend depth to their toils (Homer’s loyal and hard-working swineherd, for instance), while the stylized depiction of farmers on Greek pottery (for example, the swineherd on a second-century bce red-earth vase now in the Louvre) conveys no narrative except that which the viewer might bring to it.
The first representations of workers’ activity that began to emerge in Europe in the late Middle Ages (no longer titled “Vulcan’s Forge” or “The Miraculous Catch” to justify the depiction of a smithy or of fishermen) seem to coincide with the post-feudal society’s interest in depictions of itself. The illustration for each month in Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry shows farmers, carpenters, shepherds, reapers all engaged in their particular activities less as signposts for the changing seasons than as self-contained portraits of social characters. They are among the first attempts to single out particular moments of a working life, closer to the twentieth century’s recordings of an August Sandler, documenting the different occupations of the members of a certain society, than to earlier casual representations of labour.
Caravaggio was perhaps the first painter to turn the convention of literary borrowings on its head. On the surface his proletarian models serve as actors in the biblical dramatic scenes that he constructs, but it is the biblical scenes that are the excuse for the representations of common working people. So obvious was the device and so shocking the apparent intention that (legend has it) the Carmelites refused his Death of the Virgin, which they had commissioned, because the painter had used as his model the corpse of a young pregnant prostitute who had drowned herself in the Tiber. What the viewer saw was not, in spite of the title, the Mother of God in her final sleep but the pregnant body of a woman whom society had first exploited and then abandoned. (A similar scandal was provoked by the exhibition, in 1850, of John Everett Millais’ Christ in the House of His Parents, a painting that was attacked by Charles Dickens, among others, for daring to represent the Holy Family less as a spiritual community of Marys than as a common flesh-and- blood family of Martha-like carpenters.)
But not until the explorations of the Impressionists did work for its own sake, with all its everyday heroic and miserable connotations, become valued as a subject worthy of representation. Vuillard’s seamstresses, Monet’s waiters, Toulouse- Lautrec’s laundry women and, later, specific depictions of the workers’ struggle in the Italian “Divisionism” school (Giuseppe Pellizza’s rousing The Fourth Estate with its army of marching men, or Plinio Nomellini’s The Call to Work showing father and son about to join the workforce) introduce what seems, if not a new subject, then a subject that has been granted its own stage. In these images, the human activity of labour is shown and commented upon not only in action but also in its consequences (exploitation and exhaustion), causes (ambition or hunger) and attendant tragedies (accidents and armed repression).
It is interesting to note how many of these images, often sentimentalized or romanticized, acquired decorative, even purely graphic value in Soviet and Chinese poster art after the October Revolution. Curiously, and on a far larger scale (as the recent exhibition of ddr art in Frankfurt showed), they lost in Communist aesthetics much of their combative singularity and, in a sense, reverted to the impersonal role given to workers in the earliest medieval depictions.
Photography, the technology that came into being in Monet’s time, eventually granted the image of labour the dignity of the viewer’s comprehension. Manipulating the audience into the position of witness, photography framed the activities of the workers both as a document and as an aesthetic object, in images that demanded a narrative political context and, at the same time, followed varying rules of composition and lighting. The minuscule masons crawling up Breughel’s Tower of Babel are less, in the viewer’s eye, suffering slaves than a collective element in the biblical narrative. Four centuries after Breughel, the Brazilian photographer Sebastino Salgado exhibited a Breughelesque series of images that showed destitute gold-miners swarming up and down the walls of a monstrous Amazonian quarry, images that allow hardly any other reading than that of the worker as victim, our fellow human beings condemned to hell on earth in our time.
And yet, even such documentary images echo, no doubt unconsciously, established narratives that lend them, in metaphorical or allegorical form, a shape and an argument. Salgado’s army of workers are also the builders of Babel, the slaves at the pyramids, the allegorical biblical image of human toil on this earth of sweat and tears. This does not detract from the viewer’s “realistic” reading, nor from the “factual” value of Salgado’s images. It merely allows his photographic depictions to acquire yet another level of story, to reach back into our history and rescue images of Martha that were once not allowed to surface.
After the birth of his sons Cyril in 1885 and Vivian in 1886, Oscar Wilde composed for his children a series of short stories that were later published in two collections. The second, A House of Pomegranates, begins with a story called “The Young King.” A young shepherd boy is discovered to be the heir to the throne and is brought to the royal palace. The night before his coronation he has three dreams in which he sees his crown, sceptre and mantle crafted and woven by “the white hands of Pain” and refuses to wear them. To change his mind, the people tell him that suffering has always been their lot, and that “to toil for a master is bitter, but to have no master to toil for is more bitter still.” “Are not the rich and the poor brothers?” asks the young king. “Ay,” they answer, “and the name of the rich brother is Cain.”
The young king’s third dream shows Death and Avarice watching over an army of workers struggling in a tropical forest. Because Avarice won’t part with a few seeds that it clutches in its bony hand, Death responds by slaughtering all of Avarice’s men. This is Wilde’s description of the scene Salgado was to photograph a century later: “There he saw an immense multitude of men toiling in the bed of a dried-up river. They swarmed up the crag like ants. They dug deep pits in the ground and went down into them. Some of them cleft the rocks with great axes; others grabbed in the sand . . . They hurried about, calling to each other, and no man was idle.” Then, outside the frame of Salgado’s photograph, Avarice closes her fist.