Millet, Jean-François: The Gust of Wind (1871)

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The Independent Culture

There's a clever little treatise, written in the middle of the 18th century, called A Discourse on Music, Painting, and Poetry. The purpose of its writer, James Harris, is to decide which of the three arts is the 'most excellent'. His criterion is basically quantitative. Which art can represent more things than the others can? Poetry wins. It usually does, when a literary man is blowing the whistle.

Such contests may seem silly, but they often turn up good points on the way. And discussing what painting can and can't represent, Harris has some wise things to say about the still image. He is the first writer properly to think about the nature of still images, and he notes that, while a picture is motionless, it's not prevented from representing motion or sound. It can depict 'the motions and sounds peculiar to each animal species, when accompanied with configurations, which are obvious and remarkable.'

To be depicted, sounds and movements need a clear, visible shape. 'Instances of this kind are the flying of birds, the galloping of horses, the roaring of lions, the crowing of cocks. And the reason is, that though to paint motion and sound be impossible, yet the motions and sounds mentioned [have] an immediate and natural connection with a certain visible configuration of the parts... On the contrary, not so in such motions, as the swimming of many kinds of fish, or in such sounds, as the purring of a cat, because here is no such special configuration to be perceived.'

The principle is good, but the examples can't but make you wonder. Couldn't a painting get across the purring of a cat? Surely a fish swimming can't be such a problem? (You could certainly show a shoal in motion.) Still, when it comes to sound and movement, mainstream European painting does labour under particular restrictions. It is denied all the devices of cartoonists " no lines that mean 'whoosh' and 'shudder' and 'bong', no speech bubbles and noise flashes, no drawing a body in several different positions at once. In painting, Harris's 'special configurations' are the crucial thing. Some movements, like the shaking of a head, the wagging of a tail, painting really can't do: they don't configure.

Jean-François Millet made two paintings that demonstrate the motion question well. In one of them, motion fails. Potato Planters depicts two peasants. He breaks the ground with a mattock, she drops in seedling potatoes. But the potatoes just hang there, mid-drop. They give no sense of descending. How could they? A potato in motion lacks any 'special configuration' that distinguishes it from a stationary potato. It just looks like a potato. As far as conveying movement goes, it's worse off than a fish. A cartoonist could add 'whoosh' lines. A photograph-imitating painter might blur the potato, to suggest a snapshot of something whizzing by. But Millet employed neither of these means, and his spuds stop in mid-air.

But now look at The Gust of Wind. The sense of movement here is overwhelming, over the top in fact. A moment ago, on a ridge in an exposed landscape, stood a solitary tree. Now the wind blows, tearing it up by the roots, shaking off a few branches and tossing them around, whipping up the clouds, lashing the water in the pool. The foreground rises above us, creating a low-viewpoint " the picture itself is keeping its head down beneath the blast.

Ah, the terrible powers of nature! How helpless we are before them! It's a great ham-actor of a painting, a barnstorming performance " Henry Irving as Lear ('Blow winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage, blow!'). It knows all the tricks of making a still image move. Strictly speaking, of course, what's moving is the wind, an invisible force that we know only from what it moves, as it pulls the world along on its way. And, strictly speaking, the tree is resisting the wind's movement, blown along in it but still holding its ground, displaying the distinctive configuration of a buffeted tree, its whole body straining under the great pressure of air.

Millet does two things to make the sense of movement especially strong. He sends it directly across the picture, from one side to the other, the most explicit way that movement can be shown. And he shows it as a visible act of displacement. The tree has been taken from the position it once had, growing upright in the left-hand half of the picture, and dragged, bending, into the right-hand half. In other words, you can see where the tree is now and where it has come from, and the difference between the two, almost as if you had 'before' and 'after' images in front of you.

But what makes a blown tree such a vivid mover is that is brings its own natural 'whoosh' lines. The tugged branches and flying leaves give visible shape to the currents of air. It needs no cartoon-like assistance. Indeed, it is probably just this sort of natural phenomenon that lies behind the cartoon convention.

On the other hand, you can also see how the direction of movement in this scene could be completely turned around. Here, the tree is being blown towards the right. But now imagine that the trunk was painted out of the picture, leaving just the branches and leaves. You'd have a strange shape in the sky, like a dark comet, rushing against the air's resistance, 'whoosh' lines trailing behind it, zooming toward the left.

THE ARTIST

Jean-François Millet (1814-75) painted peasants and the land. His scenes are solemn and monumental. Sometimes their mood is piously idyllic, as in The Angelus; sometimes it's heroic, with the subject of The Sower striding across fields. Some, like The Gleaners and The Man with the Hoe, stress backbreaking toil.

Depicting the eternal tragedy of the peasant's lot, Millet created archetypal images, in bold iconic forms, very suited to reproduction.

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