Thursday, May 5, 2011
Hay in the Landscape
I grew up with this painting on the wall of my parent's home; a gigantic haybale constructed by my great-grandmother Rose's family on the plains of Colorado. That's her, in overalls and straw hat, on the right. The utterly practical act of cutting, stacking, and storing grass against the winter leads naturally to a sculptural intervention in the landscape on a scale to strike envy into the heart of the modern 'land artist'...who might in their fondest dreams wish for the opportunity to dot acres of shorn fields with squares and circles and bishops hats that sparkle with morning dew and stretch into shadows at sunset.
Familiarity has made it invisible and mechanization has made it uniform, but I remember my farming forbears talking alot about the hay, taking pride in the quality, and the extent, and in the baling. Talk of haying still often includes tales of near-death experiences accompanied by a puffed-out chest, wild gesticulation, and nods of assent all around. Everyone knows it is difficult, and only for the strong.
Like many vernacular landscape traditions though, hay can be ignored by historians drawn more to famous garden makers and exotic orangeries, in spite of haying's rich documentation in landscape art.
Alan Ritch's site "Hay in Art", though no longer being actively updated (so be warned that some links are broken), is devoted to the unique imagery of hay as it is shorn, stacked, stored and strewn...from the choreographic scythers in the 15th century Limbourg Brothers Book of Hours (June), to the twentieth century architectonic images of Australian William Delafield Cook
And stopping at all points in between, including hay as a background to Rosalind Russel pin-ups photos and of course all of those impressionists who loved the diffused light off a haystack. Of particular note is the essay on "Countryside around Dixton Manor", an unattributed painting c. 1715, whose panaroma of the countryside includes a comprehensive depiction of the haymaking ritual (including Morris dancers!) as conducted in the fields not far from the Cheltenham Art Museum where it now resides.
Ritch also describes his visits to hay-making localities--an interesting sort of way to select travel destinations--including the dream-like landscapes of Maramureş, in the northwest of Romania. He calls the region 'hay-heaven' which seems apt:
Maramures is apparently one of the only regions where hay is still treated in the medieval fashion, and is the subject of a kickstarter project by photographer Davin Ellicson to document the lives and traditions of 'Europe's Last Peasants', including haymaking (that's his photo below), before the culture is absorbed by modernity. I'm supporting it...you can do so as well at the above link.