Re-introducing the figure of the peasant to the present-day public
Sigrid Holmwood’s exhibition “The Peasants Are Revolting!” at Annely Juda Fine Art is a form of revolution in itself. It’s a cultural protest against the industrialised modern life, the general expectations of the 21st-century viewer, and the contemporary belief that the alternative futures are detached and distanced from the past and the historical baggage which it carries.
Holmwood reacts against the massive industrialisation process predominant nowadays by introducing to the public the concepts of ‘slow’ and ‘expanded’ painting. By painting ‘decolonially’, the artist raises awareness that Western art history of painting is just provincial; that the very notion of what painting constitutes of should not be limited by the Western European perspective only. Holmwood develops ‘an elastic definition of painting’ instead, based broadly on the general idea of applying pigments on a surface in order to form an image. Rather than using industrially produced paints in tubes, the artist makes her own pigments, researching both historical and scientific aspects of the colour-making technique. Thus, she explores the medium of painting, a medium with such a long and dense chronicle, in its purest state, materially.
Apart from the critique of the automated modern life, I mentioned earlier that in a way, Holmwood revolts against what we may expect as contemporary viewers. Her images are representational and clear; the stories, the engagement of the characters are distinguished by a how-to-manual: some of the sources for her images are derived from the Florentine Codex – General History of the Things of New Spain, and a 16th-century description of fighting by the German bureaucrat Paulus Hector Mair. However, even if it’s tempting to do so, one should resist to be spoon-fed by the works’ narrative. The essence of Holmwood’s play with the contemporary eye, unaccustomed to look at representational images, is to, once again, make us see “decolonially”
Another significant point that the artist makes in “The Peasants Are Revolting!” (and in her works in general) is that by exploring the past, we may also explore the present and the future. For instance, analysing the historical role of the peasant leads us to “explore many issues about where we are now.” (as quoted by Sigrid Holmwood). According to the artist herself, in order for us to deal with the contemporary and even with the upcoming, we have to deconstruct the narrative of history first. Indeed, this is what makes the exhibition so valuable: it teaches us a history and a humanity lesson, but it also opens our eyes for the inseparable connection old-new.
The historical role of the peasant is reserved: the peasants are not working, as they are depicted usually, but enjoying the fruits of their labour in the land of plenty, Cockaigne.
Holmwood was inspired by Bruegel’s piece of the same name. However, while Bruegel’s depiction of the land of plenty is often read as a comical illustration of sloth and gluttony, Holmwood’s work is flattering: her ‘characters’ are resting because they deserve it; they have earned the right to live in this fantasy. Another difference from Bruegel’s iconography is that the contemporary artist has chosen not to depict the actual earthly pleasures (food and wine): thus, ‘plenty’ is not just a literal physical state of enjoyment but an abstract and spiritual pleasure.
It’s interesting to note that Holmwood noticed a prickly pear cactus in Bruegel’s painting, and she decided to include it in her piece as well. She interprets it as possibly Bruegel’s reference to the new import of cochineal at that time, thus claiming that the land of plenty is actually in the Americas.
When it comes to history lessons, I’ll steal a minute of your time for what seems at first an irrelevant fact: in 1938 Crane Brinton published a book called “The Anatomy of Revolution”. Brinton believed that most revolutions fit into seven stages: normal (the initial state before the revolution takes place; the regime currently in power), criticism of the existing regime, widespread dissatisfaction, transfer of power, civil war, reign of terror, and thermisorian reaction (the period of recovery from the ‘fever of revolution’). While it may be too far-fetched to compare the stages with the exhibition, one can still see some of the points that the artists allures to. For example, if we accept that the current order of the world is in the initial step, dominated by “the dehumanising tendencies of modernity/ coloniality which separate nature from culture,” (Sigrid Holmwood) then through the interaction with plants, earths and pigments in the fieldwork research centre “Joya: arte + ecologia“, the artist reshapes this oppression. Holmwood shows the relationship between nature and culture as an entity rather than an opposition.
Painting with flower and song is a fine example of the resolution of the conflict: the harmony is achieved both formally and pictorially. The act of painting and its representation are made possible through nature: the pigments are “not just a tool but a collaborator” (Sigrid Holmwood). The background, the pattern known as pleitas, strips of woven Esparto grass, is visible through the figures but it doesn’t dominate the painting overall: visual harmony is achieved.
Inevitably, a revolution is marked by terror and Holmwood pays a tribute to this stage as well. The series Instruments of torture are unusual: the tools of torture are deprived from their practical use; they exist in the pictorial space just as every other tool in the paintings, perhaps because historically they were a part of the peasants’ lives and destinies. Once again, the artist opens our eyes, the eyes of a contemporary viewer that is not used to see violence in such a direct and at the same time delicate manner.
The Peasants Are Revolting! is definitely worth seeing: it teaches as a lesson without being patronising; it raises debates, but it also resolves internal conflicts. The seemingly easy to digest images play with our contemporary perspectives and make us go out of our shells as twenty-first-century viewers.
Words by Victoria Gyuleva