Genesis 3:17–19, 23
You Shall Eat the Plants of the Field
Commentary by Ben Quash
Vincent van Gogh was proud of this early painting, seeing it as the point at which he had broken through to an originality of expression for which he had long sought. The special qualities of it are oddly of a piece with its awkward and unidealized human bodies and faces and its surreally compacted rendition of a small domestic space.
‘While I was doing it’, wrote van Gogh to his art-dealer brother Theo, ‘I thought again about what has so rightly been said of [Jean-François] Millet’s peasants—“His peasants seem to have been painted with the soil they sow”’ (Van Gogh 1885). The five figures of the potato eaters are therefore coloured like the potatoes that are their sole source of sustenance, along with the coffee that is poured by the elderly woman on the right of the composition. In Van Gogh’s own words, he wanted them to be ‘something like the colour of a really dusty potato, unpeeled of course’ (Van Gogh 1885).
The harsh life promised to Adam in Genesis 3 is the life that is a daily reality for these peasants. They must contend with an unforgiving environment. Their arthritically gnarled fingers suggest chronic pain. The low lighting evokes winter and its intense cold.
And yet, there is an extraordinary aura around this dingy table, enhanced by the single, shared light whose glow contests the drab hegemony of the other colours. There is also an energy of physical warmth and mutual connection among the bodies. ‘I like so much better to paint the eyes of people than to paint cathedrals’, Van Gogh wrote shortly after making this work. It might be that in this work he allowed one to evoke the other. As some of the eyes around this table shine—perhaps with anticipation of rewards beyond the physical sustenance that this all-too basic meal will afford them (love returned; desire requited)—the room takes on analogies with a place of worship. The shared table is a sort of altar, in which the workers are united around the fruit of their labours, and momentarily, partially, transfigured.
The young couple on the left must live as Adam and Eve had to live when they lost the bounty of paradise. But the Fall has not severed all that bound them to one another, and bound them both to their first joy. Together, they still yearn for better things.
Jones, Jonathan. 2003. ‘Portrait of the Week: The Potato Eaters, Vincent van Gogh (1885), 11 January 2003’, www.theguardian.com, [accessed 16 June 2022]
Sensier, Alfred. 1881. La Vie et l’œuvre de J.F. Millet (Paris: A. Quantin)
Van Gogh, Vincent. 1885. ‘Letter to Theo van Gogh, Nuenen, c.2 May 1885’, trans. by Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, ed. by Robert Harrison, #405, http://webexhibits.org/vangogh/letter/15/405.htm [accessed 29 June 2022]
Complicit in the Curse
Commentary by Ben Quash
They stumble. While a verdant landscape is watered generously behind their backs, the ground they step onto is dusty and littered with rocks. Adam points guiltily to his mouth, which has received the forbidden fruit. Eve shiftily half-conceals that fruit, with its visible bite marks, behind her back.
Humanity’s first parents are monumental in size, and fill the picture. Or nearly so; but the edges matter. We need to read them carefully.
They are framed to left and right by two tree trunks. It seems likely that these are the two great and dangerous trees of Eden: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and the tree of life. They are like the door jambs of a portal between blessing and curse. And a tiny detail, easily missed, is that the left-hand tree has had a branch lopped off it. Why would a branch need cutting in Eden, in which no toil was necessary and no disease was present? Who cut it, and why? Might it be a symbol of how Adam and Eve themselves have severed themselves from the true source of their life, and must now await a new grafting?
Like Goliath, big people fall hard. Seeming too large for the space that they inhabit (Heard & Whitaker 2011), the postures of Adam and Eve suggest an insecure purchase on the new ground they feel beneath their feet. Their body weight is not well distributed. Their feet are not well placed. And their arms are intertwined in a fashion that echoes the sinuous curl of the serpent who discreetly entwines himself with the branch above them, greedily witnessing their fall.
Although he occupies the upper margin of the painting, he is a key to its interpretation, for the positions of Adam’s and Eve’s arms become a sort of assimilation to the serpent. And as they take on some of his oblique movements their next moves also become ambiguous. There is a touching attempt at mutual support in their embrace, but also the physical expression of complicity, and ironically a mutual destabilization.
Heard, Kate, and Lucy Whitaker. 2011. Catalogue entry adapted from The Northern Renaissance. Dürer to Holbein (London: Royal Collection Publications), available at https://www.rct.uk/collection/407615/adam-and-eve [accessed 17 June 2022]
Remember That You Are Dust
Commentary by Ben Quash
Donald Kuspit once asked Anselm Kiefer in an interview about the beauty of his work. Kiefer responded: ‘I have spent five years on one painting; for it to end up merely as “beautiful” hardly seems worth the trouble’ (Kiefer 2011:70).
His vast painting, Aschenblume (Ash Flower), 7 metres wide, is not beautiful by any conventional measure. As in a number of his works, Kiefer used actual ash to make it.
He has spread it across the surface of a depiction of the grand Mosaic Room in the Reich Chancellery, Berlin, designed by Albert Speer. A colossal interior, built for grand ceremonies and multitudes of people, is hauntingly empty—disappearing into distant space. Can anything good come out of this? Can anything grow in this dust? Kiefer does not answer directly, but places a tall, dried sunflower in the middle of the canvas.
Can heaven bear the weight of earth, and earth’s history? In Kiefer’s paintings ‘ash is the trace of an immemorial disaster’ (Stoker 2012: 170). His is a fiercely post-lapsarian outlook. The world he shows us in his visual art is thick with history; layered in seam upon seam; knotted and tangled with roots; smeared and clogged and hard to penetrate. It is, as Rod Mengham writes, ‘the reverse of a history that can be sounded, mapped and steered through’ (Mengham 2005: 48). Moments of clarity and illumination are rare.
But there are occasional flashes of light in his work—brief ones, like fire from struck flint. Or maybe like the sunflower in Ash Flower: a potent and vivid example of transformation and surprise overlaid on the ash coating of the cavernous and empty Nazi hall.
Indeed, ash itself (like lead, which is another material with which Kiefer is fascinated) has connotations of transformation and renewal. The alchemist sees in lead the potential for gold. The farmer sees in ash the potential for new growth. In Kiefer’s words:
Ploughing and burning, like slash-and-burn agriculture, is a process of regeneration, so that the earth can be reborn and create new growth toward the sun. (Celant 2007: 338)
Nature may no longer straightforwardly seem to announce the splendour of its divine Creator, but the dust of earth (even its ash) can still be used ‘to mould a symbol, a symbol of the imaginative and the spiritual world’ (Celant 2007: 337).
Celant, Germano. 2007. Anselm Kiefer (London: Thames & Hudson)
Kiefer, Anselm. 2011. ‘A Dialogue with Donald Kuspit at Documenta in 1987’, in Dialectical Conversions: Donald Kuspit's Art Criticism, ed. by David Craven and Brian Winkenwede (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press)
Mengham, Rod. 2005. ‘Waterworld’, in Anselm Kiefer Für Chlebnikov (London: Jay Jopling/White Cube)
Stoker, Wessel. 2012. Where Heaven and Earth Meet: The Spiritual in the Art of Kandinsky, Rothko, Warhol, and Kiefer (New York: Rodopi)
Vincent van Gogh :
The Potato Eaters, 1885 , Oil on canvas
Jan Gossaert :
Adam and Eve, c.1520 , Oil on wood
Anselm Kiefer :
Aschenblume, 1983–97 , Oil, emulsion, acrylic paint, ash, earth, and dried sunflower on canvas
The Finitude of the Fall
Comparative commentary by Ben Quash
To speak of a ‘Fall’ at all—let alone to have a doctrine of it—is already to have hope. Perhaps this seems paradoxical. But there would be a far worse condition than knowing yourself to be a fallen creature, and that something is seriously wrong with yourself and the world in which you find yourself. It would be to think of the present state of affairs as ‘normal’—knowing nothing different; aspiring to nothing better.
The belief that things are as they are because something has gone wrong enables one to put sin in its place. It is non-necessary (even if now ubiquitous in its influence and effects). It is not ultimate. And as sin’s finitude is exposed it is rendered less defining.
In Jan Gossaert’s painting, the apron of leaves that Adam has already wound about his middle (ahead of Eve, who is still naked but for the convenient protection of her modesty by the leafy branch of the apple) looks bramble-like. A single prominent thorn signals the enemy Adam must fight if he is to survive as a man of the soil; he must labour with an ungenerous land in the sweat of his brow. But there is a finitude to this Fall. For the thorn may perhaps also signal the path to redemption that will one day offer them a way back—like the baptismal fountain that bubbles behind the disgraced couple in their lost paradise. Christ, a ‘new Adam’ (1 Corinthians 15:45), will voluntarily embrace the wounds of thorns so that those he loves will be free of them.
The sacramental echoes in Gossaert’s work have a counterpart in Vincent van Gogh’s The Potato Eaters, with its ritual table. And here, too, the conditions of the present are not all-determining. These labourers are portrayed to us as a close community, whose bonds are based upon ‘work and the sharing of the fruits of work’ (Schapiro 1983: 40). The world of poverty into which they find themselves thrown—by circumstances they do not control—is monotone; made up of browns and greys. But the clock on the wall measures only one kind of time: of circular repetition; the time of the Fall. Next to it, a painted crucifix may signal another kind: the time of redemption.
Their faces variously ‘grave, intent, and somehow excited’ (Jones 2003); it is as though these figures have a foretaste (or a memory, or both) of a human destiny that exceeds this present moment.
Anselm Kiefer is deadly earnest in his belief that there is something catastrophically wrong with the world. Born in Germany in 1945, his and his country’s post-war biographies have unfolded in tandem. The Third Reich was barely mentioned as he grew up, but it was everywhere a silent presence, affecting every aspect of life. He wanted to confront it, determined to interrogate its myths and symbols, its architecture, and its detritus. This meant keeping his country’s recent history before his face in the present moment, without resort either to trivial alternatives or to silence.
In doing so, he knows he is not treating something that can conveniently be pigeonholed as a freak historical event. That would be far too conveniently comforting. His art is not only about Germany’s particular fall, but also our general human condition. The trashed landscapes and ruined interiors he portrays are not just the legacy of Hitler; they are the legacy of Adam, whose curse (as he was expelled from Eden) was that he would be pitched into dust. Like Van Gogh in The Potato Eaters, Kiefer’s palette of colours is relatively narrow: dominated by greys, blacks, and browns. The dust of the earth is not just the subject-matter of his ‘ashflower’; it is its literal matter. For as long as history runs its course, Adam’s descendants struggle with this dust in the sweat of their brows, before returning to it. We are all dust, Kiefer insists. And the ash of the concentration camp ovens is still on the wind; not neatly contained in the dustbin of history.
‘No Eschaton’, Kiefer has insisted. That is a very important message for those of us tempted to use eschatology as a narcotic, to take the edge off the seriousness of our present condition. And yet the overlaid, dried form of the sunflower challenges another sort of complacency: the complacency that says ‘there is nothing more than this’. The top of the flower projects beyond the edge of the painted surface, as if to hold open the possibility of some relativization of our earth-bound struggle; to leave continued space for what we long for as well as what we see. For hope.
Morrall, Andrew. 2011. ‘Review of Maryan W. Ainsworth (ed.), Man, Myth, and Sensual Pleasures: Jan Gossart's Renaissance; The Complete Works, 2010’, caa.reviews, [accessed 16 June 2022]
Schapiro, Meyer. 1983 . Vincent van Gogh (New York: Harry N. Abrams)