Two fraud inspectors find 63 year old Marcel illegally distilling gnȏle and tax him 206,400 francs. The next day Marcel forces the inspectors into a windowless barn at gunpoint. He locks them inside – with a bottle of gnȏle to comfort them. There is a tax to pay on pain, he tells them. The inspectors, dazed and terrified, ask him about the size of the ransom. One of them throws Marcel his wallet. Marcel crushes it under his foot. Later, in prison, he repeats to himself the sounds he used to make when leading his horse across the fields.
This short story, called The Value of Money, is one of the several haunting narratives and poems in John Berger’s 1979 book Pig Earth. The book explores French peasant life in the 20th century, interweaving profound themes such as war, urbanisation and migration with intricately observed detail of the harshness and beauty of everyday peasant existence. The evocation of places and events is rich, visceral and intense. It is a beautifully sensuous book – Berger describes smells, feelings and tastes with earthy immediacy, as well as the sights and sounds. I particularly loved this description of peasants eating sausages:
“Sausages, the colour of black cherries…warm the heart because they are hot, arouse because they are salty, comfort because they taste of wood smoke, confer strength because they are meat, and release dreams because they are saturated with alcohol… As they ate, the collars of their coats touching their cheeks, they grunted with pleasure.”
Whereas Berger uses the stories in the book to plunge us into the weather-beaten world of individual peasants, in the introduction he explains the economic, social and epistemological situation of peasants in general. What unites peasants across the world and across time? The fact that they are survivors, he says. They are a class of survivors and it is for this reason that they resist change and the capitalist notion of ‘progress’. Because of this, they have an “in-built resistance to consumerism”. For the city dweller, Berger says, the environment is controlled and predictable, so ‘progress’ can be manufactured. For the peasant, day to day life is so full of change, so unpredictable, that the best way to live is to conform to tradition that can contain it and make it safer. For the city dweller, the peasant’s deep mistrust of change is backward and unhelpful. But Berger says that we need the peasant scepticism of ‘progress’ when we regard the false promises made by our consumerist society.
Paris is a shadow that hangs over many of the characters’ lives in this book. The isolated rural settings to the stories make Paris feel geographically very remote, but emotionally it is painfully close to the hamlets, haylofts and horse-carts. It is the place where the old peasants’ children go to work, abandoning the life that their forebears led. It symbolises the gradual but momentous shift from tradition to modernity, and the slow death of a seemingly timeless way of life.
This is a process that began with the Industrial Revolution and is revealed in the artistic fascination with the peasant that blossomed in the 19th century. When reading this book, the paintings of Jean Francois Millet were very much present in my thoughts. Like Millet, Berger gives us both the beauty and the pain of peasant life. They are both unflinching in their recognition of the hardship faced by peasants but also understand the pathos and grandeur of the lives that they lead.
Art historian Robert L. Herbert characterises Millet’s peasants as “in a struggle with obdurate nature”. In Millet’s art, nature and peasant are bound together by a kind of primeval kinship, but simultaneously in a constant, gruelling battle with each other. The most famous example of this is The Gleaners, which I was able to have a long look at when I went to the Musée d’Orsay earlier this year. Gleaning is the gathering up of the leftover blades of wheat after the harvest, and so is itself an expression of poverty – not a scrap of food must be wasted. The work is exhausting; these peasants are burdened and even enslaved by the demands of the earth – look how they are all stooped, oppressed, beneath the horizon line, as it drawn magnetically to the source of their labour. At the same time, they are lit by a warm golden light, and they fill the foreground of the painting, heroic even though they are faceless. There is no suggestion of industrialisation or mechanisation – Millet gives us the struggle and the grandeur of the peasant in a timeless context. In doing so, he is commemorating a way of life that he knows will not last forever.
When immersed in these vivid stories, another artist that I kept thinking of was Courbet, a more radical, dangerous artist than Millet. Both artists depicted peasant life at a time when it was fashionable to idealise peasants in art. Urbanites craved the honesty, freshness and tradition of the countryside as a result of their increasingly artificial lives, and admired sentimental, glamorised peasant paintings, typified by the work of Leopold Robert.
Courbet’s great rejection of this is epitomised in his epic 1850 painting Burial at Ornans. Over 20 feet wide, it was submitted to the Salon in the category of history painting, despite it being a genre painting in the traditional sense. This in itself was groundbreaking: Courbet placed a small, local event in peasant life on the scale of an ancient battle or Biblical narrative. And the peasants themselves are individuals – each figure is a portrait of a real person, and this gives the scene an intimacy within its grandeur. These individuals are united, part of a local community gathered to mourn a loved one, but they are also silent, lost in their own thoughts. They are scruffy, darkened and thinking deeply. The painting also testifies to Courbet’s socialism: each figure is placed on an equal footing, so the town officials and the priest are no more prominent than the local women.
It was shocking to Salon viewers because of its intense, monumental focus on the individual, the everyday and the local. These peasants aren’t heroes, but they are vividly, profoundly alive and real. In this way, it reminds me of Pig Earth, which also presents us with small local events that become momentous history, and a community united by tradition and purpose but divided into sharply defined individuals.
Stories about peasants, at least in Europe, seem irrelevant to the lives that many of us now lead. And yet the history of those who worked the land is profound and deeply significant, enabling us to think with greater perspective about our modern society.
Berger, John (1979). Pig Earth Bloomsbury
Facos, Michelle (2011) An Introduction to 19th Century Art Routledge pp 247-256
Herbert, Robert. L (2002). From Millet to Leger: essays in social art history Yale University Press pp.35-50
Art: the definitive visual guide Dorling Kindersley pp.326-7
Summer Reapers Arriving in the Pontine Marshes: http://www.the-athenaeum.org/art/full.php?ID=156533
Burial at Ornans: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Burial_At_Ornans