Under The Yoke: The Story of Poverty (and Progress) Behind a Masterpiece


“If you have the strength, then toil, if you don’t then die.”
- Arvid Järnefelt (1861-1932)

What’s the most haunting painting of the Industrial Revolution?

There are some strong contenders. Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa (1819), Honore Daumier’s The Third Class Carriage (1864), Luke Fildes’s, Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward (1908), or Edvard Munch’s The Scream (1893).

There is, however, only one painting from the Industrial Revolution that truly haunts and enthralls me with unease. Many of the Realist paintings of the Industrial Revolution convey a powerful image of industrial progress, men and women commanding machinery and animals in the fabrication of an expanding civilization.

Under The Yoke (Burning the Brushwood) is, however, an entirely different work. It’s a deeply moving, almost frightening painting, with subjects so true to life and filled with emotion as to seem almost photographic.

Järnefelt paints Johanna Kokkonen, age 14. Her piercing blue eyes and charcoal blackened face are a stark reminder that the default condition of pre-industrial humanity provides no sympathy to the worker.

Eero Järnefelt (1863-1937), born to a wealthy, prosperous and artistically endowed family; traveled to North Savo, a remote region of eastern Finland, in the summer of 1893 where he sketched, and photographed agricultural work being undertaken at the Rannan Puurula farmhouse. In Under the Yoke (1893), his most famous work, we see the process of burn-beating, the intensively manual method of fire clearing farm land to enrich the soil and clear fields.

The work was arduous, and without the use of mechanized equipment, it was almost exclusively done by the poorest peoples, struggling to produce enough food for survival in the ever-present, slow emergency of exposure to the risk of famine. In the absence of mechanized equipment, and petrochemical derived fertilizers and pesticides, pre-industrial agriculture was largely incapable of producing even the most meager food surplus. The result was seeming intractable immiseration and desperately painful food poverty.

Järnefelt paints Johanna Kokkonen, age 14. Her piercing blue eyes and charcoal blackened face are a stark reminder that the default condition of pre-industrial humanity provides no sympathy to the worker, irrespective of sex or age. Järnefelt painted Johanna with a heavily blackened face and slightly swollen abdomen, a sign of extreme protein deficiency—although how much of this feature was artistic license is somewhat unclear.Järnefelt was acutely aware of the widespread poverty of the landless people;   

From the earliest age, every able member of the pre-industrial farming household must have worked in earnest to counter entropy and hold famine at bay. Johanna, the centerpiece of the work, her facial expression, of utter exhaustion, and resigned fear. We see in her eyes, the stark realization that if the fields aren’t cleared, and crops don’t grow, her family won’t have sufficient food to endure the winter months.

Järnefelt doesn’t explain all the characters painted in the work, but we can glean from context that it is a family, possibly the father in the foreground, brother, back and left and sister and mother in the back center, with perhaps the grandfather in the far back right. Burning and clearing forest and brush was an affair from which no family member was exempt.

Amongst the flames and billowing smoke, the artist leaves bare a window into the greater landscape beyond; however, the sprawling wilderness leaves the viewer with no sense of comfort or ease, the forest being stripped of its beauty by the haunting context of the greater painting. This view through to the wilderness beyond only amplifies the piercing sense of remoteness, and the forbidding scale of the landscape amongst which this family would have labored.

Subsistence farming, particularly in remote regions, was a hand to mouth existence, where trade was limited, and where a family’s survival was a product of brute and unrelenting manual labor. Eero Järnefelt’s brother, Arvid Järnefelt captured the fullest scope of pre-industrial farming immiseration when he wrote, “If you have the strength, then toil, if you don’t then die.” Without a food and resource surplus, the landless poor lived without a safety net, one failed harvest away from immediate hunger and crushing economic poverty.

At the time of painting in 1893, average life expectancy in Finland was just 43 years, and GDP per-capita just $2,170.

This was the only significant work of this nature that Eero Järnefelt painted in his lifetime. He would never again create or publicly display a work with such an obviously powerful and somewhat disturbing social message. Järnefelt was acutely aware of the widespread poverty of the landless people; however, the controversy surrounding the painting encouraged Järnefelt to change his title for the work from Under the Yoke, to Burning the Brushwood. 

At the time of painting in 1893, average life expectancy in Finland was just 43 years, and GDP per-capita just $2,170. In the 126 years since Järnefelt painted Johanna Kokkonen, life expectancy in Finland has climbed to 82 years, and GDP per-capita to >$42,000. Such is the impact that science, technology, industrialization, and trade has made on the standard of living, not only in Finland but around the world.

This article was republished with permission. Read it here.



* This article was originally published here
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