Édouard Manet, The Ragpicker, 1865-1870, Oil on Canvas, 76 3/4″X 51 1/2 inches, Collection of Norton Simon Museum
While researching Edouard Manet’s Ragpicker painting, I found other images of that 19th century genre which depicts the urban destitute collecting old rags to supply the paper industry. The realism of Courbet, Manet, and later Van Gogh’s working class approbations, elevated the working poor and their conditions to art worthy status. Manet’s Ragpicker (1869) is a magnificent tribute to those who toiled amidst the misery coexistent with Parisian bourgeois life. Set within an ambiguous shadowy space — either the artist’s studio or an alleyway alluded to by the small trash pile in the foreground — a ragpicker stands hunched- old, dirty, disheveled, propped up by his walking stick with a sack slung over his shoulder. Unlike the painter’s Olympia, who wore a haughty, confrontational sneer and flaunted her sinful trade, he looks downward to the side. The imposing figure of the stereotypical street person, defeated and worn, surely must have provoked the same uncomfortable reactions then as those of today’s urban elites to our homeless populations. Few previous painters were capable of challenging and disturbing the consumerist mentality and self-satisfaction of the middle class and the economic and social systems that sustained them. Such paintings anticipated Modernism’s 100 plus years of artistic infatuation with overlooked realms of culture in pursuit of novel approaches to artmaking: think Picasso’s demi-monde obsession, the Ashcan school as well as Mike Kelly’s more recent abject visions or contemporary painter John Sonsini’s series of day laborer portraits.
Maryanne von Werefkin, La Chiffonier, 1917, Tempera on Paper, 67 x 97.5 cm
Ragpicker imagery surfaced in the mid 19th century but it curiously reemerged much later in a 1917 painting La Chiffonier by a little-known Expressionist — the Russian-German-Swiss painter Marianne von Werefkin. In its World War I period incarnation however, the “identity politics” of the subsistence worker was downplayed in favor of different narratives.
Von Werefkin had lived with her renowned partner Expressionist painter Alexej von Jawlensky in the early 1900’s but, as was the expectation, abruptly stopped painting for 10 years to support his career. Kandinsky, Franz Marc and other key Expressionists comprised their influential circle. When the First World War broke out, she and Jawlensky emigrated to Switzerland but separated soon after. There in the midst of Alpine lakes and towering mountains she painted her modest sized but highly dramatic tempera painting on paper. It depicts the spindly black spidery form of a man carrying a walking stick and bearing a basket on his back. Slightly beyond him is another smaller bent-over figure sifting through a rocky pile. Unlike Manet’s figure that powerfully fills the space, both are dwarfed by an animated technicolor landscape of toothy jawboned mountains dueling with fists of descending turbulent dark clouds. A section of the icy lake waters burns bright red from the sunset’s reflection. Characteristic of the early Expressionists, the bold color is freely applied in brash unmodulated strokes; here the painterly swathes are rather ragged and patchwork, underscoring her figures’ impoverished state. Oddly out of context, as there could not have been any rags to collect in this landscape, one can only guess why the painter inserted ragpickers there.
The painting essentially marries two genres — the sublime landscape and the iconic impoverished street habitue’, the predecessor of today’s shopping cart pusher. Multiple interpretations arise. The threatening clouds above the urban dweller might, in the tradition of the sublime, symbolize humanity’s existential struggles with the immanent cataclysm of war. Or von Werefkin might have simultaneously intended to reinforce nature’s ultimate power and endurance over the irrational, self-destructive actions of man — depicted as small and vulnerable here. Maybe this is a snapshot into the future when starving humans are forced out of cities to survive in the wilds. Von Werefkin could have also intended her figure to represent a female top hatted and tuxedoed cabaret figure prancing across this grand outdoor stage. The marginalized female artist is forced to mimic a male in a male dominated world and “performs” her transformation or fantasy of freedom. A feminine narrative of the sublime’s fiction of renewal, she would experience a “coming out” by her contact with the shock and awe of natural forces.
A hundred years later the world is once again at a human-made critical turning point with unimaginable consequences, this time with climate change. Less Manet and more von Werefkin, I paint my immediate surroundings and, like her ragpickers, I strap on a backpack daily to roam my urban neighborhood collecting consumer detritus. I mingle with street denizens in order to rummage through dumpsters in fetid corners, our purposes quite different. As a flaneuse, I am wary and defensive. The found refuse is then portrayed in monumental, post-apocalyptic still lifes that I pose against foreboding atmospheric backdrops. Capitalist-globalist-consumerist dreams run amok; they are in turns monstrous and beautiful. The breathtakingly high purple mountains and pink orange canyons above Los Angeles loom large at every turn of my wanderings, a constant presence in the sprawling city. Recently I witnessed from my studio doors the terrifying spectacle of nearby atomic blast sized mushroom clouds of smoke from the Southern California fires roaring through these mountains. Von Werefkin could not have known about global warming and its effects but, as the sky darkened with ash, her emaciated ragpicker seemed to uncannily foreshadow my experience of nature’s power.
Both of these two very different portrayals of the same subject manage to shift seamlessly from past to present socio-cultural critiques. The Ragpickers encourage my belief that the idea and practice of painting will continue to outlive its historical borders to uniquely and vividly provoke debate on the perennial human condition.
Constance Mallinson, Still Life in Landscape, 2017, Oil on Canvas, 5’X14′
Still Life in Landscape (Detail)
Constance Mallinson is a Los Angeles based painter, writer and curator. Her work is included in major public, corporate and private collections and will be featured in an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles in Fall 2019. She has written for numerous art publications such as Art in America, X-tra, Artillery, and the Times Quotidian as well as published many exhibition catalogs.