Three Hay Wagons
Tue 2nd Mar 2021
Three Hay Wagons
This essay is about a triptych of hay wagon prints that I made in 2018, and showed last year at Willoughby Gallery, Corby Glen, as part of my So’Bosch exhibition. The essay will roam widely, from the original source of the three images, to my reasons for choosing hay wagons as the subject, to related yet divergent information.
As part of my obsessional interest in Hieronymus Bosch I have looked repeatedly at his paintings and read countless books. When making my So’Bosch ceramic sculpture I scan his paintings for objects and forms, and it was whilst doing this that one painting in particular keep catching my attention due to its curious subject matter and intriguing format; The Hay Wain.
My work often makes reference to other artists and their work. Looking at art causes a form of cross-pollination to take place in my head and ideas for new work emerge. Part of the menagerie of current influences, alongside Bosch, is Pieter Bruegel the Elder and his two sons, Pieter Brueghel the Younger and Jan Brueghel the Elder. Whilst looking at Bruegel the Elder’s Seasons of the Year series of paintings I spotted a hay wagon in the middle ground of Haymaking - Early Summer. Finding this second hay wain suggested the idea of making a triptych of hay wagon prints using the reduction lino process. Serendipity stepped in at this point, printed as a double page spread of The Guardian broadsheet in 2016 was an image of a hay truck on the N5 highway in Bangladesh.
There was something about the irrationality of scale in Bosch’s The Hay Wain and The Guardian photograph, where the subject completely fills the picture plain, that I was after. I zoomed into the Bruegel painting, focussing only on the hay wagon, to make the threesome fit together.
Bosch’s Hay Wain:
The first image in the trio is based on Hieronymus Bosch’s The Hay Wain, which hangsopposite Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights in the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid. The central panel of this Bosch’s triptych is unusual as it is dominated almost exclusively by a wagon piled high with hay. This hay forms a lush yellow globe that is rich, seductive and all encompassing, to both the viewers, and to those depicted within the picture.
At first glance Bosch’s The Hay Wain seems a bewildering collage of biblical story, allegorical tableau, genre episode, and hellish fantasy, and, like The Garden of Earthly Delights, it poses something of a puzzle.
The wagon and its load rolls from the righteous right to sinister left, (within the picture plane) and is a representation the Christian theory of the world. The trajectory of human sin is shown from its earliest beginnings in Eden, to the inevitable and terrible end in Hell. Usually Bosch’s pictures are structured with a positive value in the centre surrounded by dangers and an enmity on the two opened wings of the triptych. However in The Hay Wain devilry seems to be at play in the centre too, but beguilingly disguised.
Depicted is a contemporary (to Bosch) rural scene populated with many people. A motley and viscously selfish group converges absurdly around the heavily laden wagon of hay. The hordes mobbing the hay – thieves, charlatans, gypsies, prophets, soothsayers, quacks, vagabonds, peasants, nuns, a priest – crowd round and clutch for a portion of hay. Riding behind banners in the wake of the wagon is a parade of dignitaries and sovereign rulersboth worldly and ecclesiastic, a pope, an emperor and a king. At the front of the wagon, pulling it by its unhitched tongue, an army of demons hurries this multitude towards the underworld.
Bruegel Haymaking (Early Summer):
The second image in the trio is based on Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Haymaking (Early Summer).
Two of Bruegel’s Season paintings feature a hay wagons. I was torn between the hay wagon being loaded with freshly cut grass in Haymaking (Early Summer) and the wagon laden with golden straw in The Harvesters (summer). I still wonder if I selected the right one. My choice for the former was made because of the title Haymaking and also for the three quarters view of the wagon. Across my triptych the wagon rotates, left to right in viewing terms, from being side on in the Bosch, to angled in the Bruegel, to frontal in the Bogra Road.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, though a pioneer of genre paintings still filled his compositions with religious allegory and vignettes, specifically greed and gluttony. Bruegel’s strategy was displacement of the divine message into the everyday.
Bogra Road in Bangladesh:
The third, and final image in the trio is based on a photograph by Abdul Momin, of the N5 Dhaka-Rangpur highway in Bangladesh. I hoped to find a title the third print of the triptych with a name beginning with B. The image information says: A truck heavily laden with straw lumbers along the Dhaka-Rangpur highway, with workers perched on the cab’s roof. Via the power of the Internet I was transported from a domestic room in the East Midlands to discover the N5 was in Bangladesh; this was good as it is a B word, but it did not seem right. Almost mid way between Dhaka and Rangpur on the N5 is Bogra, or Bogura, a major commercial hub in the Bogra District. This felt like the perfect B so with artistic licence Haywain – Bogra became the title of the final print.
I have never been to Bangladesh, but the photograph is a striking image. The size and dominance of the over-loaded truck resonates with the Bosch composition. The straw mass is also occupied, as in the Bosch and the Bruegel, which was important to me even though none of my prints show the figures.
I have cropped, edited, filtered and focused in on the hay and vehicle in each of the three images I have selected. My final prints are not copies but rather a conversion into something new.
In Northern Europe during the 16th century a new form of painting began to be produced. Until around 1500, paintings were largely in the service of religion; either for communal worship in churches, or as pieces for private devotion at home or whilst traveling. What developed were new types of painting; genre, still-life, landscapes, urbanscapes and vanitas pieces. Autonomous in subject this new art served no purpose than to be looked at. This is now art’s natural state, but then it was a profound change in both subject and location.
Despite moving away from direct reference to religious subject matter these new forms of paintings often contained warnings of folly, temptation, over indulgence and the inevitability of death in the form of parables and symbols. Bosch’s The Hay Wain is a crossover piece. It appears to convey both a secular message alongside a religious meaning. Triptych in form, The Hay Wain looks and behaves like an altarpiece, yet on opening the wings it reveals a central panel of the profane world rather than one subservient to the word and message of God.
The meaning of Hay:
‘The world is a haystack: everyone takes what he can grab thereof’
It was a vague recollection that hay and straw in art is a symbol of avarice that was at the core of what I wanted to explore with my triptych of prints. Avarice or Greed is the inordinate desire of getting and hoarding wealth, comestibles or chattels. It is one of the Seven Deadly Sins or Vices within Christian teaching: Pride, Greed, Wrath, Envy, Lust, Gluttony and Sloth. These sins are practices or behaviours deemed depraved, degrading, criminal, immoral and taboo.
The Church believes sins need to vanquished; sermons, tracts, confession and penitence where fundamental to help people curb their desires and wayward leanings. Pride and Greed were considered the worst as they led to all other sins.
Thinking about the hay wagon as a pictogram of excessive greed is pertinent to current political, cultural and economic concerns. Globalisation has an insatiable appetite to consume materials, natural resources and human lives in its mass over production of goods and services to satiate the desires of the few.
It appears that we are going to environmental and economic hell in a handcart, or in this case on a hay wagon, dragging all fauna and wildlife down with us. A vast proportion of the world’s population lives in poverty, with insanitary living conditions and poor work situations, whilst a minority get rich beyond comprehension. This was the apposite message I wanted my triptych of hay wagons to illustrate.
Philosophers Stone, Alchemy, Transmutation and Transubstantiation:
Philosophers Stone is a misnomer, as it is not a stone. Rather it is an alchemical substance capable to transforming base metals into precious metal, and the Elixir of Life, useful for rejuvenation and achieving immortality. Philosophers Stone is something that is continuously mutable and mysterious.
Alchemy, the medieval forerunner of chemistry was concerned with the transmutation of matter, distilling ideas and dissolving elements to find their quintessential nature. Alchemical theory and experimentation was intertwined with religion as both used ideas around transmutation and transubstantiation in order to explain beliefs, doctrine and lore.
Alchemy was an attempt to find answers to questions such as; What exists between heaven and earth? and, the ultimate, What is the meaning of life? And in essence that is what all religions seek, to give guidance, reassurance and codify the natural world in order to allay fears.
The golden secret:
Through experimentation and recording outcomes alchemists sought to convert base metals into gold, considered the ultimate Secret of Secrets. Gold is the most culturally valued metal. Even though it is not most expensive metal it is very durable and most luscious in colour. The quest to make gold has a long and fruitless history in the art of alchemy.
Gold is made up of a mixture of sulphur and mercury. Thus Alchemists believe that if they got the right proportions of these two elements it must be possible to make gold.
Mercury is especially magical, as it is a metal that is liquid at room temperature. It also dissolves gold. Back stage a trickster would dissolve a lump of gold in mercury then on stage in front of the king and courtiers the mixture was heated, evaporating the mercury to revealing the gold that was previously dissolved. Hence Alchemy’s association with charlatanism, witches and wizards, puffers, tricksters, quacks, profiteers as well as serious minded early chemists and discovery.
The reality is that gold cannot be made by alchemy or any other means. Gold is not made inside the earth or in the core of stars but is the result of a cosmic mega explosion. To make gold the right number of protons and neutrons need to be rammed together under great force. It only happens in space. Its origin is in the death throws of a dyeing star or the collision of two neutron stars, forming small stellar gold factories. Gold really has earnt its place as precious through being made in such exotic circumstances.
Fairy tales, myths and folklore:
So universal is the repugnance and understanding of greed’s all encompassing and destructive nature that it is found in the fairytales, folklore and myths of all cultures. These stories, like those in the bible, are veiled warnings, moralising and guidance. In the west we are most familiar with the German Fairy tale Rumpelstiltskin, where three forms of greed are shown; wealth, status, power. The king lusts for gold, the girl’s father for standing and Rumpelstiltskin for influence, and acceptance. All three connive and plot to satisfy their appetite.
The father foolishly boasts that his daughter can spin straw into gold and the king promises to marry her on proof of this miracle. Rumpelstiltskin befriends the distraught, weeping girl and promises to fulfil this transformation in exchange for the girl’s first born. To really hammer home the point, the king makes the girl repeat the conversion three times before finally wedding her.
The girl is the hapless victim of the greed of the three men. When she promises her first born to Rumpelstiltskin, the idea of a child is as inconceivable as marrying the king or spinning straw into gold. You are not giving anything away that does not and cannot exist.
Festivals and Carnival:
Just as in assorted stories, the universality of hay, straw and dried grass as a symbol for greed is evident in traditional celebrations at carnivals and festivals.
One in particular event has a resonance with my hay wagon prints. Nuremberg’s Schembartlauf parade, held between Carnival and Lent, was and still is, an unruly expression of political and religious descent. Carnival time is a release from convention and an opportunity for provocative expression, where rulers both of state and church become subject to public mockery. The culmination of the Schembartlauf parade is the Hölle or Hell float. These Hell floats are described as rolling wagon of hay very much resembling Bosch’s The Hay Wain. Mock guilds that built and steered these festive structures invited members of the public to ride with them and drink, and are invited into the attractive hollow structure of hay. But cruel fait awaits, having freely entered the spectacle, the most enthusiastic revellers became trapped inside and punished, just like the damned in hell for their greedy over indulgence.
Hay verses Straw:
A little deviation into the semantics of hay and straw:
Hay = grass, clover, alfalfa, etc. that has been cut and dried to use as winter fodder for livestock. Hay is more nutritious and has a higher value than straw.
Straw = stalk of dried cereal crop, the parts of the cereal crop that remains after threshing, a by-product of a grain crop. It is dryer, holds less moisture and so is less prone to mould than hay. It can be ploughed back into the soil, burned as stubble, (it is highly combustible) used as garden mulch, or as litter or insubstantial foodstuff for some animals, also used for thatching, and weaving into baskets, hats, etc.
There is a distinction and a convergence between hay and straw. Straw is more golden coloured when harvested and the material shown in both the Bosch and Bogra images look like straw rather than hay. The caption on the Bogra photograph, states it is straw and that a ten-ton load is worth over £500. The Bruegel title is Haymaking and the dried grass being loaded onto the wagon is a green tinged yellow.
In Britain grass is now generally harvested as silage, which is cut when the grass is green. The sight of hayracks has vanished from our landscapes and farmyards. Silage, haylage and baleage have become more common as it is higher in nutrients, less susceptible to weather damage as the forage does not lie in the field to dry. Bales of straw are still a common sight. Now mostly big round bales, but square bales too.
I think that the opposing and multiple meanings that hay and straw have are interesting. As discussed, hay is used as a metaphor for gold and avarice. There are a number the western proverbs related to hay. To make hay = to make confusion, turn something topsy-turvy. Which in my dyslexic lexicon is where the word haywire comes from. (Of things: out of order, not working properly, of people: crazy or erratic.) And the related Make hay of something = to throw into confusion. To look for a needle in a haystack = to attempt a hopeless task. And To make hay whilst the sun shines = to lose no time, to profit by opportunity. These last two particularly I think relate to the idea of grasping fruitlessly at golden hay that will bring one no profit. And of course there is Hit the hay = to go to bed
Proverbs related to straw: clutch or grasp at straws = to resort to an alternative option or remedy in desperation, even though it is unlikely to succeed. Draw straws = to decide on something by chance, the picking of straws one of which is significantly longer or shorter then the rest. The drawer of the mismatched straw is thus chosen to carry out an unpleasant undertaking. The last straw or the straw that broke the camel’s back = a smaller event which, if it occurs after a series of other misfortunes, difficulties, accidents, etc. finally serves to make the whole situation intolerable. A straw in the wind = a tantalising hint or indication of something.
The conflation of hay and straw in relation to my triptych is that those who throw themselves in adoration at the hay are doing nothing more than clutching at straws.
Nothing like hay:
Hay means mown or cut stalks, usually grasses used as fodder for animals. Dried grass is a universal code for humanity, who we are and what we are in the world. We are transient beings on the earth’s surface and, just like hay, we will at some point will be mown down and used as fodder for the soil.
Close scrutiny of Bosch’s painting reveals vignettes of fighting, beatings and even murder. Atop the hay a couple have sex in a bush that inexplicably is being transported together with a praying angel and a dancing devil. In the foreground a woman is having a tooth removed, a rotund monk sits drinking, a woman washes a child’s backside whilst others gossip. But the main activity is in relation to the hay. There seems to be a desire beyond sense, to have some of this golden coloured dry grass. Driven on by ravenous appetite the crowd around Bosch’s hay-globe is shown falling over themselves to grasp and clasp at the hay.
Sins are associated with various body parts - lying with the tongue, lust with the genitals, gluttony with the throat, pride with the chest, conceit with the turned head and avarice with the arms and legs. The person possessed by avarice reaches and grasps the goods of another.
The Hay Wain’s progression is no slow dawdle. As one ladder is erected at its rear another falls and is crushed at the front. At this pace the only thing that has time to occur are the collisions between people as they make futile grabs for the hay. This hay wagon inexorably rolls on, moving perpetually forward towards what seems inevitable. This painting is saying that whatever happens in the world we cannot change the outcome. There is no redemption or hope for humanity as it is perpetually and permanently in the grip of lust and greed.
And so it continues. Our greed and exploitation of the earth’s resources is causing widespread pollution, soil erosion, destruction of ecosystems, extinction of species and possibly irreversible climate change. But we seem not to be able to stop the juggernaut with which we have replaced the wagon.
Bosch knew that his audience, like the folk depicted in The Hay Wain, loved worldly goods; why else would they admire costly objects like The Hay Wain itself? Thus the painting cautions against attention to things like itself, but it does more than that. Conjuring the structure of sacred space, in its triptych form, causing viewers to mistake it to a holy image, The Hay Wain evokes the most abject of all things: the idol. A crowd is gathered around a golden object, but it is not Christ or God but hay stacked high on a cart.
Sometimes it seems that humanity is socially, politically, culturally and economically sleep walking into self-destruction. I believe art is prescient in its ability to ask questions and shine a spotlight on issues and concerns. Art can say more with less, by implication rather than having to spell out in long texts (like this one!). Art can be a prompt, nudging the viewer into thinking and looking obliquely at something. Art does not dictate but acts as a suggestion towards freethinking and options outside of the rules laid down by authority.
Greed is not just an excessive love for money, possessions or food. It is the desire to have more than one's fair share or need. Greed goes hand in hand with selfishness. It is the opposite of self-sacrifice and sharing.
Greed appears to be most prominent in societies of plenty. Some believe greed to be the sin that begets all others. Greed for material and financial gains is almost always at someone else’s expense, and often, ultimately, the environment pays the price. In order to feed a form of gluttony, the world is being starved and exploited. But somehow the vice of greed has been turned into a virtue, or at least we have become complicit. We have learnt to persuade ourselves that modern economy requires us to keep consuming.
Bosch’s The Hay Wain is a mock celebration of human greed. The central panel is an explosion of rich colour, frenetic moment and pomposity. The crowd grab at, and tussle for their portion of hay, the metaphor for gold and wealth. Today it’s meaning is neither empty nor illusory but seems to me to very real. It all looks riotously wonderful, but our eye deceives us as covetousness can only lead to misery. The moral of the image is the need for some sort of social and moral code or humanity collapses in upon itself. Equality and common decency to fellow humans is lost in a race to consume and to accumulate wealth, property and chattels.
Money is symbolic, a construct, though this is something we have conveniently forgotten. Money was invented to trade at a distance; it does not really exist as a thing in itself but as a bartering and exchange tool. But we have raised money up to be all-important, to be worshiped like a God. Our praise of money is idolatry.
Christian dogma taught that humanity was condemned to travel in one direction only unless they repent, from pleasure to perdition, from sin to damnation. I hope this is not true. I hope we can pull ourselves round, stop and reverse some of the damage we have blithely dealt the world.
Structuring my thoughts and the facts I have gleaned is hard. I don’t have a clear statement, just thoughts to corral and the motivation behind a piece of work to investigate. I make art on a hunch and a whimsical desire. Something I have seen, read or heard sparks a thought and my mind makes a leap to a new piece of work.
Autumn into winter 2019, and winter into spring 2020 saw our TV screens and newspapers filled with news of fire, (Australia) flood (Britain) and pestilence (global); the biblical triad that foretells the end of the world. It felt apocalyptical.
My triptych of Hay Wagon prints seemed more prescient and purposeful than my personal rants against excessive consumption and environmental destruction. Along with many others, I feel helpless against political power, capitalist greed, global finance and a rising tide of self-centred, self-preservation over co-operation, community, social ideals and humility. Ideals are dismissed as the pitiful dreams of losers. Yet with the Covid crisis suddenly the metaphorical rug was pulled from under the feet of all governments and big institutions. With unprecedented speed the way things were, were no longer. The global pandemic altered all.
As I started to write this, in the spring of 2020, Covid19 was looming on the horizon with cases starting to appear in Britain. There were reports of the panic buying of toilet rolls and fear provoked by images of empty supermarket shelves. Then came talk of social distancing, working from home, and finally lockdown.
I had begun to gather together thoughts and notes that became this essay in a cottage near Hartland, Devon, away from distractions. Then suddenly Corona-virus presented us all with the new reality. Restricted movement, limitless time at home and perfect conditions to continue and finish writing. However I stopped. I thought this was only temporary, but it was almost exactly a year until I took up this text again.
I have always had a strong sense of equality and empathy; I was the kind of child that fretted and was confused by injustices. I think children have an innate sense of fairness and adult explanations for why things are the way they are seemed illogical or simply wrong. And yet these wrongs appeared to be widely accepted; they were normative rather than right, never questioned or the true ramifications considered.
As a child I felt without a voice. I thought I was missing some crucial piece of information that explained prejudges, discrimination and inequalities. But there are none. As an adult I still find myself stunned, confused and ashamed. I continue to be tentative with my voice but softly through my art I try to grapple with these issues and provoke thought via my work. And hopefully offer an alternative perspective.
I don’t have a spiritual or theological belief but I do have an innate and deep-seated moral and ethical compass, an interest in stories in all forms and an aesthetic sense. I am drawn to religious imagery and the universal messages they express which are still relevant and pertinent to society today. I utilize and scavenge from the past to explore and express the present and the future. My Hay Wagon Triptych is an example of this.
Fatalism whether bound up in the rhetoric of faith or not, is a fact. We are all going to die. Wars, pestilence, economic crisis, environmental disasters both natural and manmade, do not create a new circumstance but simply aggravate the permanent situation. Comparing a new circumstance with what we call normal life is wrong. There is no such thing as normal. Life, in reality, is no more fragile at times of crisis; we just become more aware of its fragility when it is presented more starkly.
Belief and understandings of the world, of science and events in Bosch and Bruegel’s time was heavily influenced by religious teachings. Now many of us are atheists or agnostics and our understanding of the workings of the universe and all it contains is immense, yet we still need and desire meaning and guidance. We are all subject to our cultural times and our art reflects accordingly. Yet art from the past continues to resonate with us as it speaks of universal truths.
I like the process of reduction lino for two reasons. 1. You can make multi coloured prints from the same block, easing registration. 2. The process of working in reverse both of the image itself but also tonally, from lightest to darkest, makes one really look at the image and reduce it too its constituent parts.
Process: First you cut away what is to be white or blank, often not much, then the whole block gets the first dominant colour, in this case a hay yellow. Then at each subsequent cut you remove all that you want to appear the last colour you printed till you have left only the darkest coloured bits. The lino block is quite flimsy by this stage having mostly been carved away. One can be quite painterly with the inking so get many more colours than layers of printing, if that makes sense.