November 26, 2013

A Harvest of Woodcuts

        Thanksgiving is always billed as a harvest festival, although I must say there’s never a lot of harvesting going on in my garden after the first hard frost.  Still, in thankful honor of the feast of “harvest home,” I’ve found a selection of wood block prints showing different views of harvest.
        Chronological being as a good an order as any other, this first is the oldest, showing the traditional aspect of harvest - that everyone joins in to get the job done.  Old and young, men and women, all have to pitch in and work together to bring in the crops when they’re ready, and then everyone’s ready to celebrate together, too, when the work is done.  In this woodcut it looks as if the strong men do the reaping, while the women and children gather it into sheaves, and, apparently, the old men get to stand around
telling them how to do it right!  The dog and the sun get to look on, too.  I like the sweep of the line of tall grain, and the perspective of the smaller figures and trees in the background.
        Wharton Esherick’s early twentieth-century harvesters, by contrast, are clearly professional, well-trained workers, not a random village-worth of able bodies.  Esherick has depicted them with such drilled geometry that the image looks almost abstract.  His woodcut is not a portrait of people but a study in large sweeps of shape and contrasting details of texture.
        For a completely different take on harvest, my next focusses on the delight of individuals.  These two girls are actually enjoying the harvest of spring, not autumn - perhaps the first blooms after winter - but I think their air of festivity is very fitting for this week.  They look genuinely thankful for their simple bounty, and overflowing with gratitude for their ability to share the moment of abundance together.
        Around here things definitely look most like the last of these woodcuts, brown and sere (although we don’t yet have that dusting of snow to collect between the rows).  Still, the fields are large and an ear still hangs on the stalk, indicating that the harvest was not meager.  It’s interesting that this reduction print, the only one of today’s selections featuring color, yet manages to look austere.
        I often think that the enforced simplicity of relief block prints can serve to draw attention to something so that I look more closely, stop taking it for granted, and give thanks.  If you’re celebrating Thanksgiving this week (or really, even if you aren’t!) I hope you have an opportunity to count your blessings and enjoy what bounty you have.

[Pictures: A Harvest Scene, wood block print from The… Chronicles of England, Scotlande and Irelande by Raphael Holinshed, 1577 (Image from Windows on Warwickshire);
Harvesting, wood block print by Wharton Esherick, 1927 (Image from;
Spring Harvest 1969, woodcut by Els Noordhof(f), 1969 (Image from invaluable);
Remnants of the Harvest, reduction woodcut by Emily Gray Koehler, 2011 (Image from her Etsy shop studioegk).]

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