Art in Conversation: Emile Bernard and Catherine Opie

April 15, 2016
– By Martin Spasov, student educator

On a green field in Brittany, women are laboring to collect scattered piles of wheat. Wrapped by coarse cloth from neck to ankle, they toil under the burning sun. A group of viewers on an Art in Conversation tour are looking closely at Emile Bernard’s Wheat Harvest

Wheat Harvest

During the half hour duration of the tour, visitors ponder the connections between two works of art. As they continue to observe Wheat Harvest, visitors notice that the faces of the women are empty like the sky; no beads of sweat roll down their creamy skin. The only distinction between the laborers is their differently colored clothing. Finding it difficult to relate to the laborers, one viewer remarked, “I feel distanced from the painting by the lack of detail.” Every feature is reduced to its most basic and impersonal form. Depicted as smooth yellow mounds, the wheat sheaves are homogenized into a mass that cannot be easily identified. The women, whose facial features are reduced to a few lines, are not individualized, but are portrayed as workers laboriously collecting the harvest. Another viewer shares that the lack of variation of colors and shapes throughout the painting reinforces the feeling of vapid and unvaried routine. Above the labor in the fields is a plain cross. “It occupies the highest point in the painting; it is the closest to the sky,” reflected a visitor. The cross, for some visitors, could be interpreted as the enduring symbol of salvation, a deliverance from the misery of 19th century peasant life. 

Catherine Opie, Untitled #12, 2015.
Untitled #12

With Bernard’s style of painting in mind, the group proceeded to the second work of art: a photograph. Blurred splashes of red, yellow, blue and white met their eyes and comments began to flow: “it is shapeless…formless…it seems ethereal…it is full of color, full of light…it is the hand of God." As visitors observed Catherine Opie’s Untitled #12, they were dazzled by all the different possibilities held within one frame. The artist blurred the focus of her camera as she photographed Bridal Falls in Yosemite National Park, thereby creating a new way to experience the iconic site. The result was something that transcended the material world. Upon asking the group how Opie’s piece relates to Wheat Harvest, visitors suggested that both works of art feature unmodulated colors. Furthermore, both artists intentionally omitted details to reduce the scenes to their basic essences. The tour group concluded: if Wheat Harvest depicts human figures as empty husks, devoid of souls, rooted in a cycle of unending labor, then by comparison, Untitled #12 unlocks the shackles of physical place and time, emerging as Heaven's Gate.