Wednesday, October 29, 2008

More thoughts on famine

I don't actually think that widespread famine is likely in America and Europe, though unfortunately it's a fact of life in Africa. I have been thinking about the way that political theories can cause hunger, and I've also been thinking about how those in past eras envisioned hard times.

I found a few very powerful images expressing various thoughts on famine. First, to the left, is a poster by the famous artist Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939).

Mucha is well known for his dreamy women, especially for depicting Sarah Bernhardt in an original style that pretty much defined Art Nouveau. When Mucha heard about the famine in Russia shortly after the Revolution, he created this poster for fund-raising to help the victims.

To go back much further in time, Famine rode a black horse along with the other horsemen of the Biblical apocalypse. War accompanied Famine in this view of man's fate. Even in those distant days, famine was apparently seen as the result of human as well as natural events like crop failure and drought. The words are vivid, and the inspired images in art are vivid.

Finally, I was thinking again of the Irish famine that devastated the population and drove so many Irish people to leave their country, while agricultural products other than potatoes were being exported for the international market. The starving peasants had no right to these products, and no money to buy them. The Irish had been victims before: the most famous creative work concerning them was a couple centuries earlier: Swift's A Modest Proposal. (You can read the entire work here.)

The following images of the apocalypse are by Victor Mikhailovich Vasnetsov (1897) and by Durer.

In Dublin in 1997, a very moving memorial to the Irish famine victims of the 19th century was created. Looking for these images introduced me to the sculptor Rowan Gillespie, whose work I hope I'll learn more about.

Thinking of Swift, here are the first paragraphs of his most perfectly ironic Proposal:

It is a melancholy object to those, who walk through this great town, or travel in the country, when they see the streets, the roads and cabbin-doors crowded with beggars of the female sex, followed by three, four, or six children, all in rags, and importuning every passenger for an alms. These mothers instead of being able to work for their honest livelihood, are forced to employ all their time in stroling to beg sustenance for their helpless infants who, as they grow up, either turn thieves for want of work, or leave their dear native country, to fight for the Pretender in Spain, or sell themselves to the Barbadoes.

I think it is agreed by all parties, that this prodigious number of children in the arms, or on the backs, or at the heels of their mothers, and frequently of their fathers, is in the present deplorable state of the kingdom, a very great additional grievance; and therefore whoever could find out a fair, cheap and easy method of making these children sound and useful members of the common-wealth, would deserve so well of the publick, as to have his statue set up for a preserver of the nation.


Chris said...

I enjoyed your blog. Loved the pics and the cornbread recipe. Also enjoyed the story about Obama's and McCain' breakfasts. Very interesting.

Jen of A2eatwrite said...

This is, again, why we as a world have to think carefully about our farming methods - if we exhaust soil, don't invest in greener technology, lose our natural pest control in the form of ecosystems, etc., famine could spread on a massive level.

The Irish memorial is devastating in exactly the way it should be.

Fabulous post, Mae.