I began to accidentally run into The Harvesters every time I went to the Met. After a while, I began to deliberately seek it out. It became a superstition: I couldn’t leave the museum without seeing it, even if in passing. Nothing seemed to change about the work: There still wasn’t a narrative to discern, no conflict or central drama.
But without any narrative force in The Harvesters, Bruegel has the space to present life as it is. In that space, I began to notice—really notice—each person and detail. There were the bare-bottomed monks swimming in the distance. There was a woman bent over in her work, her posture mirroring the angles of her wheat sheaves. One day, when I was in the museum while mildly stoned, I noticed that the two women bent over gathering pears resembled human skulls, augurs of the death and decay that would follow the harvest season.
In the winter of 2015, I thought of Walter Liedtke again. He had tragically died in a Metro-North commuter train crash near (of all places) Valhalla, New York. I remembered, to my own chagrin, the brashness I’d used at 19 when speaking to him. Now, 30 years old, I realized that it was a way of masking my discomfort with who I was. In the year that followed, I would also come to understand that I was no longer brash, but I was still uncomfortable with my sense of self.
I once again found myself face-to-face with Bruegel at the Met in the summer of 2016. But something had changed. My senses, normally in analytical overdrive, had been temporarily blunted by one of my periodic bouts of depression, and I was hoping some art would shake things loose in my brain.
Instead, that fogginess of depression slowed things down and lowered my defenses. With them went my need to analyze, my need to make the work into something it wasn’t. On the bench in front of The Harvesters, I was, for once, able to sit still. Like Bruegel, I began to see things as they were, without searching for a narrative. I had stopped confusing seeing for knowing.
Gestalt psychologists believe that true change occurs not when a person tries to become what she isn’t, but rather when she becomes what she is. In saying that The Harvesters changed my life, what I really mean is that it helped me to become what I am, and comfortable with who I was in that moment. Flaws and all. While I had wanted to run away and build an entirely different life the first time I’d seen it, I realized in this viewing that its purpose, an act of mindfulness, was to help us recognize life as it is rather than trying to make that life something it is not. Whenever I tried to run away from myself, it was there to guide me back.
I sat at the museum until it closed. Later that evening, I sent my former professor a note expressing how much I regretted phoning in his exercise years ago and how I hoped to one day finally have the work figured out. In his response, my professor objected to my characterization of the exercise. To him, I hadn’t phoned it in—even if, at the time, he’d given me a C. The aim wasn’t to figure out the work itself, but to figure out how much one could see when one kept looking. In continuing to look, that’s exactly what I was doing.
Did an artwork change your life?
Artsy and Elephant are looking for new and experienced writers alike to share their own essays about one specific work of art that had a personal impact. If you’d like to contribute, send a 100-word synopsis of your story to [email protected]
with the subject line “This Artwork Changed My Life.”