Wednesday 5 June 2019

My Favourite van Gogh painting (and why)

After admiring the golden colours of Three smooth Ships earlier this evening I realised that I should probably write something down about my favourite van Gogh painting.

It's titled "The Harvest" and is probably one of his most optimistic works. As can be expected, it was painted before the onset of his illness and also prior to the arrival of Gauguin for their short "friendship" at the yellow house in Arles.

Although The Harvest is not universally known (Unlike many of his other works), it always strikes a chord with me - Both as a masterpiece in it's own right, but also within the context of a broader understanding of van Gogh's fragile existence.

To fully understand why I would want to write about a van Gogh painting on my IT-focused blog, it is useful to be aware that I was also listening to a Decemberists song titled "Don't Carry it All"

Here's the opening verse:

Here we come to a turning of the season
Witness to the arc towards the sun
The neighbors blessed burden within reason
Becomes a burden borne of all in one

With triggers from multiple angles, the synapses fired in unison and here we are: exploring the relationship between a Post Impressionist masterpiece and modern software development.

Within the context of a small town (like Arles), harvest time represents a time of substantial work for the whole community. Everyone pitches in to ensure that the full value of a long season's effort is realised. Moreover, it also represents a period of plentiful food, festivals and celebration.

Once the harvest is complete, the town would slowly begin shutting down for the quiet (and cold) winter months. With little input from humans or technology, nature imposes a clear rhythm to life:

  • Renewal in Spring
  • Continued work and growth in Summer
  • Hard work and feasts in the Autumn harvest
  • Resting and preparation in Winter

In our modern world, we are less exposed to these clear rhythms. Our tomatoes come from a store surrounded by tarmac parking spaces, so it's difficult to imagine a world where you have:

  • More tomatoes than you can ever use, or
  • No tomatoes at all, and no reason to expect any to be available for many months 

In our unnatural world, every day becomes just another slog. Always more work and "stuff" to get done. Get up, chase approaching deadlines, sit in meetings, go home, update Facebook, housework, sleep.


And while we sing the praises of technology and Digital Transformation, I suspect our concrete jungle and "Agile" timelines are exacerbating our disconnection from the real world. With ever-shortening delivery timelines and longer working days, our daily work has the risk of simply being a consistent repetition of the hard work of harvest time.

But we should not forget that the hard work of the harvest must necessarily be accompanied by feasting and joy - and then followed by a period of rest and preparation for the next season.

While it is easy to romanticise harvest time in rural France, I do think it is essential that we wrap this discussion up with a critical aspect of the harvest: An aspect that Colin Meloy perfectly depicts in these lines:

You must bear your neighbour's burden within reason
And your labours will be borne when all is done

If nothing else, I would like to work towards an IT industry where individuals are willing to help their colleagues in times of need, with the natural expectation that the favour would be returned when one's own deadlines loom. But moreover, that we gain the experience and maturity to plan our work in a way to allows quiet times for preparation and recovery.

This is my mission.

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