Picturing The Grapes of Wrath

Cover of "Saudek"
Cover of Saudek

This image by Jan Saudek, a Czechoslovakian   photographer and painter, was introduced to me in class today.  Ever since, I have been fascinated by its meaning, its beauty, and the implications the photograph carries.

The title is The Grapes of Wrath.  Right away I am transported back in time to John Steinbeck’s novel about the “Okies” who were driven off their land as a result of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl.   Steinbeck paints a rather grim reality of the plains and the widespread practice of over-farming.  The FSA covered this area extensively and painted and even starker reality through the lenses of photographers like Dorthea Lang and Walker Evans as they captured the man-made desert and virtual wasteland that the American plains had become.

Clearly, this image composed and photographed by Saudek, is intentional in its reference.  What we see is a healthy young woman in her late 20’s or early 30’s, cradling to her body, a weakened, emaciated woman nearing death.  She is being fed life –sustaining milk from the breast of the woman holding her.


The Grapes of Wrath


The “Mary” figure, resembling in pose and stature, the Mary of Michelangelo’s Pieta, is robust and steady.  She is depicted as strong and nurturing but without the sorrow that transposes the face of Michelangelo’s Mary.  Saudek’s Mary is confident and purposeful.  She believes that once the milk is received, life will be restored.


The Pieta


We are not told through this image why this woman is bordering on death.  It is obvious from the coloring of her skin and the frailness of her body that she has, indeed, become a wasteland whether this is of her own making or not remains unknown. We are also left in the dark as to the relationship of these two women.  Is this a mother child relationship?  A relationship that involves lovers?  Are these women strangers who, for whatever reason, crossed paths, and one seeing the dire need to help the other, decides to do just that?   Is the relationship between the two a metaphor for our own spiritual condition?

In my mind, it is quiet possible the image is addressing the need to be kind to ones own self, to nourish the mind, body, and soul in ways that prevent barren, desolate pockets of wasteland from accruing.  It might also be interpreted as a Metaphor for God, the source of all life.  There is a recognition here of finding “life” in the other (Mary Figure)  God is an image for that one life.

Whatever the interpretation, it is a poignant scene of Life being given and Life being received.  The viewer witnesses  a tender, intimate moment enveloped in   love, mercy, and compassion.  It is sacred and yet some might still say, profane.



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