This is a painting by the Norwegian painter Eilif Peterssen. The title of this charming picture is På utkik, which means “to be looking for something”, “stay alert” and “look”; a look that is looking for something and that’s why it is alert. But to whom is the title referring? Is it related to the men watching the sea or to the painter looking at the scene?
The subjects of the painting are modestly dressed, they are humble people who work and that is the major piece of news. How it comes that these poor workers are in a setting usually reserved for picnic of noble idlers or for afflicted intellectuals portraited throughout history? What are they doing? They are doing nothing. They are free, lying down watching the sea.
Comparing this painting with others representing the working class, we can find some relevant innovations. For instance, let’s have a look at L’alzaia (The towpath) by Signorini and The Poor Fisherman by Puvis de Chavannes, both paintings dating from the second half of the Nineteenth century, therefore belonging to the same time of our Norwegian work. These two paintings show well what the widespread iconography of the working class was during the 19th century.
In The towpath the farm laborers are reduced to inhuman conditions, like beasts of burden; their state and figures contrast to the figures of the owner and his daughter who are placed far away from the workers. The lord is standing up straight, while the workers are curved and subjugated, oppressed by efforts.
In The poor fisherman, although the fisherman is not working yet, the man is depicted in all his sad condition; we can guess his thoughts of despair and concern for the material needs of the family behind him.
Let’s go back to Peterssen’s painting and to the breath of our men lying on the beach. The five ones are free from the yoke of work, which was the predominant component in The towpath; those curved backs have been replaced with a resting posture. The Poor Fisherman ‘s gloomy resignation and suffering have been replaced with a look of inquiry, and hope perhaps, towards the sea from which it is possible to see a glimpse of a distant land, maybe a destination or a mysterious place. It is as if the five men have left the march of Pelizza Da Volpedo’s Fourth State in order to start another great revolution: win the right to the sea, to sky blue. Once conquered the space of sea and sky, the workers can rest and contemplate. It is not a static and aesthetic act for its own sake, but a tension of thought towards a new and more deep research, a “stay alert” of the mind. This is indeed a conquest of the sky blue, a colour which has always been connected with thought, elevation and depth, always reserved for the rich and educated intellectuals, while the chromatic shades of brown and black (the colors of earth) have been a constant in the depiction of the proletariat, such as Van Gogh’s farmers, the aforementioned Da Volpedo’s characters, Millet’s peasantry.
As previously stated, the title of the work has the meanings of “looking”, “looking for” and “research”, but this look of research could also belong to the painter. Perhaps the painter has freed and emancipated himself from the traditional patterns of representation of the working class. He got rid of the intellectual yoke which wants the poor far away from the thoughts emerging from the sea. The conquest of thought and the freedom from chains of work in this picture comunicates an image of strong social value, whose frame could be found in Prévert’s verses:
«Tell me then, comrade Sun,
don’t you think
it’s rather dumb
to give such a day
to the owner? »