“What’s your story? It’s all in the telling”, contemplates Rebecca Solnit in her non-fiction book The Faraway Nearby. “Stories are compasses and architecture; we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and our prisons out of them, and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice.”
Few artworks capture as well as Hunters at Rest the binding magic of storytelling, an art as ancient as speech itself. Combining still life, figures and landscape, this painting has it all. Three men are taking a break from their hunting, stopping to rest and grab a bite, gathering around a picnic. In the foreground we can notice the game they have killed, as well as their rifles and accessories. The man on the left, the eldest and most experienced of them all, delights his small audience with thrilling, engrossing stories about his exploits. You can see from his facial expression and gestures how passionate he is about bringing his words to life. In the center, a peasant is incredulously weighing the words of the storyteller, smirking and scratching his head as if saying ”meh, I don’t know about that”. To the right, a zealous, younger man, dressed in fashionable hunting clothes listens, so absorbed in the tale that he forgets to light the cigarette he holds in his right hand. Nothing would please him more than to be the hero of those stories himself.
By choosing to focus on the psychology of the three hunters, Vasily Perov lets us in on the ritualistic nature of this violent pastime, which was very popular in Russia at the end of the 19th century. The depictions were based on real people, all doctors. The storyteller was Dmitry Pavlovich Kuvshinnikov, a hunting fanatic, whose salon entertained the cultural elite of Moscow at the time. The man in the middle was his friend and amateur artist V. V. Bessonov, while the youngest was 26-year old N. M. Nagornov, a colleague and friend of theirs.
The profiles of these men speak volumes not only about the types of hunters and their varying expertise, but also about the stages of life they symbolize: youth with its naiveté and unbound ambition, maturity with a more balanced and critical outlook and old age, a time when one’s fruitful life experience can be picked for ripe, delectable stories to share.
Although it is a gray and gloomy autumn day, the storytelling ritual gives the painting a cozy and warm feeling. Each and every one of us would like to enthrall audiences with captivating stories, as the older hunter does. But, as Rebecca Solnit cautions, we must first master the skills of listening and questioning, just like the two other hunters, before we become storytellers ourselves:
“We think we tell stories, but stories often tell us, tell us to love or to hate, to see or to be blind. Often, too often, stories saddle us, ride us, whip us onward, tell us what to do, and we do it without questioning. The task of learning to be free requires learning to hear them, to question them, to pause and hear silence, to name them, and then to become the storyteller.”