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The Thing Itself

Pieter Bruegel the Elder: Drawings and Prints

catalog of the exhibition edited by Nadine M. Orenstein, with additional contributions by Manfred Sellink, Jürgen Müller, Michiel C. Plomp, Martin Royalton-Kisch, and Larry Silver
an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, September 25–December 2, 2001.
Metropolitan Museum of Art/Yale University Press, 323 pp., $60.00; $35.00 (paper)

It felt not too strange, flying down from Boston a month to the day after the World Trade Center disaster, braving the beefed-up security in the city’s disgraced Logan Airport (tall state troopers in blue jodhpurs and diagonal belts, pink-cheeked boys in reserve camouflage outfits, grizzled cops squinting at a long day of light duty, the same old security personnel galvanized by a new sense of mission as they waved their peepy wands), gazing down on the widespread loveliness of a Connecticut whose trees were glowing with autumnal red, approaching New York by a wary new route well away from the Hudson and maimed Manhattan, coming into LaGuardia over more golf courses than I had ever known existed in Westchester County, and taking a taxi (the driver bitterly complained of his month of diminished fares) to the fine little Bruegel show at the Metropolitan—fifty-four of his sixty-one surviving drawings, sixty prints based on his drawings, and another twenty drawings imitating his or long thought to be by him.

Bruegel’s world, like ours, showed a gaping divide between the monstrous and the magnificent, between freaks and demons and hellish fantasies out of Hieronymus Bosch and landscapes near paradisal in their impervious splendor. Like ours, his was an age rent by religion: his increasingly Protestant Netherlands was a province of Catholic Spain, and toward the end of Bruegel’s short life (he died in 1569, probably in his early forties) Philip II of Spain sent the Duke of Alva and twenty thousand troops to administer a reign of terror and chastise the infidels. Scholars have pored over the meager record of the artist’s life and over his enigmatic art for clues as to where Bruegel himself stood. Some of his best patrons were part of the Catholic establishment, while his paintings democratically vote for the peasantry as it tried, beneath the clash of creeds and principalities, to do its work and have a little fun.

The Bruegel who painted peasants with such lively sympathy that his first biographer, Karel van Mander, supposed him to have been one is scarcely present in the drawings. Only one drawing, The Bagpipe Player, dated in the mid-1560s, is the kind of figure study that must have fed into the monumental rural folk that grow in size and expressiveness on his later canvases. A number of eminently Bruegelian sketches of such figures, complete with color notations as if for paintings, turn out, two scholars independently demonstrated in the late 1960s, to be by Roelandt Savery (1576–1639). The Savery brothers appear to have made an unsavory business of following closely in Bruegel’s tracks; Jacob Savery (circa 1565–1603) produced twenty-five pen landscapes signed with Bruegel’s name and considered authentic until well into the twentieth century. The temptation to forgery and close imitation—some of it long considered authentic Bruegel and indeed of authentically high quality—arose from Bruegel’s great popularity, which underwent no eclipse after his death, and from the scarcity of his sketches. Martin Royalton-Kisch, in a catalog essay on Bruegel as a draftsman, bemoans, “The sixty-one surviving drawings (and the six copies of lost ones) can only be a pitiful fragment of a much larger corpus.” Teasingly, van Mander’s brief biography claims that on his deathbed Bruegel directed his wife to burn a number of drawings “because…he was afraid that on their account she would get into trouble or she might have to answer for them.” That his were parlous times had not escaped him.

The bulk of drawings that did survive are detailed, carefully limned scenes, in shades of brown ink, meant to be engraved and offered for sale by the preeminent Antwerp print publisher, Aux Quatre Vents (To the Four Winds), headed by Hieronymus Cock. Exceptions in the exhibit include: the well-known presumed self-portrait, The Painter and the Connoisseur (mid-1560s); a looser than usual drawing The Rabbit Hunt, for which Bruegel himself did the etching (1560); an even sketchier image, from around the same time as The Rabbit Hunt, of Christ’s journey to Emmaus, of which no engraving exists; and seventeen landscape drawings executed during Bruegel’s youthful trip across the Alps to Italy and back from 1552 to 1554, possibly on a commission from Cock to gather material for scenic prints.

These landscapes are astonishing in their breadth and intensity; though the wall commentary and the catalog speak of Northern traditions of landscape versus Southern traditions, the viewer feels confronted with the thing itself, the Alpine landscapes first beheld in their airy vastness and elevation of view, by a visitor from the Lowlands. The earliest, Southern Cloister in a Valley (dated 1552 in Bruegel’s hand), is naively frontal; bushy growth on a hill across a lake becomes a fuzz of dots and tiny loops. The cloister at the foot of the hill and its adjacent gardens are rendered with a dainty literalism; only the trees and figures in the foreground loosen up the young artist’s pen. This is thought to be one of the few landscapes he drew directly from nature. Whatever his purpose in making so meticulous a record, a later owner cared enough to enhance the drawing with colored washes. The foreground tree of Wooded Landscape with Mills, the next in chronological order, combines Dutch mills (wind-, water-) and gabled houses with a tree that is not only, from its hilly setting, Italian but, in its dramatic, muscular rendering, Italianate, uncannily resembling a tree in a Titianesque woodcut of a decade later.

What Bruegel learned, and how, concerning the technique of representation during his visit to Italy remains a conjectural matter. Thanks to the spread of engraved prints, Florentine and Venetian masters could be studied in Antwerp. Of the many drawings of Roman structures and ruins that Bruegel presumably made, only a modest study from across the Tiber of the marine customs house remains. But in the course of his two years’ wandering (he got as far south as Sicily), his landscapes gained dash and depth, diagonal thrust and chiaroscuro. Two arboreal studies late in his trip (circa 1554) show a sweeping and confident hand. Trunks, foliage, ground, clouds, animals are skimmed together, in Landscape with a Group of Trees and a Mule, into one speckled element; it is, as the commentary has it, “an accomplished whirlwind of a sketch.” The other, Stream with an Angler, is more studied and solid, yet here too the penstrokes serve as a unifying atmosphere, permeating every interval. Bruegel in his sketches is a more nervous and fiery draftsman than can be readily seen in his somewhat stolid paintings.

Landscape with Fortified City conjures up a towered, walled hillside city in such vivacious detail that it was thought to be Avignon, but it is imaginary, possibly a vision of Jerusalem. Alpine Landscape (circa 1553) lifts us dizzily above a cultivated plain at the foot of a tumultuously craggy, but populated, mountain; such paeans to geology (and to mankind’s antlike place within it) were to form the gist of the twelve ambitious etchings known as the Large Landscapes (circa 1555– 1556). In them, the effect of surging rock becomes explosive and volcanic. The religious figures sometimes tucked in the foregrounds—Saint Jerome, Mary Magdalene, even Christ and two apostles, in peaked hats, in The Way to Emmaus (circa 1555–1556)—are so incidental they suggest a drastic if not blasphemous de-emphasis. The drawing for the Emmaus print, in fact, is titled Landscape with Three Pilgrims, and the central pilgrim, Christ himself, seen from behind, lacks the easily overlooked halo supplied in the etching; perhaps it was added by the engraver at the publisher’s request, to improve the print’s saleability. Bruegel consistently downplays the figures that give his scenes their ostensible raison d’être; they are lost in the dynamic expanse of nature.

W.H. Auden admired this trait, writing of Bruegel’s Fall of Icarus, whose titular hero is represented by a single, easily overlooked white leg disappearing into the sea in the lower right corner, “that even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course/Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot/Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse/Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.” There are a great many innocent behinds in Bruegel, and little religious drama. His largest surviving painting, The Carrying of the Cross (1564), has Christ at the geometric center of the teemingly populated panel; but he is virtually hidden beneath the T-shaped cross and amid a crowd of nine jeering, tugging tormentors. He is a challenge to find, and so is Saint Paul in The Conversion of Saul (1567), and perhaps this is the point. God’s eyes see what ours cannot. In the three centuries since Byzantine and high-medieval art presented holy portraits with a minimum of natural or architectural context, painters increasingly suggested that all we see on earth is natural context—houses and mountains, crowds of trees and people—and that God, we must presume, invisibly inhabits these vistas. Romantic theology began in the Renaissance.

Because they lack a center of religious feeling, Bruegel’s didactic and allegorical prints are hard to love, and not easy to scan, compared with his landscapes and portraits of ordinary life. His compositions have a checkerboard quality that lets us look where we will. It was very late in his abbreviated career as a painter that Bruegel began, in his splendid series The Labours of the Months, to explore ways to distinguish foreground and background and organize the pictorial space into an integrated, receding unity. Until then his approach leaned toward inventory—assembling illustrations of children’s games or proverbs or, in Dulle Griet (circa 1562), female insubordination on a plane seen from above, like a stage from a balcony. In his elaborate representations of the seven vices (1556–1557), the inventories are highly antic—fanciful architecture looms behind multiple scenes of allegorical grotesquerie; human figures in various sizes vie with chimeras compounded of fish and reptiles and human heads. Houses have faces and they imitate the bulbous, sharp-edged tropical vegetation beginning to enter the European imagination. Everything means something, though it takes the midnight oil of modern scholars to decipher rebus-like riddles that Bruegel’s contemporaries no doubt deciphered at a glance and with a smile, as we used to decipher the drawings of Saul Steinberg.

Bruegel was hailed as the new Bosch. Hieronymus Bosch (circa 1450–1516) was a lifelong resident of ‘s Hertogenbosch, a Brabant city, forty miles northeast of Antwerp, from which Bosch took his name. Like Bruegel, he is an artist with virtually no biography, but, closer by three generations to the Middle Ages, he is the more deeply sunk into impersonality. Not a single work can be attributed to him with certainty; he was basically a workshop of genius. One feels, comparing his phantasmagoria with Bruegel’s, that it is spikier and closer to the hell of the Middle Ages, to the cathedral gargoyles and the flitting sprites and imps of superstitious folk tales. Aux Quatre Vents did a good trade in prints fashioned after Bosch and paid Bruegel for work in the same popular manner; why it was popular remains, to a modern sensibility, as mysterious as our own fads and tastes may be to cultural historians of the future. Bosch’s vision, most famously bodied forth in the great triptych at the Prado, The Garden of Earthly Delights (1480– 1490), has been described by the scholar Paul Vandenbroeck as one of nature dangerously permeated by sex, a universal eroticism to be found in Bosch’s recurrent forms of flower and seedpod. This cosmogony well conforms with the book of Genesis and could play a subliminal role in the lasting popularity of Bosch’s imagery.

Insofar as his paintings can be compared with Bruegel’s prints, Bosch is airier, needling and penetrating and persuasively supernatural, where Bruegel is earthy, humorous, and humanistic. Bosch makes us think of dragonflies; Bruegel of toads. Bruegel’s mon- sters—drawn from the level of reality where fools, cripples, and beggars overlap with creatures of fur and fin—have active, productive anuses and rueful, semi-aggressive expressions like those of the man next door. The modern viewer wonders if anyone was ever turned away from sin by the carnival of these cautionary prints. At this remove of time and piety, The Temptation of Saint Anthony (1556) shows nothing tempting; a funhouse hodgepodge, rather, featuring a hollow huge head with a lozenge-paned window for an eye, a plume of smoke for a tongue, and for a hat a fish big enough to contain a wrestling match. The vase on legs in the foreground looks like a delightful house pet, if he can be housetrained. No wonder Saint Anthony turns his back; allegory strains the eyes.

What we treasure in Bruegel is his realism, and the sense we get that we are looking into the sixteenth century more clearly than in any other artist of the time. The taste of actual atmosphere, of a bygone Europe’s climate, in the winter paintings Hunters in the Snow (1565) and Census at Bethlehem (1566) and Adoration of the Magi in the Snow (1567); the heavy, itchy heat of summer captured in the drawing Summer (1568), its two principal figures clothed in such respectful detail that peasant costumes could be reconstructed on their model; the moment of Halloween shock preserved in the one surviving woodcut based on a Bruegel drawing, The Wild Man or The Masquerade of Orson and Valentine (1566), a token of the widespread pagan remainders, the bizarre festivals and costumes that enlivened quotidian existence in Europe much as electrically promulgated entertainment does now; the surreal reality of the basket-headed Beekeepers (circa 1567–1568); the imposing, intricately rigged ships, some of them with sails filled to bursting, presented in etchings based on vanished Bruegel drawings: of such is Bruegel’s gift to us, the life of his time seized at a coarser, more mundane level than the myth-minded artists of Italy quite managed. His drawings are not the main part of this gift, but they are the basis of it, where his eye and hand began, and where they laid claim, though the medium of his prints peddled to an anonymous public, to a new form of patronage.

With prints, it should be noted, the hand and eye of the engraver becomes an important adjunct to that of the artist. Bruegel’s drawings for mechanical reproduction have a careful, easily traced clarity that precludes the dashing atmospheric effects of some of the landscape drawings. Nor are all engravers the same: Joannes and Lucas van Doetecum show great delicacy in producing a slightly pallid impression; Pieter van der Heyden, the engraver of the seven sins and most of the elaborate, symbol-laden designs, scrupulously follows Bruegel’s lines while losing some animation and halftones; Philips Galle, who did the seven virtues, produces a greasier, darker effect, with noticeably darker hatching and more three-dimensional shadows; Frans Huys, who did the ships and a few others, is perhaps the best, in a painstaking, subservient craft. If Bruegel’s prints do not quite seem, like Dürer’s or Rembrandt’s, an oeuvre unto themselves, they compress much energy into their spaces and widen our appreciation of a great painter.

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