Close to half a million people saw the huge Bruegel exhibition in Vienna marking the 450th anniversary of the artist’s death. Pieter Bruegel the Elder died on September 9, 1569, but the Kunsthistorisches Museum pushed the show up a year so that lending institutions could celebrate with their Bruegels back on their walls. The exhibition’s slogan, “once in a lifetime,” was true. Never had so many works by this master been shown in one place: some twenty-seven paintings and seventy drawings and prints, more than half of his oeuvre and enough for a lifetime of looking.
It is unlikely that any museum will ever be able to assemble such an exhibition again. Most of Bruegel’s masterpieces are painted in oil on a wooden panel support. Sensitive to movement, temperature, and humidity, they rarely travel. Worried about the damage done by transport, museums are reluctant to lend panel paintings. There have been notable retrospectives in the past, but these had to make do with works on paper. In 1969 Brussels—where Bruegel settled in 1563 and where he died—tried to celebrate the fourth centenary of his death with a big show but could not secure the loans, so his prints were exhibited instead. The artist launched his career by designing engravings, but his fame rests on his paintings, and the lion’s share of these—including the most important—belong to the Kunsthistorisches Museum, which rarely lends. This explains why the exhibition could only happen in Vienna, and why a city 570 miles from Brussels could celebrate Bruegel as if he were its native son.
Ordinarily Vienna’s twelve Bruegels fit into one big room. Mostly of a similar size and format, and sharing the same style, technique, and sensibility, these famous scenes of peasant revelry, popular games and customs, biblical history, and seasonal labor seem to belong to a single comprehensive cycle, like Giotto’s frescoes in Padua. This is an illusion. Framed and portable, each painting was designed to look at home wherever it ended up. The Bruegel Room at the Kunsthistorisches Museum is only a century old. When the museum opened in 1891, works by the artist were spread through the galleries of the so-called Northern Schools. That first hang was part of a reorganization of the Habsburg treasury carried out under Emperor Franz Joseph when he made his collections public. Natural specimens, together with ethnographic artifacts, were separated out for display in the Naturhistorisches Museum, which faces the Kunsthistorisches Museum with an identical façade. Into the latter went artworks tracing a genealogy from ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome through the Renaissance and beyond, with Old Master paintings at the apex.
The Bruegel Room was the brainchild of Gustav Glück, one of the museum’s early directors. Around 1911 he hung the Bruegels in the…
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