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Spring 2010

On Bruegel

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T. J. Clark

How deep is Bruegel’s pessimism? I guess the question is inseparable from that of his relation to Christianity. (He was no fool: the question is insoluble.) And from the issue of comedy. How much was horror played for laughs? Does laughter take the edge off things?

Consider the Triumph of Death in Madrid. How common a subject was it in Bruegel’s time? And where does the title come from? Of course the basic idea stems from the world of late-medieval prints and wall painting—the last time I saw it, the painting resonated immediately with a Dance of Death I had seen a fortnight before in the parish church at La Ferté-Loupière. But was not Bruegel aware that in turning a Dance of Death into a panorama of Death’s final solution—a disciplined army carrying out a scorched earth policy—he was steering into a different, more dangerous world? This is Hell, certainly, but also Last Judg-ment—with now the dead coming out of their graves not to accept reward or punishment but simply to take revenge on the living. In a way that seems typical, Bruegel insists on the closeness of the story he is telling to that of Christian resurrection of the body. Twice he shows members of the skeleton crew busily digging up the coffins of their comrades, and right at the center of the painting, in the mid-background, is a skeleton stepping from his grave (next to a horrible, blood-red filigree cross: signs of Christian burial are swallowed in the general tide of malignancy).

The skeletons are human. They are excited, eager, well-drilled, mechanical, patient, vindictive, cheaply satirical (especially when faced with courtly love), and also occasionally despairing, tired of the monotonous, one-sided game. At the stern of a ship of death to the left is a skeleton sitting disconsolately with one heel on the ice. Here if anywhere is the limit case of Bruegel’s despair. Even the work of murder gets boring, and one or two killers fall out of line. What’s the use, even of mortality?

It is not quite right to call Death’s soldiers skeletons. Some have desiccated flesh still clinging to their midriffs. And it looks as though they see the enemy as not merely the living, but also the too recently dead—the too fleshy, with too much of this world about them. Else what is the point of their dragging off corpses lying at rest in their open coffins, as seems to be happening in the center foreground? (What is the meaning of the sheaves of grain pillowing these recent corpses’ heads?) Why does the skeleton closest to us bother to slit the throat of an unresisting character—he looks lifeless to me—already wearing a shroud? Death does not like clothes, maybe; he does not like any kind of bodily envelope, natural or artificial. He’ll enforce the bare minimum.

Hell is an afterthought in the Triumph of Death, almost as if it were a concession to Bosch-type taste. Torture takes too much time. Demons appear round the edges of the black castle-kiosk stage center, but they and their building look flimsy, like a carnival float. Perhaps the coffin-tunnel over to the right leads to an underworld (though its floor seems level), but there is nothing to indicate what the darkness contains. The structure looks like a holding pen. The living appear to be streaming into it of their own free will, thinking it a way out, or at least a change. Death as we see it is done familiarly, with knives and swords. Skeletons are ordinary executioners. The hills are provided with a few more gibbets than usual. Smoke and fire on the horizon do not seem to promise a plunge into a Boschian pit: they just indicate—the signs would have been commonplace—that war is everywhere.

Two Deaths in the distance are busily felling trees. (Photosynthesis is uncongenial to them. Brown and yellow are their colors.) A skeleton sprouts from a clock-face on a building, its bony finger pointing at 1. A naked man is chased by starving dogs, and seems to be trying to shield his privates with one hand. Is it modesty, or an awareness that this is where they will start? What will the skeletons do with the splintered and scattered bones in evidence at the foot of the gibbets? Reassemble them? Or are some deaths —those administered ordinarily, long before the army arrived—too total for even Death to reanimate?

Obviously the Triumph of Death is an exception in Bruegel’s work. It is not one of his central synoptic masterpieces, like Dark Day in Vienna or Return of the Herd (where traps and gibbets are important) or Tower of Babel. Even the Massacre of the Innocents is in the end more balanced. Troops come, children scream, winter won’t last forever. Life asserts itself in Bruegel —of course it does. Couples fall to dancing next to the gallows, lepers or blind men pick themselves up and move on, Mad Meg goes looting to the very gates of Hell. And yet, for me, it is Bruegel’s sense of what life asserts itself against—his view of life’s opposite, held without the least hint of redemption or futurity, and his ability to show the opposite threaded through the most ordinary piece of human business —that is the key to his power.


T. J. Clark is the author of Farewell to an Idea, The Sight of Death, and many other books about art. He is now finishing a book about Picasso.
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