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Spring 2010

On Bruegel

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Mark Stevens

I like to watch parents bring their children to see Bruegel’s The Harvesters. They invariably point out the dollhouse details. “Look at the farmers in the fields!” (Parents don’t use the word peasant.) “See the ships in the distance! And over there, a child is playing…” Around then I fantasize about becoming Roald Dahl and sidling up to one of their hothouse kids. “Pssst! Hey, you! Yes, you, Mozart. You want weird? Look at the peasant snoring under the tree. You want weirder? Check out his crotch! You want weirder still? He’s one of the best things at the Met.”

There are many figures in painting more strange, shocking, dramatic, and ugly than Bruegel’s lumpish peasant. But he has a special place in my affections, and I’ve watched him for thirty years. During much of that time he symbolized, for me, the troll in the dollhouse. The modern troll. Only a prototypically modern artist, and one courageously perverse, could have created this undainty, flung-about, raw, and oblivious figure. It pleased me that Bruegel, a master of detail, was also a master of reduction. Amidst the careful glory of his detail, he stripped the world—with the predatory glee of a modernist—of false, gentling, and conventional attributes.

The most celebrated strip-away, of course, was religion. God, in Bruegel, is no longer in the details; God is a detail. In The Procession to Calvary, Christ carries the cross almost unnoted in the crowd; and, in Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, every first-year art student nods knowingly when the professor, quoting Auden, points out that Icarus falls from the sky ignored and unseen. The religious withdrawal is more discreet in The Harvesters but no less telling: The village church does not preside over a fruitful landscape but is half-obscured by a fruit tree at the foot of which the peasant snores. (Adam asleep on the job.) Nothing else elevates the peasant, either; no consolations of genre, no picturesque conventions about a droll peasantry or fruitful labor, modify his exhaustion. Nor are there pleasantries of paint, handling and form. The ungainly pose is charmless. Bruegel scratches, as much as draws, his slovenly body and simian features.

I still relish something fierce and unsentimental in Bruegel’s observations, physical and metaphysical. I love his capture of the chilly winter light of Northern Europe, for example, and the mordant wit he brings to satire. (The Catholic procession inching, ant-like, up the Tower of Babel is a magnificent skewering.) And yet, my view of The Harvesters—and of Bruegel generally—has changed markedly. In The Harvesters my eye no longer goes to the sleeping peasant. Instead, it travels up the tree trunk to that extraordinary and knotty smudge of confusion high in the leaves, a smudging that is so radically imprecise; the branches seem to intertwine in a tangle with the branches of other trees in the background. This cloudy smear partially obscures the church and floats, strangely, before the great opening beyond to plain, sea, and sky.

I don’t know the conservation history of The Harvesters, but Bruegel probably did not intend a smear of such clotted darkness; time has added its confusions. I have no doubt, however, that he did intend a strange and tangled ambiguity in the floating tree forms. And it is the ambiguities of Bruegel that, in a sensibility so confident and assertive, now seem remarkable to me. He painted the human back, as well as its front, repeatedly. He mocked Catholic hubris in his Babel painting, yet the Tower he concocted is also a masterpiece of fantasy. (I’d love to inch up its side.) He insisted upon the meltingly faraway view as well as the peasant slurping soup. And in a single painting he depicted more than one hundred Netherlandish proverbs. Proverbs, of course, are supposed to slice through the world’s knots, providing moments of glinting insight and clarity. Bruegel’s painting—a proverb about proverbs—turns such clarity into a cacophonous visual babble.

Most important of all, Bruegel’s way of shifting scale and perspective in a single picture creates the sensation of a world that may be precise in its parts but is blurry in the altogether. In the 1950s, painters and critics liked to express particular admiration for the pioneers of a developing style or outlook rather than for successors of more settled mastery; they preferred a Giotto or Piero to a Raphael. There is some of that probing, betwixt-and-between power in Bruegel, but less because he has medieval as well as modern aspects than because he seems certain only that certainty is an illusion. Too modern an observation? Bruegel would, I’m quite sure, see its vanity.


Mark Stevens is the co-author, with Annalyn Swan, of de Kooning: An American Master. The two of them are now working on a biography of Francis Bacon.
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