So far this in this series of posts celebrating the Bruegel room in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, I have looked at Bruegel’s paintings of the seasons and the works which share a preoccupation with religion, politics and war. In this final post I want to explore examples of the kind of work that resulted in the artist coming to be known, misleadingly, as ‘Peasant Bruegel’.
Though he was held in high regard in his own lifetime, Pieter Bruegel the Elder was, thereafter, largely neglected until the 20th century. In large part, this was due to the account of his life and work provided by his first biographer, soon after he had died. According to this account, Bruegel was above all what we would now call a naive artist, a ‘humorous’ painter of peasant life. So the artist came to be known as ‘Peasant’ Bruegel.
In later centuries, when the classical style of painting was seen as embodying the highest values in art, so Bruegel’s standing fell. But, in the 20th century changes in art-historical analysis led to a reassessment. Rather than being dismissed as a simple and naive painter of low life subjects, Bruegel increasingly came to be seen as a subtle and refined artist, one of the greatest of his own time – or of any time.
The Bruegel room in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum contains four particular paintings of the kind which led to the artist’s work being dismissed as not worthy of serious consideration.
This is how children played before screens came to occupy so many waking hours (and the way many must still play around the world). Bruegel’s painting must be one of the most comprehensive compilations of pre-modern children’s games ever created, depicting more than 230 children playing 83 different games – all delineated in tiny, detailed scenes.
One of the most instantly recognizable vignettes to modern eyes shows two children bowling hoops, while behind them a girl whoops into a barrel to hear the echo. If childhood is – as we are told by historians and sociologists – a modern invention, this painting would seem to suggest that children still found opportunities for play in the 16th century.
Here, a couple of lads are riding a barrel – an echo, perhaps, of modern skateboarding. Most of the games depicted show simple toys, or sports and games that could be played outdoors without any equipment. Down in the bottom left corner, for instance, they’re playing with rag dolls, jacks or five stones, a spinning top and a yo-yo; blowing bubbles, and enjoying a game of blind man’s buff.
It’s not always clear whether it is children or adults that are playing since the children look like small adults, while many of the games appear to be an imitation of events and rituals in the adult world. In the centre of the painting, a mock wedding is taking place.
With solemn faces, children accompany the girl-bride, who wears a crown.
Near the entrance to the brown building is another procession in which children with covered heads follow the leader, who carries a blue blanket, pretending it is a baby on the way to its christening.
There is one interpretation of this picture which sees it, not as a folkloric inventory, but as a moralistic warning to adults not to fritter away their lives as if it were a game. This is suggested, some argue, by the serious faces on the kids, most of whom don’t particularly look as if they are enjoying themselves.
In an interesting essay available on the web, Amy Orrock notes that in terms of its composition, Children’s Games can be compared to Netherlandish Proverbs (seen this summer in Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie) and The Battle Between Carnival and Lent (Vienna). Netherlandish Proverbs is populated by wayward villagers acting out popular proverbial sayings while The Battle Between Carnival and Lent depicts traditional customs of the Carnival period in an urban square. Ruled by proverbial fools, carnival revellers, and children respectively, ‘all three panels present worlds that are familiar but somehow upside-down, their elevated viewpoints and scurrying protagonists connecting them to the classical notion of the Theatrum Mundi, in which man’s foolish actions were contemplated from above.’
But Orrock sees something different going on in the picture: less moralistic, more positive. If some writers of the seventeenth century used children’s games to symbolize the weaknesses of mankind, there were also other texts published in the sixteenth century which presented the opposite view. For humanists such as Erasmus, game playing was seen as a vital component of childhood and a positive force which would encourage children to love learning. This view was epitomized in Erasmus’s statement: ‘I’m not sure anything is learned better than what is learned as a game.’
For Bruegel, with his interest in human nature, children’s games were a perfect subject, revealing humanity in miniature.
The Fight Between Carnival and Lent
Carnival: a three day festival of insatiable eating, drinking and carousing that preceded the forty days of Lent, a period of penitence when the pious drank only water, ate little but fish, and abstained from all pleasure.
Bruegel’s picture gives us a panoramic bird’s eye view of an urban market place where a mock battle is taking place, with the piety of Lent pitted against the revelry of Carnival. The tavern confronts the Church, with the picture divided down the middle: the tavern, gluttony, dance and excess on the left is set against Lent’s self-denial and sobriety and the church to the right.
Read from top to bottom, the picture is also a calendar: as two streams of people approach the main square from the left and the right, Bruegel depicts various celebrations and religious rituals which would customarily take place between epiphany and the end of Lent. With great inventiveness Bruegel has merged time and space into one event.
The portly Lord of the Carnival, sits astride a barrel with saucepans as stirrups, a pie on his head and a spit with a roasted suckling pig in his hand. The knives on his belt indicate that he is a butcher by trade. He is being pushed forward by a clown and followed by masked men carrying musical instruments, and a figure who balances on his or her head a table groaning with waffles, typical eaten at Flemish carnivals.
The Lord of the Carnival is ready to joust with Lent, a scrawny creature clad in mourning and seated on an uncomfortable prayer stool. Lent confronts Carnival’s rich holiday food wielding a baker’s paddle holding two meagre herrings. The beehive on Lent’s head is an allusion to the honey that it was permitted to eat on fast days.
Behind the Lord of the Carnival, masked revellers consume waffles, drink beer and dance wildly. A woman is grills waffles over a wood fire, while one of the men gambling at dice has tied three waffles to his head.
But there was more to Carnival than meat and making merry: the season also represented a rare opportunity to overturn the social hierarchy and invert norms of behaviour. Often done under the cover of anonymity (hence the dressing up and the masks in the picture), this gave individuals a brief moment of freedom to indulge in chaotic displays of anarchic behaviour that temporarily undermined the sanctimony and prudishness of daily life through the rest of the year.
In front of the tavern, a popular play of the time is being performed by a troupe of travelling players, watched by drunken people inside the inn. The play has been identified as The Dirty Bride, a popular farce mocking the love of a rustic couple.
Mingling with the crowds are groups of people with disabilities: crossing the street we see a band of amputees who have come out to beg, while behind them, outside another inn, a procession of lepers winds past. Bruegel is documenting the practice of giving alms to beggars during this period of the year – as well as the idea of Carnival as a time when all forms of hierarchy and discrimination were overturned.
Everywhere, people dance and there is music – played on simple instruments. Someone bangs out a rhythm on a kitchen grill, an old lady beats a jug covered by leather to amplify the sound with a wooden spoon, while a man plays the bagpipes.
Meanwhile, opposite the tavern, on Lent’s side of the picture is the church, from which worshippers spill out, some carrying their own chairs. Just inside the church we can glimpse a statue that has been covered as was customary during Lent when all works of art in church were covered until Easter Sunday – brought back to life, it was said, like Christ himself.
Lent was a time for cleansing – not just of the soul within, but of exterior things, too. A woman cleans her windows, while a man carries a bucket of water with a brush in it.
Lent was a time for restraint. All the things that were enjoyed during Carnival were abandoned: meat, eggs, dairy products, alcohol and sex were all to be given up. Fish replaced meat.
In contrast with the boisterous left side of the picture, the right side is filled with piety and charity. orderly processions. A wealthy merchant leads a procession of black-clothed nuns from the front portal of the church, distributing alms to the waiting poor and lame. A fishwife does a thriving trade beside the well.
Nearby, a barefoot woman hauls a wooden cart that contains a corpse wrapped in sackcloth. The corpse seems short – perhaps the body of a child – and the tree stump just beside it suggests that this might be an individual cut down in their youth.
The striking aspect of Bruegel’s picture is that rather than hitting the viewer with a didactic moral message as other artists of his time might, he gives us an even-handed treatment of both Lent and Carnival. There is no obvious winner in this fight. Carnival may be rowdy but it is life affirming, just as Lent, while more strait-laced, displays compassion. Bruegel presents the two aspects of life impartially, celebrating and mocking at the same time.
In a discussion of the painting on BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time, Melvyn Bragg spoke of Bruegel’s egalitarian approach: everyone is given equal space in the painting, whether rich burgher or peasant. In response, another panel member noted that Bruegel started out as printmaker – perhaps the most democratic art form, adding that ‘when he was in Rome, Bruegel turned his back on the Colosseum and drew the street.’
The Peasant Wedding
Bruegel’s ‘peasant’ pictures include farmers, rural merchants, itinerant monks and musicians as well as peasant labourers. But in an age when artists concentrated on Biblical stories and classical myths, and showed very little
interest in portraying rustic life, Bruegel’s down-to-earth subject matter was startling.
In his early paintings, such as Children’s Games or Netherlandish Proverbs, he perhaps chose these subjects because they suited his aim of satirizing of human foibles. But in his later works the satire was stripped away, and Bruegel showed the world just as it was. The final three paintings in the Bruegel room of the Kunsthistorisches Museum are brilliant examples of this – among the last works he ever painted.
Considered by many to be the quintessential example of ‘Peasant Bruegel’, The Peasant Wedding is , writes William Dello Russo, ‘a distillation of the features that make his art both great and unmistakable.’
It looks like a snapshot, but is carefully composed. Bruegel dispenses with any allegorical meaning, instead giving us a realistic record of a Flemish peasant wedding, taking place in a simple setting – a barn, perhaps – where the bride sits with a slightly dazed expression in front of a green tapestry, a paper crown hanging above her head. The bridegroom is not present at the wedding feast, in accordance with Flemish custom.
There is so much observational detail here. In the foreground a red-capped child likes her fingers with evident pleasure. She has taken a bite out of her piece of bread. Someone has stuck a peacock feather in her cap for the special day.
Behind her a man fills a jug with more beer.
The detail of the child licking her lips, or that of the men around the table spooning soup into their mouth or pouring a jug of ale down their neck are beautifully observed, but may seem unremarkable. However, it was a fundamental given in Bruegel’s time that people, especially nobles and burgher families, should not be portrayed in the act of eating. Bruegel had no such inhibition, refusing a concept of art in which man was idealized and instead showing individuals with spoons in their mouths and jugs to their lips.
Those gathered around the banquet table are not only peasants – there’s a lawyer with a mortar-board, the lord of the manor, and a Franciscan monk in conversation with a well-dressed man with a beard sitting in the corner on an upturned barrel.
Some believe that this is a self-portrait of the artist, who reportedly liked to invite himself to festivities such as this in order to draw them from life. There’s also a fine portrait of a wolf hound, peering from under the table.
I can’t think of any other painting I’ve seen that is so full of life – and noise. You can hear the roar of conversation, the voices well-oiled with beer shouting for more. A pair of musicians are contributing to the racket by playing their bagpipes. It’s just like any wedding party you’ve ever attended.
The dishes of porridge are being unceremoniously carried in on an unhinged door. So that’s soup, bread, porridge and gallons of ale. Everything is utterly simple – and very real.
What I admire most about this painting is the strikingly dynamic posture of the men carrying in the plates of food, and especially the captured movement of the guest handing the plates down the banquet table. Movement like this is captured at events like this these days on cameras and smartphones.
The Peasant and the Nest Robber
Unfortunately, this painting, which is perhaps Bruegel’s most mysterious, was not on show when we visited the Kunsthistorisches Museum (I think it had been removed in preparation for it being loaned to the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam).
A small painting, it portrays two figures whose clothing identifies them as peasants. In the foreground, a man carries a large stick, and as he strides towards the viewer he glances to his right and points at the second man, who hangs precariously from the branch of a tree, his hat falling behind him as he reaches for the eggs in a bird’s nest.
On the right there is an expanse of water, and it is only if you look long enough at the painting that you realise that the water also stretches across the foreground and the peasant is about to fall into it. One foot is already over the edge of the bank and as he steps forward the weight of his body will propel him into the water.
But what does it mean? In a lengthy discussion of the painting’s possible meanings here one suggestion is that Bruegel’s purpose was to picture the danger of being headstrong and certain you are right by illustrating a familiar verse of the time:
A fool may tumble painfully
Who climbs for nests upon a tree
Or seeks a road where none is found.
So the man who is pointing out the folly of the nest robber who has climbed too high and is about to fall is himself oblivious of the fact that he is also an instant from disaster.
The Peasant Dance
This painting may have been intended as a companion piece to The Peasant Wedding. It certainly shares that painting’s detailed observation and dynamic composition. It portrays the opening dance of a country fair – a traditional leaping dance performed by two couples before the general dance gets under way.
There are two things I find striking about this painting. One is the dynamic sense of the central couple’s movement into central space of the dance – they enter eagerly with lusty energy rather than elegant movement. The other remarkable feature of the work is its unusual cropping (which again makes me think of a modern photograph).
As the couple in foreground rush to join the dance they are momentarily distracted by a scene on the far left – a beggar approaches a table, reaching out his hand for a contribution while a man on the opposite side of the table gestures for him to go away. The beggar is cropped out of the frame – we only see his arm and his hand, palm upwards, reaching towards those seated at the table.
On the right we see that the music is being provided once again by a man playing the bagpipes, his face puffed like the bag between his arms. He seems unaware of the admiring young man at his elbow, who, in rapt attention, is learning how to play the difficult instrument. The jug the
young man rests on his knee is meant to be passed around the table, but for the moment it is forgotten. To the right of the bagpiper, in a delightful study, two children join hands and dance.
There is nothing here that is condescending or humorous for the sake of it: just real life, real feelings and emotions. We could be at a dance in any town or village, anywhere in the world. It’s timeless.
After the experience of the Bruegel room it was difficult to focus on anything else, but we walked over to the Albertina where we saw a pretty stunning exhibition of masterpieces by artists such as Picasso, Matisse, Nolde and Kirchner in a new gallery that houses a collection donated recently by Herbert and Rita Batliner. What we didn’t see ( I expect you have to put in a special request) was Bruegel’s great etching, The Painter and the Connoisseur. Some reckon this is a self portrait. True or not, it’s certainly a delicious comment on the relationship between an artist and his patron.
With brush poised in his right hand, the artist stares intently at the picture before him. His concentration is unwavering while in the act of creation. Behind him stands his patron, captivated by the picture we can’t see. But what does he see? Art or investment? His hand reaches for his coin purse as he seeks to acquire the picture. Unlike the painter, the connoisseur’s sight is weak. He requires spectacles.
- In pursuit of Bruegel: the full story