Bruegel’s Islands of Consciousness

Not so long ago, I was wandering the glorious halls of the Capodimonte museum in Naples, delirious like a child over having the museum practically all to myself (such is the case with the museums in Naples), when I was stopped by two very beautifully crafted paintings appearing in the left corner of my eye, “The Misanthrope” and the “Blind Leading the Blind” by Bruegel. I am not sure if there is anything quite like coming across a Bruegel painting when visiting a museum, being both very poignant and invigorating for the eye and mind at the same time. There are times when I am just exhausted from seeing so many famous paintings and crumbling fragments and “formal concerns.” Coming across a panel of such perfectly sustained, fragrant colors that are hundreds of years old, with so many details to linger over and a continually relevant life theme to ponder, is perhaps art absorption at its dearest and finest. All sounds around me went faint as I heard my blood pulsing and my heart aching; the goosebumps finally overwhelmed me, turning me into one big slushy mess of an artist-tourist who would have to try to put her life back together.

The Blind Leading the Blind, 1568 – please click on all images for larger viewing
Update: since posting, I was sent this video interpretation of Bruegel’s painting created by Nir Nadler and Chaja Hertog, a triptych compilation of figures set in the misty, haunting landscape of Holland in a focus which ranges from sharp to foggy. A beautiful adaptation.

The Misanthrope, 1568 – A ragged figure in a glass globe is cutting the purse strings of an old man wearing a dark habit. Under the picture are the words: “Since the world is so unfaithful, I am in mourning.”

When I was a child, I used to love looking at Bruegel’s painting of the Hunters in the Snow. That snow looked just as real and cold as snow, and I longed to get out there with the other skaters in what seemed a perfect winter wonderland of paint. The hunters, however, gave me a shudder of something with a different, inexplicable quality of cold. Still today, I feel the same in looking at this painting, preferring the skaters over the hunters, having learned a bit more about that second kind of chill.

The Hunters in the Snow, 1565

As for the painting Dulle Griet, also known as Mad Meg, I am relieved I learned about it as an adult, for the nightmare probability is quite high from viewing such a magnificent painting like this. Mad Meg is the Anglicized version of Dulle Griet, a peasant woman figure of Flemish folklore who leads an army of women to pillage Hell, wearing an apron and armed with rough language and tools of male aggression. She is also the subject of a 1640s painting by Flemish painter David Teniers the Younger, and she appears as a character in Caryl Churchill’s Play “Top Girls” (1982), where she recounts her invasion of Hell: “I’d had enough, I was mad, I hate the bastards. I come out my front door that morning and shout till my neighbors come out and I said, “Come on, we’re going where the evil come from and pay the bastards out.'” (Churchill, 28).

Dulle Griet, 1562

But mostly, Bruegel created paintings that richly suggest that we stop to reflect, no matter if we are contemplating ice skaters, hunters, crucifixions, demonic peasant women or Icarus falling from the sky. As W.H. Auden explains in his poem, great masters such as Bruegel show how most people are too oblivious to care.

“Musée des Beaux Arts”

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
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.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, 1558

Aldous Huxley wrote a very interesting essay on Brueghel which was circulating around on facebook recently, in which he prefaces his thoughts on Brueghel with an interesting opinion on the modern art values of his day. I have written before about my disappointment in the fact that current artmaking seems to eschew emotional content, any narrative and any focus on any real subject matter, other than the artist’s “formal concerns.” Thus, I found I could not agree more when Huxley writes about the value of feelings in painting,

One feeling is excited by another. Our faculties work best in a congenial emotional atmosphere.

I also enjoyed his discussion about the value of “the sentiment of the buttocks”:

The contemporary fashion is to admire beyond all others the painter who can concentrate on the formal side of his art and produce pictures which are entirely devoid of literature. Old Renoir’s apophthegm, “Un peintre, voyez-vous, qui a le sentiment du téton et des fesses, est un homme sauvé,” is considered by the purists suspiciously latitudinarian. A painter who has the sentiment of the pap and the buttocks is a painter who portrays real models with gusto. Your pure aesthete should only have a feeling for hemispheres, curved lines and surfaces. But this “sentiment of the buttocks” is common to all good painters. It is the lowest common measure of the whole profession. It is possible, like Mantegna, to have a passionate feeling for all that is solid, and at the same time to be a stoic philosopher and a hero-worshiper; possible, with Michelangelo, to have a complete realization of breasts and also an interest in the soul or, like Rubens, to have a sentiment for human greatness as well as for human rumps. The greater includes the less; great dramatic or reflective painters know everything that the aestheticians who paint geometrical pictures, apples or buttocks know, and a great deal more besides. What they have to say about formal relations, though important, is only a part of what they have to express. The contemporary insistence on form to the exclusion of everything else is an absurdity. So was the older insistence on exact imitation and sentiment to the exclusion of form. There need be no exclusions. In spite of the single name, there are many different kinds of painters and all of them, with the exception of those who cannot paint, and those whose minds are trivial, vulgar and tedious, have a right to exist.

And just a bit later he writes,

Every good painter invents a new way of painting. Is this man a competent painter? Has he something to say, is he genuine? These are the questions a critic must ask himself. Not, Does he conform with my theory of imitation, or distortion, or moral purity, or significant form?

Like Auden, Huxley also recognized the tremendous impact Bruegel creates by presenting a scene of “regular” people in which the mourners of an “important” tragedy go unnoticed, discussing it particularly in The Procession to Calvary (1564):

“Breughel… represents the scene as it would have appeared to any casual spectator on the road to Golgotha on a certain spring morning in the year 33 A.D. Other artists have pretended to be angels, painting the scene with a knowledge of its significance. But Brueghel resolutely remains a human onlooker. What he shows is a crowd of people walking briskly in holiday joyfulness up the slopes of a hill. On the top of the hill, which is seen in the middle distance on the right, are two crosses with thieves fastened to them, and between them a little hole in the ground in which another cross is soon to be planted. Round the crosses, on the bare hill top stands a ring of people, who have come out with their picnic baskets to look on at the free entertainment offered by the ministers of justice. Those who have already taken their stand round the crosses are the prudent ones; in these days we should see them with camp stools and thermos flasks, six hours ahead of time, in the vanguard of the queue for a Melba night at Covent Garden…

That eager, tremulous, lascivious interest in blood and beastliness which in these more civilized days we can only satisfy at one remove from reality in the pages of our newspapers, was franklier indulged in Brueghel’s day; the naïve ingenuous brute in man was less sophisticated, was given longer rope, and joyously barks and wags its tail round the appointed victim. Seen thus, impassively, from the outside, the tragedy does not purge or uplift; it appalls and makes desperate; or it may even inspire a kind of gruesome mirth. The same situation may often be either tragic or comic, according as it is seen through the eyes of those who suffer or those who look on. (Shift the point of vision a little and Macbeth could be paraphrased as a roaring farce.) Breughel makes a concession to the high tragic convention by placing in the foreground of his picture a little group made up of the holy women weeping and wringing their hands. They stand quite apart from the other figures in the picture and are fundamentally out of harmony with them, being painted in the style of Roger van der Weyden. A little oasis of passionate spirituality, an island of consciousness and comprehension in the midst of the pervading stupidity and brutishness. Why Breughel put them into his picture is difficult to guess; perhaps for the benefit of the conventionally religious, perhaps out of respect for tradition; or perhaps he found his own creation too depressing and added this noble irrelevance to reassure himself.”

You can read the rest of Huxley’s essay here. No need to rush off, though, as each image below is an “island of consciousness” well worth visiting.


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