Master Ironist Pieter Bruegel the Elder at the Met

Written by Christian Viveros-Faune on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

been all that talk lately about the end of irony. Critics unhappy with the state
of contemporary culture have denounced the practice of saying one thing to express
its opposite as counterfeit, decadent, just this side of unpatriotic. Yet irony,
a pantry-stocked staple of American culture during the past century, enjoys
a distinguished pedigree that goes back to at least the Greeks.

As old as
the realization that reality does not always square with official truth, irony
in its most robust state makes its appearance precisely during times of crisis.
There is the biting sarcasm Rabelais used to skewer medieval scholasticism and
superstition in Gargantua and Pantagruel; the darkly exaggerated experiences
of modern war Celine set down in Journey to the End of Night; James Rosenquist’s
ur-ironical juxtaposition of a fighter jet and a tub of spaghetti in his Vietnam-era
masterpiece F-111. Irony, historical example teaches us, is the perfect
artistic trope for wartime. A monument to the persistence of human folly and
the impenetrability of truth in periods of uncertainty, the art of master ironists
is capable, in the words of British theater critic Kenneth Tynan, of repeatedly
grasping the critical high bar: to "Rouse Tempers," that is, "goad
and lacerate, raise whirlwinds."

We may count
ourselves lucky, then, to find among exhibitions on view in New York a rare
glimpse of the work of Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Best known for his affectionately
mocking paintings of peasant life in the Low Countries and for much-reproduced
allegorical works like The Tower of Babel, Bruegel achieved renown in
his time chiefly through a series of fantastically wild and caustic engravings.
These popular prints circulated as far as France and Italy, gaining him the
moniker of "the second Hieronymus Bosch," and prompting Giorgio Vasari,
the Renaissance’s great critic, to dub Bruegel "an excellent master."

Now, as
if to demonstrate modern irony’s continuity with the best art of the past,
the Metropolitan Museum of Art has assembled "Pieter Bruegel: Drawings
and Prints," the largest exhibition of the artist’s drawings to date
(50 of an existing 61) together with some 60 prints of his own design. Crowded
into three modest-sized rooms inside New York’s largest museum, these works
on paper redefine for the ages the phrase "cruel to be kind."

Very little
is known about Bruegel. The information he left behind consists of a few surviving
art works, his 1551 inscription in the Antwerp artist’s guild, a single
painting commission set down in a contract, his marriage to the daughter of
a painter who may have been his teacher and a certificate of death, dated 1569.
The fact that no one knows when or where Bruegel was born or how many works
he may have made during his lifetime has led one scholar to compare our idea
of his full artistic output with the notion of trying to conceive of a lake
on the basis of a small pond.

Yet we do
know a few things. Thanks to a two-and-a-half-page biography published by one
Karel van Mander in 1604, we know that Bruegel followed other Northern artists
into Italy in artistic pilgrimage. There, experts assume, he marveled at the
paintings produced by Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo and Titian–the last
two of whom were alive when Bruegel was in Rome in 1552. Having imbibed "the
Italian manner" like his most ambitious compatriots, Bruegel set about
recording a group of finely wrought landscapes as he moved down into Southern
Italy and Sicily. One drawing, though, Mountain Landscape with River and
, presents an invented scene that could provide clues to Bruegel’s
eventual jettisoning of "Italian" naturalism and perspective. An astoundingly
detailed scene of an expansive background of valleys and mountains done in red-brown
ink, the drawing is dotted with the activity of multiple travelers whom
Bruegel made antlike in their scattered, minuscule inconsequentiality.

He returned
from Italy around 1554 and settled in Antwerp, where he soon embarked on an
eight-year stretch as a designer of prints. Having no other steady source of
income, the married Bruegel began his most prolific phase of activity as a draftsman
for the engraver’s stone, a period that encompassed some 40 drawings, among
them the originals for his widely celebrated The Seven Deadly Sins and
The Seven Virtues. Having previously imitated the great Italian Renaissance
masters, Bruegel suddenly began producing what Vasari described as works full
of "fantasies, bizarre things, dreams, and imaginations." From painting
life, Bruegel dramatically turned to painting the ghoulies of the most fevered
crania, fiery hells and chaotic bedlams in which human endeavor is continually
mocked and embraced in all its rawness.

freely from Bosch in the popular The Seven Deadly Sins, Bruegel concocted
a world (not unlike ours) in which sins are repeated in an unbroken cycle. He
invented densely packed landscapes of vice, and provided each drawing with a
female personification of the sin portrayed, identified both by its attributes
and a Latin inscription. Gula (Gluttony), for example, appears drunk on the
back of a pig; Desidia (Sloth) rests her head on an ass’ haunches; Luxuria
(Lust) permits a demon to fondle her breast. Swirling around the individual
drawings is a portrait of collective depravity in vivid detail (defecation,
copulation, violence, torture of the worst sort) leavened by a nervy dose of
black humor. If a beneficent God was in the details for Italian painters, for
Bruegel so was the devil.

But however
allegorical Bruegel’s compositions turned out, the real world and its myriad
symbols, such as ships, mills and towns along with recognizable everyday characters
like priests, monks, farmers, merchants and fishermen, were never far behind.
Very much "personifications of the soul," Bruegel’s drawings
also teem with information about real life during the artist’s own rather
chaotic time. Alluding directly to the rapidly increasing wealth and power of
merchants in Antwerp, the problems of urban poverty, the greed of entrepreneurs
and their families, the value of labor versus the lash of idleness and, more
cryptically, the brutal repression of his fellow Flemings by the Spanish Counter-Reformation,
Bruegel demonstrates in many of his drawings a keen awareness of the social
and economic concerns of the day.

The drawings
of Bruegel’s that we are fortunate to have conserved clearly show the artist
working as if the world were in terminal crisis, and many of his contemporaries
believed it was. Apocalyptic imagery abounded in the Netherlands during Bruegel’s
time, abetted largely by the reign of terror of succeeding Catholic Spanish
governors, the most prominent of whom was the murderous Duke of Alva. Fear of
the Inquisition even reached into illuminated Italy, where the celebrated painter
Paolo Veronese was asked at trial: "Do you not know that in Germany and
other countries infested by heresy, it is habitual, by means of pictures full
of absurdities, to vilify and turn to ridicule the things of the Holy Catholic
Church, in order to teach false doctrine to ignorant people who have no common

was thus persuaded to couch his ironical asides in the language of cryptologists.
The monk and the whore, the soldier with a lizard’s tail, the burning towns,
the cardinal with a simian’s face naturally gave way to equally fanciful
but less direct imagery: a papal envoy emerges from an egg, a naked prisoner
rides a richly cloaked beast to the gallows, a monkey pulls down the pants of
a sleeping man and holds his nose ("Phew!"). The drawings come together
to create a spiritual worldview, a notion of man’s character as essentially
flawed and beyond repair, yet earthy, voluptuous, full of life. As the Roman
Pliny said of the mythical Greek painter Apelles, Bruegel "painted many
things that could not be painted." That he very often did so with a view
to providing a vigorous burlesque of the human condition is what still connects
him to us like a contemporary.

Bruegel the Elder: Drawings and Prints," through Dec. 2 at the Metropolitan
Museum of Art, 1000 5th Ave. (82nd St.), 535-7710.