Bruegel is our superstar of the secular. Every year, legions of fans flock to Vienna to experience Bruegel’s depictions of glorious vulgarity, the common man celebrated with uncommon virtuosity and vision, allowing 450 years to dissolve in the eyes of the modern viewer. Less appreciated is the fact that he was a brilliant media theorist. He was the last great artist trained in the three painting techniques of the late medieval Netherlands: illumination, oil on panel, and tempera on canvas (tüchlein). Against the revolutionary backdrop of the 1560s, he tempered the outmoded techniques, small and large, fine and rough, in the modern medium of oil. The stunning results – the Peasants and Seasons – represent a seismic shift in painting practice. Bruegel theorized the new art object by staging ingenious modal jokes in his drawings and paintings that remained hidden for centuries. He merits extensive treatment in the material (‘medial’) and conceptual histories of art and science; but a book on his physical painting technique, a necessary foundation for medial (and other) approaches to Bruegel, has been wanting.
The Brueg[H]el Phenomenon – part of the high-quality Scientia Artisseries published by the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage in Brussels (KIK-IRPA) – represents the culmination of years of research by Christina Currie and Dominique Allart at the KIK-IRPA and the University of Liège, along with the collaboration of nineteen museums and private collections. Last year, Currie and Allart confirmed (to the public’s dismay) that Bruegel’s famous Fall of Icarus in Brussels is a copy after a lost original. Previously, in 2001, they contributed to the experimental Brueghel Enterprises exhibition at Maastricht and Brussels masterminded by Peter van den Brink, a project that generated new questions about Bruegel’s creative process. For the new project, the authors had two objectives: to characterize Bruegel the Elder’s painting technique and lost graphic material, and to ‘comprehensively survey the [copying] procedures and materials’ of Pieter Brueghel the Younger, who launched his father’s sought-after compositions into the seventeenth century.
The resulting three-volume box set, is a milestone. Hundreds of high-resolution photographs, infrared reflectograms and x-radiographs illustrate Currie and Allart’s riveting state-of-the-art detective journey across and beneath painted surfaces. Until now, no one has brought into such sharp focus the indices of Bruegel’s artistic virtuosity. The authors deliver, systematically and for the first time, detailed explanations of his sequence of painting (he used reserves, in an unorthodox fashion), his underdrawings (which vary from neat to sketchy), and his wet-in-wet and wet-in-dry techniques. Excellent details highlight Bruegel’s bold visual effects (previously characterized, as the authors point out, by Lorne Campbell in the 2002 exhibition catalogue Art in the Making. Underdrawing in Renaissance Painting) – for example, swift finger flicks, blotting with a cloth, and turning the brush to use the point of the handle to draw fabric patterns in soft paint.
Volume One starts with a series of historical mini-essays, including a survey of signatures and inscribed dates in the paintings of Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Younger. This is followed by the analysis of Bruegel the Elder’s painting technique in four case studies: The Census at Bethlehem (Brussels), The Sermon of St. John the Baptist (Budapest), Winter Landscape with Bird Trap (Brussels), and The Adoration of the Magi (Winterthur). The core of the set is a seventy-page reassessment of Bruegel the Elder’s painting technique on panel, subdivided into topics: support, preparatory layers, underdrawings, painting sequence, and brushwork. Surprises emerge – for example, the Winterthur Adoration of the Magi is dated 1563, not 1567; and the portentous bird trap in Winter Landscape with Bird Trap is not found in the underdrawing.
Volume Two investigates ten paintings by Pieter Brueghel the Younger. Exceptional cases include a unique copy after his father’s private masterpiece, Magpie on the Gallows, and copies of a lost Crucifixion, probably by Bruegel the Elder. Finally, Volume Three describes Brueghel the Younger’s technique and copying practice. A fascinating chapter, “Understanding the Father Through the Son: Lost Secrets of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Working Practice,” uses Brueghel the Younger’s copying strategies to reconstruct his father’s lost preparatory materials and design procedures. For instance, Currie and Allart deduce that Brueghel the Younger had access to compositional drawings and intermediary cartoons (now lost) that his father made for figure groups and transferred to panel using pouncing. In an important sub-chapter on model drawings and preparatory cartoons in the Southern Netherlands, the authors propose the influence (on the young Bruegel) of painter and tapestry designer Pieter Coecke van Aelst, whose transfer techniques included cartoons (examined by Linda Jansen). The link to the Brussels tapestry tradition, first proposed by Aby Warbug and Gustav Glück, has been researched by Joost Vander Auwera. Currie and Allart emphasize that experimentation characterizes all of Bruegel’s creative processes: after transferring groups of figures to larger panels, he modified compositions by trial and error to the last lively brushstroke.
Bruegel’s extant graphic oeuvre is a sliver of his original output. In addition, the sensational rediscovery, in 2010, ofThe Wine of St. Martin’s Day (Prado) drew attention to his mastery of the old Netherlandish practice of glue-size tempera painting on canvas ( tüchlein), the aqueous antecedent of the modern canvas. These quick, ephemeral wall hangings were painted with brilliant, opaque colors. Bruegel’s four surviving temperas provide only pale shadows of once-bright pictures (even the terse Parable of the Blind). Although Currie and Allart did not examine the Parable of the Blind and other tüchleinpaintings and thus say little about them, it would be interesting to compare Bruegel’s graphic (and vivid, comic) style in tempera and oil, for Gustav Glück suggested years ago that the standard dimensions of Bruegel’s monumental oil paintings on panel (c. 120 x 165 cm) stem from tüchlein painting. Watercolor and gouache, direct techniques, were the media of lost preparatory materials, especially colored cartoons. The Prado website describes the re-discovered tüchlein, and the painting was published in The Burlington Magazine by Pilar Silva Maroto, head of the Prado research team, and by Manfred Sellink, director of the Bruges museums, in December 2011 as well as in a booklet by Silva Maroto, Sellink and Elisa Mora, Pieter Bruegel el Viejo. El vino de la fiesta de San Martin, published by the Prado.
Currie and Allart left no stone unturned: beyond the standard investigative techniques (infrared, x-radiography, etc) they made tracings of compositions onto transparent films and tried out historical transfer methods, including pouncing (all catalogued in appendices). They even registered a fingerprint – pressed by the artist into a daub of thin, dark paint to depict a round hole in the ice – with the chief Superintendant of the Liège Police, in a resourceful attempt to settle old doubts about the authenticity of the Winter Landscape with Bird Trap (the print wasn’t clear enough).
Detective story and visual archive, the ‘Bruegel box’ is now the standard reference on the technique and copying practices of Pieter Bruegel and his first-born son. It makes a wonderful gift too – a jewel-box for anyone who loves Bruegel. And who doesn’t?