This volume offers a lively record of the proceedings of an international symposium held at the Robert Hull Fleming Museum of the University of Vermont in March, 2004. The topical focus of the symposium was Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s 1610 copy (owned by Adele Klapper and concurrently on exhibition at the Fleming Museum) of his father’s famous Netherlandish Proverbs of 1559. Contributors included Alan Dundes, Malcolm Jones, David Kunzle, Mark A. Meadow, Wolfgang Mieder, Yoko Mori, and Margaret A. Sullivan.
In his paper, ‘How Far Does the Apple Fall from the Tree?’, Alan Dundes, a folklorist from Berkeley, attempts a psychoanalytical interpretation of Bruegel the Elder’s Netherlandish Proverbs , and along the way takes critical aim at contemporary art historical analyses of the work. He complains of recent scholarly efforts, most importantly that of Margaret Sullivan, to locate the painting’s subject matter in the humanist culture of the sixteenth-century. He finds the effort to reconstruct the potential audience of the painting ‘a curious exercise in speculative reception theory,'(17) and suggests that it is reminiscent of ”gesunkenes Kulturgut’ theory, an elitist notion that basically felt that proverbs and other folklore was (sic) much too artful and ingenious to have been created by ignorant, illiterate peasants.’ (18) He goes on to explain that proverbs culled from classical sources are themselves drawn from the historically vague sources of folklore. But, of course, these observations completely miss the point of Sullivan’s art historicalproject. The art historian is concerned with understanding what Bruegel’s painting may have meant to its original audience, its social meanings, and the fact, therefore, that sixteenth-century humanists may have been wrong about the origins of the proverbs they cherished and collected as nuggets of ancient wisdom is irrelevant to the historian of sixteenth-century culture. The elitist sensibility associated with thegesunkenes Kulturgut theory, therefore, cannot be fairly ascribed to Sullivan, for she is neither assuming nor seeking to discover the ultimate social roots of proverbs, but rather the meanings which they held for sixteenth-century northern humanist culture.
A related observation can be made of psychoanalytical (Freudian) interpretations of the sort undertaken by Dundes. They clearly have their own interest and value, but they do not generate the kind of historical, socially constructed meanings with which art historians are generally concerned. Because Freudian interpretations want to understand artworks in terms of the artist’s (self) expression of subconscious motivations that enjoy a universal and timeless relevance, they abstract both artwork and artist from their specific social context. Dundes’s own analysis is a case in point as he goes on to accumulate motifs from many of Bruegel’s images that suggest anal-erotic tendencies. As evidence, he points to the artist’s interest in collecting (e.g., proverbs and children’s games), his pronounced interest in the backsides of things and bodies, his numerous images of defecation, and his frequent use of the color brown. As interesting as such a discussion can be, however, it could only gain historical interest if it were to be integrally related to Renaissance habits of thought and symbolism.
Margaret Sullivan’s paper ‘Muti Magistri (Silent Teachers),’ explores the issues of how Pieter the Younger acquired knowledge of his father’s art, and what can be learned about the Elder’s working process by comparing his panel with his son’s copies. The fact that some of the motifs in the Elder’s panel either differ from, or do not appear at all in his son’s copies has led several scholars to speculate that the son did not have access to the original. Sullivan suggests that the departures of copy from original were possibly due to the fact that the son worked from a preparatory drawing that was in his possession. Such a drawing would have served as the basis for the original painting, but would have been partially superseded by subsequent additions to the intended design. As evidence for her thesis, Sullivan points to two motifs which appear in the original, but in none of the copies: the man grabbing fish with his bare hands, and the man kissing the doorknocker. She makes the interesting suggestion that these two figures, since they are formally awkward, were added during the underdrawing stage of production at the behest of the patron. She further speculates that the Elder’s patron may have had an interest in medical matters because of the presence of a red gash on the forehead of the devil being tied to a pillow in the lower left-hand corner of the composition, and the wooden instrument lying on the ground next to the pillow, two details missing in all of the copies. She suggests that these details may have been added to the original composition at the specific request of a medically trained patron (she cites several well-known humanists who were doctors) because in sixteenth-century medical practice, mania was treated by making an incision in the forehead of the patient. She concludes by making a case for considering the large pen and ink drawing of Dulle Griet (c. 1561) in the Museum Kunst Palast as an authentic preparatory drawing for Bruegel the Elder’s painting of the same name.
Yoko Mori’s paper, ‘She Hangs the Blue Cloak Over Her Husband,’ reports on the various uses to which four of Bruegel’s proverbs were put in contemporary images and literature in order to consider the nature of spousal relations in sixteenth-century Flemish culture. The four are: ‘She hangs the blue cloak over her husband’; ‘She would tie a devil to the pillow’; ‘One winds the distaff while the other spins’; and ‘Hen feeler.’ After tracing several literary and visual precedents for the use of the blue cloak motif as a symbol for deceitfulness, she also points to the popular iconography of ‘unequal couples,’ which is especially pronounced in Bruegel the Elder’s treatment of the motif. Mori also claims that the proverbs ‘She would tie a Devil to a pillow’ and ‘Hen feeler’ refer to transgressive spousal behavior, the former referring to the fearful image of a dominating wife, and the latter indicating a husband’s inappropriate (effeminate) involvement in woman’s work. The proverbial saying ‘One winds the distaff while the other spins,’ however, shouldn’t be included in this thematic group because, as Mori herself points out, it simply refers to a situation in which someone starts an evil plan, and someone else finishes it.
Mark Meadow’s paper, ‘For This Reason or That the Geese Walk Barefoot,’ begins by asserting that there is no single moral message to be found in the Netherlandish Proverbs , a point already argued in his 2002 book Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Netherlandish Proverbs and the Practice of Rhetoric. He claims that the logical structure of the painting, which gathers proverbs into loose and interrelated clusters organized around similarities in theme, structure, and shared motifs, is similar to that found in contemporary ‘commonplace books.’ (113) He then points out that this absence of a single message or meaning in theProverbs is not the case in those of the artist’s prints that deploy proverbs in service to specific moral themes. He illustrates this point by analyzing the use of proverbs in several of Bruegel’s best known designs such as Big Fish Eat Little Fish , Ass at School , Gluttony, Avarice, Envy, and Elck. He concludes by addressing Bruegel’s interest in the theme of looking and knowing which the artist treated in the upper right hand corner of the Netherlandish Proverbs.
David Kunzle’s presentation, ‘Butting the Wall,’ begins with a reassertion of the scholar’s well-known contention that Bruegel’s Netherlandish Proverbs cannot be regarded as an illustration of the ‘world upside down’ theme. The real focus of his offering, however, is his suggestion that the artist’s addition of armor to three figures in the painting is indicative of his hostility to the military of his time, and speaks to his ‘deep opposition to and distress at the violent repression and war the Spanish administration brought to the Netherlands.’ The three male figures are butting his head into a brick wall; belling a cat; and warming his hands by the fire of another’s house.
Malcolm Jones, ‘Fiddlers on the Roof and Friars with Foxtails,’ explores the relationship between Bruegel and the proverb iconography of David Tenier II’s The Dutch Proverbs . He identifies five proverbs in Teniers that also appear in all the Bruegel variants but go unrecognized in the diagrammatic key that accompanies the painting (Belvoir Castle). He then identifies five proverbs not in any Bruegel composition. He ends by considering the meanings of the pluymstrycker (plume stroker) motif in Tenier’s painting, particularly its implications of flattery or, in other contexts, erotic behavior.
Finally, Wolfgang Mieder, ‘One Picture that’s Worth More than a Thousand Words,’ attempts to argue the relevance of Bruegel’s panel by presenting an overview of multi-proverb illustrations from the age of Bruegel down to modern times. In light of the other scholarly contributions in this volume and the continuing fascination of Bruegel’s painting, that point seems to need little emphasis.