Comedy and laughter in the Early Modern period have been little addressed by scholarship, though Stephen Greenblatt and others have attended to laughter and Shakespeare (2004). Walter Gibson’s Pieter Bruegel and the Art of Laughter (2006) is a notable exception, and I have also discussed humor, laughter, and scatology (Stewart, Before Bruegel, 2008, chs. 3-6). Now David Smith has assembled twelve essays, from a 2008 CAA session on parody and festivity, to address comedy in visual works, dating mostly from 1400-1700.
The first chapter by Smith introduces the volume and discusses subsequent chapters: folly, rabbit-hare imagery, charity and the lottery, three essays on Bruegel, Velázquez and Bacchus, Rouault’s clowns, Baccio del Bianco’s dwarfs, Jan van der Heyden’s Feast of Purim, and Fluxus and gags. A helpful bibliography completes the volume.
As Smith explains in “Sociable Laughter, Deep Laughter,” each essay addresses the comic “as an intellectual problem.” He notes that life was richer in laughter in Early Modern Europe and that parody and festivity were closer together than today. Festivity was more communal, with many religious holidays dotting the calendar. Smith observes that“Academicians in particular have also tended to trivialize humor in general as frivolous, or at least less important, less serious than seriousness.” Erasmus, Rabelais, and Shakespeare used humor with irony to express the period’s “deepest thoughts” before Enlightenment cultivated rationality. This book would have benefited from a glossary of key terms (comedy, irony, parody, satire, festivity, even humor and laughter) outlined in historical terms.
The volume begins with Paul Barolsky’s call to understand art as a form of play. Imagination, the ability to be fooled, to make fiction in the form of an image, thus illusion, is essential. Laughter and humor, Barolsky argues, have been rejected by art history today in favor of analysis.
Due to space limitations, this review will concentrate on essays by Diane Scillia on hunter-rabbit imagery and by Catherine Levesque, David Levine, and Yemi Onafuwa on works by Bruegel. Scillia discusses images of inversion through hunter and rabbits/hares after 1500 within the context of carnival. The role reversal of hunter and rabbit was begun in earlier manuscript illuminations and continued by Bosch and Israhel van Meckenem. Erasmus recorded a proverb “to make a show of kitchen pots,” indicating something ridiculous; in Van Meckenem’s print the hunter’s dogs are cooked in pots. Erasmus also remarked on how jokes relax the mind.
Scillia also addresses a later woodcut by Georg Pencz and links its Nuremberg origins to Hans Sachs (who penned the text added beneath the print) and the Meistersingers who, like the rederijkers in the Netherlands, wrote plays and poems that they performed from within the carnival tradition. Pencz’s print shows hares standing and acting like people, tying the hunter to a tree, cooking dogs in pots and chopping canines like butchers. Scillia sees political relevance in the print, with rabbits representing peasant underdogs of the Peasants’ War of 1525; she links Pencz’s print to carnival plays by Sachs, as topical culturally based humor. However, her illustrations are too small as to be readable.
David Levine’s article traces Bruegel’s borrowings from Italian Renaissance art. In the Peasant and the Nest Robber, the main figure is compared to one of Michelangelo’s putti from the Sistine ceiling for serpentine pose and plasticity. Levine argues that Bruegel’s paraphrase both deflates and ridicules its illustrious models while elevating the lowly subject. The Peasant and the Nest Robber and Bruegel’s Bee Keepers draw on such Italian models conforming to the Renaissance tradition of paradox. Both works by Bruegel make use of a well-known contemporary Dutch proverb, included at lower left: “he who knows where the nest is, has the knowledge; he who robs it, has the nest.” Paradox, Levine states, can be understood within the contemporary context of proverbs, assembled by Erasmus and Sebastian Franck, where such statements as “Poverty is good for all things” indicates a defense, albeit cynical, of the status quo, while intending to “engender spiritual awakening.” These proverbs thus function as contrary paradoxical calls for higher truth, one which the beekeepers and peasant and nest robber cannot see: “knowledge of God is the only possession of true value.” Thus, Bruegel uses heroic figures in these anti-heroic contexts as a “low Netherlandish style” along with transcendent themes. Levine claims that Bruegel established “a fundamentally new, ironic rhetoric for metaphysical painting.”
Catherine Levesque studies Bruegel’s Magpie on the Gallows as comedic, a painting that both celebrates life and the artist’s craft while acknowledging death. Comedic here does not mean hard laughter. Rather, it is meditative, contemplative, moving from exterior to interior. She discusses imitation, truth as an active process as seen by humanists, the painting process, and humans as earthy (with a defecator at lower left), thus material nature, along with travel and prudence. Also addressed are “optics of insight,” viewer and audience, and the many copies of Bruegel’s paintings by his sons that reveal Pieter the Elder’s “process of discovery and judgment” in order to “attain (in Juan Luis Vives’ words) ‘prudence through art.’ “
This sense of discovery discussed by Levesque, with its quiet meditation, is mirrored in recent essays on Bruegel (Todd Richardson, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 2011) and another essay in this volume, which ask us to consider various ways of looking at Bruegel’s art. Yemi Onafuwa on Bruegel’s engraving Big Fish Eat Little Fish explores gluttony, the vice along with lust that starts and ends in the body. For this reason, gluttony “lends itself particularly well to parody.” Overeating, not eating, is stressed in this print, made when cook books turned from stressing health to the new culinary recipes after Europe’s expanded spice trade. Tension between the supposed simple diet of the peasant and the food of their dreams, which Bruegel visualized in his prints The Fat Kitchen and The Thin Kitchen, derive from popular farces (kluchten), influenced in turn by rederijker kamers, or chambers of rhetoricians. Like the Meistersingers in Nuremberg, rhetoricians staged the plays, but they also included many visual artists. Although the poor may be worthy of emulation and compassion, Onafuwa states, he warns – as does Scillia – against any interpretation that is anachronistic, because both parties here need to be targets of humor if the humorous intent is not to be lost. This humor relies on the audience eating moderately, neither extremely under- or overfed.
Bruegel’s depictions of overeating, including Big Fish Eat Little Fish, lead to discussion of imagery centered on defecation and an “irruptive purpose” (an unclear term). This discussion of vomiters and shitters may have relevance for other images by Bruegel, but only indirectly engages the prints under discussion. Ultimately, the author reads Big Fish Eat Little Fish as “a cover for laughter and merriment,” like contemporary grobian literature, but also suggests that the print offers a parody, so one wonders whether it is possible to do both.
This volume effectively demonstrates that historical context is important for understanding images as comedic during the Early Modern period. A clearer linking of the sometimes complex relationships among meanings of comedy, parody, satire, scatology, and irony would allow easier understanding of these ideas. Parody and Festivity in Early Modern Art offers a most welcome beginning to future work on comedy. The volume innovatively discusses the tough topic of laughter and comedy.
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
The other essays in the volume are:
Aneta Georgievska-Shine, Drinking as Gods, Laughing as Men: Velázquez and the Gift of Bacchus.
Jane Kromm, The Early Modern Lottery in the Netherlands: Charity as Festival and Parody.
Soo Y. Kang, Bakhtinian Carnivalesque in the Clown Images of Rouault.
Sandra Cheng, Parodies of Life: Baccio del Bianco’s Drawings of Dwarfs.
David R. Smith, Jan van der Heydens’s Feast of Purim.
Rosemary O’Neill, La Cédille qui sourit: Aesthetic Research under the ‘Sign of Humor.’