In Bruegel’s Battle between Carnival and Lent, in Vienna, the beholder is given an elevated viewpoint from which to take in a city square crowded with a bewildering array of activities, objects, costumes and personalities enacting the tensions between the two realms. In the center, as Ethan Matt Kavaler emphasizes in this book, walk the Travelling Couple, a man and woman who find a Middle Way through the scene, ‘amid life’s disorder’. To his credit, Kavaler negotiates a similar path in this book, with a reading of Bruegel’s life and selected works that is notable for its balance and careful modulation. Kavaler has chosen nine key works, spanning the artist’s entire career, to examine in unhurried, scrupulous detail. Starting with the Fall of Icarus (Brussels) and concluding with a group that includes Magpie on the Gallows (Darmstadt), Beekeepers (Berlin) and the Nest Robber(Vienna), he takes up each work in chronological order. In between are discussions of Elck (Everyman) and the Fight of the Piggy Banks and Strongboxes (both engravings after Bruegel; the artist’s London drawing for the former is not reproduced or discussed), the Battle between Carnival and Lent, the Peasant Wedding Feast and Peasant Kermis (all Vienna). Surprisingly, Kavaler does not draw attention to his choice of a chronological arrangement or assess what it might reveal about continuities, growth or changes in the artist’s outlook over time. On the other hand, his (unstated) decision to exclude the Months from consideration is a wise one, given how widely-known and studied they are. Instead, he teases out other signs of Bruegel’s concern with cyclical time and natural order. To cite one remarkable example: in the urban setting of Carnival and Lent he finds seasonal references, and argues that the work evokes a natural cycle of oppositions comparable to summer and winter.
The author’s extensive research and deep meditation upon these works yield thorough analyses of their cultural and iconographic contexts, and proposals for meaning that are multivalent and often open-ended. Kavaler’s thesis is that Bruegel’s art is deliberately ambiguous, not unlike a riddle or game, a strategy of indeterminancy, he argues, that would have appealed to the artist’s educated, urban audience and one also used by Bruegel to invite the viewer to find his or her own Middle Way and to initiate ‘self-inquiry and self-regulation’. Thus, the children in Peasant Kermis who mimic their elders’ dancing can be understood as an image of community, learning, and the continuity of generations, and equally as an illustration of the proverb, ‘As the elders will pipe, so the young ones will dance’, which, itself, had varying implications. Even more basic is Kavaler’s view of Bruegel as a social conservative, nostalgic for a stable, ordered society that is tolerant and communal, in opposition to his own, which was rent by political and religious conflict and increasingly dominated by mercantile self-interest. In Kavaler’s reading, the Fall of Icarus, Peasant Wedding Feast and Beekeeperschampion the natural order and community; the Battle between Carnival and Lent invokes tolerance and the Middle Way; and Elckand Piggy Banks are satirical attacks on eigen baet, capitalist egoism at the expense of the common good. To oversimplify the book’s subtitle: Bruegel is mostly for (social and natural) ‘order’ and mostly against (the excesses of business-culture’s) ‘enterprise’. The latter is all the more intriguing since Bruegel’s work was frequently collected by merchants. Emphasizing Antwerp’s ‘culture of commerce’, Kavaler devotes Chapter 1 to profiling Bruegel’s patrons and their circle. The key group centers, as is well-known, around the Erasmian humanist, scholar and mapmaker, Abraham Ortelius. Though Ortelius’s circle included geographers, teachers, publishers and artists, Kavaler also stresses the presence of merchants, such as Gillis Hooftman and Frans Hogenberg.
A business profession applies as well to Bruegel’s greatest collector, Niclaes Jonghelinck; to Jean Noirot, who owned five paintings; and (as Van Mander emphasized) to the artist’s friend, Hans Franckert. The interests and attitudes of this cultivated group, religious tolerance, a taste for emblematic thinking, admiration for the traditions and stature of Netherlandish art, and attraction to peasant and folkloric themes, correlate with the image of Bruegel’s art that Kavaler details in the rest of the book. Another valuable contribution is the author’s recognition that Bruegel creates meaning through a set of ‘strategies for presenting the visual’. These are compositional schema, rooted in earlier Netherlandish practice, that Bruegel forges into his own distinctive, expressive syntax. Kavaler identifies four basic structures: dividing the composition into two opposing elements (Icarus, Piggy Banks);privileging the centre with a motif that affects the meaning of the whole (Carnival and Lent, Peasant Kermis); using corners for secondary elements that modify, supplement or oppose the main image(Beekeepers, Nest Robber); and employing a radial design that relates the center to elements in its orbit (Elck). Kavaler makes a compelling case that knowing how to read this syntax is an essential interpretative tool, and he puts this skill to good use, a skill that future researchers would do well to emulate. Kavaler’s overall view of Bruegel, at least, the artist of these nine works, is persuasive. What remains to be done, of course, is to submit all of the artist’s oeuvre to the kind of subtle, historically rigorous and balanced approach that Kavaler models in this thoughtful book.