The year 2019 has already become the Year of Bruegel, to celebrate the 450th anniversary of the artist’s death (ca. 1525-1569). The once-in-a lifetime show in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum (awkwardly preceded a year earlier by a major drawings exhibition at the nearby Albertina) gathered about two-thirds of the 45 extant paintings as well as a major selection of drawings and prints. Its catalogue celebrates the technical examination of Vienna’s freshly restored paintings (to be supplemented by study of several others on display), now available on line as “Inside Bruegel.”
But perhaps the most formidable contribution of the year is this massive doorstop of a book, complete with its own carrying case and featuring lavish numbers of new, high-resolution photographs and details. Unlike the technical emphasis and entries of individual Vienna works and their histories in the exhibition catalogue, this book is very much an interpretive work, the result of a career-long study of the artist by Müller, complemented by a renewed study of the drawings by Schauerte. A full catalogue follows for all three media, the first one since Manfred Sellink’s roster (2007). For the most part, the text is Müller’s, based on the paintings but also invoking drawings or prints and comparisons as part of the argument.
An initial biographical chapter emphasizes the circle of patrons and intellectuals around Bruegel, but it also asserts Müller’s ongoing conviction (following Stridbeck) about the artist’s religion (p. 18): that he was a Nicodemist, dissimulating Catholic loyalty while following the more radical spiritual ideas of Sebastian Franck (d. 1542/43). His outlook would thus have been irenic, advocating peaceful coexistence among denominations and a resulting search for universals, but it opposes the organized Church. Müller often invokes Franck’s writings as keys to understanding Bruegel imagery as advocating a personal, internalized faith. Thus the New Testament rhetoric of plain speech inspires visual imagery of humility in Bruegel’s art, including representation of Jesus himself, closely aligned with genre subjects.
Müller begins his analysis with the large paintings around 1560, crowded with small figure details. Characteristically, he proposes bold new interpretations, identifying the Carnival figure of Carnival and Lent (1559) with Luther(!), opposed to Catholic Lenten piety, so like Stridbeck he sees Protestants versus Catholics here. He also sees the contemporary allegory of Caritas from the Virtues print series as satirical, whereas for this observer it offers the most straightforward representation of the traditional Seven Acts of Mercy. Additionally, the paired prints, Lean and Fat Kitchen, follow from this same religious juxtaposition. Netherlandish Proverbs also derives from Erasmian adages as well as the Bible, now realized in the vernacular. Here, too, Franck is invoked, through his Paradoxa (1534). Children’s Games (1560) is viewed around the central image of the play-wedding, but here (vs Sandra Hindman) it leads to a picture of a negative judgment of ritual, or a “genuine Imitation of Christ that is counter to the rites and sacraments being mocked here” (p. 35). In sum, here close scrutiny of details resolves into a whole through the greater interpretive lens of Franck, regarding authentic, internalized piety or “negative theology” (p. 69).
Overtly religious images pursue “the mistaken search for God” (Chapter 3). The Berlin Two Apes (1562) are prisoners of the senses, and the humble holy figures of the London Adoration of the Magi (1564) also show the limits of external sight. In similar fashion, The Preaching of John the Baptist (1566) distracts the viewer from the true, miniature Baptism in the distant Jordan. A new reading of The Way to Calvary (1564) sees it as an eternally recurring event, both prior to the Crucifixion itself but also afterwards, as the mourning figures demonstrate. No pictures better epitomize the mistaken, pride-filled search for God than the two Towers of Babel, but Müller reads Genesis’ confusion of languages as mirroring the babble of competing creeds.
Bruegel’s relation to Bosch forms the subject of Chapter Four, as in recent studies by Matthijs Ilsink and Margaret Sullivan. This affinity contradicts the inclination to see Bruegel somehow relating to Renaissance Italy (though various links have been proposed, including even here in the following chapter). Müller correctly rejects close association, often asserted, between the undated Triumph of Death and both Dulle Griet (now 1563 after restoration) and The Fall of the Rebel Angels (1562), and he detaches the inexorable brutality of Death from what he calls the un-Boschian comic or ironic effects of “Hell as Folly” (p. 118). He connects some objects around the Rebel Angels with the period’s interest in collecting for cabinets of curiosities; he also notes an earthly emphasis on exaggerated fertility.
Grisailles (the subject of a 2016 Courtauld exhibition) are studied in isolation in Chapter FIve, complemented with the drawing, The Calumny of Apelles, 1565, here interpreted as a personal response to attack by a classically-oriented artist and poet, Lucas de Heere. Müller’s evocation of the paragone between sculpture and painting seems misguided, however, because these narrative scenes do not simulate statuary as they narrate with staged movement. But he does cite further classical sources for ancient models, like the Calumny subject itself. Curiously, this analysis focuses more on form and art theory than on the religious message of tolerance in Christ and the Adulteress or the emphatically Catholic (cf. Walter Melion) Death of the Virgin. Nor does he relate the Three Soldiers (1568) to the contemporary outbreak of the Dutch Revolt, choosing instead to relate figure poses to classical sculpture models.
“Peasant Bruegel” dominates the following three chapters: first, peasant feasting at weddings or kermis celebrations; then the “Months” series (1565) of peasant labor on the land; and finally snow subjects, including religious scenes situated in wintry Flemish villages (also the subject of another excellent 2018 monograph on Bruegel, edited by Tina Luk Meganck and Sabine van Sprang). At the outset Müller notes the mingling of death with pleasure as well as the strangely ambiguous gallows perspective in Magpie on the Gallows (1568). He notes that the portrait in the Peasant Wedding Feast is not Bruegel himself, but his friend Hans Franckert, mentioned in Carel van Mander’s biography and represented on a medal by Jacques Jonghelinck. But Müller’s vision of the peasants is negative; he also sees the barn as a licentious location, marked by vice, a kind of negative allusion to the Feast of Cana, against the grain of recent, positive interpretations. Here, as well as in the Months series, he anticipates a Last Judgment (cf. also the dissertation by Bertram Kaschek, 2012). His biblical events in contemporary, snowy villages point to eternal recurrence, mingling past with future as well as the Habsburg present. Astonishingly, Müller then interprets the Winter Landscape with Skaters and Bird Trap (1565) as another critique of the “ministerial Church” (p. 221)
The final chapter finds an “aesthetic of subversion,” particularly in imagery of heretics (Beekeepers, ca. 1568; Nestrobber, 1568) according to Franck’s positive view of heresy, and amid deceptive appearances of a “deluding world” (Misanthrope, 1568) across the late works. It is Church orthodoxy that leads the blind in The Blind Leading the Blind (1568), and Bruegel’s canvas is to be seen more as a warning, akin to captioned Dürer’s Four Holy Men (1526).
So often with Bruegel, one sees what one looks for, so each of us must determine whether the images (often ambiguous or laconic, even with or despite captions) justify such readings, but Müller always poses fresh outlooks and is ever-attentive to details. As he even declares, “When Bruegel structures a composition’s meaning in significant allusions, he hands an active role to the observer in deciphering it” (p. 221). But throughout he emphasizes how Bruegel engages in reversal and manipulation, a “Silenian aesthetic” (i.e. Erasmian, pp. 36, 272), but one also informed consistently (?) by Sebastian Franck. Let the viewer beware.
University of Pennsylvania