The art of Pieter Bruegel is enjoying a renaissance. This is not limited to art historians, for whom the Bruegel scholarship industry has been in high gear for several decades. The artist’s appeal also includes professors of literature (Edward Snow,Inside Bruegel: The Play of Images in “Children’s Games,” 1997), novelists more associated with playwriting (Michael Frayn, Headlong, 1999) or science fiction (Rudy Rucker, As Above, So Below, 2002), and now, Polish director Lech Majewski’s 2011 film, The Mill and the Cross, a cinematic exploration from the inside out of Bruegel’s Christ Carrying the Cross in Vienna. This painting, Bruegel’s largest, is also the starting point for Larry Silver’s triumphant new study of the artist, published in French by Citadelles & Mazenod and in English by Abbeville Press.
Previously, Citadelles & Mazenod had commissioned Silver to write an equally lavish, well-received monograph on Bosch (Hieronymus Bosch,Paris and New York, 2006). The present volume completes his sixteenth-century diptych, and between them these two books address many of the principal Netherlandish artistic figures of that long century. Indeed, this book extends the survey into the early seventeenth century in Chapter 11, which takes the measure of Bruegel’s legacy and continuing appeal. Few scholars are better equipped for such a heroic undertaking than Larry Silver, from the standpoints of his own previous scholarship (the Bosch book and his 2006 Peasant Scenes and Landscapes), his knowledge of the vast and complex literature, and his peerless ability to transmute it all into a lively, imminently readable, and deeply informed account addressing both scholar and public alike.
The book’s eleven chapters are arranged thematically and more or less chronologically, beginning in Chapter Two with a biography that is also a “cultural biography” of Bruegel’s artistic contemporaries and his Antwerp setting. This leads to chapters on Hieronymus Cock and the artist’s prints; Bruegel’s early landscapes; the artist as “second Bosch;” his works about parables and proverbs; the early religious paintings, and subsequent ones during the period of troubles; the peasant paintings; and the late works, reflecting the increasing social and religious turmoil. This organization allows Silver to focus principally on content and meaning, yet at the same time not to neglect reflections on the artist’s development, though he wisely cautions that there is no simple evolution.
Silver is at his best in synthesizing individual scholarly contributions and arriving at a sensible, balanced, integrated interpretation for each work; without, however, being dogmatic, and while tacitly acknowledging the inherent contingency involved in the complex process of interpreting Bruegel. As he repeatedly reminds us, Bruegel’s artistic constructions are often deliberately ambiguous: they seek to engage the viewer in “a process of discovery leading to revelation” (p. 271). Silver’s synthetic methodology is a perfect fit for the book’s purpose. Whereas most recent Bruegel books tend to be either narrowly focused or else partisan, staking out the writer’s own interpretative terrain, this book aims to construct – in a leisurely, fulsome way – a holistic assessment of an entire career, intimately embedded within its time and the larger artistic traditions.
Silver builds upon the foundation of others’ insights to generate his own original interpretations, as when (p. 134) he extends Kavaler’s observation about the coin purse and dagger set aside on the ground next to the farmer plowing in The Fall of Icarus (Brussels, pl. 110). He suggests that they create an antithesis between the peaceful, productive plowing of the peasant and the anti-communal activities of urban life (monetary greed and violence). (While acknowledging the recent scholarship which indicates that the Brussels Icarus is likely a later copy [pp. 130, 444, note 30], he rightly trusts it as a reliable record of the artist’s original conception and design.) He perceptively invokes Icarus again in his reading of the Berlin drawing, The Beekeepers (pl. 303): “One could readily compare the daring of the nest-robber to the flight of Icarus, with the same potential for tragic fall; in contrast… the beekeepers recall productive work done by the plowman, shepherd, angler, and even sailors in the Icarus” (p. 368). In the conclusion to Chapter Nine, on “Peasant Labor and Leisure,” he steps outside Bruegel scholarship to suggest an analogy with Maarten van Heemskerck’s 1564 print series, Vicissitudes of Human Affairs (pp. 357-58), discussing the two artists’ shared view that the rural productivity of peasants is linked to the establishment of peace and prosperity within society as a whole. For those familiar with Silver’s writings, one of his trademarks will be evident: illuminating a historical occasion by signaling a parallel instance in modern, popular culture. Thus, in discussing The Land of Cockaigne (Munich, pl. 302), he relates the fantasy appeal of the Flemish Lazy-Luscious Land to the American folk song about “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” recorded by Burl Ives. Equally characteristic, his immediately following sentences discuss Bruegel’s iconography in relation to Rabelais’s “Wild Island,” from his 1532 Pantagruel (p. 363).
Silver’s thorough discussion of the artist’s oeuvre includes consideration of paintings more often reserved for the specialist literature, such as the attributed Visit to a Farmhouse (Paris: pl. 297) and Peasants’ Distress (Stockholm, pl. 312), or lost works known through copies, like the Philadelphia Crucifixion (pl. 219) and the Brussels Wedding Procession (pl. 295). Needless to say, his coverage incorporates the most recent scholarship, including proposals to reassign a group of the Alpine drawings to the Master of the Mountain Landscapes (pp. 120, 402), and The Wine of St. Martin’s Day (Madrid, pl. 294), only just announced as a newly-authenticated Bruegel painting (tempera on linen) in September 2010 by the Prado – about the time the book would have been going to press.
Handling a big, heavy, sumptuously produced book such as this feels, in our digital age, like an encounter with an endangered species. Yet when intelligently done as here, this kind of coffee table book remains the closest approximation to the thrill of the museum experience. There is a physical presence to the large, heavy-stock pages not unlike the physicality of the actual works; while the gorgeous details (no pixilation here) invite the eye to linger, savor, and discover, like a close looking at the works themselves. The publishers wisely heighten this aspect by opening the book with a luxurious display of nine, full-page color details, before the text proper begins on page 17. This is not unlike walking into a gallery and being flooded by the splendor of the works, before the mind starts interpreting what it sees.
In the Bruegel film referenced above, Rutger Hauer, playing the artist, says of his planned picture: “My painting will have to tell many stories. It should be large enough to hold everything.” Larry Silver has written, and the publishers have produced, such a book: it holds nearly everything. Each chapter showcases Silver’s facility at decoding and telling Bruegel’s many stories, addressing equally the demands of scholarship and the growing public appetite; while the book’s meticulous production values create an exquisite pictorial museum of an individual career, and the century of art that encompassed it. If one were to own only a single book on Bruegel, this is the one to have.