Walter Gibson, Figures of Speech: Picturing Proverbs in Renaissance Netherlands. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010. xv, 236 pp, fully illustrated, ISBN 978-0-520-25954-6.
Gerald Volker Grimm, Pieter Bruegel d. Ä.: Italien und die Antike. Göttingen: Cuvillier Verlag, 2009. 226 pp, fully illustrated, ISBN 978-3-86955-142-5.
Margaret A. Sullivan, Bruegel and the Creative Process, 1559 – 1563. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Press, 2010. xi, 248 pp, fully illustrated, ISBN 978-0-7546-6979-1.
Though different questions lie at the heart of each of these books, all three expand our thinking about the vast intellectual universe informing Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s oeuvre. Each makes a major contribution to Bruegel studies and should continue to be lastingly important.
From van Mander’s “Pier den droll” to Hymans’s peasant painter, questions about Bruegel’s intellect have problematized Bruegel discourse. Carl Stridbeck (1956) suggested links between Carnival and Lent and Dirck Volkertszoon Coornhert’s humanism, but only after Justus Müller Hofstede (1979) underscored the notion of a humanist framework for interpreting Bruegel did we begin our earnest pursuit of the multifaceted intelligence permeating his pictures. Scholars have since found rich fodder for such discussions in even the bawdiest of the artist’s works. In this sense, we are especially indebted to Margaret Sullivan, whose Bruegel’s Peasants (1994) identified classical texts that could have been important for such imagery. However, we have been slow to move through the questionable notion that Bruegel was merely a conduit for humanist thinking and on to a thorough exploration of the next logical possibility: that he was his own interpreter of antiquity, earthy and cacophonous, knowledgeable and inventive, something of a pictorial Rabelais. Given Bruegel’s seminal status in formulations of what is distinctly Netherlandish about the art of the early modern Low Countries, the hesitancy to grant him agency in his engagement with humanism has had broader ramifications, delimiting definitions of Netherlandish art writ large.
While the antiquarian impetuses driving Bruegel’s work have prompted important discourse, much of it still lacks developed notions of the humanism in his unique combination of subjects and pictorial solutions for representing them. Likewise, while Bruegel’s particular brand of imagery has made him a nexus for mapping Netherlandish art’s long sixteenth century, especially its prescient modernities, without a critical elaboration of his reach into the ancient and medieval past, a nuanced understanding of the Netherlandish vision of antiquity will continue to elude us. Just how can we best describe Bruegel’s role in defining a “native” Netherlandish antiquarianism as opposed to the Italian looking one that his contemporaries developed?
If these books are any indication, furthering our understanding of Bruegel’s relation to his antiquarian milieu is now among the central sustained missions of Bruegel studies. In addressing the state of the field, all three authors advocate approaching Bruegel’s antiquarianism. Gerald Volker Grimm perhaps makes things a bit too easy on himself by starting with the refutable statement that the only thing Bruegel scholars agree on is the lack of “foreign influence” in his pictures – this has not been true at least since Jane ten Brink Goldsmith looked at Bruegel and Italy (1992), if not well before, when Grossmann (1955) tracked Bruegel’s Italian journey. But Grimm goes on to substantiate his insistence that the visual presence of antiquity in Bruegel’s work is a much richer topic than scholars have acknowledged. The aim of his groundbreaking study is to present a catalogue exclusively dedicated to manifesting Bruegel’s uses of antiquity’s visual aspect. He tackles seventeen images traditionally given to Bruegel and five whose attributions are disputed. We now have a much more vivid imagination for what Bruegel did with his time in Rome. Perhaps surprisingly, given traditional notions of Bruegel, he must have drawn within the typical range of sources prescribed for any Netherlandish artist in the Eternal City: antiquities and the works of important Italian masters. Mainly, however, Grimm’s findings suggest Bruegel’s specialized affection for antiquity’s minutiae. His ability to spot Bruegel’s use of motifs from sarcophagi, decorative patterns, and especially numismatics, reveals a startling new depth to the artist’s antiquarianism.
A case in point is Grimm’s tour de force, a sustained entry on Bruegel’s London Adoration (1564). Bruegel invented his own grotteschi for the lead king’s brocading, which contains vegetal and marine motifs, and figures derived from Rome’s famous river god sculptures. Moreover, the attitudes of the Madonna and Child are clear quotations of Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna. Thus, Grimm has provided us with an excellent model for where and how to find our way to Bruegel’s visual antique sources. As for interpretation, what the presence of a specifically Bruegelian visualization of antiquity might have meant for Bruegel or his audience, we must devise our own thoughts; Grimm gives brief iconographic analyses, but content is not his mission. It really is too bad that most of Grimm’s images are the size of postage stamps. Despite the inclusion of details, their tiny size makes following his meticulous observations difficult.
Sullivan takes a diachronic approach to Bruegel revealing his developing humanism. She brackets what she sees as an exceptionally creative four-year period for him from 1559 to 1563. This period’s major Bruegels include: Netherlandish Proverbs, Carnival and Lent, Dulle Griet, and the Triumph of Death, art which Sullivan deems “unique,” even “strange.” She points out that his work after this phase, when he moved to the more conservative Brussels, is more traditional, for example, The Carrying of the Cross and The Fall of Icarus. Her end date is problematic, however, because the former painting was for an Antwerp patron and there is no consensus on the date of the latter. Nonetheless, Sullivan’s insight is fruitful if only because it prompts a different question of Bruegel than scholars have traditionally asked: how should we relate evolving definitions of humanism with Bruegel’s artistry, and with his identity? We risk missing Bruegel’s role in devising his art’s antiquarian refractions, Sullivan argues, if we think of humanists reductively, as holders of degrees. This point of view plays out over five chapters that present evidence for Bruegel’s agency in making his art for Erasmian collectors, “adventuresome patrons” (101) with a “Christian Stoic perspective” (56). The book’s argument culminates with Chapter Five’s elaboration of a “turning point” for Bruegel that witnesses an end to the period Sullivan has identified. Her point of departure is the familiar comparison of Bruegel’s Boschian reading of the Fall of the Rebel Angels with Frans Floris’s Italianate treatment of the subject. The contrast gives clarity to Sullivan’s argument for a Bruegelian brand of picturing an alternative humanism. Its visual modesty goes hand in hand with its satirical conceit.
Early reviews have complained that Sullivan does not live up to her title’s promise of an exploration of process. Though her study eschews elaborations of the nitty-gritty of artistic practice and notions of creativity, it offers a sustained discussion of how Bruegel utilized his unique gifts to respond to shifting contexts. While the terms by which Sullivan earmarks the period are questionable – by making traditional imagery, was he any less “creative” after this phase? – she convinces us that it is a distinct phase in the artist’s career, worthy of scrutiny as such. This book is thoughtfully conceived, richly elaborated, and will make sensitive readers more conscious of Bruegel’s trajectory, the changing nature of his approach to making pictures.
Walter Gibson’s new book situates Bruegel’s proverb imagery at the center of a broader universe of literary and visual proverb productions. Here, too, Netherlandish antiquarianism looms large, as Gibson brings Bruegel’s visualizations of pithy sayings into the main stream of Erasmian thought, steeped as it is in ancient rhetoric. The fountainhead for the Netherlandish interest in proverbs is Erasmus’s Adagiorum Chiliades, a collection of wise thoughts that the Rotterdam humanist culled from ancient literature, published in 1500, and continued to expand until his death. From the start, Gibson urges us to think of Bruegel as Erasmus’s equal in knowing proverbs. Moreover, like Sullivan, he advocates for Bruegel’s agency in bringing these fragmented, cryptic thoughts from antiquity into the pictorial present. Gibson structures his book around case studies, starting with the famous Berlin Proverbs panel (1560) and moving on to images in the Bruegel orbit, such as Jan Wierix’s engraved Twelve Proverbs. Throughout, Gibson displays a depth of pictorial and literary erudition that only comes with a lifetime of study. For example, his second chapter tracks the image at the center of Bosch’s Haywain – lovers and musicians atop a load of hay, with hangers on grasping for the wagon’s cargo as if it is gold. Gibson’s teaches us a dazzling range of proverbs, plays, and other literature referring to hay. Along the way, he clarifies the heretofore mysterious substitution of turnips for hay in later images from the Haywain and Hay Allegory family, like Remigius Hogenberg’sTurnip Wagon; here, attendant figures clutch and grab at turnips because the word in Dutch, raap, puns well with the verb rapen, which means “to scrounge.” Moreover, Gibson points out, when Hogenberg devised his print, a spate of moralizing literature used the turnip as a metaphor for empty material pursuits. Gibson’s writing is concise, his language unadorned. However, in some places, concision gives way to abbreviated passages that one wishes were more expansive, given his obvious depth of knowledge. In the end, this book confirms Mark Meadow’s analysis of the Berlin panel: Bruegel’s proverb imagery consummated a pictorial category that was vital for his antiquarian milieu.
Together these books also confirm that as definitions of early modern Netherlandish art evolve, the idea of Pieter Bruegel the Elder becomes more colossal; writing about him is difficult. We applaud all three authors for mastering the language necessary to add judicious insights to the ongoing conversation about Bruegel’s art. Yet, as we continue to think before Bruegel’s astonishing oeuvre, we know there is much more to say.
Arthur J. DiFuria
Savannah College of Art and Design