Jürgen Müller, Das Paradox als Bildform. Studien zur Ikonologie Pieter Bruegels d. Ä. Munich: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 1999. 195 pp, 6 col. and 48 b&w illus. ISBN 3-7705-3191-4.
‘Pieter Bruegel invenit’ – das druckgraphische Werk. Ed. by Jürgen Müller and Uwe M. Schneede [Cat. exh., Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg, January – April, 2001]. Hamburg: Kunsthalle, 2001. 160 pp, ca 100 b&w illus. ISBN 3-7705-3191-4.
Jürgen Müller’s book interprets Bruegel as an intellectual painter mainly concerned with theological matters and the status of the visual arts as a medium. The book begins by deconstructing the biographical narrative which Van Mander told about ‘Pieter de Drol.’ This chapter was published previously in the exhibition catalogue Pieter Breughel der Jüngere – Jan Brueghel der Ältere. Flämische Malerei um 1600. Tradition und Fortschritt, Essen, Vienna, Antwerp 1997-98, which was critically reviewed by Hessel Miedema, “Pieter Bruegel weer; en de geloffwaardigheid van Karel van Mander,” in: Jaarboek van het Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten Antwerpen, 1998, pp. 309-327. The conclusion is that there is very little information about Bruegel’s life and intellectual interests, which might have been helpful to understand his oeuvre. Therefore it seems legitimate to start afresh with a speculation and to proceed with evaluating its consequences.
The book proposes that Bruegel was deeply influenced by the German theologian Sebastian Franck (1499-1542), who was quite popular in the Netherlands during the sixteenthth century (pp. 21-27 et passim). De Tolnay (1925) and Stridbeck (1956) refer to him in passages of their books on Bruegel. Although no concrete evidence supports this idea, at the same time there is none against it. Franck was an unorthodox protestant thinker, who advocated a negative theology that was against all institutionalization of the Christian faith. An important publication was his book Paradoxa, in which he treats the impossibility to describe God. Each of the 280 chapters of Franck’s book starts with a baffling statement like “Deum nemo novit, nisi Deum” (God knows nobody, only himself), which is then explained as an illustration of the impossibility to define God’s essence with the help of scripture or any other source of knowledge except one’s innermost personal experience. Anything said about God must be wrong, since it is not possible to say anything about something that transcends human language. The only way to speak about Him is to speak in a paradoxical way, i.e in a self-referential way, which makes it impossible to decide about truth or falseness of a statement. A main proposal of Müller’s book is that Bruegel shared Franck’s unorthodox religious views and his opposition to depicting God. Thus Bruegel was faced with the problem of realizing pictures of God in his artistic medium, which he was only able to do by showing what God is not. Consequently, Bruegel would have been forced to think about how to make paradoxical pictures, i.e. pictures which are demonstrations of their own impossibility.
Another contemporary context related to Bruegel’s picture making, is Erasmus of Rotterdam’s position in what Müller calls the ‘Ciceronianus debate’ (pp. 36-39 et passim). At several occasions Erasmus points out that the Bible as central text of Christianity is able to give each reader what he/she needs. This adaptability is a consequence of the ‘sermo humilis’ of the biblical text, i.e. the telling of the most important events in the most humble language. For Erasmus this is the reason why the biblical text responds to all needs of a simple mind as well as to the most intricate search of more subtle intellects. He used for this feature of the Bible the humanistic metaphor of the ‘Silenus Alcibiadi,’ which means that in the humblest outfit a most serene meaning might be covered (pp. 90-125). A good part of Müller’s book discusses the positions of Franck and Erasmus. The interpretation of a selection of Bruegel’s paintings and engravings is framed by this context. The book considers in separate sections most of the important masterpieces:Children’s Games, the ‘Elck’ engraving, The Bird Catcher, The Adoration of the Kings, The Way to Calvary, The Two Apes, Netherlandish Proverbs and the posthumous print Triumph of Time.
The book is well written, the author is original, risk-taking and witty, and his criticism of other interpretations is clear and fair. Unfortunately his interpretations are often not fully convincing. One reason for this is the tendency to find more and more allusions and layers of meaning instead of an interpretation which covers all parts of a representation in an uncontradictory way. Elck is linked not only to the iconography of Nobody but also to Diogenes, the Wandering Jew and to the false pharisees. Müller explicitly states that Bruegel had the intention of making an interpretation difficult (p. 73) in order to construct a sort of spiritual pilgrimage for the viewer. Possibly so, but it might also be a step to immunize interpretations. If there should indeed be justification in Erasmus’s statement about the inexhaustible richness of the biblical text, it is surprising to find this method used in its extreme only in the Elck print. Without doubt Elck is a paradoxical composition, but is it multi-layered and/or religious in Franck’s or Erasmus’s sense? According to the author, in some scenes of Children’s Games Bruegel plays with the metaphorical implications of games in order to criticize all forms of liturgy and Christian institutions (pp. 49-54). This is a good proposal but fits badly into the author’s own interpretative frame, since this would be a quite positive statement about God’s predilections (notwithstanding that Franck also made this point). What is more, this interpretation covers only a small part of the games played by the children. All others would be only used as a sort of cover for this meaning. Discussing the Road to Calvary (which is unfortunately reproduced in mirror image in one of the color plates) it comes as a surprise that the painting is intended not as a ‘Way to Calvary’ but as a ‘Crucifixion’ with the cross outside the painting at the place where the viewer stands (p. 140). In these and in other interpretations the author implicitly suggests that Bruegel invented his mode of representation anew for each of his pictures. The text is always able to give these interpretations some rhetorical plausibility, but trying to retell them is a good test of their strength. It seems to me that some of Müller interpretations serve poorly his aim to reshape Bruegel as intellectual and religious minded artist. But the main objection to the book’s argument seems to be methodological. The initial hypothesis should have been controlled and checked during the argument. There is a fine but important borderline between the legitimate uses of a heuristic circle of interpretation, as Panofsky called it, and a simple ‘circulus vitiosus’.
It was Jürgen Müller who took the initiative for an exhibition of all Bruegel prints in the Kunsthalle Hamburg from January to April 2001, which was organized by Petra Roettig. The exhibition catalogue includes two essays by Müller, which are abridged chapters from his book, one essay by Petra Roettig about Hieronymus Cock as Bruegel’s editor and one by Bertram Kaschek on the interpretation of Bruegel’s landscape engravings. With Lebeer’s publication of all Bruegel prints being out of print, as well as the catalogue of the exhibition of Bruegel prints which travelled in Japan in 1989 (edited by David Freedberg), the Hamburg catalogue is a well produced, handy and welcome fill-in of this lacuna. Of course there is by now strong competition with the catalogue of the exhibition of Bruegel’s drawings and prints in Rotterdam and New York, but this would be an unfair comparison.
Weserrenaissance-Museum Schloß Brake, Lemgo