Kaschek’s book, based on his doctoral dissertation completed at the Technische Universität Dresden, offers a radical reassessment of Bruegel’s famous series The Months. Kaschek ultimately reads the paintings as typological representations of the Apocalypse and of end times, an eschatological program indebted to the theology of Sebastian Franck.
The book is divided into four parts. The introduction outlines previous scholarship on Bruegel’s series and on the Netherlandish landscape tradition more generally. Methodologically, the author emphasizes the importance of contemporary religious debates. He is critical of recent Anglophone scholarship (Kavaler, Meadow, Sullivan; pp. 26-29) for describing how Bruegel’s works intersect with various contemporary discourses (humanist, economic and social concerns) and thus, in his view, downplaying Bruegel’s particular agency as an author. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he aligns his own project’s aims and conclusions with the Bruegel monograph of his Doktorvater, Jürgen Müller, in Das Paradox als Bildform (Munich: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 1999, reviewed: https://www.hnanews.org/archive/2001/11/jm01.html).
The book’s first interpretive section, “Bruegel im Kontext,” provides a useful summary of art theoretical debates around 1565, the year Bruegel signed the first panels of The Months and a year which also saw the publication of Lucas de Heere’s famous Invectie against an unknown painter, presumed to be Bruegel. Kaschek describes The Months as Bruegel’s critique of Italian-oriented artistic theory and of artists like Frans Floris. The author believes that The Months’ patron, Niclaes Jonghelinck, would have been vested in this artistic debate, citing the merchant’s diverse art collection and the work of his sculptor brother Jacques. He dismisses the idea that Jacques’s later series of bronzes (Bacchus and the Seven Planets) were linked at all to Bruegel’s series, stating that Bruegel’s images of peasant labor would have been more readily understood as Saturn’s children. However Bacchus was perhaps the most popular classical deity in Netherlandish culture, often equated with the harvest and agricultural labor. ‘Romanists’ Maarten de Vos and Frans Floris used figures of Bacchus as the representative god of the autumnal harvest, while Bruegel himself included a peasant wreathed like a bacchant in his design for the engraving Summer. This overlap suggests a more complex picture of ‘Italian’ versus ‘Netherlandish’ styles and motifs in the period than Kaschek suggests here.
Despite the name of this section, remarkably little discussion is offered about the panel’s original context – Kaschek discusses the villa as a space for otium, as well as the hanging height and order of the panels within goed ter beke, but he does not dwell on the particularities of the room in Jonghelinck’s villa in which these works would have hung. He glosses over any discussion of how these works would have functioned in, say, a dining room, as opposed to another reception room in the home (his notes also surprisingly omit Rutger Tijs’s article on this topic “De twaalfmaandencyclus over het land leven van Pieter Bruegels als interieurdecoratie voor het huis van playsantie ‘ter Beken’ te Antwerpen,” Berichten en rapporten over het Antwerps Bodenmonderzoek en Monumentenzorg 3 (1999): 117–33).
Section II, “Weltzeit im Jahreslauf,” comprises the bulk of the book. Here the author discusses each panel of The Months in turn, including the missing painting. Kaschek pays careful attention to the structure of each panel, closely describing minute details and providing useful summaries of how each panel draws upon and differs from iconographical precedents. In each case, Kaschek’s aim is to uncover the eschatological program he sees at work in the series. Thus, in the case of The Gloomy Day, for example, he connects the rainclouds and scenes of foundering ships in the background to images of the Flood, reading the picture as a practical exegesis of the typological relations between the Flood and the coming Last Judgment (138). The viewer’s role, in this reading, is to uncover and produce this relation between observed contemporary experience and biblical time (past, present and future). Kaschek usefully situates each panel within the local painting tradition, perhaps most successfully in his discussion of the Prague Hay Harvest in relation to the Patinir tradition of the Rest on the Flight into Egypt. While his readings of individual details are often well documented and occasionally compelling, his methodology sometimes (to use a proverb, like the artist himself) misses the forest for the trees. At the conclusion of the book, Kaschek raises some fascinating questions about the series as a whole – in particular the parallel between the six panels and the six days of God’s creation of the world – which remain underdeveloped in this panel-by-panel view of The Months. One also wonders if more could be done to connect these panels to Bruegel’s more overtly religious works; I was particularly surprised at the omission of the 1562 Triumph of the Dead, given its apocalyptic resonances.
A recurrent and intriguing leitmotif of Weltzeit und Endzeit is the author’s interest in artistic theory and in contemporary debates about style, local and classical models. In some respects this falls outside of the book’s central thesis, but it is a virtue of Kaschek’s ambitious survey of these works that he incorporates this discussion into his larger argument. In his review of The Return of the Herd, for example, the author launches into a fascinating side note connecting Bruegel’s loose brushwork to Lucas de Heere’s invectie and to Pliny’s account of classical rhyparographers (222-30). This link follows a valuable reassessment of the extent to which Bruegel was indebted to the work of Flemish illuminators’ calendar miniatures (203-21).
Though one may quibble with the author’s overarching interpretation of the series as a Franckian commentary on the coming Apocalypse, the book remains a thoughtful and engaging volume, bringing together important literature on Bruegel’s famous series and proposing new interpretations of often overlooked details. It will be of use to any Bruegel scholar, as well as those interested in the Netherlandish landscape tradition more generally.