The master of human vanity

The new Pieter Bruegel exhibition in Vienna really is a once-in-a-lifetime artistic experience

Michael Prodger

Forcing the viewer to zoom in and out: “Haymaking”, 1565, by Pieter Bruegel (©Prag, The Lobkowicz Collections)

Exhibitions are regularly and hyperbolically touted as being a “once in a lifetime” show, but the Pieter Bruegel exhibition at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna (until January 13) is the real thing. It is an exhibition that could only happen in Vienna because it owns 12 of the 40 paintings generally accepted as being by Bruegel’s hand (Belgium is the next best endowed with four) and because he painted largely on panels — and exceptionally thin ones at that — the pictures are particularly delicate.

Bruegel the elder, the paterfamilias of a clan that would number some 15 significant artists over the course of 150 years, was born in Breda in what is now the Netherlands in 1525, and spent much of his working life in nearby Antwerp. He seems to us a one-off, standing outside the artistic currents of the time, but when he visited Italy and Sicily in the early 1550s Michelangelo and Titian were still at work and Tintoretto and Veronese were forging careers, as he was. Nevertheless, Bruegel was not a Renaissance artist in the accepted sense.

He was a religious artist who didn’t paint for churches, a painter of people who gave equal precedence to landscapes, an artist who treated the comic as well as the grave, someone who painted both life and death — carnival and apocalypse — with the same intensity. He was friends with and worked for a sophisticated humanist circle but he painted peasants rather than his milieu (even if the idea put about by his earliest biographer, Karel Van Mander, that he dressed up as a peasant to attend rural feasts is merely a picaresque piece of invention).

Each of his paintings contains multitudes. To walk round the galleries of the Kunsthistorisches is not so much to enter Bruegel’s world but his worlds. They remain ours too: here are vanity and insignificance in his two different and equally mesmeric versions of The Tower of Babel (both c.1563); gluttony and conviviality in The Peasant Wedding (1556-59); innocence in Children’s Games (1560) with some 80 pastimes crammed in; avarice in The Peasant and the Nest Robber (1568); fear as the mad-eyed woman Dulle Griet (1562) stalks a monstrous and devastated land; religion in the dramatic The Conversion of Saul (1567); and work and passing time in the Seasons series (1565).

In all of them Bruegel makes the subject subservient to the action. He may be interested in moral questions but he is even more interested in people. He was known as the artist of “busy pictures” that are alive with detail and he didn’t like the idea that the viewer’s eye — or perhaps his own — could be still, so he nudged it endlessly around each painting. In the Procession to Calvary a blustery autumn landscape overlooked by a windmill on a crag is less the backdrop for a moment of religious high drama than the setting for sheer human abundance. Christ, a tiny figure brought to his knees by the weight of the cross he is carrying, is almost lost in the throng of onlookers, farmers, squabblers, peddlers, children and animals that make his last moments ones of noise and bustle. There are swathes of the painting that are not religious at all but Bruegel’s message, hidden though it is, is nevertheless profound: if Christ died to save mankind, here is that mankind in all its variety, unruliness and indifference.

Even in some of his most contemplative paintings such as The Seasons, Bruegel always offers extra. There were initially six in the series but one was lost in the 17th century and the Met’s The Harvesters is not robust enough to travel; the remaining four are in the exhibition. In them Bruegel shows off his tricks: figures seen from the back — such as the Hunters in the Snow — lead the eye deep into the picture as tiny incidents litter the landscapes — a man pulling shut a rabbit trap, distant ships tossed in a winter squall, a harvester quietly sharpening his scythe.

The series was painted for Nicolaes Jongelink, an Antwerp banker who once owned 16 of his friend Bruegel’s pictures, and were hung in his dining room. Their precise purpose and meaning, like much of Bruegel’s work, remains enigmatic but it seems likely that they were intended to spark discussion at a “convivium” — a gathering of intellectuals. Among the topics disputed might have been what lessons can be taken from the great cycle of life on display and perhaps whether the simple country life was preferable to that of Jongelink and his guests. They might have discussed too how Bruegel changed the focus so that middle-ground figures are more minutely painted than those in the foreground, how he forces the viewer to zoom in and out of the paintings rather like a peasant dance, and whether he had ingeniously given a new and monumental twist to the medieval book of hours.

What even the most meteorologically-minded couldn’t have known is that the severe winter of The Hunters in the Snow marked the beginning of Europe’s “Little Ice Age” and that the abundant harvests of the other paintings were about to become a thing of the past. Bruegel, though, was a painter with keen antennae and his horrific The Triumph of Death, c.1562, from the Prado, in which an army of skeletons slaughters the last remnants of mankind, is not just a reprise of the Hieronymus Bosch paintings he initially learned from but a presentiment of the outrages that were to come in a matter of years with the Dutch Revolt. Bruegel had sniffed the air.

For those who can’t get to Vienna to view this wondrous gathering of paintings, drawings and engravings by art’s great original, the accompanying book, Bruegel: The Master (Thames & Hudson, £42) offers an exemplary overview. It is, however, no substitute for standing and staring and then staring again and again. 

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"