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Pieter Bruegel the Elder: Two studies.

Walter S. Gibson. (The Franklin D. Murphy Lectures, 11.) Lawrence: Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas, 1991. 81 figs. + 95 pp. $12.

Bruegel scholars are in an unenviable position, for they arguably study the most undocumented artist of any stature in the sixteenth century. No correspondence has survived, no evidence regarding his education, nor the identity of the majority of his (presumed) patrons. Given such a paucity of material, scholars have developed a variety of methods to examine the oeuvre; Gibson and Sullivan represent two distinct avenues.

Walter Gibson's Two Studies is an example of what we have come to expect of this scholar: a smoothly written, meticulously documented discussion drawing upon two decades of investigation of the artist. Of the two essays the second, devoted to the Prado Triumph of Death, is particularly welcome since, as the author himself notes, this is one of the artist's least studied panels. "Bruegel appears to have invented a totally new subject," Gibson writes, and then examines the various iconographic traditions that the artist drew upon for his unique panel. Precisely because Bruegel's life and especially his trip to Italy are so sparsely documented, the most useful discussion centers around the significance of the Italian miniaturist Giulio Clovio's reworking of the Legend of the Three Living and the Three Dead into the escalated Battle of the Living and the Dead. Clovio's will establishes that he and Bruegel collaborated while the latter was in Italy, but evidence of that collaboration in Bruegel's extant oeuvre has been up to this point virtually nonexistent. By redirecting attention from a search for formal traces of Italian art to Bruegel's interest in a newly developed topic, Gibson has opened up a profitable avenue of research.

In the longer of his two essays, "Bruegel and the Peasants: A Problem of Interpretation," Gibson addresses a polemic that began nearly two decades ago when Svetlana Alpers and Hessel Miedema engaged in a lively exchange in Simiolus as to whether the peasants in Bruegel's paintings should be considered as moral exempla in the late-medieval tradition, or whether, as Alpers had first proposed, they might be evidence of festive practices and the comic, not satiric mode of representation. Of the subsequent publications aligned with Miedema's position, Hans-Joachim Raupp's 1986 Bauernsatiren has been the most influential. Gibson seeks to refute Raupp's contention that Bruegel's peasants fall squarely within the genre of peasant satire.

He first sketches out a favorable attitude toward peasants and countryside, ranging from Montaigne to the Georgics to rederijker plays performed in Antwerp in 1561; he then examines an evolution within Bruegel's oeuvre from his use of conventional types to an interest in depicting lively, immediate scenes with naturalistic figures "comport[ing] themselves with the dignity and restraint appropriate to their class" (43) Finally he associates Bruegel's Detroit and Vienna panels with a nostalgia for the peace and abundance that the countryside could represent. At least momentarily, the reader is convinced: yes, there is such a tradition of representing the peasant in a favorable light; yes, Bruegel does omit the indecorous behavior his contemporaries illustrated yes there is a progression to m ore naturalistic, lifelike portrayal of he festive customs of the countryside. Yet no matter how authoritative the argument based upon visual evidence, with such a dearth of documentation a reader is unlikely to be thoroughly convinced. Until we have a better sense of he community Bruegel painted for, and what the horizon of expectations might have been, we will have little foundation from which to choose one finely crafted argument over another.

In Bruegel's Peasants, Margaret Sullivan addresses this lacuna. Identifying approximately eighty men who were associated either with Bruegel's print publisher Hieronymus Cock, the artist's admirer Abraham Ortelius, or with the most active publisher of the period in Antwerp, Christopher Plantin, she sets about to reconstruct the "interpretive model' the audience brought to this particular visual encounter" (8), that is to the two Vienna panels, Peasant Wedding Breakfast and Peasant Dance. Suggesting that any representation of a peasant who was not laboring was a negative one, the author argues that given their knowledge of ancient arts and letters, this "Christian humanist" audience would have viewed the paintings as satires, "earnest jests" in which the didactic exists sub specie lusus.

It is a promising approach. Northern men of letters were even more bereft of instruction for the viewing and interpreting of images than their ultra-montane counterparts, and it would be reasonable to assume that like the Italians they turned to the ancients for guidance. But to represent the interests of an interpreting community convincingly the art historian needs to venture into not one, but a number of sister disciplines and return with reliable data. This Sullivan fails to do.

Perhaps the most problematic area is the indistinct portrait she offers of the group she identifies as Bruegel's associates. Too often the author relies on the Belgian 1866-1944 Biographie nationale, with only a few more recent citations, omitting in large part the wealth of material published in the past half century on humanism in the Low Countries in general and Antwerp in particular. There is no mention, for example, of the standard 1978 biography of Coornhert nor any of the subsequent literature, with the result that this complex figure who penned to Ortelius the few lines we have on one of Bruegel's compositions is described as having an "interest in Latin." Mere "interest"? Only in Latin? Coornhert translated Boethius twice, once from an obscure Flemish version, once from the Latin; translated Homer from a Latin translation; Boccaccio from a French edition; Plato by way of Ficino; all in addition to (as indeed Sullivan mentions) Cicero and Seneca. With little sense of what these men brought to their study of the ancients, Sullivan either reads their sixteenth-century texts ingenuously, or returns to the ancients for her interpretations. Her "audience" is depicted as if they were contemporaries of Lucian or Juvenal rather than Renaissance men who read those texts. The entire problematic of interpretation in the Renaissance is thereby omitted.

The lack of breadth is apparent in the art historical passages as well. An interesting association of Alciati's emblem of Desidia with the figure on the far right of Bruegel's Wedding Breakfast results in the somewhat dubious conclusion that the "gentleman is as lazy and profligate as the peasants he considers his inferiors." Sullivan fails to mention that there has been considerable scholarly speculation, based on an engraved portrait of the artist, that the figure in question is Bruegel's self-portrait -- surely a resemblance Bruegel's associates would have found notable. She herself reproduces the engraving some 70 pages earlier. Editorial proofreading exhibits the same inattention to detail, to the extent that it is distracting. Sullivan's promising approach is vitiated.
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Author:Serebrennikov, Nina Eugenia
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1996
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