The many talents of Pieter Bruegel the Elder

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THE MUSIC is playing and the ale flowing freely as guests throng into a barn. Two cooks bring soup to a dining table crowded with men, women, dogs and children. It is a wedding, but the bride’s calm expression gives little away. It is hard to discern the bridegroom.

“Peasant Wedding” (1567) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder is a milestone in Western art, for it is the first everyday scene depicted in monumental form. As the stuff of Christmas cards and jigsaws, it is among the world’s best-known paintings, much like his “Hunters in the Snow” (1565). These works, and his Wimmelbilder—“busy pictures” such as “Children’s Games” (1560, pictured below), which shows more than 200 little figures at play—earned him the nickname “Peasant Bruegel”. That is only part of the picture, as a magnificent new exhibition of around half Bruegel’s extant works at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, commemorating the 450th anniversary of his death, reveals.

Bruegel was the most important Flemish painter of the 16th century. He was a key player in the northern Renaissance, where the art was quirkier and more secular but no less pathbreaking than in the better-known south. The exhibition cleverly connects Bruegel with his southern counterparts by highlighting the influence of Venetian painters such as Titian. Followers at first, artists in the Low Countries re-embraced classical ideas but kept them on a human scale.  

The first paintings in the show are from his “Seasons” cycle in 1565. These works are based on medieval depictions of peasants going about their daily tasks, but Bruegel focused on landscape to great effect. The frozen mountains and glowering skies of “The Gloomy Day” convey the miseries of a still-lingering winter; off in the distance, a boat sinks in rough seas. In contrast, the serene, apple-green valley of “The Haymaking” conjures the productive pleasures of early summer. Elsewhere, as his figures thread their way along winding mountain paths or across open spaces, Bruegel uses the landscape to play with perspective. Human beings are often dwarfed by nature. The protagonist of a painting’s title—most notably “Christ Carrying the Cross” (1564)—will frequently be hard to spot. Bruegel’s triumph was to present a wealth of detail in a dramatic, coherent whole. 

A dark thread runs through Bruegel’s work, and the politics of the time must go some way to explaining it. Flanders was under Habsburg rule throughout the artist’s lifetime, with power passing to the Spanish branch of the dynasty in 1556 and the Duke of Alba (the “Iron Duke”) initiating a reign of terror in 1567. Whether he was referring to these events in the “The Massacre of the Innocents” is a matter of debate among scholars, partly because the work is undated. The version on show in Vienna is a copy, one that bears witness to the fact the Bruegel had graphically depicted soldiers killing children. The artwork as it exists today has no such brutal details since Rudolf II, the Holy Roman Emperor who owned it, ordered that they be painted over.

Dark, but in a different way, are Bruegel’s monster-filled, nightmarish scenes, where he builds on the hallucinatory work of Hieronymus Bosch. In the engraving “Big Fish Eat Little Fish” (1557), a man takes a huge knife to the belly of a fish. Out tumble many small fish, which in turn have even smaller ones in their mouths. It is a grim illustration of how society’s “small fry” will always be chewed up by the rich and powerful.

In a league of its own, however, is “The Triumph of Death” (after 1562, pictured top). Here a terrified crowd flees a flaming “hell wagon”—a feature of Flemish festive processions—only to find themselves in a death trap. Time runs out for a king on an hourglass; a woman is trampled by a horse pulling a skull-filled cart. Bruegel holds the viewer spellbound before an apocalyptic panorama in which an army of skeletons makes sure no one escapes. As the exhibition puts it: “No solace, no redemption, no sign of God.” Art does not come much bleaker than this.

If the earthy, wry “Peasant Bruegel” is well known, the impressive show in Vienna reveals an artist pushing the bounds of storytelling in landscape painting. Though few facts about him are known, you sense in Bruegel’s art a deeply humanist response to his troubled times. His work was much, much more than a Christmas-card vision of jolly peasant life.  

“Pieter Bruegel: Once in a Lifetime” is on display at Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna until January 13th 

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