Drakopoulos, Pan: Bruegel and Bosch

Bruegel and Bosch

The monster and the folly

IT WAS A STRANGE SENSATION: As though a de profundis confession were ‘the violent play of a fool’, as though the painful revelation of the darkest nook of the subconscious were nothing but ‘a fabrication of Ariel’.

It was in Amsterdam, early in the evening, as we were coming out of the Rijksmuseum and were going up to Rembrantsplein having once again been assured that what we call ‘everyday’ reality is what great geniuses have realized in their inspired hours and not at all the standard measures of the many. The doors to the special exhibition of Pieter Bruegel’s etchings had already been closed. Within the Museum, the thousands of enigmatic creatures that Bruegel had trapped in his paintings had been left looking unrelentingly at one another, whilst outside the Museum all of us -people and things- were behaving as though everything was ‘normal’, as though ‘life’ had its own rhythm, as though Bruegel had never cast his eyes upon us. Nevertheless, somewhere nearby we could hear the prudent voice of the Duke of Albany from “King Lear”:

If that the heavens do not their visible spirits

Send quickly down to tame these vile offenses,

It will come:

Humanity must perforce prey on itself,

Like monsters of the deep.

Bruegel was born, between 1525-1530, probably in the small township of Breda in North Brabant -now in the Netherlands. He was apprenticed to Pieter Coecke van Aelst before he was 20; and in 1550. after his master’s death, he was apprenticed to Hieronymous Cock. In 1551 the Antwerp guild of painters and sculptors gave him the title of “master engraver”, a profession that was first recognized by the guild. The following year Bruegel traveled in Italy to get acquainted with Italian painting. He went to Naples and Palermo where he must have undoubtedly seen the fascinating Byzantine mosaics in the churches of that city. For some time he lived also in Rome and worked in Giulio Clovio’s workshop; later, another apprentice of singular talent, El Greco, strode into the same workshop. And it was there that Bruegel produced his earliest signed and dated painting.

After his return, at an unknown date, Bruegel lived and worked in Antwerp. In 1563 he got married to his first master’s daughter and installed himself in her house in Brussels. There he lived until the day of his death, September 5th, 1569.

Few artists during their lifetime won as much fame as Pieter Bruegel. Yet Bruegel divided his public into three categories, but he underestimated none; he communicated with each of them using a particular expressive medium. In the first category belonged his wife Mayken and a few close friends (among them the famous cartographer Abraham Ortelius). To that intimate group Bruegel showed his drawings on paper. Those drawings were like the artist’s “personal diary” since his main interest was scenes of everyday life, in particular scenes of the traffic on the roads. There are many of his drawings that witness the repulsion he felt for the institutional Church -he equally disliked Catholics and Lutherans- and although he was not an atheist he was a strong anti-clericalist. Moreover, he was a fiery patriot. Many of his drawings were a fulmination against Spain, which then occupied Flanders. Bruegel, before he died, asked his wife to burn his drawings but nobody knows how obedient Mayken was; in any case, only a few drawings have come to us.

His paintings were also meant for a limited public although not as limited as the one for his drawings; they were intended for the rich and aristocratic only; it is interesting to note that Bruegel never painted in churches or other places that were open to a wide public. The municipal Council in Brussels commissioned Bruegel for a series of paintings in commemoration of the construction of the canal that linked Brussels with Antwerp, but there is no evidence whatever that the artist worked on that commission. All of his paintings were commissioned by rich collectors in Flanders who worshiped his work. One of them was Niclaes Jonghlinck who had 16 of his paintings.

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