Flanders celebrates one of its greatest Old Masters
This year marks the 450th anniversary of the death of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, famous for his glorification of the landscape, depictions of rural life and of the humble peasant as the embodiment of Flemish identity.
In Bruegel’s paintings the crippled, the blind, the sick and the downtrodden take centre stage, while village hubbub can almost be heard ringing out from his scenes of wedding feasts, children’s games, brawls and dancing.
Bruegel’s work, however, is not all about bawdy humour. It also has a darker, more sombre side, for example when based on religious parables or reflecting on the struggle between good and evil or life and death. Often too they contain a hidden message, a critical social comment or a jibe at the ruling classes.
Little has been recorded about Bruegel’s life. His birth is put somewhere between 1525 and 1530 in any one of several places. However, his death in 1569 is in no doubt, so 2019 has become a year to celebrate his life and work in a series of special exhibitions and events throughout the Belgian region of Flanders.
Set in rolling countryside in the Pajottenland, southwest of Brussels where Bruegel is known to have gone for artistic inspiration, the 16th century Gaasbeek Castle is a huge, turreted affair surrounded by a deep, grassy ditch which once held a moat. Contemporary sculptures are dotted along the path leading to the castle and it is entered over a former drawbridge and through an imposing gate.
Displayed amid the huge fireplaces, opulent chandeliers, suits of armour, patterned wall coverings, decorated tile floors and stained glass, leaded windows is the exhibition Feast of Fools: Bruegel Rediscovered (until Jul 28), which features over a hundred paintings and sculptures by a number of 20th century artists who rediscovered Bruegel and considers how they handled his legacy between and after the wars. They include James Ensor, Otto Dix, George Grosz, August Sander, Gustave van de Woestyne, Valerius de Saedeleer and Constant Permeke. Alongside them is work by over two dozen contemporary artists who were invited to reinterpret Bruegel.
Both complementing and clashing with the castle’s own portraits, scenes of lavish meals, garden parties, religious paintings and sculptures, the styles of the two artist groups range from works most obviously influenced by Bruegel, such Van de Woestyne’s ‘The Bad Sower’ (1908) or De Saedeleer’s ‘Winter (1926), to a video diptych by Grazia Toderi (Italy) showing an eerie city landscape composed of layered urban views, or a monster-like sculpture by Anetta Mona Chisa (Romania) and Lucia Tkacova (Slovakia) built from small animal bones. Music and literature also feature.
A few kilometres towards Brussels is the village of Sint Anna-Pede, the starting point for a free, seven-kilometre cycling and walking trail connecting twelve installations which both evoke and update the role of the landscape in Bruegel’s work.
Bruegel’s Eye: Reconstructing the Landscape (until Oct 31) comprises work by fourteen contemporary artists, landscape architects and “spatial designers” who were invited to ‘intervene’ on the landscape by borrowing from Bruegel’s method of ‘composing’ his paintings with elements from the Pajottenland countryside to create their own interpretations of his work. The results range from new greenery, landscape features or structures (the visitor centre is a white-washed, glass pavilion with peep-holes in the shape of objects from Bruegel paintings) to installations or a story. A few works will be permanent, although most will be removed at the end of the project.
The ‘interventions’ do something with the place. They play with perception, have a disorientating effect or help focus attention, often creating new, unexpected environments. Some works are linked with each other, while they all are somehow linked with Bruegel’s paintings.
The tour starts and ends at two buildings which were painted by Bruegel: the Church of Sint Anna-Pede, featured in ‘The Parable of the Blind’ (you can stand virtually on the very spot where he sketched it) and the watermill at Sint Gertrudis-Pede, which is depicted in ‘The Magpie on the Gallows’ and possibly in ‘The Return of the Herd’.
Bruegel did not paint ‘true to life’, but introduced a new perspective by depicting landscapes from a bird’s eye view, distorting the scenes and combining elements. Much like an early “photoshopper”, he composed his landscapes with diverse elements. And so the foreground might be peopled by characters he saw on his visits to the country, the middle section formed by the local landscape and the background by a meandering river or jagged mountain peaks based on sketches of the Alps made on his travels to Italy. Similarly, the fourteen installations in Bruegel’s Eye add a twist to the otherwise bucolic landscape.
Bruegel’s artistic career was short (he died in his forties) and only about forty of his paintings survive, with the Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium in Brussels holding the second largest ensemble. (The Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna has the largest, since most of his paintings were bought by members of the ruling aristocracy of Bruegel’s time, the Austrian-based Habsburgs.)
Original works in the Bruegel Room at the Old Masters Museum include ‘The Fall of Icarus’ (his only mythological scene), ‘Winter Landscape with a Bird Trap and Skaters’ (Bruegel was the first artist to make a repertoire of snow scenes, depicting the long, harsh winters in what was a ‘little ice age’), ‘The Fall of the Rebel Angels’, ‘Census at Bethlehem’ and ‘Adoration of the Kings’. There are also several copies by his sons and followers, who cashed in on Bruegel mania after his death.
You can also visit the Bruegel Box, a room where three immersive videos, each based on one painting, are projected onto the walls from floor to ceiling. Bruegel’s life and work are also explored in twelve ‘virtual’ exhibitions shown on interactive screens throughout the Old Masters Museum. And if that isn’t enough, the Google Cardboard Viewer provides a 360° experience of ‘The Fall of the Rebel Angels’ in which the painting comes to life, while you can also find a virtual reality experience of the work on YouTube.
Down the long stairway from the Mont des Arts, where the Royal Museum stands, the Palais de la Dynastie is hosting a multimedia exhibition entitled Beyond Bruegel (throughout 2019), in which new technologies are interwoven with Bruegel works to enable visitors to take a virtual walk through his paintings.
High definition details from Bruegel works are brought to life as monsters’ jaws gape, angels’ wings flap, banners wave, swords flail and butterflies flutter by. One large room offers a totally immersive experience, as the walls and floor become projections screens. It’s all accompanied by music and sound effects, with a dramatic voice-over, supposedly by Bruegel himself (bizarrely, in an American accent – or is it Canadian?) describing the ‘action’ in the paintings and their historical context.
Also in Brussels, the Centre for Fine Arts, known locally as Bozar (Beaux-Arts – geddit?), is showing Prints in the Age of Bruegel (until June 23), an overview of print production in the Southern Netherlands showing some of the many lesser known gems of printmaking that the painter’s own production tends to overshadow. (Fifty kilometres away, Antwerp became Europe’s leading graphic art centre in Bruegel’s century.)
Apart from the people who bought them, Bruegel’s paintings were seen by few people in his lifetime, and his popularity stemmed from engravings of his drawings as the age of printing brought about an avalanche of reproductions.
The medium was both varied and flexible. Far from everything which rolled off the presses was intended as art, and printmaking was used for several forms of visual communication ranging from early newspapers to political propaganda – although talented painters, sculptors and architects usually guaranteed a good design.
A pleasant, 90-minute train ride east of Brussels is the town of Bokrijk, where an open air museum of historic buildings, daily life objects and activities in an idyllic, Bruegelesque landscape have been drawing crowds since 1958.
Just as Bruegel assembled diverse elements in his landscapes, the museum itself was carefully composed. In fact, Jozef Weyns, the first curator, wanted to call it Bruegelheem (Bruegelhome) and fashioned it after the artist’s depictions of village life by combining elements from different farms. As it was, the museum was temporarily renamed Bruegel Farm on the 400th anniversary of the artist’s death in 1969 and Weyns published a four-volume inventory of historic tools and utensils by studying works by Bruegel and other Old Masters.
For this anniversary year the museum has added The World of Bruegel (until Oct 20), a two-kilometre trail with interactive stations along the way, each one covering a specific theme related to the artist and with buildings and artefacts which seem to come straight out of one of his works. It all combines to make up a pleasant, contemporary experience of everyday life in the 16th century.
During the walk, four Bruegel works are examined: ‘The Months’, ‘The Poor Kitchen’, ‘The Rich Kitchen’ and ‘The Battle between Carnival and Lent’.
‘The Months’ was a series of six panels showing the cycle of the seasons two months at a time and of which only five survive. Artist Frits Jeuris has attempted to fill the gap with ‘The Lost Season’, a digital interpretation based on the countryside around Bokrijk and shown between illuminated panels of the surviving works.
The tour ends in a vast barn, where a vast reproduction of ‘The Battle between Carnival and Lent’ is printed on the floor under a huge, angled mirror. By sitting or lying in life-size indents of characters in the work cut out like jigsaw pieces, you can look up and see yourself in a Bruegel painting!
Further info: www.bruegel2019.be