We were fortunate enough to obtain an exclusive preview of the upcoming event, “The Bruegel Success Story,” to be held 12-14 September 2018 in Brussels, Belgium. (http://conf.kikirpa.be/bruegel2018/) This can’t-miss conference kicks off a number of activities celebrating the life and work of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, who died 450 years ago. We corresponded with one of the conference organizers, Dr. Christina Currie, Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (KIK-IRPA), who gave us this exciting preview of the conference:
1) What led to focusing on Bruegel and his family for this conference?
The year 2019 is the 450th anniversary of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s death. In Belgium and in Vienna, this is being marked by a series of events that will celebrate his career and his influence on later generations. The Bruegel Success Story conference, organised by the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (KIK-IRPA) in collaboration with the Royal Museums of Fine Arts in Belgium, will kick off this season of activities and will give a riveting context for all the subsequent Bruegel themed happenings.
2) What will attendees of the conference learn?
Attendees will be exposed to the very latest in Bruegel research through the eyes of experts from all around the world. Eminent keynote speakers Leen Huet (Belgium), Elizabeth Honig (USA) and Matt Kavaler (Canada) will introduce each of the three days. Over the course of the conference, presentations will cover the life and work of Pieter Bruegel the Elder as well as that of his artistic progeny, including the astonishingly exact replicas of his paintings produced by his elder son Pieter Brueghel the Younger and the exquisite paintings of his younger son Jan Brueghel the Elder. Fascinating new findings on the creative process of Bruegel the Elder as well as that of his dynasty will be presented for the first time, thanks to new high resolution scientific imagery. But the conference does not neglect the essential meaning behind these beautiful works of art. Several speakers will concentrate specifically on the interpretation of Bruegel’s paintings and drawings, which can be quite subversive when seen in an historical context. Interesting new facts about the life, family and homes of the Bruegel family will also be revealed.
3) Who should attend this conference?
The Bruegel Success Story is intended for all art lovers with an interest in Flemish painting and particularly those attracted to Bruegelian themes such as peasant dances, landscapes, proverbs and maniacal scenes. Students of art history, art historians, restorers and collectors should not pass up this opportunity.
3) There are a number of papers focusing on Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting “Dulle Griet.” Why is that painting receiving attention now?
The Dulle Griet, in the collection of the Mayer van den Bergh Museum in Antwerp, has just undergone the most thorough conservation treatment in its recent history. This has brought to light many original features that were previously hidden behind a murky brown varnish and overpaint. The restoration, carried out at the Royal Institute for Cultural Institute in Brussels, was accompanied by in-depth technical examination that resulted in fascinating discoveries about Bruegel the Elder’s creative process. The conference attendees will hear how this great artist conceived, developed and painted this bizarre macabre composition. Leen Huet, one of the keynote speakers and author of a sensational recent biography on Bruegel the Elder, will delve into the hidden meaning behind the Dulle Griet.
4) One of the biggest bombshells in recent years was the revelation in your book (“The Brueg(h)el Phenomenon”) that Bruegel the Elder’s two versions of “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” were not painted by Bruegel the Elder. Will there be similar surprises unveiled at the conference?
I can say that attributions will be debated during the conference. This is always the case when a group of experts on a particular artist or dynasty get together. And it can lead to sparks flying as opinions naturally diverge!
5) There has also been a good deal of investigation into Bruegel’s extended family lately. What will attendees learn about Bruegel’s family at the conference?
Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s paintings were so loved that his son and heir Pieter Brueghel the Younger made his entire career out of producing replicas for an insatiable art market in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century. Jan Brueghel, his younger brother, updated the family tradition, branching out into flower paintings, allegories and mythological themes. The next generation produced several renowned painters too, including Abraham Brueghel, who traded on the family name. The paintings of the Bruegel dynasty, as well as those of lesser-known artists working in the Bruegel tradition in the Low Countries and abroad, will feature amongst the exciting new material presented during the conference.
Bosch and Bruegel: From Enemy Painting to Everyday Life
By Joseph Leo Koerner
Princeton University Press, 2016
Koerner’s beautifully illustrated book focuses on the rise of secular European art after centuries’ of religious-themed works. He chronicles the growth of secular painting, which later became known as “genre painting,” or works which portray everyday European life. Koerner’s thesis is that the transition to secular painting had its roots in Bosch’s depictions of demons and phantasmagoric creatures, which were representations of human weakness and sin (referred to as “enemy painting”). Bruegel’s paintings, 50 years after Bosch, also contained “undesirable” images, but instead of fantastic creatures, Bruegel focused on human foolishness in his depictions of peasants dancing and other imprudent antics.
Koerner constructs a compelling argument for this thesis, which is greatly enhanced by the book’s abundant images from both Bosch and Bruegel’s paintings. Koerner demonstrates that surviving paintings by both artists show a commonality of subjects; demons, fools, and knaves (“gluttons, lazybones, drunkards, dupes, thieves, bullies, charlatans and quacks”). Lost paintings by Bosch also included subjects that are now closely associated with Bruegel, including “peasant dances and peasant weddings, a huge Battle between Carnival and Lent, a Tower of Babylon, a feast of Saint Martin and works on linen of beggars, merrymakers” and others. As Koerner notes, Bosch appears to have painted nearly all of the subjects now typically associated with European genre painting.
Not only was Bosch and Bruegel’s subject matter similar, but the gestalt of the paintings were also parallel. A bird’s-eye point of view is common to both artist’s compositions. In addition, Bosch and Bruegel filled their works with richly detailed, intricate figures. Their paintings overload our senses with characters and figures that seem to stretch far beyond the limits of the physical works. Further to the similarity of the two artist’s paintings, Koerner points out that until fairly recently, major works by Bruegel were attributed to Bosch, including “The Triumph of Death” in the Prado and “The Fall of The Rebel Angels” in Brussels.
Bosch and Bruegel’s painterly styles were similar too, in that both artists allowed the ground paint layer to penetrate the upper paint layer in certain sections, contributing to the final look of the pictures.
Koerner connects the two artists via their patrons as well. Both were sought out by the elite of their day, including high-ranking politicians and famous humanists. Bosch and Bruegel frequently signed their works, which was not typical of artists of this time period (with the exception of Jan van Eyck).
Koerner spends equal time discussing the artist’s differences as well, stating that “no one makes Bosch seem more historically remote than does Bruegel.” With Bosch, the enemy is the Devil and sin, while Bruegel demonstrated that “genuine evil flourishes in the activity of ordinary people.”
The second two-thirds of the book are comprised of detailed sections relating the life and artistic output of first Bosch, then Bruegel. Koerner reviews key works from both artists and how these works fit into the themes of the book. For Bosch, Koerner zeros in on The Garden of Earthly Delights, which to this day continues to baffle viewers trying to “crack the code” of this enigmatic work. In a later chapter Koerner focuses on Bruegel’s The Magpie on the Gallows, tying this work back to Bosch’s heaven and hell imagery, with peasants dancing beneath the gallows.
Koerner convincingly links Bosch and Bruegel together as the originators of “genre scenes” and brings a fresh perspective to both artist’s works, tying them to the larger context of subsequent European paintings. This book is an excellent addition to both Bosch and Bruegel scholarship, leaving the reader with an even greater admiration of these two towering artist’s talents.
Years ago, while visiting the National Gallery of Denmark, I was stopped in my tracks as I came across a painting identified as a Bruegel the Elder work. I wasn’t floored so much for the painting’s beauty, but my mouth hung open because I had never seen it or heard of it before. The painting, “Christ Driving the Money-Lenders From the Temple,” was listed in none of my many Bruegel monographs. How could this be? I wondered. How can a museum hang a work and call it “Bruegel” when everyone else in the world doesn’t agree that it is a Bruegel?
Currently a fascinating exhibit covering the painting is underway. Tracing Bosch and Bruegel: Four Paintings Magnified investigates four similar paintings that are done in the Bosch style, which was also emulated by Bruegel in his earlier paintings. The exhibit seeks to answer the questions of who painted the works and when were they painted. Further, how did these four very different paintings of essentially the same scene come to hang in the three galleries and one private collection?
While my specific question regarding the labeling of the Copenhagen painting isn’t answered in the exhibit, it does provide countless other fascinating details. You can learn more about the exhibit at the excellent website: http://www.bosch-bruegel.com. The creators of the website should be applauded at their exceptional work. While I am not likely to see the exhibit in any of the locations to which it travels, I feel as if I have experienced it due to the wealth of information provided on the web. In addition, at least two conferences and a monograph are planned around the exhibitions, with further interesting information certainly to be revealed.
I’ve really enjoyed reading the Twitter feed as the exhibit came together. Hannah Tempest did an excellent job tweeting the process of cleaning and restoration, and providing highly interesting images.
The questions remains – after the exhibit and the Copenhagen painting travels back to the National Gallery – will it still be labeled as “Bruegel?”
I’m interested to hear from folks who have seen the exhibit first hand. What was it like?