Bruegel The Elder: Drawings and Prints at the Metropolitan Museum

September 25 – December 2, 2001

Even before I began my art education, Pieter Bruegel the Elder was one of the first painters I fell in love with, even though I did not know what it was that attracted me to his work. Years later, when I was in college, a friend gave me an old copy of Clive Bell’s book Art. I remembered how I enjoyed reading that book, especially a particular footnote in which Bell retells an anecdote told to him by Roger Fry about a Japanese cultural official. When he first came to Europe, he was taken on a tour of the museums with Fry. He felt at home with Byzantine art and the Italian primitives, but he had difficulty relating to the painting of the High Renaissance, with their sophisticated use of perspective and their highly individualized figures. I now wonder whether he saw any of Bruegel’s works during these visits.

It was that story that made me realize that my deep attraction to Bruegel has something to do with my own Oriental background. Of all the Western painters, I think Bruegel’s work most closely resembles classical Oriental painting, even though Oriental paintings, specifically landscape paintings, were intended for an elite aristocratic audience rather than the general public, and the concept of the imitation of nature was considered inferior, an impediment to true spiritual insight. The comparison may seem empty, given the significant differences in their technique and cultural heritage, not to mention the fact that specific geographic locals were of enormous importance to their work. Nonetheless, one of the first things one notices about Bruegel is that he must have been a great traveler, almost like a geographer, a map maker, and if one were to attach Bruegel’s drawings together, one would almost have the equivalent of an 11th century scroll painting, such as those of Hsu Tao-ning. Bruegel’s drawings are horizontally fluid and integrated, from one picture to the next.

Since a scroll was meant to be unrolled gradually, the painted scenery is designed to mimic the temporal process of a viewer walking through a landscape. Successive motifs are revealed through multiple points of view, every element in the landscape given equal emphasis and worth. The total construction and composition of a scroll painting depends on the moving focus of a traveler within the scenery. In addition, the source of light is diffuse. One of the principal differences between Bruegel’s drawings and Oriental landscape paintings is that, where the Oriental painters preferred ink and wash, Bruegel employed an intricate network of cross-hatchings stippling points, and dots. In both cases, there is a minimal display of light and dark, and shadows are rarely shown.

The splendid exhibition currently at the Metropolitan Museum, Pieter Bruegel the Elder: Drawings and Prints, is a terrific opportunity for all of us to reflect upon the rigorous objectivity of Bruegel’s oeuvre, and also upon Bruegel’s overall worldview in relation to his contemporaries. Bruegel’s interests can easily be divided into three categories: landscapes, the “Naer Het Leven” series from life, and the larger compositions, which were made for the purpose of reproduction through engraving and other printed means.

The art of landscape drawing and painting was a characteristic product of Renaissance humanism. The technique of conveying atmosphere in landscape was already an established genre long before Bruegel. There were, besides Altdorfer and Wolf Huber, a whole succession of older, accomplished landscape etchers such as Hirschvogel, Virgil Solis, and others who worked in a similar vein. There was also undoubtedly the influence of Albrecht Durer, especially the dazzling graphic clarity of his woodcuts; the phantasmagorical imaginative powers of Hieronymous Bosch; and also the panoramic landscapes of Domenico Campagnola and the disaster drawings of Leonardo da Vinci, which probably influenced Bruegel after his two visits to Italy between 1552 and 1553.

Bruegel’s landscapes are, however, far from the typical 17th century Dutch landscapes, with their wide, navigable rivers, arrangements of rolling hills and mountains, and inviting foregrounds. Bruegel’s landscapes suggest by contrast a more complex and even conflicted attitude toward nature. Some of the drawings reveal remarkable obstacles, strange monumental rocks with dangerous reefs, narrow and impossible passages through endless vistas, such as in “Alpine Landscape” (1553) and “Mountain Ravine” (1555) as well as in the few small drawings of rocky landscapes. Bruegel’s almost violent, ambivalent relationship to nature may have reflected his struggles with his marriage, which ended and led to his move to Brussels in 1564.

At the same time, one cannot help taking note of two stunning pictures: “Landscape with Town” and “St. Jerome”, dated 1553, and also, executed approximately two years after later, between 1555 and 1556, “Alpine Landscape with an Artist Sketching”. Between the two drawings, one witnesses an amazing transformation—a religious figure kneeling beneath a huge tree in the foreground of the former, the latter replaced by an artist sketching. Both configurations are relatively small in scale. I am inclined to think of the late Cezanne landscapes as a process of religious conversion, and indeed Gauguin wrote a letter in which he describes Cezanne as an Oriental mystic who sits on a mountaintop experiencing the grandeur of nature and dreaming of the cosmos. Besides the similarity of subject matter, one can also detect a shift in the character of the representation. In “Landscape with Town” and “St. Jerome”, for example, the horizon is set in the center of the picture, and the relationship between the foreground, middle and background is comparatively legible, as seen in the dark, bold contrasts of the large tree and the saint, whereas in “Alpine Landscape with an Artist Sketching” the whole vista rises upwards as though the sky has been reduced to make room for a spectacular, all-over view of nature, each element equally conceived. One might say that the artist has given in to the greater forces of nature.

The second group of Bruegel’s drawings is comprised of studies of single and sometimes two or more figures. “Naer Het Leven,” which is inscribed on most of these drawings, means “studies from life.” It is part of the Dutch tradition of portraying everyday activity and reality. But unlike most of his contemporaries, Bruegel’s principle choice of figures is exclusively focused on ordinary people in their humble, average existence. They are peasants, gypsies, and working men and women; people of the privileged classes almost never make an appearance in these studies.  What is most compelling about these drawings is that the figures are portrayed in their natural, transitory state, rarely depicted frontally. These drawings lead one to question the significance of frontal and profile positions as symbolic forms.

Standard in iconography from late antiquity through the Middle Ages, demonic or evil figures such as Judas are represented in profile, while sacred figures such as Christ face the viewer. In other words, a profile is detached form the viewer and belongs to the body in action, while the frontal holds our gaze directly, making the figure appear majestic and dignified. This notion was challenged during the rise of Renaissance humanism. In Giotto’s “The Betrayal of Christ” in the Arena Chapel in Padua, for example, we are presented with the poignant confrontation of the dissimilar profiles of Christ and Judas; both look at one another an inch or two apart, as if, in that instant, they are questioning and revealing their souls. In Bruegel’s drawings, through his consistent depiction of bodies in their natural and casual repose, figures are more frequently than not portrayed from the back or three-quarter view, standing or sitting, with little gesturing of hands. They are distant from the Italian humanist emphasis on the character and personality of the unique individual. In fact, Bruegel’s drawings recall the great drawing book Mangwa by Hokusai, not only because of their economic use of line and sheer virtuosity, but also because of the artist’s ability to capture such a wide variety of people in their physiognomic and natural setting. Like Bruegel, Hokusai’s whimsical sensitivity reveals his contempt for the polite usages of society.

In the third group are the preliminary drawings, and the engravings printed after them. Since these drawings were made precisely for the purpose of reproduction, they were conceived as finished works. The outlines of the figures are meticulously rendered, compared to the more spontaneous, bold chalk lines of the “Naer Het Leven” series. As one would expect, with the elevated horizon, there is more space for action, which in this case allows for a lavish display of fantastic, metamorphic animals, demons and ghosts. Unlike the satirical aspects of Hieronymous Bosch, Bruegel’s interpretation of common themes like the Temptation of Saint Anthony has a different significance. The uncanny world of demons and phantoms in Bruegel’s world evokes a fundamentally different kind of sentiment than that of Bosch’s work. In our primitive experience, we easily associate our feelings with certain animals, especially when their physiognomies are distorted, grafting human features onto animal parts. This absurd, gruesome vision is perhaps best illustrated in the series Virtues and Vices. These drawings are essentially commentaries on Counter-Reformation orthodoxy, yet unlike Bosch, where the sensual elements are the central emphasis, and the artist’s projection of the world of demons is more self-conscious, Bruegel’s theater of demons is the result of his resistance to the pleasures of greed and sensuality. While the images are closely bound up with his rational imagination, every single so-called “individualized” creature is so idle it appears complacent, submerged in its own fantasy world. One might call this Bruegel’s “Allegory of Laziness.”

In the end, the purpose of Bruegel’s work is to demonstrate man’s insignificance in relation to nature. Bruegel’s world is a world in which man loses his individuality and will. All man can do is submit to his passive state in order to be in harmony with nature. I might as well conclude with a few lines from W.H. Auden’s famous poem, “Musee de Beaux Arts”:

In Bruegel’s Icarus, for instance: How

everything turns away

Quite leisurely from the disaster; the

ploughman may

Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,

But for him it was not an important failure;

the sun shone

As it had to on the white legs disappearing

into the green

Water; and the expansive delicate ship that

must have seen

Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,

Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly



Phong Bui