As I’ve written elsewhere, Bruegel the Elder was, at his best, a great painter. No, he was not a technical master, like Caravaggio, nor diverse as some later artists, but he still had one disadvantage that later painters did not: he started at the bottom. And I don’t mean this in the typical socioeconomic sense, just that, excepting Hieronymous Bosch, who died a few years before the artist’s birth, and served as a kind of model, there was remarkably little depth in the art world, as a whole. Yes, the Renaissance Masters have some argument for greatness, in their very best work, but conceptually, the Renaissance was exactly what the term means: a “re-birth,” but of older ideas, decidedly un-modern except in a few details (Christianity, for instance, replaced Roman religion), and were, therefore, stuck in the past, even as one part attuned itself to the future. So, Bruegel had to depend upon himself – at least ideationally – in the same way that later artists would grow to depend upon Bruegel, showing, as he did, new ways to interpret ancient myths, and a subtler, less didactic means of treating religion.
One of Bruegel’s most famous paintings, Landscape With The Fall Of Icarus, illustrates the above quite well. No, it is not, on a purely technical level, on par with later, better paintings by others — just consider its flat, almost medieval-like quality — but on the plus side, while it could have been handicapped by its almost clichéd mythological subject, it subverts not only its own topic, but the very genre of landscape painting as a whole. Note, for instance, the simple pastoral scene, a shepherd casually looking up (a forgettable gesture, that), a fisherman, a ship, the indifferent backdrop, by the mountains… Yet the painting purports to be of Icarus, a subject that, in virtually every interpretation of the myth, from writing to visual art, would put HIS misfortune to the front. In fact, it takes a long time to even notice the boy’s legs (the only part of him that’s visible), which, once seen, really change’s the nature of the painting. The indifference of the farmer with his horse, or the fisherman’s complete lack of notice reveals how utterly small this event must be to everyone else involved — for even the shepherd, the lone person to even glance up, will, most likely, second-guess himself in the end, turn his face back to his sheep, and move along. The subject, then, is not REALLY Icarus (although the viewer expects him to be), but patterns of human interaction, and the loneliness such events usually engender. One can’t say too much for the technical depths, within, yet the medieval style works MUCH better for the subject, anyway, and the ideational depths — really, Bosch’s and Bruegel’s primary strength — would come to define artistic modernism at a time when few seemed to really care for such.… Continue reading →