Bruegel: The Hand of the Master, 2 October 2018-13 January 2019, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
This is the first comprehensive exhibition of Pieter Bruegel the Elder to be mounted anywhere in the world: two thirds of his known works and almost half his known drawings and engravings. It’s an exhibition which needs time and patience, (it is very crowded), but will not disappoint. Wherever you look in Bruegel’s art, another human marvel hits you. His paintings are worlds on oak panels, packed with all the inanity of the human race. Each one is abundant enough to look at for hours.
There is also a fascinating section on how he prepared the wooden panels on which he chose to paint although, by the second half of the 16th century, when he worked, canvas was becoming more common. Hard oak surfaces give his paintings their prismatic solid brightness. Bruegel’s drawings are revelatory: landscapes are full of forensically observed leaves and tree bark, mountain slopes and distant castles. He made a trip to Italy, hence the rather wacky addition of Italianate hills and Alpine peaks in Flemish flatlands. But this eye for landscape is essential to his magic. It grounds his extraordinary display of humanity into a sense of home, weighting his vision into ours. Everything becomes believable.
Here are some of my favourite images:
Here is the formidable Dulle Griet, known as Mad Meg, carrying away plunder from the field of hell. Here she is,storming through the battlefield,a casket of money tucked under her arm, armed with a sword and a frying pan. This is a strong woman battling hideous small monsters and marauding soldiers. This work inspired Bertolt Brecht’s play Mother Courage. It’s a spectre of hell with a woman protecting all she has: she thinks only of surviving with the loot, and why the hell shouldn’t she?
The detail of daily life is extraordinary. This is a crane circa 1563 in his Tower of Babel, which is powered by men running in a wheel-like contraption, much like hamsters.
From a slightly elevated viewpoint we look down on a Flemish village through gently falling snow. You can almost touch the flakes, and according to the curators this is perhaps the very first painting in which falling snow is depicted. You are so immersed in the wintry scene that you practically miss the stars of the show. This is after all the Adoration of the Magi but they are easy to overlook, as are the Virgin Mary and her all important infant. The genius of Bruegel is that he brings home the story of the birth of Christ by nestling it in a snowy village at home.
This tiny work has only recently been rediscovered. The hapless peasant is being punished by his fellow villagers for being drunk so they lock him up with the pigs.
Celebrating the end of a successful harvest,one of the peasants keeps his spoon close to his head so it is not stolen during the dancing.
This is the end of the world as we know it…for all of you optimists-here there is no hope. Death awaits everyone. Always look on the bright side? Forget it. This must surely be one of the world’s most radical of paintings.
Bruegel:The Hand of the Master, Kunsthistorisches Museum until January 13, 2019.