Rediscovering the great 16th-century Netherlandish painter

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Rediscovering the great 16th-century Netherlandish painter

Bruegel: The Master by Elke Oberthaler, Sabine Pènot, Manfred Sellink, Ron Spronk, and Alice Hoppe-Harnoncourt, Thames & Hudson, US $60.00, Pp 304, December 2018, ISBN 978-0500239841

Four hundred and fifty years after his death, the world is re-discovering, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, the great 16th-century Netherlandish painter. Bruegel is the tie-in catalog for the first exhibition of his most surviving works — just over forty of his original paintings — at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. Bruegel’s works are known for their perfect compositions and complex human characters. In his article, Minister-President of Flanders Geert Bourgeois says that Pieter Bruegel is the founder of a painters’ dynasty that lasted a little more than a century. Bruegel has been described as a moralist, a fatalist, an optimist or a cynic, a humorist or philosopher, a peasant or a city-dweller, a folklorist or an intellectual, a regionalist and a universalist.

But we know very little about his life. By the 18th and 19th centuries, Bruegel had been nearly forgotten. Few of his paintings remained in the cities where he once lived, as his drawings and painted oeuvre had been dispersed all over Europe. Geert Bourgeois tells us that it was only in the late 19th century that attention to Bruegel revived in the wake of a general reappraisal of 15th– and 16th-century painting from the Southern Netherlands. Thanks to an alert private collector, Fritz Mayer van den Bergh, who had admired the Bruegel paintings in the imperial collections in Vienna, two major works were brought back to Antwerp, the city where Bruegel had learned to draw and paint. Later in 1894, Mayer van den Bergh bought Dulle Griet at an auction in Cologne.

This was the beginning of a new era for Pieter Bruegel who in the 20th century gained a large number of supporters, ranging from English poet W H Auden to Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky. Geert Bourgeois says that like no other artist before him, Bruegel assimilated the techniques learned in the Netherlands and Italy to develop and universal language. He is now considered to be one of the great painters. The 2018-19 jubilee exhibition — commemorating the 450th anniversary of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s death — deserves particular note as the first comprehensive monographic presentation ever devoted to the master. Also for the first time, his works in different media — paintings, drawings, and prints — are united in one show. Only in Vienna could this outstanding project have succeeded, as the Kunsthistorisches museum owns nearly a third of the master’s paintings.

In their introduction, the authors say that the scientific component to the approach has the advantage of somewhat freeing the view of Bruegel’s works from their art theoretical baggage, and enabling a comparatively fresh consideration of objects that have become icons in our collective consciousness. However, images obtained through meticulous technical means require equally specific question and interpretation of results, and here too the danger of a biased investigation with classical art history in order to interpret the various levels of the works’ creative processes. The authors say that the multitudinous interpretations of Bruegel’s works derive from the singular richness of Bruegel’s pictorial world and his sharp-sighted talent for observing human beings, which even today exerts an extraordinary fascination. Bruegel challenges the willing viewer to study his compositions in detail — which the Vienna research project seeks to facilitate.

Bruegel is a gripping and fascinating study of the life and works of the artist. It is for the first time all his works have been gathered in one exhibition and one book. Several art experts have analyzed and explained his paintings from different angles. Lucidly written, the authors explore the life and background of the painter and shine a light on all artistic aspects of his works. With nearly 150 illustrations, Bruegel is a comprehensive survey of the great Netherlandish artist’s works. Publication of art books by Thames & Hudson is always an event but the publication of Bruegel is a great event as it helps us rediscover a great forgotten artist. This magisterial book is a tremendous achievement. If you are an artist or just love arts, you are likely to read this book over and over again.

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