The Hapsburgs knew a good thing when they saw it, and that is why the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna now owns the world’s largest collection of paintings by the most important Flemish painter of the 16th century, Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c.1525 – 1569). This year, to mark the 450th anniversary of the artist’s death, the museum has put on an overview of his complete oeuvre. Some of the fragile wood panels on view have never been loaned to exhibitions before.
Only 40 paintings by Bruegel still remain in existence, and of those 30 are in this exhibition. There is also a large number of drawings and prints, because Bruegel began his career as a graphic artist, settling in Antwerp, where he worked mainly as a prolific designer of prints for the leading publisher of the day.
The exhibition is astonishing, with its vibrant vistas of comedy and horror. Bruegel recreated the world in a diorama, where a multitude of ordinary people go about their daily business. They eat pancakes, drink beer, cook fish. Children are engrossed in their games, cripples hobble about.
You can get lost in the paintings, such is their detail—and it is amazing, in this instance, to be able to see them all together, and up close (despite having to wait your turn, and sometimes peep behind people’s backs, because, as was to be expected, the exhibition is hugely popular and teeming with visitors.)
Some paintings are allegorical, such as his masterpiece about the horrors of war, Dulle Griet, which inspired Bertolt Brecht’s play Mother Courage (see detail, above.)
Some are shocking, such as the Triumph of Death, where people are shoved into giant coffins by armies of skeletons under a dark sky. There is no escape, the hordes of the dead are unbeatable.
My favorite still remains the larger of the two Towers of Babel, with its incredible imagination and detail.
But Bruegel also had an eye for nature. He was very well travelled for his time, and his landscapes go far beyond the flatness of Flanders. He has depicted the Alps, and Vesuvius belching smoke in the Bay of Naples. His trees and cattle are exquisitely rendered. I particularly love the reflections on water, and the light in the distant horizons. Bruegel might be considered the successor of Hieronymous Bosch, but Bosch’s world is more dreamlike, whereas Bruegel’s is grounded in reality. That is his particular magic.
In his winter landscape, Hunters in the snow, made in 1564, people skate on blue ice, ravens roost on bare branches, and snow-covered roofs can be glimpsed in the distance. A fitting image with which to wish everyone a very Happy Christmas !