In approaching the splendid exhibition of Pieter Bruegel the Elder: Drawings and Prints , which has now come to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, visitors would be well-advised to heed the cautionary observation made by Martin Royalton-Kisch in the catalog. “The drawings detain us with a plethora of details and demand patient, reflective viewing,” Mr. Royalton-Kisch writes. “They could hardly be further removed from our age of the quick sound bite and the instant gratification, but the rewards are almost endless.”
Indeed they are. And in some of the most compelling drawings, especially the series devoted to the Seven Deadly Sins, what Mr. Royalton-Kisch also characterizes as “the prolixity of Bruegel’s imaginative details” presents us with an accretion of bizarre and obscene images so copious and so horrendous that they are virtually impossible to encompass in their entirety on a single encounter. Even when we circle back and return to these drawings for further study, we are still left with a sense of their endlessness so emphatic that it seems at times to approximate the theological conception of eternity.
And a very dour eternity it is, too. About the human capacity for corruption of both the body and the spirit, there is very little that Bruegel did not profoundly comprehend. Did he also take a certain pleasure-or, if you like, a moral satisfaction-in reminding us of our fallen condition? About that we can only speculate, and the issue is complicated by the fact that these grim drawings are also vastly entertaining, by turns shocking, hilarious, gruesome and wildly inventive.
That some of their invention is openly appropriated from the work of Hieronymus Bosch would, of course, have been recognized by Bruegel’s contemporaries. Far from being a liability, however, this debt to Bosch seems to have enhanced Bruegel’s appeal, and so, I believe, it does for us as well. The premium that the modern mind places on the idea of artistic originality doesn’t really apply here, but even if it did, Bruegel could scarcely be mistaken for an abject imitator of anyone.
The relation of the drawings to the prints, which are of course executed by other hands, may be more of a problem for the modern viewer. Many of Bruegel’s drawings are likely to have been created to serve as “cartoons,” as they are called, for the production of popular prints, a process that inevitably entails certain losses-aesthetic losses-when the images are transferred to the print medium. The physical immediacy of the artist’s hand, which in drawing means the quality and character of the emotion governing the execution of the image, is lost in its printed simulacrum, which tends to be a lot slicker than the original and largely devoid of aesthetic nuance.
Then, too, there’s the problem of the drawings that are copies and imitations of Bruegel’s own drawings, for these are also part of the current exhibition at the Met. The stark fact is that the bulk of Bruegel’s original drawings has been permanently lost. (So, for that matter, are many of Bruegel’s paintings.) Of the 61 drawings that are now accepted as Bruegel’s, 50 are included in this exhibition, a larger number than has ever been assembled for any previous exhibition. Among them are drawings of Alpine scenery and other landscape subjects that are similarly crowded with detail but of a more benign character. There are also 60 prints and some 20 drawings by Bruegel’s contemporaries.
Among Bruegel’s non-allegorical drawings, the most masterly-the most mordant, too-is The Painter and the Connoisseur , which dates from the mid-1560’s and stands apart from the others as representative of Bruegel’s disabused view of the Netherlandish art world in the 16th century. As its title suggests, this is a drawing of two very different male figures: the benighted connoisseur, a hairless, lipless, bespectacled wimp clutching the money pouch attached to his belt, who is mercilessly depicted with satirical contempt; and the weightier figure of the artist as a
vigorous but angry and determined old man clutching a paint brush. We are warned by the scholars not to mistake this portrait of the artist for a self-portrait, yet who can doubt that Bruegel was making a very personal statement about his own life as an artist? Plus ça change ….
Make no mistake: This is an exhibition that does require a good deal of concentration and patience on the part of the viewer. For some viewers, it may also require the use of a magnifying glass if its myriad details are to be fully seen. Bruegel has long been one of the most universally admired artists in the Western canon, yet I doubt if I am alone in feeling that this exhibition makes it seem as if one had never before really understood his greatness. Pieter Bruegel the Elder: Prints and Drawings was organized in collaboration with the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam, and it remains on view at the Met through Dec. 2.