Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum is holding the first-ever comprehensive monograph exhibition on Pieter Bruegel the Elder, bringing together nearly two-thirds of his works to celebrate 450 years since his death.
The eye-opening focus of the astonishing exhibition is on the method of work, the creative process, and the materiality of the paintings, yet I found it hard to ignore the varied interpretive history of his oeuvre that has so often asked whether the painter of the peasants was an artist of the people. My thoughts a few days earlier by the Lake Constance about 15th-century religious revolt within the Catholic world during the “Western Schism” returned as I realized that Bruegel was born some ten years after Professor Martin Luther wrote his 95 Theses (1517), and lived during the first century of Protestant turmoil.
Netherlandish painter, draughtsman, and printmaker Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525-30 – 1569), having decided in 1562 to work mainly as a painter, moved a year later from Antwerp (the center of art and publishing of the Seventeen Provinces of the Low Countries) to Brussels (the center of government). There he witnessed the outbreak of the Eighty Years’ War (1568-1648), that is, the “Dutch Revolt” of the northern, largely Protestant Seven Provinces against the Catholic Habsburg King Philip II of Spain, their hereditary ruler, a revolt which led, following a successful secession, to the establishment of one of the first modern European republics, the United Provinces, also known as the Dutch Republic.
In 1566, religious upheaval erupted in the Low Countries in a period of riotous and destructive iconoclasm by radical Calvinists. The response of the Flemish Catholic nobles was divided between hostility and toleration. The Spanish King decided to suppress the civil disorder. In August 1567, the Duke of Alba marched into Brussels with 10,000 Spanish and German soldiers to restore order, and started a reign of terror. The following year he had two eminent Catholic nobles loyal to the King, Egmont and Horne, beheaded, also in Brussels. More than a thousand subsequent executions fueled further unrest. William, Prince of Orange, became a leader of the uprising against Spanish rule and tried to drive Alba from Brussels. The 1568 Battle of Heiligerlee, where his rebellious forces fought the Spanish army and won, though the revolt later failed, is considered the beginning the Eighty Years’ War.
We know that Bruegel spent the last five years of his life in Brussels and witnessed all these dramatic developments. What did he think and how did that affect his art? What are the narratives told by this master teller? “One of the things that art historians debate quite seriously is to what level Bruegel was criticizing the government of that day,” Ron Spronk reminds us. Evidence is missing or has been subsequently modified, as Sabine Pénot emphasizes, and therefore opinions vary.
For example, writing about The Land of Cockaign (1567), Ross H. Frank has argued that Bruegel “created a powerful and immediately understandable political comment on the situation of the Low Countries just after the failure of the ‘First Revolt’ in 1566-67” (“An Interpretation of Land of Cockaigne(1567) by Peter Bruegel the Elder,” Sixteenth Century Journal, 22:2, 1991, 300). Local Catholic nobles who sought liberalization of religious laws and tolerance of dissent were ineffective. “The Calvinists established a Reformed Church organization, in most areas for the first time. The nobles rapidly lost control of what began as a narrow political movement in the face of an overwhelming popular response fomented by a small number of radical Calvinists” (314). As a result, the first revolt challenging Spanish rule failed. “Bruegel presented the contemporary political situation as a moral problem from a detached, satirical, humanist point of view; the painting shows the people, led by the Flemish nobles, delivered by their own actions to the Spanish” (300). “The failure of the nobles to lead the movement either prudently or decisively, and the support given them by their followers” (321) share responsibility for the failure.
“The sharpness and bite … of the satire of the Flemish Cockaigne stems from Bruegel’s dismay at the disorder and suffering left in the wake of the reform movement in 1566. Nor did Bruegel approve of the Spanish who in 1567 had taken all control of the provinces out of the hands of the Flemish nobles, a task made much easier by the ineptitude of its inhabitants, as well as its natural leaders. On a fundamental level however, … Bruegel does not take sides. … He simply presents the problem, in all of its complexity, to the viewer” (328). By making this painting late in the year, he “also alerted his viewers of the dangers that threatened in the tense climate of 1567” (321). Frank suggests that Bruegel “belonged to a group of intellectual humanists who had, by and large, conventionally orthodox religious, if not political, convictions” (326).
Tina Luk Meganck too believes that Bruegel takes pro-Habsburg, conservative positions, and she suggests that the angels-turned-monsters in a painting executed in 1562, shortly before his move to Brussels, may stand for the Flemish nobles turning against the King, and work “as apocalyptic omens of political instability run wild” (Pieter Bruegel the Elder: Fall of the Rebel Angels: Art, Knowledge and Politics on the Eve of the Dutch Revolt, 2014, p. 111). This painting “is perhaps Bruegel’s most literal depiction of the world turned upside down” (163). Its falling angels “seem to announce the advent of the impending Eighty Years War. … Its message is highly suggestive: the disturbance of political order implies the disturbance of the natural, God-given oder of the cosmos” (164-65).
In my second visit to the Bruegel exhibition in Vienna I thought of Schiller, whom I had visited earlier in his house in Weimar, and his works on periods of religious revolt, such as the tragedy Don Carlos(1787) and TheHistory of the Thirty Years’ War in Germany[1618-48] (1790). They made me think that, rather than read Bruegel’s works to decipher his political views, it might be more interesting to look into possible positions of resistance and revolt in them: Is questioning authority a modality of power in these paintings? And why do we always expect “great works” to be in some way anti-authoritarian? We may need to rethink such categories before we look into the role of art in the “Dutch Revolt.”
November 23, 2018