Bosch & Bruegel –
From Enemy Painting to Everyday Life
By Joseph Leo Koerner
Princeton University Press – £54.95
[…]at its beginnings, the painting of everyday life was bound inextricably to what seems its polar opposite: an art of the bizarre, the monstrous, and the uncanny. It was a dark, fanatical form of painting that had contained the seed of future genre painting, but negatively, as a bad seed. Familiar human existence, vividly portrayed, constituted a trap secretly set by an enemy indeed, by the Old Enemy, Satan – to ruin us.
Peter Bruegel is the unsurpassed painter of common humanity.
I recently visited the wonderful city of Bruges in Belgium, where I spent what felt like an eternity, gazing at the masterful painting that is Hieronymus Bosch’s The Last Judgement (1486) at the city’s Groeningemuseum. A triptych of surprisingly/supposed disputed authorship (in that was either painted by Bosch himself, his workshop or was indeed a collaborative effort). Thing is: will we ever know? And what difference would it make if we did?
Either way, The Last Judgement is an exceedingly dark and twisted, overtly macabre, stunning piece of work.
Apart from enticing one to investigate further and further; the painting, if nothing else, depicts humanity’s fraught and harrowing ability to be cruel to the extent of acute insanity. Perhaps this is what Bosch was looking to convey? Reason being, it’s just as relative to his Garden of Earthly Delights – in that apart from subject matter, the outside shutters are painted in grisaille while the inside shutters and centre are painted on oil.
Surely said depiction of polarity betwixt the two paintings is so much more than a mere coincidence?
To be sure, some explanation is to be found at the very outset of this most magisterial of books, where Joseph Leo Koerner writes: ”It is a historical commonplace that European art, having long been at the service of religion, became increasingly secular in subject matter and purpose and that this new worldliness produced a distinctive kind of painting, one voided of myths and histories and focused on everyday life.”
So far as the two Bosch paintings are concerned, there was always going to be some sort of inadvertent, if not subliminal trajectory of that which had gone before instilled within the varying subject matter of final judgement and that of the most profound of earthly delights. A most profound constitution, which, suffice to say, is more than evident in so many of the exquisite paintings featured throughout Bosch & Bruegel – From Enemy Painting to Everyday Life.
That which had gone before of course, being most indicative of Koerner’s assertion that European art had ”long been at the service of religion.”
He was absolutely right. It had.
Thus the author’s depiction that a ”new worldliness produced a distinctive kind of painting […] focused on everyday life.”
Indeed, when I visited the aforementioned Groeningemuseum, as much was far too evident and very clearly on display. One painting after another, after another, depicted yet another crucifixion of Christ or yet another rendition of the Virgin Mary. So much so, that the paintings themselves bore very little to art. Or so it (eventually) appeared, simply due to the number of paintings morphing into some sort of congenital apparition of religious persuasion.
They were no longer art.
To a degree, these 364 pages (excluding Preface, Acknowledgements, Notes, Index, Photography and Copyright Credits and a List of The A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts 1952-2016 ) of high-octane, hight-quality reproduction, nigh symbolises said artistic demarcation and inevitable need for change. A most fluent change, which can be seen amid the very paintings of the two prime artists of this book, Bosch and Bruegel.
Where Bosch’s work was still steeped within the relative dark, elongated orientation of religiosity and suffering (if not madness), so much of Bruegel’s work could be described as having been triggered by the severing of such taut trajectory.
One need only marvel at the freedom and the joy depicted in Pieter Bruegle’s The Peasant Dance (1586) on page 329 to ascertain as much.
A real ”distinctive kind of painting […] focused on everyday life,” which the author makes clear, when at the outset of the ninth chapter, ‘History,’ he writes: ”The dance itself embodies […] embrace. Giving conjugal and communal bonds aesthetic form, dancing models the pull this painting exerts on us. Rushing into the revels, their footfalls syncing to the piper’s beat, the foreground couple draws the beholder into the vortex of the dance and its surrounding eddies of intimacy – the ambiguous tug-of-war at the doorway to the inn, the kiss ongoing at the far left, the invasive friendship of the foreground drunk, and so on.”
The assimilation of so many wonderful reproductions, along with such considered description as that above, more than accounts for Bosch & Bruegel – From Enemy Painting to Everyday Life being what it is: absorbing and utterly captivating. To quote Claudia Swan, author of Art, Science, and Witchcraft in Early Modern Holland: ” Bosch & Bruegel is a magnificent book – massively erudite, profoundly human, and sometimes even shatteringly poetic. Koerner is a marvellously compelling writer.”
Is it any wonder it has been twenty years in the making?
An elegant tour de force without equal.