Insights into Bruegel – An outstanding exhibition in Vienna

Bruegel versus Brueghel

I recently got the chance to attend two main monographic exhibitions in Vienna. Each one of them was vast and inspiring: no wonder with such big names as Bruegel and Monet, whose works are part of our collective consciousness. I initially wanted to write about both exhibitions and compare them to one another. But on second thought I voted against this judgemental “competition” and decided to let each artist and each curator “speak for themselves” instead. Here is my impression of one of Vienna’s most interesting exhibitions of the past years.

The Painter and the Connoisseur, 1565

A  surprisingly critical mind – Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Vienna‘s Kunsthistorisches Museum, which possesses the largest collection of Bruegel paintings worldwide due to the Habsburg’s collecting passion, hosted a once-in-a-lifetime monographic exhibition on the most prominent Netherlandish painter of the 16th century, Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525? – 1569).

The Peasant Wedding, around 1567

Many of Bruegel‘s paintings are known to a wider public thanks to numerous reproductions. Most of us would probably recognize The Hunters in the Snow or The Peasant Wedding as one of his works (the latter was even included as a parody in the victory feast at the Belgian village at the end of Uderzo’s and Goscinny’s Asterix in Belgium).

But how many of us know of Bruegel‘s highly symbolic drawings, engravings, and paintings which bring to mind another prominent Dutch master, Hieronymus Bosch (1450 – 1516)? I certainly didn’t. And when does one ever get a chance to experience such an amount of masterpieces, which museums rarely loan to other institutions, gathered together in one spot and thus get an insight into the artist’s complex pictorial world?

Children’s Games, 1560

The exhibition’s set-up

The Viennese anniversary exhibition commemorates 450 years since Bruegel‘s premature death in his early 40s. The curators chose a thematic organization of the approximately 90 exhibits, while still following the artist’s biography. Thus the created structure helped visitors discover and immerse into different aspects of the artist‘s diverse oeuvre. The detailed information provided by the museum through various media, consisting a.o. of descriptions aside from each work, as well as a free little booklet with more details, facilitated this journey into Bruegel’s unique artistic world. More so, the museum initiated a research project that prepared and accompanied this noteworthy exhibition, focusing on a comprehensive technological analysis of the twelve panel paintings of Pieter Bruegel the Elder in its possession. Even after the end of the exhibition, a free website under www.insidebruegel.net offers deep insights into Bruegel‘s paintings and working method, based on the recent technological analyses.

The Hunters in the Snow, 1565

Bruegel’s different subjects

The four large galleries and six smaller adjoining rooms presented and examined Bruegel’s remarkable artistry, focusing on the different subjects he chose, as well as on the analysis of his craftsmanship. They showed Bruegel‘s artistic beginnings as a draughtsman and graphic artist and revealed the fact that he also trained as a miniaturist.  A big collection of path-breaking masterpieces in landscape and genre painting, where series and groups like The Seasons were reunited, some of them for the first time in centuries, underlined the painter’s innovations and vital contributions to the evolution of landscape-painting and his phenomenal observation skills.

The Procession to Calvary, 1564

The exhibition set an additional focus on Bruegel‘s religious works, from the large oil-on-canvas panel The Procession to Calvary which was displayed without a picture frame and gave spectators the feeling of standing in the painter’s studio, to such enigmatic and apocalyptic paintings as The Triumph of Death and Dulle Griet which were exposed near each other and invited  visitors to draw their own comparisons and conclusions. The engraved allegoric cycles The Seven Deadly Sins and The Seven Virtues reinforced the impression of Bruegel as a sharp-eyed observer of the human race and appeared very modern in their witty, satirical and caustic approach to me.

Big Fish Eat Little Fish, 1557 (Printmaker: Pieter van der Heyden)

A scientific look at Bruegel’s work

The technological analyses that helped prepare this extraordinary exhibition focused on the materiality of Bruegel’s works, starting with his drawing- and painting materials and -technique and letting the hidden underdrawings come to light through infrared photography. Additionally, questions of the present state, as well as the restoration work on the paintings, were addressed.

The interesting findings of these analyses revealed and documented the painter‘s creative process and allowed visitors to look over the artist’s shoulder, and appreciate his artistry even more. A presentation of contemporary artifacts depicted in The Fight between Carnival and Lent proved how realistic and skillful Bruegel‘s painting of everyday objects of his time was, and let us immerse even more into the 16th century.

The rear side of the panel of The Procession to Calvary, 1564

Bruegel in Vienna: A most satisfying acquaintance with the master

The Viennese Bruegel retrospective’s thematical organization, accompanied by a large amount of information on the displayed oeuvres as well as on the working methods of the artist, plus a very modern, interactive website (still online – check it out under www.bruegel2018.at, it’s absolutely worth it!) had a highly educational and engaging character which I enjoyed very much, especially since I knew very little about Bruegel before.

Of course, Bruegel’s detail-oriented and often highly symbolic way of drawing and painting cry out for such an approach. There is so much to discover in each and every work, and it is quite impossible to notice everything at first sight without proper background- or historical knowledge. The provided information guided my eyes to many details I might not have noticed and encouraged me to start looking more attentively. I especially loved the juxtaposition of works which might not have been created as a group but have a lot in common, summiting in the two versions of The Tower of Babel.

The Tower of Babel, Vienna Version, 1563
The Tower of Babel, Rotterdam Version, after 1563?
An amateur copyist working on “The Tower of Babel”

Fancy a little more Bruegel?

This exciting exhibition awakened my interest for the unique Netherlandish artist and made me start reading about him, so as to be able to join the never-ending discussions about the possible meanings that are hidden in Bruegel’s distinctive oeuvre.

While doing so, I discovered the following websites and blogs I can highly recommend to those interested:

  • The Pursuit of Bruegel in the blog “That’s How The Light Gets In”: A fellow blogger’s pursuit of Bruegel around Europe with wonderful descriptions of Bruegel’s works, including background information.
  • The e-Art Magazine “Art in Words“: Current reports and previews of exhibitions around Europe, articles on art history and artists (unfortunately only in German).
  • The online-channel “Museumsfernsehen“, that bundles videos from German-speaking museums in one platform and contains two Bruegel-experts’ lectures in English.

And what about the name?

While the dedicatee of the exhibition started omitting the “h” from his surname from 1559 on, and went down in history as Pieter Bruegel the Elder, his two sons, who also became painters kept it, and are thus known as Pieter Brueghel the Younger (1564-1638) and Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568-1625).

 

 

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Death in Trieste – A Tribute to Winckelmann in Munich

Tribute Winckelmann Munich

A little while ago I had some time to spend in Munich before catching the train back home. As a Greek who loves the ancient Greek element in Munich‘s buildings and museums, I was planning to go see the Greek landscapes in the Neue Pinakothek. King Ludwig I. commissioned them when his son Otto became the first King of Greece in the 1830s.

But then I happened to scroll through a cultural magazine and discover the announcement of an anniversary exhibition commemorating the 250th anniversary of Johann Joachim Winckelmann‘s death. The German Hellenist, who many consider as the founder of Art history and modern archaeology, was murdered in Trieste in 1768. I changed my plans and instead paid Munich’s Collection of Classical Antiquities (Antikensammlung) a visit.

The Antikensammlung in Munich

The State Collection of Antiquities on Munich‘s Königsplatz contains an exquisite collection of Greek, Etruscan and Roman works of art and everyday objects. It provides a good overview of ancient art, from the Cycladic Culture of the Aegean region in the third century BC up to the late antiquity in the fifth century AD. Together with the Glyptothek, which is situated opposite the Antikensammlung and presents sculptures from the same period (currently closed for refurbishment), it showcases King Ludwig‘s I. passion for classical antiquity.

The Bavarian King‘s wish to turn Munich into a city of the arts was inspired by Winckelmann‘s guiding principle: „The only way for us to become great, or even inimitable if it is possible, is to imitate the ancients.“ When Ludwig I., not yet King, commissioned his art dealer in Rome to acquire works of art as to enlarge the collection of his family in the early 19th century, he listed 21 pieces that Winckelmann had discussed in his major work, “History of the Art of Antiquity”, written in 1764.

Winckelmann had developed a new historical structure of Ancient art from its beginnings to its decline, based on the chronological sequence of various styles. In Ancient Greek art, he saw the fulfillment of the task art should have in his opinion: the depiction of ideal beauty. He was the first to rely more on his own perception of ancient objects rather than the study of ancient sources as well as the first to view and interpret Ancient art through the eyes of Greek mythology instead of Roman history.

“Noble simplicity and quiet greatness” – Tracing Johann Joachim Winkelmann

An exhibition on somebody who, by profession, writes about art rather than creating works of art, obviously consists mostly of information around his person and his writings.  In the two halls of the Antikensammlung currently dedicated to the famous 18th-century German scholar, well written, informative texts are used to emphasize on Winckelmann’s importance for the reception of Ancient art in Central Europe and his influence on the future King Ludwig I. of Bavaria. A few sculptures or copies illustrate the works of art which became known to a wider audience through Winckelmann’s writings. Period furniture and chinaware inspired by Greek art complete the presentation.

Winckelmann’s sensory reception of ancient objects and belief in the liberal ancient Greek spirit had a big impact on Western writers, philosophers, sculptors, and painters. One of them was Swiss painter Angelika Kauffmann who became sought after as a portraitist after having portrayed Winckelmann in 1764.

Angelika Kauffmann – A female view of the ancient world

The presentation sets a second focus on the Neoclassical artist who specialized in historical paintings, finding her inspiration in Ancient mythology and participating in the reception of Homer. Influenced by Winckelmann’s less philological approach to Ancient art she chose her topics so as to evoke a higher empathy in her viewers. She thus broke with the tradition of the strong ancient hero. This, as well as her fascination for strong ancient women, display a notably female view on the Ancient world.

My thoughts on J. J. Winckelmann and Modern Greece

The visit to this exhibition awakened my interest in Winckelmann and his writings, which were perceived as a revelation by his contemporaries. The German scholar became the spiritual father of German Neoclassicism by insisting that Contemporary art should imitate Ancient art. His work on Greek art nourished the upcoming Philhellenism and thus contributed to the Greeks‘ uprising after 400 years of Ottoman rule.

But as proud as one might feel about the achievements of one’s ancestors and the interest later generations showed in them, I can’t get rid of the thought that Winckelmann’s approach also contributed to a strongly idealized view of Greece by Central Europeans, a picture that today’s Greece has trouble corresponding to.

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