A couple times an hour, a tiny swatch of a Pieter Bruegel the Elder painting flashes across my Twitter feed, courtesy of an automated account called @Bruegelbot. Bruegel’s paintings—and here we’ll just refer to him as “Bruegel,” setting aside the other painters with the same surname—are notoriously busy, packed with tiny figures going about their business in nearly every square inch of the painting. @bruegelbot is valuable because it removes the context of the painting; without all the business and busyness of Bruegel’s work surrounding them, I can better appreciate the details for themselves.
This tiny swatch of a painting has enough dynamic action in it to fill a painting on its own:
Of course, the too-muchness of a Bruegel painting is the point: you look at a Bruegel painting to feel overwhelmed, to hunt for the proverbial Waldo who will imbue your perception of the painting with a purpose. My focal point of a Bruegel painting will always, necessarily, be different than yours.
I stumbled across a perfect description of the seemingly random way details in a Bruegel painting latch onto your attention in “Heart Museum,” the sprawling lyric essay that opens Durga Chew-Bose’s collection Too Much and Not the Mood:
A Bruegel print hanging in our home was essentially my jackpot. I mined that peasant-wedding scene so intently that elements of its narrative details, like porridge bowls, the lip of a jug, that pureed Bruegel red—like tomato soup from the can—and a child in the foreground licking a plate, all belong to my memory’s reel. It’s the merging that occurs from housing a mental archive instead of contending with the sound of parents who were speaking to each other in a strained tone. Of momentarily acquitting myself of childhood grievances: of all the birds we hear in trees but never see, but know are there.
The word “narrative,” there, is key. Bruegel, to me, feels like the writer’s painter—though perhaps that could be colored by the fact that my introduction to Bruegel came in Michael Frayn’s comic novel Headlong, about the discovery of a lost Bruegel painting. But the stuffed locations and cramped characterization of Bruegel’s work are undeniably novelistic, and I believe that if a novelist like Donna Tartt or Cormac McCarthy could paint, their paintings would be like Bruegel’s: packed with human drama, as full of as much as they could realistically cram in before everything fell apart. The painting revealed at the end of Kurt Vonnegut’s lesser novel Bluebeard must at least superficially resemble a Bruegel, because it’s a painting that basically contains everything the book had previously mentioned.
Bluebeard instilled in me the realization that most writers would be terrible painters. I worked at a newspaper for years, and listening to writers try to explain how the art department should illustrate their latest book review always led to blush of embarrassment. Often, the writers would unintentionally describe a hackneyed political cartoon from the early 1900s: “Maybe they could draw, like, Lady Justice standing in one corner and then over on the other side we could have soldiers and in the middle there could be a bunch of orphans standing and staring accusingly at the reader? But the reader won’t know they’re orphans, so maybe they should have a big ‘orphans’ label on them? And then in the sky is a general creeping sense of menace, with claws and fangs…”
A writer would never trust to a single picture what a thousand words could do. But I suppose that’s their job.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Bruegel lately because I recently read Short Life in a Strange World: Birth to Death in 42 Panels, a profusely-illustrated memoir-essay by Toby Ferris. The book’s conceit is, to put it kindly, a bit precious: at the age of 42—precisely half his recently deceased father’s age—Ferris sets out on a worldwide journey to view all 42 of the existing Bruegel paintings, in part because Bruegel died at the age of 42.
The premise is a bit like a bad high school algebra problem: a writer having a midlife crisis is on a train going west at 42 miles an hour, which is the same age his father hit midlife while on a train going east at 42 miles an hour, so what artificial quest can the writer choose to toss a narrative around this astonishing array of meaningless numerical coincidences? But thankfully, Ferris doesn’t make a big deal of sticking to the numerology laid out in the book’s promotional copy. Instead, Short Life is a rambling travelogue, an opportunity to see a small stretch of the world through Ferris’s eyes, magnified by the lens of Bruegel.
Ferris writes beautifully about the circumstances in and around Bruegel paintings. He’s the rare art historian whose prose can compete with its subject, in terms of sheer imagination:
When will the last Bruegel painting disappear? They are fragile. Which one will it be? And what about records of his paintings, his existence? Will his name vanish along with the last painting, or will he, some Apelles of a forgotten history, a forgotten Europe, persist as myth, the JPEGs flickering out on servers one by one, corrupt unreadable binary representations of long-forgotten cult objects?
Still, Short Life feels a bit like a comedic road trip film, with Ferris driving and Bruegel, the silent agent of chaos, riding shotgun. They play off each other in ways that seem to escape Ferris.
He observes that “Bruegel painted outsiders” including “beggars, peasants, children…at swim in a turbulent social sea.” It’s a striking observation because Short Life is a product of unobserved luxury: Ferris gets to travel in style, visiting large museums and reflecting on George Eliot in some of the world’s most beautiful locations. One can almost picture Bruegel wanting to stop to talk to a destitute woman at the side of the road, while Ferris turns up the radio and ever-so-slightly presses down on the gas pedal until the opportunity has passed.
To be fair, Ferris does occasionally come close to recognizing the Odd Couple-ness of the pairing: “I have just come from Prague, where summer is at its glorious height in the Lobkowicz Palace. But it is winter which underpins all of Bruegel,” he intones.
Ultimately, Bruegel proves to be an uncomfortable partner for an interior journey explained in a book-length monologue. Bruegel rejects interiority; he’s bursting to be social, running toward large crowds of people with his hands spread wide.
Perhaps that’s why Bruegel has remained so firmly stuck at the front of my mind for the whole of 2020. In the middle of the quarantine lockdown in April of this year, Bruegel scenes were basically unthinkable—all those bodies packed together so tightly, breathing and screaming on each other with no concept of personal space. Coronavirus would frolic through a Bruegel crowd like a happy puppy.
And then, as the later days of May arrived, the crowds came back, in the form of Black Lives Matter protests around the world. Even with the necessary masks on all those faces, Bruegel would probably adore the chance to paint the people taking over the streets with such unfettered energy, throwing statues of monstrous men into the sea and taking back public space that for too long had been ceded to politeness.
This is the central question of 2020: how do we as humans fill space in the world together, in a way that we all can survive? The answer can be found in most Bruegel paintings: by being messy and joyous and complicated and overwhelming and, most of all, human.