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Thursday, July 22, 2004


Our fave learned journal, Common Knowledge, has published it’s summer issue. There is a special section devoted to “Neo-Stoic Alternatives, c.1200-2004: Essays on Folly and Detachment.” The dates are a little optimistic. For scholars of the sixteenth and seventeenth century, it has gradually become apparent that understanding the intellectual patterns in these centuries in terms of the opposition between the Aristotelianism of the schoolmen and Galileo’s science is grossly insufficient. Some of the most interesting work of modern scholarship has centered  around the rediscovery of, or perhaps it would be better to say the appropriation of, stoicism, such as one sees it in Montaigne’s essays. 

 We especially like one of the articles, Unmasking The World: Bruegel's Ethnography, by Art Historian Joseph Leo Koerner. Koerner’s goal is to run a couple of themes through Bruegel’s work. One of the themes is this: “The ethics of this neo-Stoicism urged pleasure in the experience of distance—of distance from, though curiosity about, the lifeworld of one's time and place. The neo-Stoic is the ethnographer at home, observing his culture invent its lifeworld and then behave as if it were nature's own.” We wonder about these terms – ethnography, lifeworld - and the alien feel of them to that humanistic vocabulary that meditated on curiosities, and sought keys to hieroglyphs. Still, Koerner’s words seem to work for Bruegel’s work, in which the necessity to expand in scope – and thus to assume a distance – is derived from the multitudinous activities that he has to picture.
Koerner’s a great see-er of pictures. Here he is on a bit of Bruegel’s painting of “Fight between Carnival and Lent:”

“Behind Lent's cart, a boy with a basket on his head is busy munching bread, carrying shoes and pretzels, and staring out at us. His humanizing distance from his function in the ritual dramatizes what Bruegel's painting everywhere confirms. Bruegel seems to document, more than to create, the symbolism of which his painting consists. The peculiar detachment of his performance as a painter from the performances that he records finds a reflection in the represented actors themselves. Shown to stand just outside their own activity, they, like the painter, contribute to our sense that we peer behind their masks to an underlying personality. To further complicate matters, however, Carnival and Lent are themselves both masquerades and rituals of unmasking. Cousin to the dramatic form of the antimasque, Carnival reveals the true nature of people and society by mocking their covering illusions: its bizarre costumes and practices aim at a brief but subversively realistic portrayal of the physical and social body. Lent, in turn, banishes Carnival's travesties by reintroducing with a vengeance the drab infirmity of everyday life. Whereas Carnival unmasks life by giving it a temporarily unrestrained expression, Lent unmasks death—hence, in Bruegel's picture, the several corpses that later collectors masked by painting over them. Even as Bruegel distances himself from these ritual forms, he carries into his picture their negative labor.”

Indeed, there is something to this weighing of distances. We don’t see distance transformed into the heraldic past (as we do in the background of hundred of Annunciations); we don’t see this distance as a divine usufruct; we see this distance as the condition of a certain curiosity. Ethnographic, Koerner thinks – and that works. The participant/observer ambiguity is certainly there. Bruegel, Koerner says, was enrolled into a myth after his death – that he was a peasant. The modern take is that he was a sophisticate. But the myth reads at least part of that distance right. 

Last year, in the Journal of the History of Ideas, Perez Zagorin began an essay on Bruegel with a note on the divergent, contradictory interpretations that his work evokes:

“Since the late nineteenth and early years of the twentieth century, when Pieter Bruegel ceased to be seen simply as the naive artist Pieter the Droll and Peasant Bruegel, chosen, as his first biographer Carel van Mander said, "from among the peasants" to be "the delineator of peasants,"  he has been generally ranked among the foremost artists of the Netherlands and northern Renaissance as well as one of the greatest of European painters. His oeuvre is broad, consisting of moral allegories and satires, panoramic landscapes, religious and biblical themes, and a variety of genre and secular scenes. Anyone who looks attentively at his forty-odd paintings, his drawings, and the prints made after the latter is likely to notice not only their strong formal structure and outstanding skill in organizing pictorial space, their command of the complex disposition of large masses of figures, and their masterly sureness and economy of figural draftsmanship in the depiction of human beings in every kind of posture and action, but also that many of them seem to be animated by some idea. Gazing at such engrossing and intensely vital images of human life and nature as his paintings of proverbs and children's games, festive peasants, the seasons, and religious subjects like the tower of Babel, Christ on the road to Calvary, and the triumph of death, the viewer is bound to recognize that the painter, in the words of Edward Snow, quoting Cezanne, was "a thinker in images." works known through thousands of reproductions, have elicited very divergent readings….  They have been variously perceived as comic and sympathetic representations of peasant life by a humane observer, as detached and accurate descriptions by an objective recorder, as graphic allegories of human folly, as visions of an organic community which is passing away, as products of a literary and pictorial genre of satirical commentaries on peasant crudity, gluttony, and lechery, and as an expression of the social condescension and moral superiority which humanist intellectuals and the dominant landed and urban classes of the painter's time are said to have felt toward peasants and popular culture.”

Simply listing those ideas damasks them – somewhat unfairly, since the list’s very heterogeneity allows Zagorin to avoid committing himself to acts of individual criticism. Since Koerner’s essay is printed in a special section of Common Knowledge dedicated to neo-stoicism, another “idea” is being at least claimed to be countenanced by the painter’s work. Of course, painters have several ideas. They think they’ll put some purple in that corner; they think it is time for a brewsky; they think that armed revolution would be a good thing; they think their girlfriends are betraying them… and so on. Famously, as Zagorin points out, Bruegel – as well as Bosch -- has been the subject of a story started by a critic of the thirties, Charles de Tonay, that he belonged to a millennial sect, the Family of Love. And that sect was a sext sect – to the pure all things are pure, I am pure, ergo, let’s get down.
Koerner has a welcome knack for seeing that a painting isn’t a space that is given all at once. His interpretation of Bruegel’s paintings depends on the fact that the eye tours the surface. In other words, the seeing of the painting exists in time. Too often this aspect of perspective – its deferring function – is neglected. There is a line of painting, going through the minimalists, that takes the painted surface as a means of seizing the eye’s seeing in something that is impossible to tour – and thus throwing the eye back on itself and its present. This is the claim of the purely painterly, and it is present as an element in every painting.  Here is Koerner doing the phenomenon of seeing a Bruegel painting, Jesus Carrying the Cross:
“A viewer needs to remember his or her first impression of Bruegel's picture to recognize its radical design. An initial experience goes something like this. We enter the picture through the grand sweep of the landscape. Bruegel plots this sweep through the flow of figures from the sunken distance on the left, past a middle ground, to a higher distance on the right. There, in the spatial and narrative full stop of the circular crowd, we notice that the cross of Christ is missing and we are sent back to the foreground, to a scene we perhaps noticed but slipped past due to its formal reserve. Yet here, where we expect to find him among his followers, Christ is still absent. The stake and wheel at the far right, together with the skull at its base, help trick us into thinking that the crucifix rises next to the Virgin, on Golgotha, hill of the skull. Between the skull and the wheel, however, a second group of mourners nudge us back into the landscape. Some wear contemporary dress; the man in the red cap at furthest to the right (who, like us, observes the landscape with the stake just to his side) is believed to be a self- portrait. In any case, it is around now that, tossed back into the agitated movement of the crowds, we seek and at last discover the tiny figure of Christ.

Dwarfing him in the expansive landscape, crowding him out by a teeming humanity, Bruegel performs the world's nonrecognition of Christ—also the subject of several of paintings by Bosch. Love of the world, for Bosch, caused everyone to overlook Christ in heaven. Yet whereas in works like Bosch's Hay Wain our own perspective as viewers of the triptych remains aligned with a salvific structure, in Bruegel's Jesus Carrying the Cross our place is inside the sinful parade, not only because Bruegel offers no external standpoint from which to view it with impunity, but also because he assures us that our world is the same. Realism, the sense we get that "this is how people actually look and act" repeats both our knowing the world and our not knowing Christ.”

We love the fancy stepping here. To see in, to go further, to back up – these are not in particular the stages of a narrative, which is, of course, the temptation with Bruegel, and an increasingly over-used trope in criticism -- everything must be narrativized this season. But Koerner's description of the viewer's passage through the painting is a narrative about a non-narrative reality. The narrative, here, is outside of the painting. It was suffered through by Christ.  Inside is the observer’s moment –and the observer’s gains and losses, shuffles and ducks.  

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