Oud Holland

Review of: 'Bruegel: De hand van de meester' (2018)

April 2020

Review of: Elke Oberthaler (et al.), Bruegel: De hand van de meester, Veurne [Hannibal] 2018

From 2 October 2018-13 January 2019, the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna hosted the anniversary exhibition ‘Bruegel: The hand of the master’. This comprehensive monographic presentation brought together, for the very first time, a large portion of the famous oeuvre of Pieter Bruegel the Elder (ca. 1526/28-1569): an impressive 27 paintings, 30 drawings and 30 prints. The curatorial team (Elke Oberthaler, Manfred Sellink, Sabine Pénot and Ron Spronk) would have only been able to realise such an enterprise within the Kunsthistorisches Museum – which happens to own the largest Bruegel collection in the world, with 12 of his paintings. In addition, an exhibition of this caliber is only possible today in conjunction with a large-scale multidisciplinary research project, which in this case, is the Getty Foundation's Panel Painting Initiative. From 2012, all Viennese Bruegels were systematically examined in the restoration workshops of the Vienna Gemäldegalerie, using a combination of the most recent, non-invasive research methods. The aim was to map out Bruegel's creative process as well as the state of preservation of the Viennese panels. The exhibition ‘Bruegel: The hand of the master’, therefore, focused on the artistry and work process of Pieter Bruegel the Elder and thus crowned the research project on the artist.

The exhibition catalogue, with the same title, consists of two parts: a printed portion (in English, German and Dutch) with entries on Bruegel’s works and a concise bibliography, and a digital portion with in-depth essays (in English and German).1 The beautifully crafted graphic design of the printed edition of the catalogue is also worth mentioning. It is not only the ‘colour accuracy’ of the reproductions, but also and especially, the variety of Bruegel's works in their entirety, with numerous details, material-technical images and much additional visual material from contemporaries, which all serve to make the book – just like Bruegel's work itself – a feast for the eyes. The whole is supplemented with the website Inside Bruegel, on which all his Viennese paintings, and the images that were created during the material-technical research (macro photography, IR macro-photography, IRR and XR), are made digitally accessible, for the first time.2

Left: Cover of Bruegel. De hand van de meester.
Middle: fig. 1 Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The magpie on the Gallows, 1568, oil on panel, 45.9 × 50.8 cm, Hessisches Landesmuseum, Darmstadt, inv. GK 165.
Right: fig. 2 Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The fight between Carnival and Lent, ca. 1559, oil on panel, 118 x 164 cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, inv. GG_1016.

The entries include all the paintings, drawings (except for the drawing Artist and connoisseur, ca. 1566, Albertina, Vienna) and prints on display in the exhibition, as well as some works that were not on display, such as The preaching of John the Baptist (1566, Szépmuvészeti Múzeum, Budapest) and The Adoration of the Magi from Brussels. The catalogue starts with the earliest known landscape drawings from approximately 1552-1554 (cats. 1-11) and ends with The magpie on the gallows (fig. 1) (1568, Darmstadt, cat. 87) The order of the works is chronologically arranged, and, at the same time, takes into account substantive and stylistic relationships between different media. This cross-media approach is one of the merits of the exhibition catalogue. Although in various Bruegel studies different media were all too often treated separately, such a holistic approach in which each work is analysed from a stylistic, technical and thematic point of view – in relation to the entire oeuvre – is the only way in which we can obtain a coherent picture of Bruegel's complex artistic personality, and how it gradually develops. An important theme is Bruegel's brilliance as a landscape artist and his extraordinary insight into the visual effects and compositional possibilities of various media. In this respect, the numerous expertises of the curators are quite nicely combined, as is apparent from the descriptions of the painted works, where (of course, where possible and relevant) feedback is often given to the graphic oeuvre, and where the results of the material-technical research are also discussed. With regard to the painted oeuvre, only panels and no canvases were exhibited in Vienna, as they, unfortunately, cannot travel, due to their fragility. Since such ‘watercolour canvases’ are an essential part of Bruegel's production of paintings, this aspect is addressed in the description of The adoration of the Magi (ca. 1556, glue paint on canvas, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels). However, the attribution of this tüchlein is not generally accepted by Bruegel connoisseurs – as Sabine Pénot rightly states – and one may wonder whether this (re)attribution of such a complex case is rightly situated, in such an exhibition catalogue.

The essays in the e-book cover various aspects of Bruegel’s oeuvre, and of Bruegel historiography, the history of the Viennese panels, as well as the actual presentation of research results from the Bruegel Panel Paintings Initiative. Manfred Sellink's contribution focuses on Bruegel's merits as a landscape artist. It relays Bruegel’s ingenuity, wit and striking talent to explore, seemingly effortlessly, different compositional possibilities within different media. The essay again illustrates why it is that Bruegel is considered one of the greatest landscape artists in his day, and still today. Sabine Pénot's essay provides an overview of Bruegel studies and its expertises (connoisseurship) from its development at the end of the nineteenth century up to twenty-first. Here, the Belgian and Viennese research traditions are extensively discussed, with key figures such as Fritz Grossman, Gustav Glück and Henri Hymans taking prominent place. Alice Hoppe-Harnoncourt's contribution deals with the provenance of the Viennese panels. Based on extensive archival research, she offers new information about changing presentations of Bruegel’s paintings throughout the collection’s history, hence also providing insight into the general appreciation of Bruegel through time. In the last two essays, Ron Spronk and Elke Oberthaler provide a comprehensive overview of the general results of the research, and the new insights that have been created from the Viennese research project.

The research into the material-technical aspect of Bruegel's work (or, the material-technical turn in Bruegel research) is not new, as important contributions have been collected in the exhibition catalogue De firma Brueghel (Brussels, 2001-2002), and even more recently, in the monumental The Brueg[h]el phenomenon, by Christina Currie and Dominique Allart (Turnhout, 2012). Although these studies mainly focused on the ‘Bruegel dynasty’ and especially the paintings practices of Pieter Brueghel the Younger, the workshop methods of Pieter Bruegel the Elder were also partially discussed. These and several separate studies were, therefore, an important starting point for the Panel Paintings Initiative when it was launched in 2012. However, it is the first time that a considerable part of the painted works by Pieter Bruegel the Elder were ever examined in such a standardised manner. This situation offered the exceptional opportunity to shed new light on the working practices of the ancestor of this artistic dynasty, and thus to better understand Bruegel's signature painting technique, and creative process. This partially fills an important lacunae in Bruegel studies, although the interpretation of the research results remains complex and thus calls for further investigation.

Until now, for example, very little was known about Bruegel’s working methods, and in particular, the role of underdrawings in the creative process and the actual creation of his paintings. The results of the infrared study roughly illustrate two types of underdrawings. On the one hand a, ‘relatively free, sketchy underdrawing’, including deviations in the paint layers, so that the artist’s drawing is an integral part of the creative process. While on the other hand, the underdrawings are (mainly in complex paintings, such as the encyclopedic pieces, or so-called ‘Wimmelbilder’), rather limited to contours of the main shapes and forms which are then carefully followed in paint. This suggests that Bruegel used one-on-one cartoons for such works: “The use of such a cartoon for the creation of a single unique work is without precedent in panel painting but would explain the presence of the curiously precise contours in the underdrawing and paint layers.” 3 The practice may be linked to Bruegel’s employment in the studio of Pieter Coecke van Aelst, who, as is well known, used such cartoons for the production of tapestries.

Because the paintings in the collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum provide a complex, yet representative picture of Bruegel's evolution as a painter (the earliest piece The battle between Lent and Shrove Tuesday (fig. 2) was created in 1559, with the last dated pieces The nest robber and The village fair from 1568), is it possible to sketch an evolution of underdrawings and their role in the genesis of the paintings throughout the oeuvre, a hitherto underexposed aspect and thus a more than welcome contribution to Bruegel research. In addition to this overview, the research results also provide extensive insight into Bruegel's painting technique and the role of the structure of the paint layers. This shows Bruegel's exceptional pictorial ingenuity, his modern painting process and innovative approach in paint application with regard to, for example, perspective effect and the construction of 'spatial illusion'. As Oberthaler aptly puts it: “Bruegel's skill in handling brush and paint is almost breathtaking.”4

One of the proposed objectives of the study was to make an inventory of the conditions of the Viennese panels. A fascinating observation is that all panels in the collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, with one exception, were shortened at some point in history. Only The Crucifixion from 1564 (which is also the largest known panel by Bruegel) still appears to have the original dimensions. However, an aspect that is lacking – which can lead to justifiable criticism from colleagues – is that the results of the material-technical research and the fascinating new insights, are not situated in the context of a sixteenth-century artist's practice and the art market; an aspect that has been the subject of much research in recent years. It goes without saying that Bruegel's work and his working process cannot be regarded as isolated, and such contextualisation would have absolutely been an added value.

One aspect that is extensively discussed in Ron Spronk’s contribution, is the connection between Bruegel's painting technique and the method of Jheronimus Bosch. The author links the well-known descriptions of Van Mander to specific pieces by Bruegel, and makes direct connections with paintings by Bosch that Bruegel may have seen in Antwerp might have seen in Antwerp while he was working there. An interesting suggestion is Spronk's attribution of the panel The temptation of Saint Anthony in Washington (currently attributed as an imitator of Bruegel),5 as possibly an early work by Bruegel who, as Van Mander points out, “has practiced much after Bosch's action.”6 The author also examines the parallels between the work of Bosch and Bruegel from a technical point of view.

During the exhibition, there was a symposium held from 6-8 December 2018 at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, entitled: ‘The hand of the master: Materials and techniques of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’. The findings presented by experts at this meeting will be published at a later date. The art-historical importance of such a large-scale, and multidisciplinary project as that of the Panel Painting Initiative, can hardly be overestimated.

Katrien Lichtert
Ludens _ Art Projects
Translated from the Dutch to the English by John Bezold.
1 The digital book can be consulted at www.khm.at/bruegel-ebook
2 See www.insidebruegel.net
3 E. Oberthaler (et al.), Bruegel: De hand van de meester, Veurne 2018, p. 357.
4 Oberthaler 2018 (note 3), p. 404.
5 The panel was first published and deemed to be by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, by the Leo van Puyvelde (1882-1965), whose attribution was supported by Friedländer, Glück and Hoogewerff, among others.
6 Oberthaler 2018, p. 361. Karel Van Mander, Het Schilder-boeck, Haarlem 1604, fol. 233r. (English translation: H. Miedema, The lives of the illustrious Netherlandish and German painters, Soest 1994-1999, vol. 1, pp. 190-91. Miedema translated Van Mander’s “hadde veel ghepractiseert nae de handelinghe van Ieroon van den Bosch” as, “had practiced a lot after the works of Jeroon van den Bosch”. But, as Spronk rightly remarks, 'handelinghe' specifically refers to a painter’s manner in relation to style or technique of execution.)
Katrien Lichtert, 'Review of Bruegel: De hand van de meester', Oud Holland Reviews, April 2020.