Art Exhibition,  Artist,  Shelley’s Art Musings

Shelley’s Art Musing: Bruegel the Elder – 450 years on.


Netherlandish Proverbs (1559)

I started writing about art, because I wanted to show those who say “I don’t get art” that it isn’t as difficult to understand as some make out.  Art, in its many forms, is so entwined with life, but some lose sight of the intentions and make it seem too elitist and out of reach, forgetting that art was a form of communication and a way to teach and share stories through the ages.

A fine example of this is the work of Pieter Bruegel, and currently there is an exhibition on in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.  This exhibition celebrates the life and work of this witty and humorous artist on the 450th anniversary of his death.  The Exhibition is running until January 2019 so if you happen to be in Vienna, I would definitely recommend paying a visit, you can find out more details about the exhibition here.

Bruegel is one of the most influential painters, and while no one is exactly sure when he was born (it seems it is thought he was born between 1525 and 1530) we do know he died on the 9th September 1569, only living to the age of 39 or 44 depending on when you would like to think he was born.  His topic of paintings and technic was the formative influencer on the “Golden Age” of Dutch art, and later influence art movements generally.  He never painted a portrait, which was the traditional mainstay of Netherlandish art, preferring to keep his topics to scenery and peasant life, which earnt him the nickname “The Peasant Bruegel” which would assist in differentiating him from other artists in his family.

Bruegel started out as a prolific designer of prints for a leading publisher in Antwerp and wasn’t until toward 1558 that he turned his attention fully to painting.  By far one of his most interesting pieces is “Netherlandish Proverbs” which encapsulates some 118 (or there about) colloquial proverbs, some of which are still used today.

I could never dream of writing an article which covered all 118 proverbs, but I can point out some interesting points, to help you understand the humour and the artist and bring out the joy of his workmanship.  Bruegel was not the first to illustrate proverbs around this time, but he certainly was the most prolific.

Let’s start with the bit that stands out like a sore thumb.  In the middle right of the painting you can see two bottoms through a hole in a wooden shack.

This part of the painting is striking because it is so base.  It appeals to our lower sense of humour, because no matter where you come from or who you are, we all need to do this, it also covers at least three proverbs: –

  • It hangs like a privy over a ditch – meaning something is extremely obvious. You can see the makeshift hut hangs over a ditch making the perfect place for waste to fall.
  • Anyone can see through an oak plank if there is a hole in it – meaning there is no need to state the obvious. Here the hand pointing through the hole in the wooden plank on the side shows you the obvious.
  • They both crap through the same hole – meaning close comrades. Friends that would share their inner most workings…even their bodily functions.

It’s no wonder with work like this, Bruegel was able to fit so many proverbs in to his work, and it is a brilliant mind which pulled this all together.

There are so many great elements to this painting that it is hard to determine which ones to tell you about, but I will stick to the base humour for the time being.

Found in the upper middle section of this painting, you can see this rather distressed fellow.  It would be easy to think “liar, liar pants on fire” for this one, but there are two proverbs tied to this rather heated display: –

  • To run like your backside is on fire – meaning to be in great distress
  • He who eats fire, craps sparks – meaning don’t be surprised at the outcome if you undertake a dangerous venture.

Beautifully literal in the depiction, Bruegel certainly understands how to get the point across and entertain his audiences.

There is one more area which I am going to explain:

If you look in the lower left of the painting you will see a knelt man, attempting to fry herring with a lid on his head.  There are at least three proverbs here, but many more surround him.

  • The herring doesn’t fry here – meaning it’s not going according to plan. You can see no smoke rising from the pan and the man can touch the fish that has been cooking as it if it cold.
  • To fry the whole herring for the sake of the roe – to do too much to achieve little.
  • To get the lid on the head – meaning to end up taking responsibility. This poor chef will not be able to feed those around him.

You can see the themes of absurdity, wickedness and foolishness of human nature throughout this painting, as most proverbs exist as a warning to others to not make the same mistakes.  He uses literal idioms to bring to life the Dutch language.  This painting was done as an oil on oak panel piece, but some 16 iterations of it were created by either Bruegel the Elder or his son.  None are exact copied and they each contain varying proverbs.

Bruegel signed and dated a lot of his work, which means we can easily track his progression and artistic evolution, from his early landscape paintings to his last works.  His evolution started with synergies between other 16th century Flemish artists but moved to have a more Italian influence towards the end of his life.  Bruegel’s influence spread to the low countries and through his sons he became an ancestor of a dynasty of painters which went on in to the 18th century.

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