Bruegel for today

 

 

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Most people have admired the widely reproduced paintings of Bruegel the Elder. Paintings such as Children’s Games have even been made into jigsaw puzzles. However, his worldview and naturalistic style are no longer in favour so much. This is a pity as I believe his paintings and drawings still have much to say to us.
In 16th century Netherlands proverbs which illustrated the vices and foibles of humanity were popular. And this is our main stumbling block. Nowadays we don’t like being told what to think, let alone how to live! Some of the proverbs of Bruegel’s day may seem quaint to us but I’d argue that his broader worldview has a timeless quality more akin to Shakespeare’s view of humanity. In particular the notion of Theatrum Mundi (Theatre of the World), in which all human life is seen as an absurd spectacle acted out on a vast stage, is a view just as appealing today as in the 16th century.
In a short article it is impossible to do justice to Bruegel’s fecund imagination and vision. I’m only going to discuss two of his small drawings but would urge those interested to carefully examine in particular such works as Netherlandish Proverbs, Allegory of Pride, Allegory of Lust, Allegory of Avarice and Battle Between Carnival & Lent.

Bruegel’s countrymen and women were well aware of the moral temptations of a commercial society, particularly where greed and selfishness were concerned. Folk theatre of the age dramatized such follies. Elck was a sort of Everyman figure popular at the time. Elck’s spiritual blindness is depicted in a drawing of Bruegel’s done in 1558. In this exquisitely detailed 8×11 inch drawing an elderly man searches through a pile of barrels, tools, a chessboard and other objects – all of which represent the distractions of the world and the danger of too much ambition and insatiable greed. The broken globe at Elck’s feet is a traditional symbol of vanity. The drawing illustrates two sayings, Elck seeks himself in the world, and Elck tugs the longest end. This latter is depicted by two figures tugging on a strip of cloth. Elck’s lack of awareness is further illustrated by a picture hanging in the background. A fool gazes at his image in a mirror. He is Nemo or Nobody, another popular folk character. The inscription below translates as, Nobody Knows Himself. Pageants of the day portrayed Elck in a series of tableaux and moreover, the saying, Elck seeks himself and comes to grief because he cannot judge himself clearly, was one of the tableaux. Here we are far from quaint proverbs; we are more in the spiritual and psychological realm of Socrates’ Know Thyself.

 

 

Elck2

 

The Alchemist (12×17 in) is another drawing done in the same year. Alchemists were held in low esteem by the Netherlands’ increasingly rational, humanist intelligentsia and merchants. Stories circulated about people being fleeced and losing life savings.

 

 

 

bruegel alchemist
The drawing depicts an ill-clothed alchemist seated at his ‘laboratory’ bench; his wife sits behind him pointing to her empty purse showing that in spite of her husband’s occupation, it is not a money-spinner! Her child sits in a cupboard with an empty cooking pot on its head, further evidence that the family is trading in nothingness. A scholar sits at a desk and tells a fool to pump bellows on a charcoal burner. The learned man points to an entry in his large book which is a pun on the word, ‘alchemist’- all is lost! Through an opening in the back of the room we see the alchemist taking his family to a poorhouse. Exposing fraudulent merchants and enterprises was a popular pursuit in Europe. Today we see the same appetite for ridicule in expose-journalism and the satirical cartoons depicting politicians and celebrities. Also, although there are no alchemists around nowadays, all we have to do is switch on the TV to see yet another scam where someone has fleeced someone else out of thousands (or millions) of pounds. And there are many more kinds of exploitation nowadays where gullibility is involved.
In this short article I have focussed on the message or ‘moral’ of these two drawings as if they were literary forms instead of visual. I think it goes without saying that Bruegel shows his many draughtsmanship and compositional skills in these pictures; skills which would serve him well in his later paintings. (There are, of course, many other qualities to admire in Bruegel, his use of striking composition and colour for example. He was no mere moralist.) It must be remembered that he was working at a time when narrative and literary ideas figured strongly in paintings, etchings and prints.
It is a cliché that human nature never changes. I think that is why Bruegel’s work can still resonate today if we make the effort to really look. We may not know whether to laugh or cry at the world’s follies (Democritus was the optimist in the ancient world and Heraclitus the pessimist!) Perhaps there is a third choice; to see ourselves in the Theatre Mundi, to have compassion for ourselves and others, and live the best we can without causing too much mayhem.
In case it is thought that Bruegel was an out and out pessimist focussing on vice rather than virtue, he did depict The Seven Virtues too, and I should emphasise that his work, above all, celebrates life in all its richness, humanity and folly.
I would recommend using a magnifying glass to examine Bruegel’s work reproduced in books. If you are fortunate to see the originals you could always go armed with a magnifying glass! (I’m sure in Bruegel’s day people would spend considerable time ‘reading’ his paintings. In our world of instant-sensation we may spend a few minutes in front of a painting in a gallery if we are lucky.)
I am indebted to Walter S Gibson for the light he sheds on Bruegel in his excellent Thames & Hudson book, Bruegel, published in 1977.

Eric Nicholson – Cert Ed.
https://erikleo.wordpress.com
Twitter@erikleo8

Northumberland church with a war-time story

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This is a Saxon church I painted in acrylic. It is St Andrew’s church in Bolam, Northumberland. It has an interesting war-time history. During the Second World War a German bomber was flying over Bolam being attacked by RAF Beaufighters. Willi Schludecker, the German pilot, decided to drop his remaining bombs to lighten his Dornier 217E2. One dropped outside the church and bounced through a window landing on the floor. It, however, didn’t explode. Many years after the war the pilot somehow got in touch with the church as he wanted to apologise to everyone. He travelled to England to apologise in person and there were various newspaper articles about him. The spot where the bomb dropped is marked inside the church with copies of news reports. A memorial window was put in place after the war.

 

Joy Scott was just 22years old and living at Bolam Low House Farm when she was awakened by all the noise. She recalled that as she watched, a huge bomber thundered overhead, braking branches off the treetops of her parents’ farm and pursued by Beaufighters. She heard several explosions and in the morning she went up the hill to the church to see what had happened. The second bomb had broken through the churchyard wall, bounced off a gravestone and through the wall of the church.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Woodland

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Vincent Van Gogh was the first artist  I made an emotional connection with, in my teens. When I was in my early twenties I read his Letters and realised that he was a well read, thoughful artist far from the popular notion of the mad artist! I never tried to copy his style but this drawing,  which I must have done over twenty years ago, shows some influence in the mark-making. If you haven’t read the diaries I highly recommend them. There’s an edited version produced by Fontana, The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, Ed by Mark Roskill. They are among the most moving testament of any artist I’ve read about.

Red Kite and landscape

This is a painting I did on cardboard, using acrylic, some years ago. It is quite small, less than 12inch across. Looking at it now I’m surprised I chose black for the red kite! I don’t want to read too much into it but it was painted as an expressionistic non-naturalistic landscape, so perhaps the archetype of the Shadow is part of the symbolism.

The reason I’m posting some of my art work is that I have a pile of stuff gathering dust so I took photos of the best of the bunch and will post them occasionally on this blog. I no longer paint and thought up until now that was a part of my past; I would no longer pick up a brush. However, never say never, as they say! (The Blucher drawing was done this year but that’s a pencil drawing not a painting.)

 

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Flower of Life

The “Flower of Life” can be found in many different cultures. The most usual representation is a circle divided up into intricate shapes. Alan Moncrieff is an artist/craftsman who works in Gateshead producing stunning mosaic-mirrors, many based on the flower of life. Alan uses recycled materials. Some of his intricate mosaics change colour to the sound of music. This is where it is easier to see patterns within patterns. Without getting too mystical about it, this phenomenon is found repeated in nature. Nature after all, is the supreme example of ‘creativity.’
I’ll let Alan’s work speak for itself. Here is one of his videos:

 

His website is at: http://www.cotfieldmirrors.co.uk

Meeting Shakespeare

I wrote this poem after visiting the Oak Effect exhibit by Mathew Darbyshire in the Shipley Art Gallery in Gateshead. The exhibit ‘presents a 2 bedroom show home made to EU recommended standards with ubiquitous oak effect finish.’ Various old artifacts are displayed within the rooms. Hence the juxtaposition of the new and old; and artifacts taken out of their usual context. I didn’t notice the carving of Shakespeare the first time I visited! Its by Gerrard Robinson.

Visiting Shipley Art Gallery

I walk into the art gallery and see
William Shakespeare
carved in wood.
Oak leaves form a sort of halo
around his eight inch figure.
Evidence of his seven ages
is all around:
1. Infant – a wooden African cradle
2. School pupil – a 1930s desk
3. Lover – a 1920s gramophone complete with shellac 78
4. Soldier – a spear from New Guinea
5. Maturity – a Burmese Buddha
6. Old age – an abacus
7. Death – a faceless long-case clock

Falstaff is nearby to ensure we don’t dwell
too much on ‘mere oblivion.’

On the wall behind Shakespeare
there is a chorus of birds, painted in oils on copper(c) Shipley Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
by Jan van Kessel around 1650.
Polychromatic parrots, parakeets and hoopoes sing
from a little song-sheet.
Is this a coda, an afterthought afterlife or
is this how it always is?

Matisse – Part of Nature

matisse drawing with poles

“When we speak of nature it is wrong to forget that we ourselves are part of Nature. We ought to view ourselves with the same curiosity and openness with which we study a tree, the sky or a thought, because we too are linked to the entire universe.”

 

In his old age Matisse used charcoal on the ends of long poles to draw with. He also used coloured paper to make pictures, cutting shapes with large scissors even when he was bed-ridden.