Thursday, January 2, 2014

MWA XXI: Bruegel's Hunters

As I'm writing this, the NYC area is getting slammed in a far-reaching snowstorm (called Hercules? since when do we name snowstorms?). We may get up to a foot of snow by lunchtime tomorrow. Even my job has closed down and given us a snow day off! So what better say to celebrate winter and snow (and our Monthly Work of Art) then with one of the greatest winter-themed paintings ever: The Hunters in the Snow, 1565, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (ca. 1525-1569; image: Web Gallery of Art). The Flemish-born painter is known for his so-called "peasant" scenes, with their emphases on the working and lower classes toiling at labor or simply playing and drinking. He painted religious and allegorical scenes as well, but his "peasant" genre paintings made him famous during an age when Catholicism was heavily embattled by the rise of Protestantism in the Germanic/Nordic countries, ultimately eliminating opportunities for Christian iconography from the oeuvre of many artists. This painting was one of a series depicting the seasons/months of the year. It was commissioned by the wealthy Antwerp-based merchant Niclaes Jongelinck. Of the six that were commissioned, only five exist today, with this painting representing winter or December/January. Another famous work in Bruegel's series is The Harvesters in the collection at the Met Museum (a painting that Director Thomas Campbell has professed to be one of his most favorite paintings in the collection; see a video about the painting by clicking here). This series of paintings also spawned one of the most erudite and hilarious novels I've ever read, Headlong by Michael Frayn, in which the narrator (a philosophy professor on sabbatical) discovers the missing sixth Bruegel painting and goes on a mission to acquire (i.e. steal) it at any cost.

The Hunters in the Snow is in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, a city that is on my list of places I would love to visit. Until I see it live I must rely on reproductions. What fascinates me in this painting is the level of detail and the sweep of perspective that draws you into it. It's as if you can see every feather on the birds and and count how much snow has fallen on the mountains in the background. When you see the painting, you approach it from the left. It is as if you are one of the men returning from their hunt. The trees draw you into the painting as they grow smaller and smaller, and the slope of the landscape pulls you further in as you begin the descent down the hill to the lake and further into the village. You can almost hear the cawing of the blackbirds in the grey, barren sky. The desolation of the season unfolds before you. But the further you travel into the painting, you are at its heart, and you see that it isn't about death but life. Just looking at the number of people figure skating on the frozen lake cannot help but make you grin. These people understand that in the dreariness that is winter and the starkness that is life, there is always a way to find joy. These skaters take in every moment of it. Winter suddenly doesn't seem as cold and stark as it did once before.

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