With a crunched nose, furrowed brow and squinting eyes, Jennifer Johnson stood peering through a thick magnifying glass at the 16th century print before her.
"It takes forever just to see all the little tiny stuff," said 20-year-old Johnson, while looking at one of 65 prints in the "The Printed World of Pieter Bruegel the Elder" exhibit at St. John's College in Annapolis. "There are these little peasant guys with potato-head faces . . . and ugly little creatures coming out of eggs."
Looking hard--and close--is the best way to view the Bruegel inventions on view at the Mitchell Art Gallery at St. John's through Nov. 7. The highly detailed prints, mostly etchings and engravings by other artists after Bruegel drawings, entice the eye to investigate the minute and hidden figures, the surreal and hideous creatures, and dramatic landscapes.
Only one print in the exhibit is by Bruegel himself. The others, created for wide distribution to the literate middle classes in Bruegel's time, are mostly etchings and engravings reproduced from his drawings.
"There is a very curious nature to some of these prints and it's a lot to take in in one visit," said Lucinda Edinberg, art educator at the gallery. She said she sees people return again and again to reinvestigate the images. "You can take [the prints] on a lot of levels."
Bruegel, one of the 16th century's most enigmatic artists, is best known for capturing the spirit and sturdiness of peasants in his paintings of Netherlandish country feasts. Bruegel depicted the allegories of virtue and vice and heaven and hell using peasants, simple country customs and the landscape.
Perhaps among the most famous of his works are the "Months of the Year," a series of six paintings in which the labors of peasants mark the passage of the seasons. The symbolism of the series still eludes art historians and has been the subject of intense debate.
Although the prints in the Annapolis exhibit lack the broad, fluid brush strokes of the Bruegel paintings and their sense of light, they arguably are more intimate. The detailed prints were meant to be scrutinized with scholarly interest, laid out on a desk or pressed into an album for repeated study, according to Joseph Leo Koerner, an art historian at Harvard University who wrote an essay for the exhibition catalogue. To enjoy the exhibit, then, Koerner says, the viewer must draw close to the prints, as Johnson did.
"I really wanted to come and look at the prints about sin," said Johnson, referring to the series "The Seven Deadly Sins," in which anger, sloth, pride, avarice, gluttony, envy and lust are personified by foolish peasants, fish and froglike creatures, snarled and decaying landscapes and other oddities. "It showed those things that everyone does and made it ugly."
One of the reasons the college chose to host the exhibit, Edinberg said, is that those depictions of the human condition are of great societal interest now, on the cusp of a new century.
"We are in one of those unique moments when people are exploring ideas about human nature, who we are and why we're here," she said. "For me, it shows us that man has not changed very much. We may have more gadgets, but we are not very original about our sins. It's great commentary."
Bruegel is renowned by many art historians for the subtly veiled religious and political criticism that permeates much of his work.
Many of his compositions contain biblical motifs with political overtones. The artist would have been about 40 when the Spanish King Philip II, who controlled the Netherlands, sent the ruthless Duke of Alba to the region to forcibly convert Protestants to the Catholic faith. Several thousand Netherlanders were sentenced to death, spawning an 80-year war that ended in the division of the land into Catholic Belgium and Protestant Holland.
"Our society is not motivated by that kind of religious fervor and superstitions," Edinberg said, "but we still want to ponder that."
The prints in the Annapolis exhibit also show off Bruegel's innovative landscapes, which, for one of the first times in art history, played as dominant a role as the figures. He often depicts peasants moving through landscapes along sweeping hills, a line of trees, level plains, craggy rocks and rising mountain heights--their paths symbolizing spiritual pilgrimage.
Edinberg will conduct gallery talks on the exhibit on Wednesday at 12:15 p.m. and Oct. 24 at 3 p.m. The gallery, on the campus of St. John's College, 60 College Ave., in Annapolis, is open Tuesday through Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. and Friday from 7 to 8 p.m. Admission is free. For more information about, call 410-626-2556.