VIENNA — Snow began to fall — little watery puffs of it, half a degree to the cold side of sleet — just as I was approaching the heavy doors of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. Children on the museum’s front steps, oblivious to the treasures inside, ran about frenetically — “Es schneit! Es schneit! It’s snowing!” — as grimacing old women hoisted open their umbrellas.
I had come to Vienna to see the first monograph of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, a figure comparable in art to Shakespeare in literature, and just as elusive: We know neither where nor when Bruegel was born (in or near Breda, Netherlands, or in Antwerp, Belgium, between 1525 and 1530). No one can seem to agree on how to spell or pronounce his name (Bruegel or Brueghel; Broy-gel or Brew-gel). And, apart from knowing that he traveled to Italy in 1552-1554, worked in Antwerp and Brussels, married the daughter of his artistic mentors and died soon after the birth of his second child (five years after Shakespeare’s birth), we have little else to guide us as we scan his multitudinous pictures.
If you had to write a paragraph explaining Shakespeare’s greatness, what would you say? It’s so easy, if you trumpet the Big Themes, to lapse into frictionless generalities. You fail to convey the plays’ skittering flow, their pulsing vitality. And you fail, above all, to explain the language — the way Shakespeare’s words can cause all the carefully laid circuitry in your brain to silently implode.
The case of Bruegel is just as hard. To speak of what makes him profound — his invention of a freshly secularized vision of the world; his development of the sublime, extended vista or “worldscape,” and so on — is to omit his tender, comical feeling for everyday life, his uncanny ability to hook you into the stuff of the world in all its teeming variety. And it ignores, above all, the paint, the drawn lines, which have an unfussy quality of weight, translucency and tactile reality that has never been bettered.
Bruegel’s earliest-known painting was made in 1557. He died just 12 years later, in 1569. So the Vienna exhibition marks the 450th anniversary of his death.
Given his stature, the Vienna show, developed out of a research and conservation project funded by the Getty Foundation, is the most important art event this year. But its great achievement is simply bringing together more than three-quarters of Bruegel’s agreed-upon output as a painter, and half his extant drawings and prints.
Previous attempts to stage Bruegel exhibitions have failed. An effort 50 years ago, marking the 400th anniversary of his death, collapsed because lenders were not prepared to relinquish their fragile, priceless paintings. Only the Kunsthistorisches Museum could even contemplate the task: It has 12 of the roughly 40 panels attributed to Bruegel (the number is always shifting).
Among those in the museum’s collection are three of a cycle of six vast painted panels based on the seasons — a watershed in the history of art. Never before had a painter depicted human activity within the landscape on a scale so massive, and yet at the same time so familiar and intimate. God is nowhere to be seen, nor is he even implied.
The three Vienna panels have been joined by “Haymaking,” borrowed from the Lobkowicz Palace in Prague. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York balked at lending another, “The Harvesters,” deeming it too fragile to travel, and another did not survive.)
The season panels reveal Bruegel’s unmatched feeling for the grandeur of landscape and the precariousness of human efforts to carve out an existence within it. One look at “Hunters in the Snow,” which shows weary hunters and their forlorn hounds returning from a luckless expedition as villagers, ignorant of their plight, are skating on a distant pond, and you instantly know why Bruegel’s images are among the most popular ever painted.
But his art is not all sublime landscapes, plowed fields and gorgeous village intensity. Bruegel was also a moralist. From Hieronymus Bosch and his followers, he inherited a relish for cataloguing terror, evil and human depravity. His “The Triumph of Death” — lent by the Prado — depicts an army of skeletons and grim reapers herding living souls into a box-shaped death trap amid a riot of beheadings, hangings, besieged churches and emaciated horses.
The painting, and many of Bruegel’s prints, remind us that Bosch (the 500th anniversary of whose death was marked in 2016 with a wave of exhibitions and books) was a foundational influence on Bruegel. But whereas Bosch’s crushing vision rests on a view of the material world as fallen, sinning and inimical to God, Bruegel’s vision quite knowingly sets God off to one side.
That is what makes “The Triumph of Death” so radical, and in some ways even bleaker than Bosch: There is no suggestion of a viable redemption, no implied Last Judgment. What Bruegel pictures is not divine punishment — it is just death, a remorseless inevitability.
It is a frighteningly modern vision.
Given how rarely Bruegel’s paintings are allowed to travel, it’s especially gratifying that his two versions of “The Tower of Babel” have been reunited and hang in the same room. (He painted a third — a miniature in ivory — now lost.) The Kunsthistoriches version is the bigger painting, but the actual tower in the Rotterdam version is a lot larger when measured against the human figures in the painting.
The unusual thing about Bruegel’s imagining of the Old Testament story is that he chooses to depict the time before God’s intervention. Work on the tremendous tower appears to be proceeding well. There is no evidence of disaster, no suggestion that humanity will be rebuked for its vaulting ambition and confounded by God’s splintering of their common tongue into many languages.
A town in the background, based on Antwerp, prompts the thought that the painting might have been intended as a conversation piece for Bruegel’s contemporaries in the city, which at the time was growing as rapidly as any in Europe. The image of this massive tower — like any truthful image of global industry today — defeats understanding. As such, it demonstrates the limits of human powers and operates as an “antidote,” as curators Sabine Pénot and Elke Oberthaler write in the catalogue, “to megalomania.”
I would love to have overheard what Bruegel’s contemporaries made of the painting. And I would love even more to hear it discussed by a handpicked covey of today’s world-conquering billionaires, some of them busy sinking their fortunes into space travel.
Bruegel painted many biblical scenes. So what does it mean to say that he “secularized” painting? In part, just that he was interested in how the divine tended to be crowded out by the inevitable busyness of human activity.
Among his most wonderful large paintings are the Wimmelbilder, or “busy pictures”: scenes teeming with people engaged in various activities. But he could be just as ambitious in his small paintings. One of these usually resides in Winterthur, in Switzerland. It’s called “The Adoration of the Magi in the Snow.”
The work is the earliest and still the greatest depiction of falling snow in Western art. And, of course, it was the picture I involuntarily thought of as it began to snow on the afternoon of my arrival in Vienna.
So great were the crowds inside the museum, however, and so overwhelming were Bruegel’s large-scale masterpieces, I completely missed the little “Adoration.” Only when I returned the next day (the crowds were worse, but this time I was on its scent!) did I track it down.
In the New Testament story, the Adoration of the Magi represents an epiphany, a revelation of God’s presence in the world. But Bruegel shows this happening off in a corner of the painting, under a broken roof, shrouded in darkness.
Meanwhile, snow falls and the people of the town hurry about in the early stages of a blizzard. They gather sticks for fires, draw water from a hole in the iced-over stream and hasten through the streets. They’re oblivious to the appearance of this infant god, who, if the blizzard continues, might soon be concealed.
Soon after Bruegel painted this heart-stoppingly beautiful picture, applying the white snowflakes last, a wave of iconoclasm swept through the Netherlands. Churches were ransacked and images destroyed, prompting a retaliation by imperial Catholic Spain and the Eighty Years’ War. Sometimes, the iconoclasts slathered sacred images with white paint, according to Joseph Leo Koerner, whose 2016 book “Bosch and Bruegel: From Enemy Painting to Everyday Life” should be read by everyone interested in these artists.
This historical insight leads Koerner to a brilliant, synapse-shifting connection: As snow in Bruegel’s painting conceals the epiphany of Jesus’ birth, so the iconoclasts erased the image of God, and so Jesus’ appearance in the world becomes less an act of divine revelation than its own kind of cosmic iconoclasm: God demoting himself to the level of a spurned, obscured and desecrated image.
Bruegel’s scene looks innocent, but he was masterful at laying traps, and he was surely alive to all this. “And when in Bruegel the gods appear,” Koerner writes, “they do so precisely to disappear.”
It snowed again the following night in Vienna as, in the shadows of huge cathedrals, holiday shoppers stood around beer barrels drinking hot Glühwein, chewing on chestnuts and sliced sausage. I was among them, in a scene that was nothing if not Bruegelian.
Bruegel Through Jan. 13 at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Maria-Theresien-Platz, Vienna. bruegel2018.at.