DASH OF ART – Bruegel: Fools get the best cards!

Flemish proverb: Fools get the best cards

Are you in Berlin for a conference, a congress or board of director’s meeting? One advice: organize your agenda so to be able to visit the Gemäldegalerie: a two-kilometer walk, through 72 main galleries that host 1.000 masterpieces of German, Italian and Flemish painters of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. But if your plane cannot wait, go (at least) to admire the Flemish proverbs by Bruegel.

But which one of the Bruegel family?

Pieter, ‘the Elder’, of course. Bruegel or Brueghel was the progenitor of a generation of Flemish painters. In fact, the nickname ‘the Elder’ was used to distinguish him from other Bruegel: the sons, Pieter (the Younger, also called ‘the Hell’) and Jan (the Elder, also called ‘the Paradise’), the grandchildren Jan and Ambrosius, and great-grandchildren Abraham and Jean Pieter.

Once rebuilt, in part, his genealogical tree, difficult task considering their little imagination in the choice of names, we should confess that news concerning the life and career of the founder are incomplete, beginning with the date and place of birth, which remain uncertain still today (Breda, c. 1525-1530 – Brussels, 1569). From six, maybe seven, reliable documents, however, some scholars are able to reconstruct the life of who, for many years, was deemed as the ‘painter of peasants’.

We do not really know why, but since 1559, he decided to sign Bruegel and no longer as Brueghel, we know that in 1551 he is registered as master in the guild of St. Luke in Antwerp; that he got married in 1563 and that two years later a rich banker, Nicholas Jonghelinck, owned sixteen of his paintings. He was probably formed at Pieter Coecke van Aelst school, an eclectic artist as well as court painter under Charles V.

Coecke, by distributing prints, was attempting to increase his business by widening the circle of potential customers interested in art. Not only nobles and clergy but also bourgeois and merchants. As recalled Pierre Francastel, citing the testimony of Ludovico Guicciardini, in those years there were five thousand merchants in Antwerp. Although the runs were much smaller than those we know today, the print could bring art to a wider audience than frescoes and paintings, kept in the homes of the wealthy, and the museums did not exist yet.

After marriage, Bruegel moved to Brussels, he remained there until his death, and there he painted some of his masterpieces, including the The Peasant Wedding, where he portrayed himself in the verge of confessing.

Bruegel 2.jpg

He died quite young in 1569 and was buried in Notre-Dame-de-la-Chapelle in the Belgian capital. His tomb is adorned with a painting by Rubens his great admirer and collector of his works.

Then over the years the ‘style Bruegel’ became a ‘brand’ which spread successfully.

Many people have written about the life and works of Bruegel and not always the opinions were unanimous in his concern, perhaps because his painting is hardly classifiable. To some he was a devout Catholic, for others a follower of Calvin, or an Anabaptist. For many he was an optimist, for other an incurable pessimist. Some considered him like a farmer, because of his stories, for others he was a cultured bourgeois who knew Latin, Greek and perhaps Hebrew.

Amongst his contemporaries, the cartographer Abraham Ortelius defined he “the most perfect painter of his century“, the writer and merchant Ludovico Guicciardini “Bosch the second”. His works were loved by emperor (Rudolf II), statesmen (Antoine Perrenot de Granvelle state councilor of Charles V), wealthy collectors, but also by the common people, amused by his ‘jokes’.

But his works caused also different judgments, sometimes contradictory, and were often confused with those of Hieronymus Bosch, of which he was deemed to be a devote follower. His canvases were judged fun, comic (hence the nickname of ‘Pier Drol Den’, ‘the funny’), sometimes simply representing village stories (Karel van Mander, his first biographer, spoke about him as ‘Bruegel the Peasant’), then in the twentieth century critics rediscovered Bruegel who became the first modern artist and ‘the only original Flemish painter of the XVI century’ (Gustave Vianzype, Godefridus Johannes Hoogewerff).

What is certain is that, even today, his works raise great interest and appreciation for the, hidden or manifest, irony of his representations, for the originality of his stories, rich in allusions, for its refined and incisive brushwork, and for how he mastered the art of drawing. The viewer has the impression that, at any moment, the characters may move and go on with their lives.

Unlike many artists of his time, Bruegel did not paint nudes or portraits. The first part of his artistic life was characterized by drawings, engravings and some landscapes. From 1559, the farmers started to invade his paintings (Flemish Proverbs, Children’s Games), then it was time for little monsters, demonic and fantastic figures (the Fall of the Rebel Angels and Bad Meg [or Dull Gret]), to finish with his great masterpieces (the Seasons, the two towers of Babel, the The Peasant dance, the The Land of Cockaigne, the Peasant Wedding), extraordinary synthesis of landscapes and figures. During the last six years, as recalled by Alexander Wied, Bruegel produced thirty paintings, three-quarters of its known production.

But who are the protagonists of Bruegel’s works?

His characters do neither attend courts nor churches, but open-air markets and taverns. They are superstitious, sometimes vicious. They are simple creatures, clumsy; sinners mostly.

They are often portrayed in ridiculous and grotesque poses, in episodes from the daily life, not hiding being the shadow of idealization or pity.

Brueghel does not use the grotesque to express a judgment or to criticize, but he uses it as a tool to describe and remain glued to reality. Sometimes his criticism of society is counterbalanced by a benevolent vision, perhaps paternalistic, as in Flemish proverbs. It appears that he somehow pays homage to popular wisdom.

In the ‘proverbs’ land’, he depicted dozens of episodes in a single setting. The result is a work full of charm, absolutely not anecdotal in nature, but rather a reflection of  men’ vices and virtues. The issue had already been addressed by Bosch in the Seven Deadly Sins and by the Bruegel in Twelve proverbs, but here we are in front of a real bible of the popular knowledge, probably inspired by the eight hundred sayings contained in Collectanea Adagiorum by Erasmus of Rotterdam, published in 1500.

Let us now move to the Flemish Proverbs

[see also the interactive version of the painting]
In addition to the originality of the composition, which has no direct precedent, what intrigues is the ability of Bruegel to contain in a medium sized canva (117×163 cm) a hundred proverbs. Who could resist to the temptation of trying to unearth and decipher, as much as possible, without the help of art critics?

Wied is right when he says that who looks at the canvas has the impression of being in front of a demented open-air asylum. Bruegel does not put himself as a judge or censor, he just wants to provide a catalog of vices and sins of the world. He does not want to be a moralist, at most, he wants to invite to think on the human nature.

In The Topsy Turvy World, another title of the painting (represented by the globe being upside down, at the bottom left of the picture), the characters do not belong exclusively to the world of the peasants. There is a woman dressed in an elegant red dress, in a central position, covering her husband with a blue cloak with visor, to hide her betrayals from him; certainly, she belongs to the bourgeoisie.

Throwing a blind eye to the proverbs, they do not seem to be intended for an audience of all agricultural workers only.

Bruegel 3 .jp

  • To keep the hen’s egg and let the goose’s egg go, (that is, make a bad decision – fig. 27), it seems to better fit a big company CEO or high-profile Hedge Fund manager rather than a Flemish farmer;
  • When the corn decreases the pig increases, (if one gains, one has to lose – fig. 65), more appropriate for depicting a broad picture of the Stock Market as a “zero-sum game” where, for every winner, there is a loser as well.
  • If the blind lead the blind both will fall in the ditch, (you should not take advice from those who are more ignorant than you – fig. 75), beware of so called market “experts and gurus“;
  • To sit between two stools in the ashes, (end up in misery due to indecision – fig. 30), while “doing nothing” can sometimes be the most profitable response, keep in mind that the “Inertia Bias“, as well as the “Status Quo Bias” are among the most detrimental ones for investors;
  • Fools get the best cards, (that is, luck can overcome intelligence – fig. 40), whether the bias concerns a matter of “Representativeness” or “Self-Attribution”, do not let the Gambler’s fallacy fool you through the Hot Hand effect (the erroneous belief that certain runs of success are attributable to skill rather than luck)?
  • Sharks eat smaller fish, (that is, anything people say will be put in perspective according to their level of importance – fig. 46), it seems to anticipate the “authority bias (we tend to thoughtlessly obey those we regard as being in positions of authority, and expect them to be right), rather than serve as a warning to a Dutch fisherman;
  • Horse droppings are not figs, (that is, do not be fooled by appearances – fig. 74) seems to anticipate the Beauty Effect (qualities we attribute to people based on their appearance), rather than alert a farmer of the sixteenth century;
  • To yawn against the oven, (that is to attempt to achieve more than one possibly can – fig. 28), better suited for a self-centered broker from the City, than a baker of Flanders;
  • Leave at least one egg in the nest, (that is, always have something in reserve –  fig. 42), more useful to an euphoric investor, than a Belgian housewife. Although, an emergency fund set up for “rainy days” would most definetly also be beneficial to the latter!

And now, the rest is up to you ….


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