Bosch, Bruegel, Rubens, Rembrandt—A Review

Until June 30th the Albertina has a show of prints and drawings, “Bosch Bruegel Rubens Rembrandt.” I’ve been to see it a couple of times and found it overall mixed, with a couple of high points. First, I’ll give you a quick overview of what to expect; and then I’d like to show you a couple of things in the show that are very much worth seeing.

The exhibition has as little to hold it together as its title suggests; Bosch, Bruegel, Rubens and Rembrandt were all fascinating (though quite distinct) painters who executed less-famous though superb graphic works; their careers span a timeframe of about 175 years. Bruegel was profoundly influenced by the work of Bosch, at that moment a popular artist; Rembrandt drew from a couple of Rubens’ works, and may have had a more extensive interest in the artist who was the most famous of their shared moment. But Bosch and Rubens or Bruegel and Rembrandt have little enough to do with each other. Presumably to give a sense of connection, a couple of additional categorical divisions are thrown into the mix—Haarlem mannerists, for instance, as well as landscape. It’s exactly as arbitrary as it sounds.

Structure is imposed by the layout of the gallery itself, with the Bosches (including the famous Tree-Man drawing) and Bruegels (the prints of the Seven Deadly Sins) off in the split-level side room (frequent Albertina visitors will know the space well). The remainder of the works sprawl through the remaining gallery space broken into loose subcategories, sort of. The effect is of a kind of intellectual disorder punctuated briefly by extraordinary experiences. I suggest we just take a look at the latter.

For example, among the Bruegels, and far more interesting than the engravings of the Seven Deadly Sins, one finds his pen and brush drawing of Big Fish Eat Little Fish:

Big Fish Eat the Little Fish

The father in the boat gestures toward the fishy mayhem and says, according to the inscription present in print versions, “Look, son, I have long known that the big fish eat the small.” The truth of this maxim is being demonstrated in every direction — not only by the whale in the background, disgorging fish from mouth and gut, but within the boat itself, where another man cuts open a large catch to reveal a small one.

Like most of Bruegel’s works that are often posited to present a “moral message,” the meaning of the work is profoundly unclear. That we are supposed to learn something important is indicated by the gesture of the man in the boat to the boy; the boy, like the viewer, is in the role of “student.” But what is the lesson taught by this marine mass slaughter? Presumably we humans are the biggest fish of all—this would be the logic of the Great Chain of Being, after all—and at first glance this would appear to be the case both within the boat, in the actions of the fisherman, and in the world more broadly, where a pair of men—who, though not the largest figures in the composition, are wielding the largest knives—are stabbing and gutting the massive whale.

But wait. Look up in the sky. It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s…a flying fish?

Little Fish Eat the Big Fish Eating the Little Fish

The lesson, such as it is, seems to be that everyone thinks he’s the big fish—until he isn’t. Indeed, there is only one true Big Fish, and we are not he. For he is God. And he is coming after us (using nature as his tool?), in the same way we are slashing our way through his creatures. The play is on the idea of Christ as a fisherman/a fisher of men, and on the idea that man is too quick to think of himself as in the position of the fisherman, rather than as part of the catch. That the world can turn on you in a moment—that the big fish can, in fact, become the small—is amusingly indicated by the oysters and mussels clapping hold of the occasional fish, and by the creature off to the right that has sprung a pair of human legs and is walking off with a smaller fish in its mouth.

How do you feel now, little fish?

Need some cheering up? How about a nice, jolly Bosch drawing of…something:

Bosch Gone Wild

Of course, not for nothing was Bosch a source for Bruegel, since this print, like most of Bosch’s paintings, seems to be about the idea that the result of our human inability to take control of our bodies (as a metaphor for the dominance of spirit over matter, itself a polite way of saying stop sinning, you fool!) means that we will eventually become instruments ourselves—rather dramatically rendered by the figure having a bird driven into his rectum by a lute-wielding man. Go ahead, laugh and play, live it up in your joyful, pleasurable body; chase a few birds. But then prepare to be cracked like a wishbone, played like a lute, or, as in the case of the Garden of Earthly Delights in the Prado, strung on a harp. Because God is not your friend, and he didn’t make this world for you to have fun in. In fact, he made it to trap you.

That was fun and all, but the real highlight of the exhibition for me were the two side-by-side impressions of Rembrandt’s drypoint of The Three Crosses in States III and IV. For those new to printmaking, a state refers to all of the impressions drawn from a plate without any alterations to the surface of the plate itself. If the artist recuts the plate, whether for artistic reasons or because it has worn down, and then pulls more impressions, this constitutes a new state of the print. The Three Crosses exists in four states, and clearly between the third and fourth states something radical has happened. Here is state III:


Obviously, it’s a play on light. Christ on the central cross rises into a Close Encounters-styled cone of light that dissolves the figures at the base of the cross even as it defines him as a collection of sharp lines, pushed toward the viewer. The trappings of his material life—the nobles on their horses, the observers behind the cross, Virgin and Marys and other followers, all are treated to an equalizing force of radiance that, in erasing line (print’s only formal tool), eradicates form. The figure of the “good thief” who has accepted Christ (unusually on Christ’s left, though of course on the plate and in preparatory drawings he would have been in the mirror image position, on Christ’s right) has given himself over to the light. His physical collapse paradoxically rises upward, arcing over the top of his cross. The “bad thief” who denies Christ, in contrast, slides inexorably downward, weighed down by ink and line. The lit area lightly touches the edges of the crowd, and at its edges the figures take on definition as they come nearer to the world of the viewer.

In contrast, take a look at what has happened in State IV of The Three Crosses:

Three Crosses, State IVThe world has gone dark. Christ still rises in the center of the composition, he is still clearly modelled, but his isolation is complete. Dense, heavily cut lines—a near wash of black, a heavy sleet of ink—has swamped the good thief on the right; the holy family likewise, with the exception of the lone figure desperately clutching the base of the cross. The rider who was leaving the composition on the left in State III has turned and is riding inward, an ominous hint of cruelties to come. The groom who had been holding his horse’s head is now behind him, and is now grabbing the head of a panicked, rearing, riderless horse, converted from a previously tame figure of a mounted rider. The new figure is a kind of specter of fear, dimly glimpsed. The work on the plate here is remarkable—take a look at the heavy lines that make up that horse, and think about how Rembrandt has gouged at the plate:

Three Crosses, State IV, detail of horse

The mood here is obviously grim, and ominous. The consolations of light offered by State III have been completely reversed to produce a dark world of specters:

Three Crosses, State IV, detailThe viewer’s role here is not to interpret, as in the third state, but to experience. State IV is not just a different image—it posits a different role for artist and viewer. The work we do in front of the image is fundamentally different than that demanded by Bosch and Bruegel—it is not allegorical.

I’d just say that, in the face of such a radically different kind of representation, there might have been a more meaningful way of understanding the relationship between these artists than via the category “Landscape.”

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