In Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s picturizations of proverbs and parables, the Netherlandish peasant is employed only as a pantominist, but in the paintings of peasant life he comes into his own as Bruegel’s symbol of significant man. People who are potentially noble, and whose existence is legitimized by their position as an integral but not central unit of the cosmos. The intellectual discovery of proverbs as statements not only pithy but profound was not unique with Bruegel, but as a visual artist they served him well; their imagery was as fantastic as that of any symbols of sin, but their substance was sociological and humanistic rather than theological. These proverbs visually represented a form of phantasmagoria, a compendium, accurate genre records of dress and physical types, and a kind of satirical ballet, or choreographed theatre piece on the spicy subject of man’s infinite capacity to demean and defraud himself.
Rejecting the elegant but now bloodless gods and heroes who continued to preen and posture in Italian mannerist art and its international offshoots, Bruegel could have fallen into an easy trap of sentimentalizing a peasant lout as a symbol of virtue but he prettified nothing. He recognized the peasant as a frequent lout and often showed him as one, with an open and sometimes ribald humor that was neither jibing or condescending.
In design, as seen by the view of Charles and Ray Eames, all detail is subservient and incidental to the generalization of form by which the commonplace becomes monumental. The village feast that begins as a genre scene ends as an expression of the richness of life. A wedding dance where the heavy bodied men and women whirl in a mass that must have been sweaty and galumphing surges with the life force that for Bruegel was the invincible truth.
In regard to the idea of the monumental, a comparison with Michelangelo is a case in point. Michelangelo idealized man as the supreme intellectual and passionate force. The beauty of the idealized body in Michelangelo’s art expresses man’s spiritual nobility, but in its state of glorious nudity the symbol exists without being grounded to the earth. The figures could never walk through the streets, and could never inhabit a landscape that was not correspondingly invented to suit it.
In Bruegel, the inverse is represented. The symbol’s majesty lies not in its beauty but in its plainness. Michelangelo’s Adam, the consummate expression of his ideal, may have been created from clay, but the fact is important only because it emphasizes the miracle of his gloriousness. Bruegel’s ”adams” don’t need and must not lose identification with earth, because the earth is not regarded as a base material. Bruegel’s bodies, wrapped in rough garments which belong to it as a pelt belongs to an animal, is obviously clumsy and awkward by any measure of idealized form; but in any form other than its own, it would lose its identity with nature according to Bruegel.
In his last years Bruegel returned to the celebration of nature in a series of pictures on the subject of the months of the year that transcended the medieval formulas existing at the time. Bruegel’s true subject was the mood, feel and look of nature in its cycle; with people as natural a part of it as plants, lakes and fields. These paintings are expressive summaries of the natural life of earth as it turns around the sun. It seems patently unfair to interpret Bruegel’s final conclusion as being a puppetlike subjection to nature’s cycle. He died at forty when he was still painting peasant and religious subjects. He has barely abandoned the monsters that earlier had filled his work. Bruegel may have only begun to reach some kind of conclusive statement of his complex philosophy.
Hence, for all its greatness, Bruegel’s work was only a partial summary of his potential, essentially a ”work in progress”. Bruegel’s vision can be roughly defined that humanity is one manifestation of universal force; albeit a tiny manifestation, and that nature is what it is; indifferent to well being, being neither malevolent nor benevolent. The Gods must be crazy, but their insanity is extraneous to our comprehension and understanding. Furthermore, Bruegel held that when people break from nature, they become the victim of their own frailties. But Bruegel never accepted any human condition asf that the cosmos is an accident or that humanity’s life within it is meaningless.
Ultimately, Bruegel rejected the optimistic view of the Italians, their conception of harmony, order and cosmological oneness, while creating an art that resembled little the Flemish giants who preceded him. What is apparent, is that his vision of human folly and his social and moral concerns found expression through satire which is primarily a literary technique. It is not surprising to find in the modern age of distrust and unhappiness that Bruegel’s reputation and popularity are cresting:
”Cripples and blind people were a common sight in the artist’s day, found begging along the roadside; accordingly, the fact that Bruegel included them in 1559 among the multitude thronging the market place in his picture The Fight between Carnival and Lent would not have given rise to comment. In 1568, however, the year in which he probably executed his last works, he isolated them, banishing them to a site surrounded by walls, moving them towards the observer and thereby rendering them in close-up. They are in fancy dress; their various items of headwear could represent the different social groups, with the mitre referring to the clergy, the crown to the aristocracy, the fur hat to the bourgeoisie, the paper helmet to the soldiery, and the cap to the peasantry. According to a Netherlands proverb, a lie goes like a cripple on crutches, meaning that everyone, whatever his station in society, is equally hypocritical.
Such an interpretation, while making sense, seems somewhat weak in the face of the gravity exhibited by this picture. It is because of Bruegel’s vision that the present-day observer finds it interesting. The artist sees the people not in God’s image but as imperfect beings, the dust of the ground from which they were created characterizing them more than the divine breath which was breathed into it. Bruegel is demonstrating even more clearly than usual that the difference between man and animal is by no means as great as one might think. In taking the cripples’ legs, he has stripped them of their means of walking upright.
This has nothing to do with resignation; indeed, it seems more of a matter-of-fact observation. Nor is there any sense of sympathy; evidently this was relatively uncommon in the 16th century, there being simply too many beggars in the streets and in front of the churches. And anyway, Bruegel’s concern was not so much with the beggars as such, of course, as with beggars as representatives, whether of social groups or of a specific conception of man.
Bruegel’s conception of man is more familiar to us than it could ever have been for an 19th-century museum visitor, for example. This is the consequence not only of the artistic innovations during the intervening years but also of the various major wars and ideological conflicts: they have rendered us sceptical towards every attempt to paint a more prettified and refined portrait of man than that to which he is in fact entitled.
Yet there is also something else here. Bruegel saw man as a product of nature, from which he draws his vital energy. We live today in an era in which nature is being progressively destroyed; Bruegel’s paintings, especially the large landscapes, remind us of what we are losing. We see him not as Peasant Bruegel but rather as Eco-Bruegel. Such labels are unduly restrictive, of course; nonetheless, they serve to demonstrate what aspects of a great work are of particular relevance at a given time.”