Belgium owns only a few paintings of Pieter Bruegel. Instead of backing down the country is celebrating the Flemish master with an exhibition that is digitally captivating.
450 years ago Pieter Bruegel, the most popular of the Flemish Old Masters, died in Brussels, and Belgium wants to celebrate him. Only: a particularly large number of his are not in the kingdom, not even the most famous ones like “Tower of Babel”, “The Dutch Proverbs” or “The Peasant Wedding”.
Most works are hoarded by the Museum of Art History Vienna which a few months ago combined its holdings with loans from all over the work to create the first major monographic overview of Bruegel. Thirty paintings and sixty drawings and prints were on display. That was unique. “Once in A Lifetime” was not the title for no reason.
In comparison, Brussels does not look splendid, with just four paintings by the master. But the Belgians make a virtue out of necessity. They use electronic imaging technology to make the artist’s life and work virtually visible.
Emotions over originals
The exhibition rooms of the Brussels dynasty palace show that a multimedia approach is particularly successful when it does not compete with a single original. Equipped with large screens, they are intended to lead “Beyond Bruegel”.
Accompanied by anachronistic piano music by Debussy, details from the artist’s work are projected onto monumental screens. What measures only a few centimetres in the original paintings and drawings rises metres high. The projection of the “Battle between Carnival and Lent”, riding on a barrel, dominates the room, a headless misshapen figure and dancing peasants from copperplate engravings are enlarged to such an extent that every internal line becomes an event.
Visitors are not burdened with names, dates and details in this intro. “We are not a museum, we are an experience”, the exhibition guide clarifies.
Diving into the past of Bruegel
Information accompanies the large projections. The show culminates in an immersive all-round projection that transports the viewer into the artist’s visual worlds. He becomes a figure himself in the carnival turmoil, at the hay harvest and under the gallows. Bruegel himself joins in as narrator and outlines his life as that of a late Renaissance man in a time of enormous and violent upheaval: heaven, earth and people are set in motion.
The fact that Bruegel, who was probably born in Breda in 1525, worked for the printer Hieronymus Cock in Antwerp, became famous and a landscape painter on a trip to Italy is almost incidentally conveyed.
But Bruegel also introduces himself as an observer of the rural population. With an almost ethnological interest, he captured humanity, vices, virtues and absurdity to delight a courtly audience.