Tuesday, October 25, 2011
Bruegel and the Art of Ambiguity
The works of art that remain inexhaustibly interesting draw us not by their meanings but by their ambiguities - their refusal to submit to a single interpretation. And no artist was more attuned to this complexity than the Flemish master Pieter Bruegel the Elder.
Jan Duetecum, after Pieter Bruegel the elder. Duetecum: Flemish, ca.1558-ca.1593; Bruegel: Flemish, ca. 1525-1569. The Fair on Saint George's Day (The Kermis of St. George), n.d. Etching and engraving on paper. Purchased with the gift of Priscilla Cunningham, class of 1958. SC 1973:12-1. Photograph by Petegorsky/Gipe.
This print after Bruegel depicts a kermis—the peasant celebration surrounding a Catholic religious feast—in all its carnival excess. Men and women cavort together, overrun by animals and children; there is music, a sword dance, and a fight; a stage is erected on beer barrels in front of a church; adults gather to play children’s games.
Seen by the upper classes as a license for debauchery, kermises were much in contention in the Netherlands throughout the sixteenth century. Peasant revelry was associated with pagan bacchanalia - its drunken feasts were thought to undermine the sanctity of the Last Supper, while its disorderly dancing invoked the idolatry of the dancers around the golden calf.
Does this print reinforce the disapproval of the upper classes, or challenge it? Is Bruegel satirizing these peasants and their drunken sport, or is he honoring the exuberance and spontaneity of their celebration? Looking for answers in the print’s iconography only reveals contradictions. While dances, feasts and games may be allegories of vice and folly, they also represent merriment and community. The flag in the right foreground reads “Let the Farmers Have Their Fair” - we could read this as a protest in favor of the kermis, or as a condescending dismissal of the peasants’ fun.
Bruegel turns the subject of the kermis and its usual didactic message about good Christian behavior on its head. The two pairs of spectators who frame the composition in the foreground of the print draw our attention not only to the follies of the peasants but to how we see them, and the complex relationship between judgment and sympathy.