Mad Meg, Monkeys and Mystery in Vienna’s Spectacular Bruegel Exhibition

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Dulle Griet, 1563. Antwerp, Museum Mayer van den Bergh.

© Museum Mayer van den Bergh
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Dulle Griet, 1563. Antwerp, Museum Mayer van den Bergh.

Organizers bill it as a once-in-a-lifetime experience. They’re right.

© KHM-Museumsverband

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Peasant Dance, c. 1568. Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna, Picture Gallery.

Bruegel is loved around the world for his fascinating “Wimmelbilder,” or “busy pictures” teeming with intricate details.

A giant woman dressed in armor, wielding a sword and, incongruously, a frying-pan, strides past the jaws of hell at the head of a band of plundering women in Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s 1563 painting Dulle Griet, or Mad Meg. As with many of Bruegel’s works, this enigmatic picture is subject to a range of diverse interpretations. Is it an early form of feminism, a humorous reversal of the rigid gender roles in 16th-century Flanders? That’s one theory.

Mad Meg’s bloodthirsty rampage is on display at Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum in the largest ever exhibition devoted to Bruegel, a riotous carnival of peasant life, exotic creatures and religious dramas, interspersed with bucolic landscapes. Marking the 450th anniversary of his death, it is billed as a once-in-a-lifetime blockbuster and is sure to draw record crowds.

Bruegel is loved around the world for his fascinating “Wimmelbilder,” or “busy pictures” teeming with intricate details. It doesn’t seem to matter much that the intent behind his works is often mysterious today–they invite the viewer into another world; one that can be familiar, human and beautiful, or sometimes, as with Dulle Griet, bizarre, savage and terrifying.

Just as his work defies interpretation and categorization, Bruegel’s life, too, is mainly a mystery. The father of a century-long painting dynasty, he was born between 1525 and 1530 in Antwerp and probably trained in the studio of Pieter Coecke van Aelst, whose daughter he later married. He is known to have traveled to Italy, and crossing the Alps made a great impression. Mountains make unexpected appearances in his works–such as in the background of the Flemish landscape of his famous masterpiece Hunters in the Snow.

Thanks to the collecting mania of the Habsburgs, Vienna has the largest array of Bruegel paintings in the world, including Hunters in the Snow, with the dark figures of the men and their dogs in the foreground standing in stark contrast to the pristine blanket of white around them. In the background, tiny energetic figures skate in front of a snow-covered village. One is sprawled horizontally on the blue ice–a humorous, human touch characteristic of Bruegel. A group of peasants tend to a fire in front of an inn: above them, the dark silhouettes of birds perch in wintry black trees, whose branches are lined with a fine dusting of powder. Hunters in the Snow is a magical feast of natural and human detail, from the figure carrying firewood across a bridge to the blue shards of icicles hanging from the mill-house.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Hunters in the Snow, 1565
© KHM-Museumsverband

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Hunters in the Snow, 1565. Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna, Picture Gallery.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Tower of Babel, 1563
© KHM-Museumsverband

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Tower of Babel, 1563. Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna, Picture Gallery.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Haymaking, 1565
© The Lobkowicz Collections

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Haymaking, 1565. Prague, The Lobkowicz Collections, Lobkowicz Palace, Prague Castle.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Triumph of Death, probably after 1562
© Museo Nacional del Prado

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Triumph of Death, probably after 1562. Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Return of the Herd, 1565
© KHM-Museumsverband

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Return of the Herd, 1565. Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna, Picture Gallery.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Children’s Games, 1560
© KHM-Museumsverband

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Children’s Games, 1560. Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna, Picture Gallery.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Adoration of the Magi in the Snow, 1563
© Collection Oskar Reinhart ʻAm Römerholzʼ, Winterthur

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Adoration of the Magi in the Snow, 1563. Swiss Confederation, Federal Office for Culture, Collection Oskar Reinhart ‘Am Römerholz’, Winterthur.

© KHM-Museumsverband

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Gloomy Day, 1565. Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna, Picture Gallery.

The occasional omission aside, the exhibition reunites more than three-quarters of Bruegel’s surviving paintings (30 of about 40) and 60 drawings.

It is one of six large-format panels in a series known as the Seasons that Bruegel created in 1565. In Vienna, it is reunited with three of the others: The Gloomy Day (early spring); Haymaking (early summer), which has traveled from Prague; and The Return of the Herd (fall), also from the Kunsthistorisches Museum’s collection. Spring is missing, and Harvesters (late summer) was too fragile to make the journey from the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

The occasional omission aside, the exhibition reunites more than three-quarters of Bruegel’s surviving paintings (30 of about 40) and 60 drawings. It represents a major coup for Vienna. Among a series of show-stoppers are Winter Landscape with A Bird Trap (1565) from Brussels and the extraordinary Adoration of the Magi in the Snow (1563), perhaps the first ever portrayal of falling snow, from Winterthur in Switzerland. The worship of the infant Jesus in a dark Flemish shed at the edge of the painting is almost a side-show: the eye may first be drawn to a small child on the right sliding down a frozen river on his backside, propelling himself forward with a stick in each hand.

Previous attempts to mount major surveys of Bruegel have failed–largely because the fragility and value of the works meant their owners were unwilling to relinquish them. Some of the paintings in this show have traveled for the first time in centuries. Dulle Griet, on loan from Antwerp, is one of two paintings restored especially for the exhibition; the other is The Triumph of Death from Madrid’s Prado.

© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie / Christoph Schmidt

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Two Monkeys, 1562. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie.

Sabine Pénot, one of the curators, says a six-year research project before the show (involving infra-red and x-ray analysis of the 12 Vienna paintings) was the key to convincing museums around Europe to part with their treasures. The results of this research are published on a comprehensive website. Pénot says the aim is to produce the first catalogue raisonné of Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

Some of the results of the research are also explored in the exhibition: it gives a detailed analysis of the creation process behind Two Monkeys, a painting on loan from Berlin whose unusual composition and subject matter has kept scholars musing for decades about its deeper significance.

Bruegel is showing until January 13, 2019. Tickets can be bought in advance for a scheduled time slot, but nonetheless, the exhibition can, like the paintings, get very busy. These works warrant close-up, lengthy observation and jostling for position in front of them on the weekend can feel a bit like trying to make a purchase at a peasant market in sixteenth-century Flanders (minus the dogs and chickens, thankfully.) But for once, the publicity is not overblown–this exhibition really is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

About the Author

Catherine Hickley

Catherine Hickley is a Berlin-based arts journalist and the author of The Munich Art Hoard: Hitler's Dealer and his Secret Legacy (Thames & Hudson, 2015).

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