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  • Writer's pictureArthur Bruso

Review of Bruegel or The Workshop of Dreams by Claude-Henri Rocquet

Most of Pieter Bruegel’s life remains a mystery. He left no record of his time on earth except his enigmatic work. There is not even a self-portrait from this artist who painted many faces, although there is a drawing of an artist at work with a patron looking on that is often considered a self-portrait. Even his birth date is guessed at as between 1525 – 1530. This range of dates is deduced by subtracting the date of his recorded entrance into the painter’s guild from the approximate age of when apprentices were expected to apply to the guild, as his birth date in Antwerp has not been recorded. There are two 16th century contemporary accounts of his life which break the silence of history. Lodovico Guiccardini wrote Description of the Low Countries in 1567, which gives an account of the history and arts, among other information on the 16th century Netherlands. Guiccardini was the nephew of a wealthy Florentine merchant, sent to Antwerp to supervise their trading interests in the Netherlands. His book gives a detailed biography of Bruegel. It was an influential book during the time of its publication and has become one of the major sources of the little information we have on Bruegel. Karel Van Mander, in his 1604 Schilder-boeck included an entry on Bruegel along with biographies of other artists of the time. His is the second account, although it appeared 35 years after Breugel’s death. Guiccardini and Mander do not agree on various events, such as Bruegel’s place of birth, or his station in society. Knowing whether Bruegel was born into a wealthy or poor family and his level of education, would help towards an understanding of how the painter came to his empathy of peasant life which became his main subject matter. These disparities in the main sources of information further obscure our knowledge of Bruegel and his times.

Bruegel lived in an era of change and conflict. The Italian Renaissance was at its wane, while the Northern countries were increasingly becoming involved in a struggle with their Hapsburg rulers for control of their country and freedom to worship as they pleased. The Hapsburg court was positioned in Spain. The Northern countries, such as Brabant, the home of Bruegel, and the rest of the Netherlands had embraced the new Protestant version of Christianity as set forth by Martin Luther. The Hapsburg monarchy was loyal to the Pope and committed to enforcing a unified Catholicism on all of its subjects. The Low Land subjects rioted, destroying Catholic churches and works of art. The unrest eventually escalated into the Eighty Years War. The Hapsburgs retaliated with the Inquisition. It was a tumultuous time to be born.

In his novel, Bruegel or the Workshop of Dreams, Claude-Henri Rocquet takes the spare and conflicting facts known about Bruegel: his marriage, children and his paintings, and fashions an imaginative narrative that dares to open us to the mind of the artist while trying to have us understand the origins and meaning behind his dense and symbol laden works. Rocquet first imagines a young Bruegel taking a trip by boat from Antwerp to Amsterdam, describing how the artist drew the reinforced towers that guarded the sea approach to the Dutch city. Rocquet takes pains to describe the license an artist would take with the architecture to create a more pleasing and readable composition of the scene than the jumble it actually would have been. The drawings that have come to us of Amsterdam by Bruegel have the buildings and towers arranged differently than other contemporary accounts. As Rocquet writes: “This view of Amsterdam is not a faithful rendition of what the contemporary traveler saw. Bruegel took pleasure in letting his pen follow the bend of the shore, the arches and porches, the curves and openings of the arcades. He took pleasure in the lip and the molding of each tower, in the prismed facades, in the delicacy of the distant balconies. The details are exact. But his imagination may have rearranged the buildings and, as an artist disposes on the table the bottles and pitcher he is about to paint, so may Bruegel have moved Sint-Anthoniespoort somewhat closer to the Svych Utrecht tower.” Besides the drawings, there is no other evidence that Bruegel ever visited Amsterdam. He may have used maps that often included scrupulous drawings of the cities they depicted. Rocquet allows himself to dream about what may have been from what Bruegel has left us.

Rocquet then has Bruegel travel on to Haarlem and describes a meeting between Bruegel and Dirck Coornhert. A meeting that like the trip to Amsterdam itself, most probably never did happen. Coornhert is considered the father of Dutch Renaissance scholarship, as well as an artist and theologian. It happens that Bruegel and Coornhert share many of the same rationalist religious ideas. To have them meet in person would explain their affinities, and it gives a context for the drawings of the Amsterdam gates as viewed from the sea. Rocquet spends many pages recounting their wonderful, but probably imaginary conversation – we have no way of actually knowing what was said since it comes from the head of the author and not Bruegel. Even so, it is a treat to read the two minds of the philosopher and artist making small talk about craftsmen and local gossip, interwoven with heavier discussions on theology, where Bruegel, as Rocquet would have it, gives Coornhert the idea to write the book of his religious ideas, while offering the reader a possible background to the humanistic ideas that appear throughout Bruegel’s oeuvre.

Towers and Gates of Amsterdam, 1562, chalk and ink, 7 in. x 12 in each

Rocquet has done his research. He has read the books by Guiccardini and Mander. Mander mentions a battle painting of Joachim Patinir, which is now lost. Patinir died around the time Bruegel was born. He had been an influential painter who contributed the world landscape to Western art. The world landscape is a type of panoramic composition where the viewer has an elevated position, and the figures are dwarfed by their surroundings. This high viewpoint dominated landscape painting for centuries and was an especially favorite compositional device of Bruegel’s. Rocquet muses whether Bruegel had seen Patinir’s panel, because Bruegel’s first painting, The Suicide of Saul, incorporates Patinir’s world landscape compositional idea, it is even a battle scene very much like the lost painting as described by Mander. “Were there a fir tree growing at the left edge of the picture, no one would see the dying king, for Saul ended his life alone.” So, says Rocquet in describing The Suicide of Saul. True to the manner Bruegel would follow throughout the remainder of his career, The Suicide of Saul depicts a deep vista, swarming with figures. On the left, isolated on an independent cliff, is the inconspicuous body of Saul, impaled on his sword by his own hand. His armorbearer is following his master to Death. As would become Bruegel’s formula, the main action of the painting is hidden in a detail, while the main focus of the painting is the swarming soldiers and the glinting pattern of their armor and lances. Again, we have no way of knowing if Bruegel saw Patinir’s work or not. The painting Mander describes was in a private collection and he was writing 35 years after Bruegel had died. The composition of the world landscape had become a staple of Netherlandish painting during Bruegel’s life time and had begun to spread throughout Europe. Italian painters of the 16th century were very much taken by the concept and even employed Northern European artists in their workshops to paint the effect. Titian used the technique in his own work. But, Rocquet ties us this posie of another imagined event as way of explaining how Bruegel’s signature compositional device came to be embraced by him.

At the age of 10 or 13, Bruegel was apprenticed to Pieter Coceck van Aalst a successful designer, painter and engraver. Van Aalst had traveled to Turkey and according to Rocquet, regaled Bruegel with his tales of travel, so much so, that Bruegel vowed to travel beyond the Alps himself. At 25 or so, he became a free master of The Guild of St. Luke in Antwerp. This completed his apprenticeship with van Aalst, so he set off for Italy as he had dreamed. Rocquet writes a fantasy describing Bruegel’s first meeting with the wealthy van Aalst who stops at an inn owned by Bruegel’s family. Impressed with a painting the young Bruegel had painted on the outhouse door, offers the boy an apprenticeship. It is all a fabrication devised from the imagination of the author. These details of Bruegel’s family and the outhouse door with its painting have no recorded evidence in history.

Bruegel traveled in Italy for 5 years. On his return to Antwerp, he joined the Four Winds workshop of Matthias Cock. Rocquet writes, “It is unfortunate that one cannot visit the Four Winds salesroom and workshop…. One can only dream. The engravers in the back room, working by the windows, the daylight setting the copper ablaze; the presses with their star-shaped wheel, like the wheel on a poop deck; the black of the inks, the carefully coaxed proofs; the shop with the comings and going of clients and browsers, prints drying on lines, tapestries cartoons, packages to be carted away to a ship or down some road. The shop printed pictures – all kinds of pictures: Raphael and Hieronymus Bosch, Titian and Michelangelo, saints and patriarchs, the Virtues and Vices, gods and goddesses, all manner of animal, maps of earth and sky, city maps and birds-eye views, customs and costumes, the theater of proverbs, landscapes of America or Brabant, examples of architectural styles, street scenes, peasant scenes, crowds skating on the frozen Scheldt, seagoing men and their vessels, wartime disasters and sufferings, the splendor of the emperor, a monster fish beached at Gröningen. Imagery both scholarly and popular.” Bruegel worked as an engraver and designer at The Four Winds. He would keep a connection with the workshop for the remainder of his life. “It was not the need to earn his living that kept Bruegel at The Four Winds; it was happiness. He was happy to be a member of this crew, this family, happy in the midst of so many inventions and exchanges, happy to be able to say things the way simple folk like and understand.”

In 1553, Bruegel left Antwerp to live in Brussels. There he was married to the daughter of his former master Pieter Coceck van Aalst and opened his own workshop where he concentrated on the paintings that would bring him lasting recognition. Mander tells us that he was forced to move to Brussels by his mother-in-law. According to the Mander biography, he had promised to marry his servant girl while living in Antwerp, but she turned out to be too much in the habit of lying. He made an agreement with her that he would put a notch in a stick for every fib she told. If the stick was filled with notches, the engagement would be called off. Unfortunately, the stick quickly filled with notches and the engagement ended. To avoid any further involvement with the servant girl, the mother-in-law insisted that Bruegel move away and start his own shop. Of course, Rocquet elaborates on this, giving us the entire exchange as the mother of his betrothed pours forth her reasoning and encouragement to the silent Bruegel. The conversation is plausible but carries the details and emotions of a writer’s dialog, rather than an actual interaction. How could Rocquet, or any of us have been the fly witness to this private scene which would be the turning point of Bruegel’s life?

The book provides the known events of Bruegel’s life and then brings them to life through the imagined possibilities. Rocquet composes, outlines and finally sculpts a fully three-dimensional fabrication of the life of an artist in the 16th century. He hangs the name of Bruegel on this fabrication, because that is the sketch he started with. And why not? Rocquet understands the mind of an artist and is empathetic with the man who we call Bruegel. It is fascinating to read the inventive, fully fleshed out episodes behind the creation of Bruegel’s major works and how they coexist with the events in the artist’s life. Rocquet uses a poet’s insight and romantic touch with the words he chooses.

I do have one criticism; the man portrayed as Bruegel in these pages is not a 16th century consciousness, but a late 20th century (published 1991) consciousness. Each age and country have, along with its language and customs, a way of thinking that is inextricably woven into its expression and its use of idioms. Bruegel would have spoken Brabantian, a dialect of Middle Dutch which became the basis for Modern Dutch. Latin was the language of the learned and clergy throughout Europe. It was used as the language for the captions that accompanied the prints Bruegel designed, but it has been suggested that Bruegel did not know Latin and had to have his Latin captions written by others. But he was also living in a country where the majority of its citizens had embraced the ideas of Protestantism, which preaches a canon of pragmatism frugality and discipline. We do not know for certain what religious affiliation Bruegel followed. It is obvious from his work, that he had a thorough understanding of Christianity and the Bible. That he was being supervised by Spanish guards during the last years of his life may point to a Protestant leaning but could also indicated a subversive political ideology was detected in his work by the Hapsburg king.

The dreamy, romantic language Rocquet uses throughout his novel is in direct opposition with the pragmatic, frugality of the national Dutch personality and the Protestant ethic of hard work and discipline being embraced by the 16th century Netherlanders. Yet the author does create the perfect tone to assist his reader in envisioning the artist Bruegel, considered the heir to Hieronymus Bosch’s phantasmagorical visions, as working in a workshop of dreams as the alternate title suggests. Still, this is a modern fantasy imposed on an historical figure by the author. It is not a book to be read as fact despite the attention to detail and the obvious research on the subject. It is an excellent linguistic device with which to enchant our imaginations. If these are the words that activate the spell to lift the veil of time, then so it is.

Arthur Bruso

© 2019

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