Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Pieter Bruegel the Elder was one of the most ultraintelligent painters, his intelligence supposedly relates to an IQ score of 180, the world he inhabitated, perceived and computed was extremely vast, his epistemology comparable to that of Goethe, his art reaches the supreme goal of being, finally, inexplicable, incummensurable and not to be translated into other languages of thought without losing power and coherence, strange celestial and (un)earthly realms. It is not easy to say where the final conclusion about Bruegel´s oeuvre may be situated, it is always evasive, eternal sunshine of the spotless raving mind. Says his friend Abraham Ortelius: „He painted a lot that cannot be painted. All the works of our Bruegel are more thoughts than pure painting.“ Which is true, in some cases explicitely, in all cases implicitely, the lines between the sensual, the (subjective) thought and the (objective) idea are blurred in the most profound way as they are (in some way) mirrored in each other; as is the line between the subjective and the objective in general; (spiritually) Bruegel is both a nominalist and a realist, and he neither is a nominalist nor a realist (and probably you can shed some new light on the problem of universals by meditating about Bruegel); there is no exact monadology or harmony, but of a perception of disharmony in the world he creates an (idiosyncratic) intellectual and spiritual harmony of vision.

Bruegel´s life remains in obscurity, he was born between 1525 and 1530 and he died 1569 in Brussels. Despite his interest in peasant life it is likely that he was an educated townsman and, as a common thing for painters, he traveled through Europe to get impressions from nature and learn from other painters. He lived in a time of upheaval at the dawn of modernity: Nature had become tacitly manipulable, for very far-seeing eyes God was about to become gradually dethroned and the understanding of nature and the cosmos as an eternal and static order gradually shattered, you had religious wars and violence alongside political upheavals, the gradual formation of the nation-state and struggles for independence. Bruegel seems to be concerned about situating man in his environment, and a general message seems to be that man should not leave his individual place in society and disturb the natural order, else he gets punished (like Icarus or the Babylonians): Note that Bruegel lived at the very dawn of modernity, and innovations are usually not welcomed in traditional societies that have learned some humble ways how to wrest humble meals from nature and therefore view novel ways of doing things as dangerous experiments that lead to bad harvest (which they often are, or had been) – and note also that disorder and destruction of harmony is what the genius abhors and fears (see also Newton´s stubbornness concerning religion, Einstein´s stubbornness concerning refuting quantum mechanics or Goethe´s stubbornness concerning his theory of colours). And so you have most eccentric visions in the works of Breugel, an extremely vibrant force in everything that comes out of itself, seems to try to transform, maybe only to be thrown back onto itself and its own incapability to trancend itself on the one hand, and the extreme need for frame and order and meaning on the other hand („Dionysian“ vs „Appollonian“, if you like): Corresponding to his ultraintelligence and fine genius, Bruegel does not only depict the vastness of the world but tries to give meaning to it by tacitly moralising and trying to give it a moral framework. He is very concerned about the world as a moral phenomenon, desperate about the obvious inexistence of the world as a moral phenomenon or at least the lack of moral in it, therefore eager to make his art carry moral instruction and elatedness. He is very concerned about the cohesion and coherence of the world, the vast heterogenousness of the world, and of man´s insufficiency, nevertheless always escapes the unifying vision of the genius – and so you have both ecstasy and raving out of joyousness over the geniuses` own ability to perceive and give meaning to the world and to share it to others, as well as ominous depression and near-psychosic neurosis about the final inability to do so and being, like a neurotic, trapped in his own world (in the case of the genius, the world of his own inner riches that he tries to project into the world).

While Bruegel depicted the horrors of religious persecution of his time (the persecution of the Protestants in the Netherlands by imperial Catholic Spain as Spain feared to lose control over them, executed by the brutal and sinister Duke of Alba), it remains even unclear whether he was Catholic or Protestant himself, what is clear, however, is that Bruegel was that kind of man who transcend such limitations and make them look stupid, instead, they make religion by themselves. Religion, however, is rather present in the work of Bruegel via the sacred individual, in the Conversion of Paul or The Sermon of Saint John the Baptist (which indicates that Bruegel at least had sympathies for the Protestants and their proclamation of a new religion), apart from that religion rather is presented as a dangerous thing that leads to manslaughter, atrocities and violence (Massacre of the Innocents) or ridiculous hybris and self-aggrandizement of man (The Tower of Babel). Not only in The Sermon of Saint John the Baptist but also in the Procession to Calvary Bruegel however depicts a human race largely indifferent to the suffering of others and to the spiritual, but people (pseudo-)immersed in their own, more or less, serious affairs. Many listen to John the Baptist for entertainment purposes – although Bruegel usually depicts that it is not their fault: they are, more or less, innocent as they simply cannot be reached and touched by the spiritual. As there is nothing truly divine to be found in this world, or there may be just a deus absconditus that becomes deus relevatus only to the artist and the exceptional individual, Bruegel throws back man on himself and frames nature in itself: therefore you have the impression of everything being made of forces that are eager to unleash. In the Book of Strange and Unproductive Thinking I made some buzz about the great genius always seeing an eruptive, if not explosive vision before his inner eye, and also in Bruegel you always have eruptions (most explicitely, the tower of Babel erecting and growing into the sky).

In Bruegel´s vision, you have a communion of creature. Peasant and noble man are alike, they are of the same flesh and moral status, maybe they both are cripples, either as a punishment for sin, or due to the indifference (or meanness) of nature itself. Therein you may both sense a democratic and philantropic vision as well as a warning against hybris – as well as a vision of everything mirroring everything else as you have it in great art. (Why does hybris seem to be a topic that Bruegel so prominently depicts (a notion that forgets, however, that hybris isn´t such a prominent topic in Bruegel´s oeuvre, in which you have the entire spectrum of human (mis)behaviour, as kind of implicitely explicited in the Netherlandish Proverbs or the Children´s Games)? Bruegel was depicted as a very calm man, and boastfulness usually is alien to the genius – the fight against hybris and all other sins, in order to get rid of them, the quest for moral perfection is however the geniuses´ quest, and his achievements, talents and visions surely went to the head of that calm man, which surely embarrassed him and made him uneasy every once in a while.) In Children´s Games he portrays children as somehow grown up, indicating that they are, in the end, alike, and the affairs of grown-ups comparable to child´s play. Likewise, you have Blind leading the Blind as a vision about humanity.

Bruegel´s vision of the world is not a pleasant one, and you have landscapes of death or horror or of hell in his oeuvre. It is an egoistic world of Big Fish Eat Little Fish with man topping all the other fishes (and the vile and resolute look of one of the fishermen, with a knife in his mouth, indicates that some of men seem to sadistically enjoy it (with animals actually not being much better, nor man being much worse)). You have mourning about the Treacherousness of the World and an obvious fine man turned into Misanthrope (leaving open the possibility of weakness in the misanthrope himself and an implicit warning that a truly noble heart cannot be corrupted). You have hellish visions, that are, nevertheless, populated by clumsy demons that do not seem to be real or harmful, indicating that the true hell may be the man´s world. Divine spheres are more or less absent, although Bruegel made an iconic depiction of the Land of Cockaigne – as a narrow garden of largely earthly delights. Celestial heaven, as a sphere where you can see and feel all the beautiful things maybe is not a tangible place for men who are largely not able to see, feel and experience much with their hearts. The seperatedness between the artist (or the saint) and the world is also a latent topic, most prominently depicted in The Painter and the Connoisseur where behind the contemplative, concentrated, helpless-melancholic-unnerved artist there is the bourgeois who is impressed by the magnificence of the artwork and instantly opens his purse to buy it – and ironically, the bourgeois in his naiveté looks more likeable than the somehow grouchy artist.

Bruegel is famous for the depiction of peasants and peasant life. Although the peasant was a subject of mockery to the more educated people at that time, Bruegel´s depiction of peasant life is – although of course not free from depiction of human error – empathetic and it does not come as a surprise that he enjoyed attending peasant festival, weddings and funfairs. I also get immersed into watching children playing, their innocent but powerful movements that seem to actualise the full potential of gesture and immersion into itself. The innocently raving mind is the geniuses´ mind, and it does not come as a surprise that by watching children playing or peasant´s dancing, the genius feels that such must be heaven! Of course the genius knows that those gestures are, to a considerable degree, empty and behind the seeming ecstatic creativity there frequently is no creativity at all – however, he gets a very pleasant impression, also of human innocence, of humans enjoying themselves and being immersed in themselves – and it is a vision of the self-sufficiency of creature that he enjoys as well in it. In Bruegel´s peasants you often have vulgarity or an expressionless physiognomy due to the absence of soul, but there usually is no meanness (although of indications of meanness there is no shortage, of course).

Bruegel´s physiognomies are a mix between individuality and idiosyncracy, typology and caricature, all mirrored in each other at once, and the richness of how to depict it in always new ways is another expression of Bruegel´s overabundance. Bruegel does not depict humans as truly vile, instead there is dignity in most of them, it touches the heart to look at the personnel of the Peasant Wedding being content with themselves while eating, even if it is animal-like and there seem to be no higher interests – but they are not to blame and the genius usually rejoices when he has the possibility to watch someone innocently enjoying something and, therein, fully actualising himself in his own self-containedness and immanence. Look at how the aberrations from beauty, like the physiognomy of the bag piper and his friend at the Peasant Dance, are giving identity nevertheless, although the tastyness of it seems to predominantly lie in the carefulness (and empathy) of artistic execution. Even the many demons like in the Dulle Griet or in The Fall of the Rebel Angels look like funny little animals, and they provoke some sympathy as they are obviously cursed to a ridiculous existence for their lack of character and their debasedness, and they actually look harmless and neither affect the Saint Antonius and not even the Dulle Griet. In some paintings, mostly those portraying peasants at the harvest, you have an absence of physiognomy, and the rather uncanny Beekeepers are defaced – people reduced to their social role (the Beekeepers are a late work and it is curious to think how Bruegel would have developed had he lived longer). Facelessness, however, is also a good principle, as it indicates the concilliation of the subjective and the objective, the individual and society, etc.

As it was about situating man in nature, Bruegel was also (kind of) revolutionary and hugely impressive as a painter of landscape: Karel van Mander noticed that Bruegel, on his journeys through the Alps, seemed to have „devoured all the mountains and rocks, to spit them out as paintings again – that close he had been able to get to nature in this respect, and in others“. It is true that the productive mimesis of the genius goes that far: he internalises things in his mind and soul and recreates them. Bruegel´s landscapes usually are extremely vast, diverse and depicted in great detail, most prominent to be seen in The Tower of Babel or The Hunters in the Snow. They are neither real nor overly surreal, they are neither an abstract „idea“ of landscape nor an exact realisation, they aren´t exactly sublime nor are they indifferent – again it is difficult to find out how Bruegel actually situates man in nature, or nature in nature, or nature in a divine order. The hunters seem to have, in a humble way, captivated and domesticated a bit of nature but seem to be far from the dominium terrae and the cultural mandate expressed in the Old Testament („Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.“). In the vision of Bruegel the Elder, there seems to be some tacit symbiosis, some possibilities of exchange but also a vast indifference and impossibility of communication and communion between man, animal and nature. Man and animal in nature and nature in nature – a story of heterogenousness, as told by Bruegel.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder was a famous and respected man during his lifetime, and after his death his sons carried his legacy. Nevertheless he had not been very prominent for centuries afterwards and came to be misunderstood, for instance, as a minor copycat of Hieronymus Bosch in the 19th century even by respected art critics – LOL, what a stupidity – but this often happens to the most intelligent people. In the 20th century the implications of Bruegel´s worldview and artistic vision became honoured and broadly understood, and it is actually difficult to fully understand and appreciate Bruegel before our own age (concerning Bruegel and Bosch, it needs to be said that Bosch lacks Bruegel´s humour – and in Bosch´s world evil is not man-made — whereas in Bruegel´s world of man and deus absconditus it is man who is responsible for evil: that is not to be taken as a derivativeness but there is actually a broad spiritual and cognitive distance between those two visions – apart from that, when a genius seems to copy another genius, it will not be because of lack of own imagination, but because there is a familiarity of mind and competence – and because to honour the predecessor and to establish another mirror view).

To sum up, in Bruegel´s vision you have ecstasy, eccentricity and eruptions of overabundance and a strong sense of connectedness and how stuff is mirrored in other stuff. As it had been frequently said in those notes about artists, art is about revealing the existential ontology of a thing via presenting a thing mirrored in different or in dislocated contexts that shed new light on the thing. Bruegel, via his omega mind, more or less shows the existential ontology of the entire world! He is able to investigate relationships and interrelatedness of any kind, and then to ironically question them, respectively, via irony, add an additional point of view to the entire structure. Bruegel´s vision, and Bruegel´s mind, is, more or less, complete and Bruegel´s world floats and stabilises itself via the solidity of its own endogenous set of equations. See how you have everything, or may see with your inner eye, as a burning chamber, every person, every peasant or demon, throwing some light on his surroundings – without, however, illuminating the whole world. It isn´t the case that „every thing mirrors everything else“ or that the world is an „endless network of jewels“ or a monadology where every monad contains everything else and the complete history of the world, including the world´s future, as the enlightened mind often claims it is: it is a world of more or less limited areals, where some connections are possible (to some), others aren´t. And, as it seems, if the enlightend mind is honest to itself, that is how the world truly is. Endless and without limits (?) is the mind, heavily bumping into each other and blocking themselves are the objects of the real world. Bruegel the Elder depicts the world, in general, as a kind of purgatory. Which, however, means that it is up to the individual itself and the duty of the individual to make a good impression via catharsis, reformation and refinement.

P.S.: That I said in the introduction that Bruegel´s intelligence relates to an IQ of 180 is a personal guess at the moment, maybe Bruegel´s IQ was only 160, but, given the vastness and sophistication of his intellect and the total inner cohesion of his vision, I guess it was considerably higher – and actually as high as human intelligence can ever get (note that this does not mean that Bruegel would have scored 180, or even 160, at an IQ test, since especially an artist´s intelligence is not what IQ tests adequately measure and represent – however I try to estimate a person´s intelligence via the level of analysis and integration, abstraction as well ability to see individual aspects to a thing, and in such respects, Bruegel´s intelligence is hardly ever reached and maybe only in the case of Leonardo only ever truly topped). I do not come up with this out of an intelligence/IQ fetish, which is viewed with suspiction in our society, but as a matter to achieve clarity about the Bruegel case! Having said that, it may come to mind that maybe Bruegel even had an IQ of 200! Note that very high intelligence and creativity will come in as a kind of psychosis to others, due to the extreme throwing up of heterogenous and diverse material at once and the eagerness to establish hardly intelligible connections between all of it, however, only as a kind of psychosis, since, to the sympathetic observer, it will reveal itself as a vast cosmos of sense and meaning, not the collapse of meaning as you have it in psychosis. There´s no abnormality to it, but hypernormality. As I follow along these lines of thought and establishing perspective, it comes to me that Bruegel the Elder depicted the psychosis of the world! Jiiiiiii! A completely rational depiction of the psychosis of the world! Finally, maybe the ultimate fulfillment the human mind can reach is that it is not an („enlightened“) mirror image of an „endless network of jewels“ that would make up the real world (a vision that is a lie!), but that it is the endless hall of mirrors (ego should also evaporate when a stage like this is reached). Bruegel´s interior is the endless hall of mirrors. So you see, it is not meaningless when reflecting about things with the help of IQ scores.