An Old Master Comes to Town

The KHM journeys into the quotidian magnificence
of Pieter Bruegel the Elder

The works of Flemish renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder have an ineffable quality, giving them an allure that has only grown over time. As detailed in The Mill and the Cross by Michael Francis Gibson, the cartographer Abraham Ortel said on his passing 450 years ago that “Pieter Bruegel painted many things that cannot be painted… In all his work there is always more matter for reflection than there is painting.”

With 90 works on display, the retrospective The Hand of the Master gives solid evidence of that, presenting almost half of Bruegel’s surviving paintings, drawings, and engravings. It marks the only time that such an abundance has been gathered in one place, as many of these fragile works are rarely loaned out.

Born around 1525 in the Netherlands, Bruegel lived a relatively short life yet produced a hugely influential body of work in the span of not quite two decades. Known by a multitude of guises – peasant painter, moralist, satirist, humanist – his themes ranged from the bucolic to the apocalyptic, the droll to the dramatic, all created with a meticulous attention to detail.

The exhibition opens with a room of his drawings, many of them made during the travels of his youth (1552–1554); masterfully composed woodland scenes and landscapes in sepia ink display Bruegel’s already impeccable draftsmanship. These were to become the foundations for the unending vistas he would later weave into his large format paintings, most notably in the Seasons series. Four of the surviving five are on display, depicting the year’s cycles along with the people inhabiting them: cowherds, drunken revelers, hunters, harvesters – in short, people going about their lives against the backdrop of the world.

GOD IS IN THE DETAILS
Taking its cue from the exhibit’s title, the side rooms bring the creative process and materiality of the paintings to the forefront in very accessible and compelling ways. The enigmatic Two Chained Monkeys is displayed alongside a detailed reconstruction of the different stages of its creation. In the next room, plaster casts of hands demonstrate the exact usage of different implements – sponges, various brushes, sticks, the painter’s fingers – accompanied by magnifications that show the variety and ingenuity of the tools in use. Another vital companion can be found online at insidebruegel.net, a website displaying the Kunsthistorisches Museum’s 12 Bruegels photographed in staggering detail, allowing you to inspect each from a distance of mere millimeters, where, incredibly enough, further minuscule scenarios play themselves out.

This depth is best observed further along in some of Bruegel’s best known paintings, like Christ carrying the Cross – arguably one of the crown jewels of the KHM’s collection. The titular event seems almost incidental, so overwhelming is the wealth of additional meaning and visual information. Toward the end of the exhibit, the viewer is confronted by the haunting vision of The Triumph of Death: Personified by a surfeit of skeletons, entropy is on the march, unyielding and all-consuming, putting an end to all human endeavour. Ships flounder, towers burn. Life falters and flees before the onslaught, but there’s nowhere to turn. The bleakness, terror and despair are palpable – and mesmerizing.

Bruegel’s power remains undimmed by the passing centuries, his ability to fascinate reverberating all the way to us. He used his immense capacity for observation and understanding to depict people as they are and not as they should be, with all their failings and joys. Portrayed with a vividness and detail that boggles the mind, the worlds Bruegel created ensure that you always feel there’s unendingly more than meets the eye.

Through Jan 13, Kunsthistorisches Museum. 1., Maria-Theresien-Platz. bruegel2018.at

Peace & Plenty

Erwin Wurm’s skill as a draftsman is on display at his latest show

Achieving international renown for his series of One Minute Sculptures, where the subject must hold uncomfortable positions and form absurd relationships with everyday objects, the Austrian artist Erwin Wurm often imbues his work with a certain satirical flair, exposing the absurdities of contemporary society. Slightly less well known is that Wurm is an accomplished draftsman who draws almost compulsively wherever he is, using whatever materials are on hand. Named after both the George Town hotel where many of the works on display were created and the sheer amount (several hundred) of sketches, his upcoming exhibition is like a diary, reflecting on Wurm’s everyday life with pictures of his friends, family and self-portraits. Also on display are watercolors, crayon drawings and ideas for his ongoing One Minute Sculptures series as well as concepts for his 2017 exhibit at the Venice Biennale, allowing visitors a glimpse into Wurm’s idiosyncratic mind at work.

Nov 21-Feb 17, Albertina. 1., Albertinaplatz 1. albertina.at