The Beggars (also called The Cripples) 1568, Oil on Wood, 7⅛” x 8¼” (18 x 21cm, approx) the Louvre, Paris
Bruegel is a Flemish painter who in his own time suffered from comparisons to the more famous Hieronymus Bosch. It is true that he adopted that same cluttered, horrific sensibility in several of his paintings, but it is not really fair to claim he copied the style from Bosch any more than it would be to accuse Bosch of stealing his own style from tapestries. For the most part Bosch and Bruegel seem to have different artistic goals. While Bosch may have been happy plumbing the darker rooms of our minds and souls, Bruegel was more likely laughing at our foolishness, or poking at the powers that be.
Bruegel worked in a chaotic age of political and religious strife. People reveled in the crude, aggressive humor of Rabelais whose “a turd for you” was directed at every stodgy authority in Europe, which is to say pretty much all authority, everywhere. These were fractious, rambunctious sixteenth century troublemakers and Bruegel got a kick out of them. He was renowned for dressing down so he could go out among the simpler people and study them for what were called his “genre paintings” meaning only that they were neither historical nor religious art. Ordinary people delighted him, and while he didn’t hesitate to reveal their foibles as in this marvelous painting of the Dutch proverbs, he felt a real and honest affection for them.
The Dutch Proverbs, (also called the Netherlandish Proverbs) 1559, Oil on oak wood, 46” x 64” (approx) (117 x 163cm) Gemäldegalerie, Berlin (There are over a hundred proverbs represented in this work. If you like, you can find a guide to all that are known here.)
As for The Beggars, I just think it is an amazing piece of work which could easily have been painted last year. The style of it shrieks of modern tastes. This is such a tiny work, too, yet a lot of thought has gone into it. Those splotches on the beggar tunics are representations of foxtails or foxbrushes as they were known. Foxbrushes were a taunting symbol used to disparage Phillip II of Spain to whom they watched their taxes flow. Taxes from the Netherlands were Phillip’s primary source of funding, and he put them to good use by persecuting the protestant majority in—you guessed it—the Netherlands. Phillip’s fierce Roman Catholicism was therefore naturally despised. The one beggar wears bells on his stump to signal attention. A woman walks blithely away in the rear, bearing a plate to remind us that the beggars carry no means by which to accept alms. Although they be beggars, they are not begging today; they are protesting. We, the least of you, have taken time from our busy day to speak to you of national matters of grave importance. That is their message.
This was a dangerous time and place to be too blunt, but for Bruegel and so many other great artists it made little difference. They knew themselves to be smart and gifted and felt an obligation to repay those gifts through service to those less able to speak. The works of these artists had impacts far beyond their size, far beyond the stories of their images, for they spoke to people whose lives were so filled with sameness, and often despair, that any encounter with art was like a blast of amphetamine.
My favorite of his political pictures is The Blind Leading the Blind. (below) The conventional wisdom has it that the man in front, blind, has fallen from stepping in a hole and the second man, also blind, is tripping over him, and the others behind will likely fall in their turn. I do not agree. Bruegel is an excellent artist. His blind men look very blind indeed. Notice that the second man does not look blind at all. His is a greedy, vulpine look. The idea that the blind will lead themselves into trouble is trite. Bruegel is not a trite creator. He takes it further. This second man can see, he has knocked the first man down, has grabbed the stick of the man behind, and will now lead the others into calamity on purpose. I don’t know why this isn’t apparent to everyone. If you count the number of walking sticks you can see the second man has no stick of his own. Not blind, just up to no good.
When the blind lead the blind, they get taken for a ride. Sometimes, they just get taken. Sic semper erat, et sic semper erit.
The Blind Leading the Blind, 1568, Oil on canvas, 33.86” x 60.63” (86 x 154cm) Galleria Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples