Tuesday, 5 April 2016

When is a Bruegel not a Bruegel?

It's been a while since I was led upstairs to look at someone's etchings and when it happens it's the 16th century Netherlandish artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

London's Courtauld Gallery have put together an 'intimate' show of both Bruegel's works and those that had previously been erroneously ascribed to him. Both followers and those he inspired. Even deliberate forgeries.

That's the claim anyway. Actually there's only 4 real Bruegel works. 1559's Kermis at Hoboken (below) and A Storm On The River Schelde With A View Of Antwerp from 1562. Both pen and ink. The following year's etching The Rabbit Hunt and, finally, the only oil painting in the entire show Landscape With The Flight Into Egypt, also from 1563. Of which more later. The Kermis is a festival that takes place near Antwerp. Drinking, dancing, archery, and even urination feature. Also pigs - who seem to be a staple of lowlands painting from this era.

Amongst the other artists here Jacob Savery was the straight out forger, half-inching Bruegel's stipple technique. He even signed his paintings with Bruegel's name and backdated them to add further 'authenticity'. His windmills, castles, and Northern European landscapes are so gauzy that now I have to either admire, or be suspicious of, the experts that re-ascribed them.

Jacob's younger brother, Roelandt Savery, drew from life in the markets of Prague. Emulating Bruegel's technique he was rumoured to be in the employ of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II and though his burghers, peasants, and harnessed mules are impressive enough there was a bit of a 'pen and ink' when his pen and inks were noted to be dressed in the fashions of 17th century Prague. Neither geographically nor chronologically appropriate for a Bruegel. Further re-ascribing took place.

Amusingly a publisher of Bruegel's was named Hieronymus Cock but if you prefer a cooler nom de plume what about the Master of The Mountain Landscapes? Another of Bruegel's copyists who has four pleasant enough, though hardly earth shattering, works here. They're mountain landscapes. You probably guessed.

The Landscape with the Flight Into Egypt is easily the best thing here. Bruegel has transposed the biblical narrative to an Alpine setting. Allusions to Christ and sublime reference to the scale and potentially destructive power of nature humble his tiny figures. It lights up a room that's otherwise probably of more interest academically than anything else.

I was no expert on Dutch painting before and I've certainly not become one by spending a small part of my afternoon in the company of their works. Also, it's not that important to me who painted what. This was more a history lesson to me than an art one. An interesting one and not one I regret. But neither one I'd recommend to anyone unless they had a niche interest in Dutch painting from 400 years ago.

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