The Fall of the Magician

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From contemporary Belgian Surrealism to an older variety (Dutch/Flemish rather than Belgian per se, but it’s close enough). I’d seen prints of The Fall of the Magician before but not the earlier picture from what turns out to be a two-part set depicting an occult encounter between Saint James and the magician Hermogenes. Both prints were engraved in 1565 by Pieter van der Heyden from drawings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, the prints being published by the print-maker with the unforgettable name, Hieronymus Cock.

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Both pictures show an episode from the life of Saint James recounted in The Golden Legend by Jacobus de Varagine, a very popular collection of hagiographies compiled in the 1200s: the magician Hermogenes is hired by the Pharisees to put a stop to the miracle-working of the saint only to be confounded by the treachery of his demons. As usual with Bruegel, the drawings are replete with details that combine wild imagination with careful observation. (The confrontation of the saint and the magus is paralleled in the face-off between a toad and a cat). Seeing Bruegel’s art as engraved lines is a reminder that the comic profusion in his drawings is the start of a tradition that runs through the prints of William Hogarth to the crowded pages of early MAD magazine; the latter connection is reinforced by artist Will Elder who referred to The Fall of the Magician as a precursor of his own crowded splash panels.

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Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The etching and engraving archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
Bruegel’s sins
Proverbial details
Babel details

Max Ernst’s favourites

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The cover for the Max Ernst number of View magazine (April, 1942) that appears in Charles Henri Ford’s View: Parade of the Avant-Garde was one I didn’t recall seeing before. This was a surprise when I’d spent some time searching for back issues of the magazine. The conjunction of Ernst with Buer, one of the perennially popular demons drawn by Louis Le Breton for De Plancy’s Dictionnaire Infernal, doubles the issue’s cult value in my eyes. I don’t know whether the demon was Ernst’s choice but I’d guess so when many of the De Plancy illustrations resemble the hybrid creatures rampaging through Ernst’s collages. Missing from the Ford book is the spread below which uses more De Plancy demons to decorate lists of the artist’s favourite poets and painters. I’d have preferred a selection of favourite novelists but Ford was a poet himself (he also co-wrote an early gay novel with Parker Tyler, The Young and Evil), and the list is still worth seeing.

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Poets: Charles Baudelaire, Friedrich Hölderlin, Alfred Jarry, Edgar Allan Poe, George Crabbe, Guillaume Apollinaire, Walt Whitman, Comte de Lautréamont, Robert Browning, Arthur Rimbaud, William Blake, Achim von Arnim, Victor Hugo, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, William Shakespeare, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lewis Carroll, Novalis, Heinrich Heine, Solomon (presumably the author of the Song of Solomon).

Painters: Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Giovanni Bellini, Hieronymus Bosch, Matthias Grünewald, Albrecht Altdorfer, Georges Seurat, Piero della Francesca, Paolo Uccello, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Hans Baldung, Vittore Carpaccio, Leonardo Da Vinci, Cosimo Tura, Carlo Crivelli, Giorgio de Chirico, Henri Rousseau, Francesco del Cossa, Piero di Cosimo, NM Deutsch (Niklaus Manuel), Vincent van Gogh.

I’ve filled out the names since some of the typography isn’t easy to read. Some of the choices are also uncommon, while one of them—NM Deutsch—is not only a difficult name to search for but the attribution has changed in recent years. The list of poets contains few surprises but it’s good to see that Poe made an impression on Ernst; the choice of painters is less predictable. Bruegel, Bosch and Rousseau are to be expected, and the same goes for the German artists—Grünewald, Baldung—whose work is frequently grotesque or erotic. But I wouldn’t have expected so many names from the Italian Renaissance, and Seurat is a genuine surprise. As for Ernst’s only living contemporary, Giorgio de Chirico, this isn’t a surprise at all but it reinforces De Chirico’s importance. If you removed Picasso from art history De Chirico might be the most influential painter of the 20th century; his Metaphysical works had a huge impact on the Dada generation, writers as well as artists, and also on René Magritte who was never a Dadaist but who lost interest in Futurism when he saw a reproduction of The Song of Love (1914). Picasso’s influence remains rooted in the art world while De Chirico’s disquieting dreams extend their shadows into film and literature, so it’s all the more surprising that this phase of his work was so short lived. But that’s a discussion for another time.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Viewing View
De Plancy’s Dictionnaire Infernal
Max Ernst album covers
Maximiliana oder die widerrechtliche Ausübung der Astronomie
Max and Dorothea
Dreams That Money Can Buy
La femme 100 têtes by Eric Duvivier

Bruegel’s sins

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Anger (Ira).

The sins are those that Christians used to regard as the seven deadly ones, presented as a series of bizarre phantasmagorias. The prints were engraved by Pieter van der Heyden in 1558 working from drawings made the year before by Bruegel the Elder. All the pictures here link to pages at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC, and much bigger images which are essential if you want to scrutinise the wealth of strange detail.

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Avarice (Avaritia).

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Envy (Invidia).

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Proverbial details

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More Google Art Project details from the amazing Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The Netherlandish Proverbs (1559) is one of Bruegel’s many paintings which are crammed with curious incident; it’s also one of the more bizarre examples. In a crowded scene the artist depicts in a literal manner one hundred different proverbs or figures of speech. Wikipedia has a guide to the details but if you ignore that you can treat the whole thing as another example of Surrealism before its time. In addition to the usual complement of medieval grotesques there’s a fair amount of earthy humour of a kind which pretty much vanished from painting until the 20th century.

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Babel details

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The Tower of Babel (c. 1563) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

Seeing as how I have a fetish for Towers of Babel I ought to have examined this one sooner, the copy at the Google Art Project being one which allows you to explore the surface of the picture in greater detail than the artist himself would have seen unless he was using a magnifying glass. I still find the Art Project interface awkward so the grabs here were taken from a massive jpeg at Wikipedia: 30,000 pixels across, or 243 MB, scaling up to around 1.84 GB in Photoshop which means it’ll make older machines grind in complaint.

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The detail is astonishing even by Bruegel’s standards. I’d never realised before how much care is given to the individual actions of every single worker on the tower, however small. Bruegel’s close observation of the working habits of the people around him is here reflected in the myriad figures, all of whom are doing something purposeful. At this resolution you’re able to see that the workers have taken their wives and children up the tower with them—there’s the familiar line of washing hung out to dry—while various beasts of burden haul building materials up the spiral roadway. You could spend a long time exploring the details of the tower before even looking at the background where tiny boats are sailing the sea and the rivers, and more fortunate animals have been left to graze in fields.

Wikipedia has several more of these enormous images. It’s a shame there aren’t many more of Bruegel’s works available at this size, his other crowded paintings deserve equal scrutiny.

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One of the builders on his lunch break.

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A jug on a window sill.

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