Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 27, 2017
Joseph Leo Koerner Bosch and Bruegel: From Enemy Painting to Everyday Life Bollingen Series XXXV: 57. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016. 448 pp.; 275 color ills.; 50 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (9780691172286)

Joseph Leo Koerner is a verbal virtuoso, a master of alluring alliteration. Bosch and Bruegel: From Enemy Painting to Everyday Life is spangled with melodious word combinations like “devil dangles,” “seeming secrets,” “farthest fringe,” “hellish hill,” “sylph-like soul,” “shunning the sun,” “spiders spin,” and “rafters of the ruined hut.” Indeed, the title, with its catchy pairings of Bosch and Bruegel, enemy and everyday, already employs this stylistic device, signaling the wordplay within. This is a timely book. The date of publication, 2016, was the five hundredth anniversary of the death of Jheronimus Bosch. The year 2019 will be the four hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the death of Pieter Bruegel, which will be commemorated with a major exhibition at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. In 2016, two large-scale exhibitions paid tribute to Bosch, one in his hometown of ’s-Hertogenbosch and the other in his second home Madrid. The Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam also staged a major show De ontdekking van het dagelijks leven, van Bosch tot Bruegel (The discovery of everyday life, from Bosch to Bruegel), focusing on the birth of genre painting in Netherlandish art. Koerner’s book was published not long after, so one has to assume that it was impossible for him to refer to, let alone reflect on, what was brought forward by these exhibitions and their accompanying catalogues.

Koerner’s book focuses on selected works by each artist, and he does not ask readers to read from front to back, stating that, “All the chapters are written to be readable on their own. Each focuses on a single masterpiece, and they urge us to slow down and appreciate the intricate machinery of individual works” (x). There are three parts: one on Bosch, one on Bruegel, and an introduction in four chapters entitled “Parallel Worlds” in which the works and worlds of both artists are compared, contrasted, and characterized. The reference here is to Plutarch’s Parallel Lives (beginning 2nd century CE). The ancient Greek historian focused on the influence of character, good or bad, on the lives and destinies of famous men. Koerner, casually following Plutarch, is interested in the relation between the art and world view of the two painters. He often describes this as a father-son relationship in which the son both emulates and breaks from the views of his father. The book accordingly focuses on selected works by each master. For Bosch, this includes the Prado Epiphany (c. 1510) (chapter 5), The Temptation of Saint Anthony (c. 1510) from Lisbon (chapter 6), and The Garden of Delights (c. 1504) (chapter 7). The three so-called “autonomous” drawings by Bosch, The Treeman (c. 1505), The Field Has Eyes and the Wood Has Ears (c. 1500), and The Owl’s Nest (c. 1510) are the protagonists of chapter 8. Of the works of Bruegel, Koerner examines extensively The Peasant Dance (ca. 1568), Christ Carrying the Cross (1564), The Tower of Babel (1563 and ca. 1565; chapter 9), The Battle Between Carnival and Lent (1559; chapter 10), The Bird Trap (1565), and The Magpie on the Gallows (1568; chapter 11).

In the introductory chapters, Bruegel’s Nest Robber (Koerner calls it The Peasant and the Bird Thief) is contrasted with Bosch’s depiction of a wayfarer (Koerner calls him a peddler) on the exterior of The Haywain (c. 1500). The argument is very similar to what was presented in the Rotterdam exhibition, where both works were exhibited. Koerner explains: “Painting emancipated itself functionally from its subservience to the sacred by making the profane world its theme” (72). Whereas Bosch’s wayfarer is a secular subject, the framework within which it functions is religious, as indicated by the interior of the triptych wings, which represent the fall of the rebel angels, the creation and fall of man, the expulsion from paradise, and a scene of hell. In Bosch, God makes and breaks. With Bruegel it is different, and the focus is on a human-centered world: “In Bruegel, there are no foundations beyond the contingent ones that human beings make” (327).

Koerner’s account of the emergence of genre painting thus accords with earlier analyses like Hans Belting’s Erfindung des Gemäldes: Das erste Jahrhundert der niederländischen Malerei (Munich: Hirmer, 1994), which details how art production shifted from ecclesiastical patronage to an open market driven largely by wealthy middle-class collectors (89). Something that Koerner does not do, or at least does much less than one might expect, is discuss the self-reflexivity of the works of Bosch and Bruegel. While he refers to Victor I. Stoichita’s l’Instauration du tableau Métapeinture à L’aube des Temps Moderns (Paris: Meridiens Klinksieck, 1993; translated as The Self Aware Image An Insight into Early Modern Meta-Painting in 1997 [trans. Anne-Marie Glasheen, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press]) (click here for review), he does not pursue that line of inquiry. Particularly in the case of Bruegel, who derived his nickname “second Bosch” from his pictorial references to the work of his colleague, this seems like a large oversight. An equally surprising choice, also having to do with inter-pictorial dialogue, is that Koerner does not focus on Bruegel’s most Bosch-like works of art such as The Fall of the Rebel Angels (c. 1562), Mad Meg (c. 1562), The Triumph of Death (c. 1562), and the print series of Seven Deadly Sins (1556–58) and the Last Judgment (1558). Thus the book does not explore the differences between Bosch and Bruegel through works that are similar, but instead juxtaposes the most important Bosch triptychs and drawings with Bruegel’s scenes of rural and village life.

Throughout the text, Koerner frames Bosch as an expert in enmity: “Hatred was his professional specialty. . . . Bosch made the portrayal of enemies his distinctive expertise. The Devil’s hatred of people, people’s hatred of other people, the Jews’ hatred of Christ and Christians, the Christian’s reciprocal hatred for their enemies, the hatred directed toward ‘us’ by an invisible, conspiring enemy ‘them’, and the wrath of God that consumes most everyone: this global economy of loathing stands not just portrayed in Bosch’s pictures but also performed, as if his brush were an instrument of the enmity” (133–34; emphasis in original). While Koerner surely admires Bosch’s extraordinary creativity and ability to innovate with forms and iconographies never seen before, the painter’s inventiveness always seems to occur under the aegis of a harsh and judging God. The picture that Koerner paints of Bosch is a bleak one. Indeed, it almost completely neglects the appealingly humorous side of the paintings.

Bruegel, by contrast, is framed as the exegete of everyday human life, “the unsurpassed painter of common humanity” (268). For Koerner, the decisive differences between the two protagonists are that “Bosch always situates human beings visibly under God’s wrath and that he predicates human evil on the devil’s metaphysical enmity with God, whereas in Bruegel nothing transcends the stage of the world” (298). This conclusion concurs with the traditional Burckhardtian differentiation between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance: Bosch is the medieval primitive who still believes in God and the Devil, whereas Bruegel is the Renaissance man, interested in culture and his fellow human. To be sure, Koerner wraps this conventional concept in a sophisticated and entertaining narrative, but when stripped bare of all rhetoric, this is the dichotomy. Indeed, the embellishment of the argument, the way that it is presented, is integral to the narrative. As Koerner himself notes, his subjective individual experience plays an important role in his readings of the art. Koerner’s account of that experience is full of artifice and elegance, and sometimes pomp. To summarize that experience in words other than his can be extremely difficult. On the one hand, this credits the singular character of the author. On the other hand, it complicates critical discourse as it is difficult to disagree with someone’s experience.

Reading Bosch and Bruegel, reading it slowly, is an experience both pleasant and educating. Its value as I see it lies in looking closely at the works of Bosch and Bruegel through Koerner’s eyes. There is little original historical research in this book; the sources used are familiar ones, but reading this account of Koerner’s slow and careful observations is a joy. The text expresses an enormous enthusiasm for looking at art and, perhaps even more so, for writing about it.

Matthijs Ilsink, Faculty, Art History Department, Radboud University Nijmegen

note: For a more extensive review of Koerner’s book by this reviewer see Zeitschrif für Kunstgeschichte 80. Band/2017, pp. 439–447.

Matthijs Ilsink
Faculty, Art History Department, Radboud University Nijmegen