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Bruegel exhibition is a masterpiece

The Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna has gathered together the largest number of paintings of Peter Bruegel the Elder to ever be exhibited at one time. Tickets are now rarer than hen's teeth - so catch one if you can, as this is one exhibition not to be missed

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525/30 Breugel or Antwerp? – 1569 Brussels). The Tower of Babel 1563 Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna, Picture Gallery © KHM-Museumsverband

This exhibition commemorates the 450th anniversary of the death of Pieter Bruegel the Elder in 2019 and is so exciting as it bring together more than half of his known works that remain today - both paintings and drawings. It also showcases the results of recent research of his paintings.

The Kunsthistorisches Museum had a good start as they own about a third of his paintings, but these have been supplemented by many masterpieces that had never before left their own collections due to the fragility of the pieces. The large number of pieces that have been loaned to make up this fantastic exhibition are a credit to the collaboration between museums around the world. Around 30 paintings and 60 drawings are displayed.

This sixteenth-century Netherlandish painter and draughtsman revolutionized many aspects and genres of painting. He was a storyteller, satirist and social critic. Not much is known of his life. He was born between 1525 and 1530 in Antwerp and married the daughter of an artist Pieter Coecke van Aelst, in whose studio he may have studied. He is known to have travelled to Italy before the births of his sons, Pieter in 1564 and and Jan in 1568. And although he was popular in the 17th century, he fell into obscurity before being rediscovered again in the late 19th century.

Peasant BruegelThe painter frequently added humorous detail to his works, such as giving animals the subtle glances that create a connection between the onlooker and the pictorial worlds.Bruegel is often seen as a critic of his time. In many of his compositions, which show local workers going about their daily lives, he is commenting on various facets of both the life of his contemporaries and of modern society in which he lived. And many of the central themes in his work remain highly relevant today. While the peasantry was often ridiculed in sixteenth-century art, Bruegel does not seem to share this approach despite being known as.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c.1525/30 presumably in Breugel or Antwerp - 1569 Brussels). Dull Griet 1563, Antwerp, Museum Mayer van den Bergh © Museum Mayer van den Bergh

Two paintings of the Tower of Babel, one from the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam and one from the Kunsthistorisches Museum’s own collection, hang side by side and are reunited for the first time. Other highlights include The Adoration of the Magi in the Snow (1563) from Am Römerholz in Winterthur, and two paintings that have been restored for the exhibition: Dulle Griet (around 1562) from Antwerp’s Museum Mayer van den Bergh and the Triumph of Death (1562-63) from the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid.

I hadn't realised until this exhibition how influenced Bruegel seemed to be by Hieronymus Bosch. Dulle Griet (above) is a good example of scenes of hell with mystical creatures - so very like Bosch. And his attention to detail is superb. I particularly loved this in his Vienna Tower of Babel, where he includes two monkeys chained to a window sill (you have to lean in very close to spot them).

Pieter Bruegel the Elder ( c.1525/30 vermutlich in Breugel oder Antwerpen ‒ 1569 Brüssel) Two Chained Monkeys Staatliche Museen in Berlin, Gemäldegalerie © Staatliche Museen in Berlin, Gemäldegalerie / Christoph Schmidt

Many works have been restored for this exhibition and there are interesting sections depicting the result of all this work. In fact, it was the six-year research that preceded the show that was key to convincing museums across Europe to part with their treasures. Curator Sabine Penot said “There is a lot of literature on Bruegel, but not much about his production methods. We used all the methods of modern technology that are not invasive. This is a real milestone in Bruegel research.”

Twelve paintings in the collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum which span Bruegel's career, were also subject to infrared and X-ray analysis, revealed there was extensive underdrawing and also provided insights into how the artist’s technique developed. “In his early career, he drew very precisely and his paintwork was very faithful to the drawing,” Penot said. “In the later works, he no longer stuck slavishly to the underdrawing but became much freer.” In Vienna’s Tower of Babel, for instance, not all of the figures in the underdrawing were recreated in paint.

The research findings are published on line and can be seen on a special website: They show the underdrawings very clearly. For example, in Antwerp's Tower of Babel, you can see how the cloak of the figure on the left has become much larger when it was painted. Penot says they also hope to produce the first Bruegel the Elder catalogue raisonné. The results are laid out in a side corridor to the main exhibition, so do make sure you don't miss them.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c.1525/30 presumably in Breugel or Antwerp - 1569 Brussels) The Beekeepers c.1568, Staatliche Museen in Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett © Photo: Kupferstichkabinett of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin - Preußischer Kulturbesitz, photo: Jörg P. Anders

One of my favourite drawings included in the exhibition is the Beekeepers. Slightly alien looking with their faces covered by baskets, it is another example of Bruegel's mastery of detail. Whether he is depicting landscapes, biblical scenes or peasant life, there is so much to take in you need to allow yourself a good length of time to see this wonderful exhibition.



Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Showing until: 13 January 2019

For more information: CLICK HERE

Matilda travelled to Vienna curtesy of Kirker Holidays, who specialise in luxury short breaks


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