Wednesday, May 17, 2006

B for Bruegel

This was my favourite painting for years and years. I had a small print when I was about 14.

Hunters in the Snow, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder is the December & January painting from his series 'The Twelve Months', painted in 1565.

I enjoy the crowded canvases of the Bruegels, like those big, sociable, eighteenth and nineteenth century novels with dozens of characters, each with his own story, or a Frank Capra movie where every character exists in his own right, not as mere window dressing to the principals, or light relief to a relentlessly linear storyline. Norman Rockwell is perhaps a kindlier, twentieth century Bruegel in his wry humour and attention to detail.

I like the peace, intimacy and tidiness of 16th/17th Century Dutch interiors with their immaculate black-and-white tiled floors, perfect fruit on gleaming pewter, and those distinctive sturdy Dutch faces. Pieter de Hooch's Interior with a woman peeling apples is just gorgeous: making long curly apple peels is one of those small pleasures that never wears thin, whether you're of an age to identify with the woman or the child.

On the other hand, having lived in the north-west of England where the climate is very similar to that of the Netherlands, I was the one who crossed Holland off our list of possibilities for when we leave here. I love rain, snow, wind, in fact almost all the energetic variations of seasonal weather (I draw the line at drizzle and sleet.) and I also love and miss the natural greenery, woodland, streams and ponds that come with regular rainfall; but I'm not moving back to a low sky and northern light!

For me, 'Hunters in the Snow' captures that feeling of anticipation bubbling through fatigue that carries you along the last stretch of a long journey, and that sense returning travellers have of the closeness and separateness of people's lives.

Dusk is coming on, and rooks flap through the cold air, beginning to roost on the leafless, snow-dusted tree branches. Meanwhile, the people from the the tavern get on with their outdoor chores beneath the lopsided sign. The hunters and their dogs trudge past regardless and unregarded.

Down below on the frozen canal and ponds, skaters potter and play, absorbed; unaware that they are part of someone else's landscape. The skaters in the painting are as familiar, and at the same time as unknowable, as the inhabitants of towns seen from a mountain highway, or from the window seat of a descending plane emerging from cloud cover.

So my B is for Pieter Bruegel -er - Breugel - um - Breughel - the Elder, a contemporary painter from 450 years ago.

I'm having such a good time on this little art alphabet project, which takes me all over the Internet in search of the images I want, and along the way introduces me to so much I've never seen. The colours are so rich on a laptop screen, plus it's quite intriguing to see the variations on the same work as it is reproduced on different sites. 'Hunters in the Snow' is a case in point: some had a greenish tint, some grey, some blue; and in some the details were really sharply defined, while in others, the church tower is hardly there at all - so until you can see the original for yourself, you can always pick your favourite version online!

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