Thursday, March 10, 2016

Peter Bruegel and His Paintings Come Alive in Fiction (no. 31)

 by Larry Witham


WHEN HE TURNED his attention to European art history, the prolific sci-fi author Rudy Rucker did not chose Hieronymous Bosch (1450-1516), whose weird and bizarre imagery surely qualifies as early science fiction. Instead, Rucker turned to Bosch’s successor, Peter Bruegel the Elder (1525-1569), who continued in the strange illustrative manner of his predecessor.
            Both were pioneers of a distinct Netherlandish art, part academic, part cartoon and documentary. Both Bosch and Bruegel found fame in their lifetimes and were patronized by the new merchant dealers and the aristocracy.
            However, these were touchy political times in the Netherlands. Bruegel, for instance, practiced on the eve of the religious wars between Catholics and Protestants. His illustrative paintings, with their incredible detail, could well be taken as commentary on such political issues, since the artworks were frequently moral tales about sin and virtue and the vanities and absurdities of man. Bruegel apparently walked a fine line between being accused of political “lampoons” and claiming that his art simply was decorative or expressive of fairy tales.
            In the novel As Above, So Below (2002), Rucker takes good advantage of this political tension to cast a story that is historically accurate, yet adds in a fictional drama about Bruegel’s conflict with the occupying powers, the Spanish Hapsburgs.
            The treatment of Bruegel as historical fiction is rare, but not unknown (as Rucker nobly shares in his acknowledgments). What’s new in Rucker’s treatment is how he organizes the biographical chronology based on sixteen artworks by Bruegel. Rucker’s story telling also emulates the earthy—almost scatological—grittiness of Bruegel’s own paintings. The artworks never stop short of illustrating every nasty aspect of human life: death, illness, ugliness, lust, and calumny.
            We meet the young Bruegel on his first trip to Rome, where he sees the great Renaissance art of the city. In Rucker’s fictional gloss, Bruegel draws a first miniature of the Tower of Babel based on the Roman Coliseum (a real and astonishing painting that Bruegel rendered twice later in his career).
            Next, in his hometown of Antwerp, Bruegel moves from apprentice to guild member. He becomes a leading draftsmen for publishers, and eventually corrals wealthy patrons.
            Now he moves to Brussels, and there we follow Bruegel’s family and love life, his new reputation as a serious painter, and his establishment of a studio. Rucker, a careful scientist (indeed a mathematician and computer pro) explains in precise detail the new technologies of painting, of which Bruegel takes advantage.
            The drama, however, is political. The Spaniards have occupied the towns, and along with that they claim the right to live in local residences. Two Spaniards—with “Carlos the monkey” the chief villain—take over Bruegel’s house. When drunk, Carlos plays in Bruegel’s studio, ruining is paintings. These are Bruegel’s livelihood, which Carlos is seriously threatening.
            Bruegel is desperate: “He had to drive the soldiers from his studio.” The plan is to have the seductive Niay, a laundress in the local brothel, ply the Spaniards with nutmeg and gin. Then Bruegel would simulate a ghost to scare them away (this was the age of witches, recall). However, Bruegel-as-ghost-with-sword only provokes the drunk Carlos, who raises his saber and attacks. To stop him, the painter’s ally strangles Carlos to death (the other solider is indeed spooked, and ran off).
            “A fitting revenge for daubing on Master Bruegel’s picture, eh?” a friend says. They put the body in a painting crate and spirit it out of the town. “Good,” Bruegel says. “Do it right away.”
            And speaking of drama, all the while Bruegel’s wife is bearing their first child, a son, downstairs as the end of Carlos is taking place upstairs.
            Fortunately, the next Spaniard to occupy the house, Corporal Miguel accepts the story that the two soldiers went AWOL. Miguel is more spy than soldier and Bruegel is able to persuade him that his paintings are mere “fairy tales,” not political commentary. And so Bruegel’s career continues unhindered, with a few more great paintings in the offing (such as The Blind Leading the Blind) before he dies relatively young, not yet knowing that his son would take up the baton. After Peter the Elder expires, the book ends on this line: “After a bit, Little Peter walked across the room and picked up his father’s brush.”
            Rucker builds on the known Bruegel biography, putting in the main historical figures. In Bruegel’s intimate circles, he seems to add some progressive commentary, for example making Bruegel’s close colleague, the wise and brilliant cartographer Abraham Ortelius, a gay man, and his loyal friend, Williblad Cheroo, a Native American.
            We also meet Bruegel’s two main patrons, true to history. The first is the wealthy Antwerp merchant Nicholaas Jonghelinck, who commissioned the six-season series. The second is Cardinal Granvelle; he frequently queries Bruegel on whether or not his paintings are trying to insult Catholic dignitaries and policies. For example, Bruegel has rendered the New Testament story of the Massacre of the Innocents as taking place in a Flemish town, suggesting symbolically the atrocities of the Spanish Inquisition.
            Granvelle remains fond of Bruegel. When the cardinal is promoted in rank to Naples, he still requests new paintings. In sum, Bruegel moved in fairly high social circles. In the novel, Rucker has him meeting even the Hapsburg royalty, the Hapsburg king himself and the regent Margaret, who in effect was the local ruler for the dynasty. Bruegel plays his cards close to his chest, walking a fine line between offending neither the Catholic rulers nor the “Calvinist fanatics.” Helpfully, one of his fans is the Archduke of Austria, who takes over most of the in-debt Jonghelinck’s stock of Bruegel paintings.
            To add earthiness, the novel offers up some colorful fictions. The libidinous young Bruegel fornicates with his art teacher’s wife, and then marries his art teacher’s daughter. All of society is a bit off, with witch burnings, heretics on gallows, sexual promiscuity, vomit, boils, foul smells, dreadful faces, and death at everyone’s door—much like Bruegel’s more horrendous paintings. A nice break from computer science for author Rucker, we can imagine.
            In the midst of all this, Bruegel completes his famous series of six paintings of the four seasons, for which he is paid grandly, and during which he finds the greatest moment of happiness in his life. Today, about forty of Bruegel’s paintings still survive, and if not quite up to modern science fiction, they are surely among the weirdest renderings of that bygone era, Hieronymous Bosch notwithstanding. As Bruegel says in the novel, he is not a follower of Bosch, but rather “the new Bosch.”

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