A man releases a stream of brown excrement as he sits on a window ledge with his naked apple-like buttocks bulging out. Welcome to the world of the common people as painted by the great artistic revolutionary Pieter Bruegel the Elder – but with a twist. The window-shitter, like the man who sticks out his fat belly and bulging codpiece as he dances at a wedding, or the young woman who throws a contemptuous look at a lusty youth, was painted by his son.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, the creator of such masterpieces of European art as The Fight Between Carnival and Lent, the Tower of Babel and The Hunters in the Snow, died in 1569 at the height of his powers, leaving two young sons, Pieter and Jan. The Barber Institute’s tiny and yet epic journey into the Bruegelian cosmos explores how Pieter Bruegel the Younger carried on his dad’s art trade, almost as if he’d inherited the family shop.
Maybe that idea of continuing the family business is evidence that the Bruegels came from hardheaded peasant stock, as gossip had it. Bruegel the Younger could do you a drunk on a giant egg in half an hour, a carnival in a couple of days – or so it seems from his prolific output in the family style. The careful selection here from that vast output includes four versions of the same small scene, a picture of two peasants tying up a bunch of sticks for firewood while a third strips branches off a tree: the two men bundling the wood look out of the picture warily, for they are surely pinching the elite’s firewood for winter. That’s one answer to an energy crisis.
No exhibition is ever going to turn Pieter Bruegel the Younger into a great artist outside his father’s shadow. His version of Bruegel’s The Peasant and the Nest Robber is a muddy, degraded reflection that suggests he didn’t even think about what he was imitating. And yet it doesn’t matter. The generous, earthy genius of Pieter Bruegel the Elder is so joyful, even at second hand.
The peasants of pre-industrial Europe come alive in these paintings and prints of riotous festivals and boozy weddings. A lovely drawing by Jan Bruegel, making a guest appearance here though he usually painted flowers, depicts a rural wedding party in the open air in about 1597: it seems observed from life, as he homes in on the expressions of individual characters including those who stand reflectively apart from the revels. In Pieter Bruegel the Younger’s Wedding Dance in the Open Air, the frolics are too advanced for anyone to resist: couples are snogging and the dancing is hot and heavy.
Heavy is the right word, for the bodies of these country folk are like animated potatoes. It’s as if they have grown out of the ground, as sturdy as the trees and cottages that surround them. This is one aspect of his father’s vision that Bruegel the Younger does understand – and maybe it is the most important. For their weight makes them real. They are literally more solid than their “betters”, more substantially human. You can see that difference by contrasting the Bruegel boys’ wedding scenes with one here by the 16th-century artist Marten van Cleve. The peasants in Van Cleve’s painting have willowy, elegant bodies shaped more by the fashionable mannerist style than any observation of reality.
Bruegel’s country people are as rude and real as his contemporary Shakespeare’s carnival king Falstaff. This is because it isn’t just the exteriors of the lower sort that his father taught him to see, but their cultural world. Two prints designed by Bruegel the Elder bring carnival into the room: The Fat Kitchen and The Thin Kitchen extract maximum physical comedy from the meanings of hunger and fullness in a world where a bad harvest could cause a food crisis. The people in the Fat Kitchen are hilariously and proudly plump: a fat woman feeds her chubby infant from a bulging breast, a dog is almost too large to walk, a man exults in his enormous belly and the thick sausage stuffed in his belt. But in the Thin Kitchen, everyone is emaciated: a starving mother tries to nurture her child while a bony cook hunches over a meagre pot.
You can’t quite mistake The Thin Kitchen and The Fat Kitchen for later “humorous” prints, even though Hogarth imitated them. We’re looking into what it feels like to want to be fat in a thin world: to crave meat because you live on porridge. Looking from these great prints by the father to the four paintings of peasants stealing firewood by his son, you see they, too, exhibit the eternal fight between carnival and lent. Winter is coming and these ordinary people have a choice. Do they let their children freeze, or steal the landlord’s wood?
Other great artists depict the individual but Pieter Bruegel the Elder is the Rembrandt of the crowd. Even when filtered through his son’s imitations, this artist makes you side with the wood-stealers and the window-shitters, for they are the salt of the earth.
Peasants and Proverbs: Peter Bruegel the Younger as Moralist and Entrepreneur is at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham, from 21 October to 22 January.