Brueghal the Elder: the family man
This exhibition is fortunate in its location: the 19th-century italianate Palacio de Gaviria, which is at heart of the old Austrias neighbourhood in Madrid – the most historic part of the city, close to the famous Puerta del Sol and Plaza Mayor squares.
I’m mentioning these surroundings because I think in the visual experience of art they are as important as the premises for the exhibition itself, predisposing the public physically and mentally to what they will see and feel. There is also an historical connection here between art and architecture: Pieter Brueghel the Elder and his family of painters and printers, born in Flanders between the 16th and 17th century, were ruled by the Spanish Habsburg kings and therefore linked to the site and the city, its culture and its history.
You will see two art events at the same time: first, around 100 paintings and drawings by the Brueghel family, together with 20 pieces by contemporaries such as Rubens, Bosch and David Teniers the Younger; second, the magnificent, luxurious, somewhat decadent and gothic Gaviria palace, built for the Marquis of Gaviria by architect Aníbal Álvarez Bouquel in the mid-19th century. With an Italian Renaissance aesthetic, this is a golden ghostly place, designed to host great feasts for aristocrats and royalty, then converted to a nightclub in the 1990s and finally rescued for art by the Italian company Arthemisa, which specialises in staging major art events. Don’t miss the toilets on the first floor which are bizarre, and watch your step because you will be looking up at the ceilings without noticing the floor.
For me, the achievements of this dynasty of Flemish artists were not only artistic but also social and economic.
Artistically, Pieter the Elder, the head of the family, gave new life to colours red, green and blue, so that his work is recognisable by the hue of those colours. He also made original use of dull browns, greys and beige, making them a neutral background for the saturated colours. He mixed many techniques and materials – ink, chalk and charcoal on paper, oils, drawing, printing – in a way that was unusual at the time. His aesthetic, inspired by Hieronymus Bosch and Mannerism, is more suggestive of a modern comic illustrator than the then-dominant Italian fashion for idealised human bodies. I think he would have made a perfect illustrator for Swift’s masterpiece Gulliver’s Travels.
In his paintings he turned his back on aristocracy, nudes and portraits and made visible the village people (soldiers, peasants, drunks, hunters, craftsmen, etc.); people engaged in ordinary tasks, participating in everyday activities and feasts, revealing their emotions, sins and weaknesses. This was artistically unknown as subject matter at that time. In the same canvas, he describes many different scenes from daily life, each one telling a story, sometimes in an ironical, sarcastic and critical way (he was a very learned man, of stoic philosophy and follower of Erasmus of Rotterdam and Thomas Moore). The work is often full of symbols and allegories, describing the spice of life and its shadows that the viewer must discover for him or herself, as if it were a puzzle to unravel.
Economically, his family was to transform art practice into a big family business for the first time in history, making copies of the works for s
ale, producing substantial earnings that lasted for generations. His two sons followed in his artistic footsteps. The first-born, Pieter Brueghel the Younger, made copies of his father’s paintings with commercial success. The second, Jan, dedicated himself to nature and developed his painting technique with such excellence that it is nicknamed ‘Velvet Brueghel’ for its tactile textures on oil. His son, Jan Brueghel the Younger, inherited his workshop and joined the prestigious Guild of Saint Luke, finished his father’s works and created a new style of his own, emphasising flowers. Finally, you will see beautiful still lifes of flowers and fruits signed by his descendants Ambrosius and Abraham.
It is sometimes difficult to make out who is who, but the challenge is worthwhile.
Susana Gómez Laín
Volume 34 no 3 January – February pp 30 -31
‘Brueghel: the Fascinating World of Flemish Art’ at Palacio de Gaviria, Calle Arenal, Madrid – until April 12