Saturday, May 11, 2019

Koerner in 2019 on Bruegel: In Love with Multiplicity
Sauerländer in 1996 on Koerner and Baldung: The Return of the Repressed

I've said it before, here or elsewhere; I've never forgotten Sauerländer's review: describing an art historian manifesting his own sense of the present in his description of the past. And now the historian has moved from a description of faded, decadent, idealism to a new acceptance of the multiform. Koerner's claims for Bruegel vis-a-vis Titian and Velázquez are silly, but I love Bruegel. I feel for his work as Koerner does.

And it all follows the transition I've been watching and describing since I was a teenager. I smiled in 1996, and I smiled today. And everything I write is unpublishable.

The exhibition celebrated the master’s hand by detailing, in explanatory displays and photographs in the side galleries, Bruegel’s artistic process layer by layer. This new emphasis on materials and making was a welcome corrective to most previous scholarship, which had been concerned with meanings. There has never been a better painter than Bruegel. Always flawless in his design and execution yet different in each of his works, the peerless painter of the low-life genre yet attaining a monumental vision of the whole, a virtuoso in the ways he manipulates paint yet never contrived, he makes his only rivals (Jan van Eyck, Titian, and Velázquez) seem limited, repetitive, or artificial by comparison. 
Along the entire left edge of Christ Carrying the Cross, a framing tree curves in and out of the unpainted edge of the panel, its bark roughly the color of that naked wood. Bruegel has so much to say that presses up against this narrow strip: in details that only the closest inspection brings to light, he has squeezed in a little gallery of everyday life, including a poor young couple dragging a basket with newborn calves toward town, in reverse of the great counterclockwise parade. He captures the quiet resistance of the ordinary—what W.H. Auden celebrated in “Musée des Beaux Arts,” his poem about Bruegel: the “untidy spot/Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse/Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.” 
The exhibition obscured this important aspect of his work by making Habsburg sovereignty the starting point and frame of Bruegel’s oeuvre. In the first gallery, the artist’s earliest sketches followed visual documents showing how his works had hung in the imperial collections. This made the Habsburgs seem as if they had been his patrons, when of course he pitched his prints to a very broad audience, and the main client for his paintings was a well-to-do burgher not unlike himself—Jonghelinck’s brother Jacques, who made his living as a sculptor and medalist. 
Much more crucially, Bruegel was profoundly skeptical of sovereign power. In his world, attempts at mastery inevitably fail: Icarus plunges unnoticed into the sea, King Saul falls on his sword, and the Tower of Babel leans as it spirals into the sky, structurally flawed and doomed to fall even without divine intervention. And meanwhile the powerful are foolish, violent, and cruel. In Christ Carrying the Cross, soldiers wearing the red garb of Habsburg mercenaries force Christ to crawl to Calvary; in Massacre of the Innocents, Herod’s army wears Habsburg uniforms. After the Protestant revolt of 1566, Spanish forces marched on the Netherlands to crush dissent and stamp out heresy. Arriving in 1567, the Duke of Alba placed the region under martial law, disbanding citizen militias, replacing native officials with Spanish ones, and executing many thousands, including the Counts of Egmond and Horn, who were beheaded in the Grand-Palace of Brussels, just a few blocks from Bruegel’s workshop on the rue Haute. Alba also clamped down on peasant customs and festivals, like the ones the artist lovingly portrayed.
In Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus, Fitelberg, a Jew from Lublin living in Paris, says to Leverkühn, the German composer: “You probably do not realize, cher Maître, how German is your répugnance, which…I find characteristically made up of arrogance and a sense of inferiority….” Like Mann’s novel, Koerner’s discussion of the tension between the godlike self-elevation and the sinful fallen state of the artist is a commentary on the intellectual and spiritual turmoil of German art. One certainly cannot imagine a similar book being written on Venetian or Florentine art of the same period. And in a curious way Koerner himself seems deeply—or should we say narcissistically?—involved in the ambivalences of the obscure topic he has chosen for his remarkable book. It is this involvement which makes one think not only of Leverkühn but also of Thomas Mann.
Koerner’s book is difficult to argue with. It is enormously learned but it proceeds less by arguments than through the use of an evocative rhetoric and ingeniously chosen associations. Koerner himself is well aware of his own suggestive technique and illuminates it with a telling biblical metaphor:
Does not the whole character of our interpretation represent the kind of knowledge precipitated by the bite into the apple: fallen knowledge as the advent of a plethora of meanings without the authority of a meaning, and as the loss of an unequivocal and “natural” access to things and to the meaning of things?
The loss of stable meanings and established authority, and the resulting uncertainties about truth and falsehood, according to Koerner, are thus not simply the product of our postmodern and poststructuralist age, but have been with us since the Fall. Against “a plethora of meanings,” arguments are of little help. But Koerner is much too intelligent and self-conscious a writer not to see the traps in which fallen knowledge may be caught. “One sometimes wonders,” he writes, “whether what art historians discover as the implied beholder is not really a reflection of themselves transposed in the historical material.” Turning narcissism into a method of interpretation was perhaps the price he has had to pay for writing a stimulating book that offers deeper and more disturbing insights into German Renaissance art than most earlier scholarship.

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