Down To The Smallest Detail

Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Sabine Haag and Elke Oberthaler Photo: Christian Wind

From October 2018, the Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien will be showing “the complete Bruegel”: drawings, prints, and of course panels. They are at the heart of a long-term research project that has produced some surprising results.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder is one of the most famous Old Masters, and one of the biggest attractions at the Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien (KHM) – yet there has been almost no technological examination of his work. “We want these works to be available to the public at all times and have therefore avoided moving paintings from their normal location, whether for restoration or photographs, and we do not lend them out. So there has been very little proper documentation,” explains Sabine Haag, director general of the KHM. All this changed in 2012, when the Getty Panel Painting Initiative, which focuses on research into painting on wooden panels, offered financial support. The museum owns twelve panels, the largest collection in the world. According to Elke Oberthaler, head of restoration at the KHM’s Picture Gallery, the museum received 470,000 euros “to document an initial six paintings and examine their physical stability.” Soon the decision was taken to examine all Bruegel panels in the collection by means of infrared and x-ray imaging. This immediately gave rise to several questions, as Haag explains: “Where do we go next with these results? How can we make them available? Can we apply them to other paintings? And, above all, do we want to present our examinations only to the scientific community, or should we share the results with our audience in a major exhibition?” The audience is very much interested in the combination of art history and technological insights, she adds, and so the concept for a large Bruegel exhibition emerged from the research project. From October 2018, documentation of the technological examinations will be presented along with the panels, paintings and prints, in order to “show the complete Bruegel,” in Haag’s words.

So who was Pieter Bruegel the Elder? Little is known about his life. He was born around 1525/1530, probably in Breda, and died in Brussels in 1569. Only about 40 of his paintings have survived, far fewer than works by his sons, Pieter Brueghel the Younger and Jan Brueghel the Elder. But none of his successors was as brilliant as he was; the composition in his imagery is sophisticated and every detail is full of meaning. He is often described, inaccurately, as the “Peasant Bruegel,” says Haag. “Of course he was the first painter to put peasants at the center of his composition, rather than as an adjunct in the background. But the figures are not differentiated to an individual level; they are representatives of their rank and part of the bigger picture – very typical of Bruegel.” Oberthaler adds: “We work with an expert for costumes who has shown that many figures in the paintings are burghers rather than peasants. You can see many ranks.” And it is precisely those numerous details that come to the fore during our examinations: “Bruegel’s paintings are enormously detailed, and its elements, sometimes just millimeters in size, mostly make a clear statement. For viewers they are almost impossible to see, which is why we are working on a new digital tool. Every image is recorded according to identical criteria and in identical conditions. It will soon be possible to examine individual aspects of all twelve images up close – infrared images, underdrawings, or complete recordings in high-resolution – and that will remain after the exhibition ends.” Did the technological examinations also throw up any surprises? The famous “Great Tower of Babel” (1563) shows tiny workmen, huts, cranes, and hoists; the right side of the painting shows that the eighth floor is still under construction, but the image already hints that construction will fail. This side is “missing six to seven centimeters, as we were able to prove for the first time; the painting has also been cropped at the top and bottom.” Like most of Bruegel’s painted panels it is in an excellent condition, “but you can see quite a lot of mechanical damage to the paintings, such as scratches and dents, because visitors used to get closer and point at the painting.” This is in contrast to “The Suicide of Saul” (1562), which has to be elaborately restored. Afterwards “the painting will be easier to understand and will be seen in an entirely new light,” says Sabine Haag.

Text by Sabine B. Vogel:

Sabine B. Vogel has a PhD in art history. Lecturer at the University of Applied Arts Vienna since 2003; freelance curator and art critic since 1987; president of AICA Austria since 2009.

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