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Bruegel And The Wisdom Of Climbing Trees

Added on 08 May 2012

While I was still at school I was lucky enough to meet the well known Scottish landscape painter James McIntosh Patrick. I had been struck by his detailed analysis of shape and form in his work, particularly when painting trees.

To me his trees looked like loving portraits of distinct personalities he had spent a long time looking at and had come to know very well.  When I asked him which artist he most admired he immediately replied, "Bruegel of course - nobody paints better than him". Looking at McIntosh Patrick's great series of Angus landscape compositions from the 1930's it is easy to see where his admiration for Bruegel's work started.

Bruegel's painting are full of trees. They act as major characters in his dramatic portrayals of everyday life in Medieval Flanders. Bruegel's trees define distance in his paintings. They also act as significant props in his complex figure compositions. Small boys climb trees to steal eggs or look down on major events below. Exhausted farm workers shelter from the relentless midday heat beneath trees at harvest time.  Cows snake slowly between them as they are led home to the farm in November. Farm workers coppice the trees in January; others defecate discreetly beneath them.  All of human life is here.  Bruegel's view of the world is still as powerful and compelling today. He depicts what he saw as if from the vantage point of a secluded spot at the top of a tall tree.

The majority of Bruegel's landscapes use the device of a high horizon in the top quarter of the painting.  In this way Bruegel shows the landscape as it appears below him.  By choosing a high viewpoint the figures in his paintings go about their business, seldom looking up at the viewer.  In this respect the American painter, Edward Hopper, shares a similar interest in portraying himself as an even more detached viewer of the society he lived in - for example looking across the street into a window below at the domestic drama unfolding there.  Hopper's interest in a seemingly remote observation of others has had a powerful influence on Hollywood, most notably in the films of Alfred Hitchcock and more recently the work of Jim Jarmusch and Terence Malick.

Hitchcock famously liked to give himself a discreet walk on part in each of his films. If you look carefully at Breugel's paintings. 'The Procession to Calvary', 1564, and 'The sermon of John the Baptist', 1566, you may just be able to make out the bearded man placed at the extreme right hand of each painting. He looks intently on to the scene before him, portraying no emotion - unlike the other's around him, but instead taking it all in thereby committing the scene to his visual memory.  Surely this is the artist himself at work doing what artist's do best, being a visual barometer, showing other's what our world is like right now.


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