“Short Life in a Strange World: Birth to Death in 42 Panels” by Toby Ferris.

I got this book delivered from “Exclusive Books” and was nervous about buying a book without paging through it. This was during early lockdown when the stores were closed. I have been blown away by the extraordinary writing, the varied tangents the author takes, and the gorgeous illustrations. He moves seamlessly through diverse subjects, with a quirky and unique style.

The book is about the authors quest to view and critique the 42 panels Pieter Bruegel the Elder painted in oil and ink. Aged 42 (which is the age that Bruegel died), Toby sets off around the world and in 5 years has intimately studied the panels.

He writes “Bruegel had a precise eye. His work has been described as  ‘ethnographic, so fastidious is it with details of peasant life, and in the same was his World Landscapes never neglect shape of leaf or jizz of flying bird – a generic silhouette in the sky is, on closer inspection, a magpie or a cormorant; a foreground plant is not just an iris but an Iris Germanica. The natural world adorns the schematic landscape, or the schematic landscape polarises the naturalistic detail, in a way that Ruisdael or Hobbema, or Constable or Monet, would have understood. The real keeps impinging on the meaningfully arranged. And vice versa…

We are caught in suspension between what God ordains or what Bruegel experiences, And the two are not necessarily aligned”.

The Triumph of Death 1562.

Ferris compares the works of Pieter Bruegel the Elder and his son the Younger. His comparisons point out the differences between them in for example “The Census at Bethlehem” where there is vanishing point in the Younger’s and lines in “direct contravention of the central thought process of the original – that these circles go nowhere for a reason,”

He writes about the oak panels, and the techniques; in describing “The Adoration of the Magi” “Bruegel’s is a rapid, warming brushstroke. A smudge and a couple of flicks animate a child, a conscious breathing creature paddling on ice. There is an energy in the crowd….., there are interactions.” He describes apart from the panels a few drawings etchings and Bruegel’s use of the “Tuchlein” technique using glue size or distemper on linen canvas. And his structural use of the “imprimatura “ layer.

Ferris philosophises throughout the book. After describing the social interactions in “The Wedding Dance” he writes that Bruegel’s’ “detachment is anomalous. The social world is our reality, whether we participate or observe at any given moment…We are all dragged into the dance sooner or later….A few – artists, introverts, melancholy souls – wander the outermost edge of the rim of firelight, distant satellites of the tribe, looking out to the darkness beyond. It is the darkness which makes the fire remarkable, after all”. He also ponders on fatherhood and family discussing his own father who died just before the project began.

The Wedding Dance 1566. Oil on panel.

Ferris points out details that escaped me. He sees the figure at the top “the solitary figure near the turf-cut benches and tables, with his back to the company. He stands there like one of Plato’s philosophers emerged from his cave and inspecting reality in the manner most habitual and comfortable to him: at a distance, sensing the presence of a sunlit social world”. His observations send the author off in wonderful directions and topics from historians’ use of Bruegel’s accurate pretzel shape to establish regionality to his father’s employment at GEC.

A detail of “Children’s Games” 1560  “215 children playing ninety different games in and around a market square”.

Ferris discusses the male and female differences that Bruegel depicted. “the girls seem too happily immersed in primary activities…these images are among his most affectionately rendered and the ones with which as an artist he seems most happily to identify”.

The Land of Cockaigne 1567

The author ruminates about death; “As artists approach death, do they become more cryptic?…..Beethoven and Bach veered toward the cryptic , as though at the end of life there might be a sequence of challenges, a labyrinth to walk, with its guardian spirits –  better to be prepared with spell and talismans”. About “The Land of Cockaigne” he ponders over “picturing a place where all grief is assuaged, all struggle put aside, all questions answered, where you can have whatever you feel life denied you, even if that is a roof made of pies; a place where whether we retain our identity or are dissolved in a community of the blessed, we are connected, both to the living we left behind and to the dead who went before. It is a place where we still count”.

He writes towards the end of the book that at some point you must experience a “magical bereavement. Step into the clear light of the ordinary”. “The imaginary structure of your life passes as you move through it, until you no longer have a foundation: you ae the foundation. Of something real, however. Something substantial. Something that extends beyond yourself.

And if any artist is going to help you make that transition, it is Pieter Bruegel”. I am certainly going to relook at Bruegel’s work with renewed enthusiasm.

I was enchanted by this book.


Check out the book here<<<

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