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THE TRIUMPH OF DEATH X 2

In 1562, or not long after, Pieter Bruegel the Elder painted THE TRIUMPH OF DEATH. Like most of his large paintings, it was done in oils on wood panels. It isn’t known for whom the work was done. Two centuries later it was hanging in the palace of the Queen of Spain. Today, recently restored, it resides at the Prado, in Madrid. It is both a landscape painting and a memento mori – a reminder of mortality, like the skull which often decorates a painted saint’s hovel, or profound individual’s desk.

But it is more than that. Bruegel had painted landscapes, crowd scenes, and grisly battles before. There was a tradition of “Last Judgement” paintings, in which the dead rose from their graves, the city burned, and Jesus hovered above, in glory. THE TRIUMPH OF DEATH refers to all these things, yet remains strangely original, and unique. Yes, skeletons rampage across the land, slaughtering the living, and cities burn on the horizon. But there is no God in judgement, condemning the bad and calling the good to join Him and his Angels. In Bosch’s triptych, THE LAST JUDGEMENT, the deity appears in two out of the three panels, in bubbles of beatific beauty. He is entirely absent here. This Final Battle is a secular nightmare: death for all, and no exceptions. In its brutal secularity it resembles Bruegel’s SUICIDE OF SAUL, also painted in 1562. The horrors of Spain’s war against the Netherlands may have influenced both paintings.

Bruegel’s wife Mayken gave birth to two boys, Pieter, in 1564, and Jan, in 1568. He died the following year, aged around 40. Both sons became painters. In 1597 (or possibly later) Jan painted a copy of THE TRIUMPH OF DEATH. This passed within a hundred years into the collection of Prince Eggenberg of Austria, and it can be seen in his castle in Graz, today. There is a second copy, probably by Jan, and a third, by Pieter the Younger, both in private collections, invisible to us.

Last September I was invited to screen two pictures at the Film Archiv in Vienna, and took the train to Graz, to see the son’s version of his father’s painting. It is to the two visible TRIUMPHS (one in Madrid, one in Graz) – their strong similarity, and their multiplicity of differences – that I now turn. For Jan Brueghel’s painting is structurally almost identical to his father’s, and different in almost every single detail: like a film re-made, shot-by-shot, with different actors, costumes, and visual effects. Most interesting of all, while Bruegel the Elder’s painting is seen from no one’s point of view, Jan Brueghel’s TRIUMPH provides one horrified spectator.

Both paintings can be divided rather neatly into nine grid-sections. The central section features a skeleton on horseback, wielding an enormous scythe. Behind him, an army of skeletons approaches, and demons drive a wheeled, blazing box.

In the section immediately below this, humans attempt resistance, but fall victim to knives, axes, swords and scythes.

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The bottom left section contains perhaps the richest images: a dying monarch, skeletons seizing money, supporting a priest, and riding a death-cart over living humans while playing music.

In the section above this, humans are drowned in a stagnant pond, and skeletons in shrouds blow trumpets.

The upper left section shows skeletons ringing bells and digging up a coffin. The distant horizon glows with red and black smoke.

In the upper central section, ships are wrecked, skeletons surround a church, and a mass of humans, wielding pikes, ladders and improvised weapons, is caught in a pincer movement by death’s cavalry and infantry.

In the upper right, dead bodies hang from trees and wheels. Skeletons lynch one man and prepare to decapitate a praying victim.

Immediately below, another skeleton army drives men and women into long, coffin-like box. On the roof of the box, three skeletons bang drums and hold the door open.

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Finally, in the bottom right section, diners are interrupted at their table. A gallant prepares to draw his sword, a skeleton seizes a woman, another presents a skull on a silver plate. Two lovers in the corner play the lute and sing. A skeleton accompanies them with his violin.

All these elements exist in both paintings. But they exist in very different ways. I’ll begin at the left, and make the observation that the copy is slightly larger than the original, and the difference is visible here. Bruegel the Elder’s painting is 117 by 162 cm. His son’s copy is 119 by 164 cm. The copy has a couple of centimeters more sky, and two additional centimeters on the left – so that we see the knee of the skeleton supporting the king, and the entire blasted trunk from which the bells are rung, plus another tree, immediately adjacent – all missing in the older painting, as it now exists. The additional two centimeters make all these visual aspects more pleasing (even an illustration of horrific events can observe the norms of good illustration), so I believe that the original TRIUMPH OF DEATH was “cut down” to fit a particular frame at some point – just as the boards of his TOWER OF BABEL lost 4 cm of height and 8 cm of width at the behest of unknown philistines…

Now, to the changes in Jan’s remake —

Let us start with the most finely-adorned of all the characters: the king. In both paintings he wears a full suit of armor, over which he sports a crown, an ermine collar and a long robe – red in the original, yellow in the copy. The skeleton supporting him holds an hour glass, but in neither painting does the king notice it: dying, his gaze is focused not on the scene, but on the viewer. To his right, a skeleton dips bony fingers into a barrel of gold and silver coins. In the Elder’s version, this fellow wears a rough tunic and some basic armour – a common soldier. In Jan’s, he is naked save for gold chains and a kingly crown. This greedy skeleton also has access to more stuff than in the original – in addition to three barrels of coins, he finds gold and silver jugs, and jewelry. Each painter has taken the same character and made him something different, in class, in style, in aspirations.

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To the right of the money is the most visually vivid difference between the two works: a skeleton clutching a red-robed cardinal – in the original painting, a priest in a blue- green robe. To emphasize the death-bringer’s personalized service, in both paintings he sports a matching hat. Immediately behind this little group passes the death cart, full of skulls. One skeleton rides aboard it, playing the hurdy-gurdy (in the original he appears to be wearing a WW2-era soldier’s helmet, something missing from the copy); a colleague, riding sidesaddle on a wizened, starving horse, holds a lamp and rings a bell. Between them sits a raven; below them, people are crushed beneath the wheels.

Noteworthy here and throughout is the bodily difference between Pieter’s and Jan’s skeletons: the former are usually covered with a residue of dessicated skin, while the latter are pure skeletal goodness (interestingly, sporting an additional pair of ribs).

A figure beneath the horse’s hooves wears brown-red in the first painting, gray in the second: a woman, cutting a thread with shears. Is she Atropos, the third Fate? How many more mythical/religious symbols are there in this bedlam?

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Beyond the cart is the pond, or moat, where people are being drowned. The two versions are substantially similar, though here – as everywhere – colour and details of costumes change. A little bridge across the pond leads to what seems to be a mausoleum, where shrouded skeletons are gathered, sounding horns. In the original these characters are boldly painted, and the millstone around the neck of a human victim is very evident. In the copy, they are more sketchy: Jan provides less detail as the scene gets further from our eye. And Jan’s skeletons are noticeably fewer: some fourteen, as opposed to 24 or more – as if the remake couldn’t afford the extras, or the artist sufficient time. This is a pattern which repeats throughout the copy, as we shall see. In the original, a clock or sundial on the mausoleum wall is breached by a skeleton, pointing downward to the number one. In the copy, this skeleton points upward, to the number twelve.

The top left corner of the copy is greatly improved by the uncut visual of the blasted tree, and a better profile of the skeleton graverobber. But the horizon beyond the bells is quite different: a gray-green range of hills, overhung by storm clouds. No cities burn in Jan’s painting.

To the right, the skeleton cavalry emerges from a hillside, to engage the peasant army. In Jan’s copy they are few, sketchily drawn. In Pieter’s original there are dozens of skeleton riders, armed with javelins.

 

The upper centre of depicts the fate of the human horde. In Pieter’s, they are trapped by a wave of skeletons, surging up a curved road from the sea. In Jan’s, the wave is absent: maybe the men will get away! There’s no hope for them in the original, where the road ends at at a church on a barren hilltop, surrounded by scores of horn-blowing skeletons. Elsewhere among the hills, three black skeletons with javelins pursue a running man, graves are opened, and three of death’s agents pause to admire the sea view, with its sinking ships, and blazing wharves. The same three skeletons are present in Jan’s painting: white against a black sea. But Jan’s long view is less apocalyptic – a mere handful of skeletons surrounds the church, only one ship is sinking, and several sails are visible on the horizon. Jan also invents a flock of crows, gathered above his father’s pit of animal bones…

In Jan’s copy, the upper-right sky is storm dark, and its scenes of death and mayhem are if anything grimmer than those in the surreal landscape of his father. Skeletons rush several extra victims towards the gallows here. A black skeleton, almost invisible against the sky, prepares to behead a praying man. Both paintings depict the coffin-shaped box in the same way: an open maw into which terrified people are driven. One naked figure in the original has been clothed by Jan.

The scythe-wielding skeleton is the centrepiece of both paintings, but the demonic hell-box which follows it is quite different. Pieter’s burns more brightly, and is more face-like. It is clearly mobile, advancing on studded wheels. Crows fly out of it (the crows which have alighted on the barren field, in Jan’s painting?) The fires of Jan’s hell-box are darker, and its wheels are almost invisible. It is attended by more demons. To the right of the box, two skeletons catch half a dozen humans in a net. In the copy, they are all white men, two with faces clearly visible. In the original, three of the struggling men are black; a fourth, oddly enough, strongly resembles the English Prime Minister, Boris Johnson.

In front of the net, in the right central section, two skeletons drag a wheeled coffin, containing a dead woman and a dead baby, over a shrouded corpse. In Pieter’s version, the skeletons wear brown habits, like a friar’s. In Jan’s their robes are funeral black.

Nearby, cripples and priests are murdered by the skeletons. In Jan’s painting one skeleton actually draws blood from his human victim. Which brings us to the lower right corner, which in both paintings contains the most poignant scenes.

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Here a table has been laid (minimally, with bread and crackers, by Pieter; richly, with meats and pies, by Jan) and the surprised humans have only just become aware of their predicament. A man in fool’s motley tries to hide under the table. Two women attempt to flee: one of the skeletons who detains them wears a fool’s outfit, as well. A young man prepares to draw his sword in vain resistance: in Pieter’s painting his hair is long and dark, in Jan’s it’s short, and blond. Jan’s swordsman looks a little older and is more finely dressed, like his companions: perhaps the changing fashions of the times?

In neither painting does the female lover see the skeleton army: her eyes are on the book (music? The lyrics of a song?) which she and her lute-playing companion share. In Pieter’s painting the lute player has just noticed their personal skeleton, accompanying them on its violin. In Jan’s painting he hasn’t noticed their awful companion yet. In the original, this man is clean-shaven. His mouth is open, his expression one of horror. In the copy, he’s still relaxed, sporting a fine mustache and goatee (it’s been suggested that the model for the lute player was Peter Paul Rubens, though this would date the painting later than 1600).

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The musical couple are the last individuals to appear, as we scan Bruegel the Elder’s TRIUMPH OF DEATH. In his son’s copy, there is one additional character. At the foot of his mistress is a little dog, who apprehends, with concern, the entire scene.

 

 

PODCAST

One of the greatest assets of the CU Boulder film program is its International Film Series, curated by Pablo Kjolseth. The schedule is an eclectic mixture of new stuff, narrative, documentary, experimental, foreign, domestic, plus some extraordinarily good, old-time drama – projected on the big screen, in 35mm. This year among other classics they’re screening Joseph Losey’s masterpiece, MR KLEIN, and Films Noir including NIGHTMARE ALLEY and OUT OF THE PAST. If you would like to see/download the schedule, it is here.

But wait! For this is just a preamble to the news that Pablo and I are doing a podcast, which can be found on the IFS website.

I am sure that there are many more interesting and informative podcasts than this, nonetheless here is ours, recorded and edited by a master of martial arts and dubbing, Jason Phelps. Among other things we discuss Harry Dean Stanton’s grave, embarrassing experiences at film festivals, Moviedrome, nuclear war themes in popular music, and Henry Fonda’s love child.

HDS_and_Visitor Harry Dean Stanton’s grave, Lexington, Kentucky

 

FROM THE ALMERIA WESTERN FILM FESTIVAL

This is a brief dispatch from Tabernas, Spain, where the ninth annual Western Film Festival is in progress. Four days of Western features, Westerns shorts, and Western-related events in and around the desert town where I used to live, and where so many great films were made.

And are there still Westerns? Yes indeed. The festival, directed by Eduardo Trias, who was once the director of the Huelva Film Festival, features films from the US, Argentina, France, Brazil, Spain, and Colombia. There are also a pair of documentaries – an Italian one about George Hilton, and a French one about Sergio Leone. I am a guest, screening STRAIGHT TO HELL (which was shot in this same desert, many years ago), and also honoured to be the recipient of the Premio Tabernas de Cine, which includes a handsome trophy, a stay in a delightful cabin in the Fort Bravo Western town, and – splendid to report – a chair with my name on it, on the road into town.

A chair may seem like a strange award, but in fact it is delightful – made of metal, bolted to the ground, it will last a lot longer than I will. And, most wonderful of all, my chair is next to the one awarded to last year’s guest, Claudia Cardinale. So on your next visit to Tabernas you can take your ease with me and Claudia. They are very comfortable!

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THE PARADE

The presentation of the chairs was proceeded by a march through town: locals and festival attendees dressed in the appropriate attire, covered wagons and stagecoaches, and four hundred children. If you have never seen four hundred children, dressed as cowboys and Indians, line dancing on the main street of a Spanish town, come to Tabernas for the Festival next year. It is a fantastic sight.

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THE CHAIRS

In addition to the two shown in the illustration, there are chairs for Terence Hill, George Martin, Enzo Castellari, Sara Montiel, and others who made films here. There is also live music (from Sarah Vista and the Chisum Cattle Co.), and a selection of Western-themed tapas in the local bars. And this morning, when I got up, they were shooting a new Western on the main street of Fort Bravo. I’ve no idea what it is, and the last thing film crews want is to be bothered by someone asking, “Hey, what’s the movie?” But if makes me very happy that Tabernas remains a desired location and that the finest form of cinema is still alive.

Especial thanks to Jose, the mayor of Tabernas, to Rafa, the director of Fort Bravo, and to the marvellous Cristina Serena, whose warmth and personal attention make the whole thing run so beautifully.

Gracias a todos. Gracias.

DODGING THE BULLET XII: PLAN A

The Science and Global Security Program at Princeton University have come up with a short video detailing the possible consequences of a “limited” nuclear exchange, such as the one envisioned by the Pentagon’s Nuclear Operations Report.

The vid is based “on independent assessments of current U.S. and Russian force postures, nuclear war plans, and nuclear weapons targets. It uses extensive data sets of the nuclear weapons currently deployed, weapon yields, and possible targets for particular weapons, as well as the order of battle…”

Words can’t adequately describe this simple four minute film. Please watch it.

DODGING THE BULLET XI: PENTAGON PLANS, & THE TREATY TO OUTLAW NUKES

An article on the Counterpunch site mentions a new Joint Chiefs of Staff report – JP 3-72 – which was briefly posted for public consumption on the Pentagon website. It concerns nuclear weapons, and the US military’s plans for using them.

The report was made available last week – then abruptly disappeared.

Fortunately the Federation of American Scientists had downloaded a copy and have made the Pentagon report available here.

Why not download a copy and have an enjoyable read?

Most of it is waffle and military/bureaucratic doublespeak, as you might expect. But explicit is the notion, expressed for the the first time in some decades, that nuclear weapons may be valuable assets in a “conventional” war. Much is made of the decision to go “NUDET” (the Pentagon’s charming acronym for “nuclear detonation”) being the President’s and his alone. Daniel Ellsberg demolishes that myth in his salutory book The Doomsday Machine.

All this is to make money, of course – there is a good report on which corporations, specifically, profit from nuclear weapons manufacture and suppport, here. The full title is Producing Mass Destruction: Private Companies and the Nuclear Weapon Industry. For Boeing, Lockheed, General Dynamics, Raytheon, Airbus, et al. the Obama/Trump nuclear weapons refurb (costing how much? 1.7 trillion?) and bipartisan support for more of the same, are wonderful things.

Perhaps not so for the rest of us. Natalye S. Baldwin writes a very sensible piece about American complacency in regards to nuclear weapons and the likelihood of nuclear war here. (Of course it is not only people in the U.S. who are complacent about this.) She writes:

“… Both the U.S. and Russia still have over 1,700 nuclear weapons combined on hair trigger alert. With so much antipathy, rancor and distrust having been recklessly stoked by the political class and much of the media toward Russia over relatively minor (and/or false) issues in the big picture – yes, they are minor in the big picture of a nuclear holocaust – don’t give a lot of reason for optimism…”

This invented hostility hostility towards Russia benefits who, exactly? The said nuclear contractors. The “intelligence” agencies, which were in serious disgrace, thanks to Snowden, Wikileaks, and others, prior to the Russiagate invention. The media and political assets of the above. Nobody else that I can think of gains anything from the nuclear weapons complex. We sacrifice our money, our land, and our futures to it, as if to a demon god. Even its “beneficiaries” cannot escape its consequences.

So I can be a little proud, as an Oregonian, that Oregon’s House of Representatives voted to approve Senate Joint Memorial 5 (SJM 5), which urges congress to lead a global effort to reduce the threat of nuclear war. Oregon is the the second state in the nation, after California, to pass such legislation in both chambers. The bill passed the Oregon Senate on May 20th 2019. New Jersey’s Assembly has also passed a similar bill.

Meanwhile, fifty countries have signed and ratified the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Many more countries have signed up (only the nuclear weapons states and NATO refuse to do so) and the treaty becomes international law – and nuclear weapons states international criminals – ninety days after the fiftieth ratification (which was Honduras, on United Nations Day).

The nuclear powers and NATO did their best to prevent any of their satraps from ratifying the Treaty. But here we are. ! Among the countries which have signed and ratified are Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, Austria, Mexico, New Zealand, Panama, El Salvador, Bolivia, Palestine, Gambia, Uruguay, Thailand, Vietnam, and Jamaica.

[Revised January 2020 to reflect eleven more signed-up countries, and nine more states ratifying the Treaty.]

[Revised again March 2020 to reflect Namibia and Paraguay ratifying the Treaty.]

[Revised again November 2020 to reflect the 50th ratification, and the Treaty’s entry into force.]

DODGING THE BULLET X: ONE MAN DIES A MILLION TIMES

I was going to title this piece “stepping on the same rake” — the words used by one of the Russian military brass when the Americans announced they were going full speed ahead with the militarization of space. The mainstream media have spent the last two years (well, many more years than that, but the lies of the last two have been particularly egregious) demonizing the Russians… and guess what? Now a large majority of Americans have a negative view of Russia, and a large majority of Russians (who used to like Americans but who also have plenty of access to Western media) return the favour. In the US there’s a full-speed-ahead bipartisan push for a shooting war with Russia, with the English baying like the degenerate lapdogs of war we have become.

Yet something positive has happened on the Russian/American front. An American director and and American cinematographer have made a narrative feature with an entirely Russian crew and Russian actors, in Saint Petersburg. And guess what? The Russians aren’t the bad guys! There are no KGB poisoners, no Steven Berkoffs talking like they have a chicken bone caught in their throat… Indeed, there are no bad guys visible.

I saw ONE MAN DIES A MILLION TIMES at the AIFF in Ashland, OR — a fine independent film festival about half an hour from where we live. Oddly enough, that makes it harder for me to see the films. If I’m in a foreign city at a film festival I’ve nothing to do but go to the pictures; but in Oregon we have work, domestic duties, vehicles and three dogs to juggle, so the cinema takes more effort. It was worth the trip to ONE MAN DIES: set during the Nazi siege of Leningrad, in a decrepit seed bank whose staff continue to do their duties, more or less, in the face of starvation and dispair. The dialogue is drawn from the testimony of those who survived the siege (or died in it). The film is dour, beautifully shot (the director/writer/editor is Jessica Oreck, the cinematographer Sean Price Williams) and one suspects both are fans of Tarkovsky. At the same time their tale isn’t stuck in the trap of historical authenticity – there are defunct personal computers and music headphones, to remind us that the past and the present are more connected than we think. Good idea, no? Other directors should try that, too…

In this interview the director tries to avoid answering the obvious lame-o questions (“What’s it like in Putin’s Russia?”) and seems a generally intelligent and thoughtful person. Like Buñuel, she is interested in insects, particularly millipedes. This is her second Russian film. It will be wonderful if Oreck avoids the lure of Pentagon-funded Hollywood cake-fests and continues to make her own original cinema — building bridges with those who are supposed to be our enemies.

TALES FROM LOS ALAMOS

The character of J. Frank Parnell, played by Fox Harris in the original REPO MAN, was an invention. I’d read enough about the Neutron Bomb to make me speculate on the sanity of its creator, and to create a fictional dramatic character based on that person. But I didn’t know Sam Cohen at the time, and Parnell and Cohen were distinct in numerous ways, while being just as insane.

Now an email from Robby in Los Alamos arrives, to relate the following strange tale…

“I’m writing to tell you thank you for creating Repo Man so many years ago. I grew up in Los Alamos, New Mexico, and when your film came out in 1984 it showed at the Los Alamos movie theater. Half of Los Alamos High School were beyond thrilled that our town was featured in the opening map scene, and the portrayal of the scientist in the film was beyond perfect. Your film came out at a time when we were just getting introduced to punk rock and all that (information moved slowly up to the mountains in New Mexico), so it was just perfect for us.

“I’ve read online about your call from Sam Cohen, the father of the Neutron Bomb, and that’s really interesting. We had some really amazing characters in Los Alamos, oddball scientists and their weird families and all (I’m probably included in that!), but when your film was released, we all thought it was based on a Los Alamos scientist named Ken Ewing. By most accounts he was legally blind, and would walk around town talking to himself, wearing a fannie-pack and had these thick, crazy taped-up glasses. He’d go to all the art openings and gorge himself on the free food, and would have that same 1000-yard stare and freakish demeanor that the scientist character you portrayed in the film had. It was beyond uncanny. When the film premiered in town, all of us yelled “Ken Ewing!! when the scientist character first appeared. it was just too coincidental how similar they were.

“Ken was a neighbor and my parents knew him from the amateur archaeological society they were all volunteering for. For his daytime job, Ken was an explosives expert. He never mowed his lawn (much to the consternation of his neighbors), to make sure the horned toads could have a good habitat. He lived with his mother until she died, and kept on living at the run-down house. He was an avid hiker, I don’t think he drove, and to get downtown it was a good 5-mile walk up and down canyons and stuff, he’d chug along talking to himself, wearing an old parka and a fannie pack…”

I never knew about Ken, but am sure he fit right in with the nuclear labs crowd. And to his credit he supported the horny toads! Robby reports that the Los Alamos High School almost voted REPO MAN their 1984 Class Film, but it lost to RISKY BUSINESS. Instead, they arranged to have the film re-played in the cinema on graduation night, at midnight.

TO LOS ANGELES

It’s always a pleasure to visit the Pearl of the Pacific and at the end of next week I’ll be in Hollywood CA to present four fims at the American Cinematheque: EL PATRULLERO (HIGHWAY PATROLMAN) and WALKER on Friday 15 March; and REPO MAN and TOMBSTONE RASHOMON on Saturday 16 March. Both screenings start at 1930hrs at the Egyptian Theater.

This is the LA premiere of TOMBSTONE RASHOMON and also of the new 4K transfer of EL PATRULLERO, which got a very nice write-up from J. Hoberman. I’m hoping that Lorenzo O’Brien, who wrote and produced EL PATRULLERO and produced WALKER, will be there on Friday, if his NARCOS duties permit.

The REPO and TOMBSTONE screening may be of interest since it’s a double bill of my first feature – released 35 years ago; US rights just reverted to me! – and my most recent one. An opportunity to see if I’ve improved, or only got worse.

There will be a Q&A between shows on both evenings. (UPDATE: The first evening was attended by my dear friend Zander Schloss, composer of EL PATRULLERO and Strummer’s partner on the WALKER soundtrack. Dick Rude and Olivia Barash from REPO MAN and Eric Schumacher and Rogelio Camarillo from TOMBSTONE RASHOMON were present the following evening, as were Lorenzo, and Merritt Crocker, producer of TOMBSTONE. Thanks for your presence, and to the American Cinematheque for two great evenings.)

10000Ways-1.1Also! Entirely unconnected, I’ve completed the second edition of my Italian Western book, TEN THOUSAND WAYS TO DIE, which will be coming out from Kamera Books later in the year. Just received this attractive piece of cover art, in my favourite colour.

MORE BRUEGEL

I can’t stop thinking about that Bruegel exhibition. Now I wish that I had bought the catalogue first, read it from cover to cover, and then seen the show. Twice.

Knowing what I know now, I wouldn’t have spent time looking at the sketches or the prints — they are handsomely reproduced in the catalogue. I would have spent the whole time studing the paintings. And not taken my camera along on day two.

The camera had its advantages, though. I now have a ton of detailed images from Dulle Grillet and The Triumph of Death (the image of Mad Meg in the catalogue is pretty messed up, since they’ve managed to put her face on a two-page spread right where the staples are. But in general it’s still a nice book). And some of the more interesting pictures I took are the ones which show a bit of the crowd, as well…

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The Battle Between Carnival And Lent

On the day I visited, it was a pretty old crowd. White haired codgers like myself, for the most part. I’m sure the school parties had been hustled through earlier in the day. But the oldsters were all having a good old time with the Elder’s paitings.

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The Triumph of Death

Check out the expressions of those viewing The Triumph of Death. The man in front seems appropriately perturbed, but the people behind him look rapt with delight! Or fascination. While this view of the Rotterdam Tower of Babel becomes for me even more haunting and intimidating seen over the shoulders of others…

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The Tower of Babel

It turns out that Gratz, home of one of the two divergent copies of The Triumph of Death, which I mentioned in the last post, is not far from Vienna, in another museum filled with extraordinary stuff. So I have a new excuse to visit Austria, when I next pay a visit to my mum…

BRUEGEL IN VIENNA

To Vienna, to see the Bruegel exhibition at the Kunst Historisches Museum.

It’s the largest Bruegel show ever – two thirds of his paintings, and many of his sketches and the prints thereof. If you like Breugel and can make the trip, you should. Sixteenth century paintings don’t travel well, and it’s unlikely that so many of the Elder’s works will ever be assembled in one place again.

The first piece of art I ever took an interest in came on loan from the local library in Bebington. It was a tiny print of his Triumph of Death – just the kind of thing a morbid fourteen-year-old Wirralian would love. When I lived in Tabernas I made multiple trips to Madrid to visit the Prado – still my favourite art museum – and never failed to visit The Triumph, and Bosch’s Hay Wain, located nearby. Though the subject matter is in theory different, the two paintings have a lot in common… but I’ll save those observations for another time. When I last went to the Prado, in January of this year, The Triumph was gone – off for conservation work in Brussels. From there it went straight to Vienna, where I caught up with it yesterday.

The show is a bargain at 20 euros (which includes the rest of the museum, including a selection of art pieces drawn from the stacks by the American film director, Wes Anderson, and his partner – some of which are fascinating). But beware! There are big crowds at the Bruegel show, and you have to buy a ticket with a specified entrance time. I’d planned to spend two days at the Museum, but on the day I arrived, Bruegel was sold out. On the second day I couldn’t get in until 15:50 hrs. Usually the Museum closes at 18:00, but fortunately it was a Thursday, when the place stays open till 21:00. (In theory you can jump the queue by paying 30 euros, but in fact you can’t – the queue-jumper tickets are limited, and on both days were sold out.)

The exhibition begins at the beginning with early landscape drawings. The first painting is The Drunk Cast into the Pigsty, borrowed from a private collection (so if you don’t see it here, you may never see it at all). Next come pastoral scenes painted much later: including Hunters in the Snow, a lovely painting full of irony: two hunters with their posse of 13 dogs return with a single dead fox to show for their efforts. These are the famous winter paintings which include much ice-skating. After the prints of seven vices and seven virtues (which you could spend many hours on), more big paintings appear – The Battle Between Carnival and Lent and Childrens’ Games. These, I learned, are called “wimmelbild” – busy pictures. You probably know them both (they are quite famous, and part of the Museum’s permanent collection).

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After several seafaring prints and paintings (the Elder was clearly knowledgeable about how ships were built and sailed) we enter a room which features two more large paintings: The Triumph, and Dulle Grillet. The catalogue gets a bit forlorn at this point, as the exhibition wasn’t able to include The Fall of The Rebel Angels, which like the other two is hugely influenced by Bosch. Why The Fall wasn’t included isn’t clear. Some of Breugel’s paintings – such as The Blind Leading The Blind – are too frail to travel. Perhaps this was the case with The Fall, which remains in Brussels (however, The Sermon of John the Baptist was denied an export license by the Hungarian authorities – it remains in a private collection, so we may never get to see it at all).

But what wonders The Triumph and Dulle Grillet are! Both were recently restored at the same place, and the work done is marvellous. The colours in The Triumph are much improved; its vision of multiple skeletons rampaging across a ruined landscape, stabbing, hanging, murdering, catching humans in nets or driving them into a hideous box, is clearer and more timely than it’s ever been. As the catalogue observes, by the standards of the sixteenth century, this is a very odd painting. Unlike Bosch’s Last Judgement (which I saw at the Theatre Museum the same day), there is no God and there are no angels: no one escapes death, no one is found worthy of heaven, all are doomed. For some reason this painting isn’t described as a “wimmelbild” although it certainly looks like one.

The Triumph of Death is a very contemporary painting. I love and admire it still, and yet… I think I admire Dulle Grillet even more. This – using a similar colour palate and technique – depicts the harrowing of Hell, by an army of women, led by the eponymous Mad Margaret. I’m not a Christian and so won’t attempt any theological explanation. All I know about the harrowing of Hell comes from Caryl Churchill’s great play Top Girls, in which D.G. recounts invading and ransacking the Devil’s kingdom. She is the largest character to appear in any Bruegel painting yet – with a metal helmet, lugging a sword, a knife, and much booty, including a frying pan. Again, there is no judgement or redemption in the painting: just a nightmare Boschian landscape full of monsters, and a band of women, led by Margaret, battling the monsters and the men.

I could have spent a day looking at just these two paintings. But the crowds were thick, and the next room presented a sight almost as tremendous: two paintings of the Tower of Babel. The large one, perhaps slightly more famous and familiar, is part of the Museum’s permanent collection. The smaller painting, on loan from Rotterdam, depicts a tower twice as high (you can tell from the size of the tiny figures at work on the massive structures). Either painting takes the viewer’s breath away. If you would like to see them side by side, make haste to the Kunst Historisches Museum.

The exhibition winds down with Peasant Wedding and Peasant Dance, paintings in which the landscape and backdrop give way to larger, foreground characters. Near the end is another small painting: the two chained monkeys, borrowed from Berlin, with a fascinating side display showing the stages in which the artist created the work.

Seeing the paintings all together in one place enables one to make connections which might otherwise be missed. Do the two monkeys reappear in a window in Hell, looking out over the battle of women against all in Dulle Grillet? A sightless face-mask appears at least twice: worn by a child in a window in Children’s Games, and again by a skeleton, pouring away wine (no longer needed!) in The Triumph of Death.

If I could wish for anything (besides all the missing Bruegels), it would be for the exhibition to include one of two copies of The Triumph, made, perhaps, by the painter’s nephew Jean. Both were done around the turn of the century, and reside in Gratz and Lichtenstein, I think. They are not exact copies: a man in a blue robe, captured by a skeleton, is depicted with a red robe in the re-makes – so he is a Cardinal (his captor also wears a red Cardinal’s hat). It would be nice to see two or three Triumphs side by side! But this is the old guy’s exhibition, and it has its priorities.

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Two notes about Vienna, where I had never been before. I was trepidatious about travelling there, since I speak no German, and even less Austro-Bavarian: but of course almost everyone I met spoke English, and was entirely welcoming. And in three days I didn’t see a single baseball cap. Not one. Is this a cultural sea-change?

The Bruegel exhibition ends on January 13. If you like the old guy, and can afford the trip, well, you just must go.