In this brilliant, original and lavishly illustrated book, Edward Snow undertakes an inquiry into a single painting by the Flemish master Peter Bruegel the Elder—the kaleidoscopic Children's Games—in order to unlock the secrets of the great painter's art.
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About the Author
Edward Snow is a professor of English at Rice University. North Point Press has published his translations of Rilke's New Poems (1907), New Poems (1908) [The Other Part], The Book of Images, and Uncollected Poems. He has won both the Academy of American Poets' Harold Morton Landon Translation Award and the PEN Award for Poetry in Translation.
Edward Snow is a professor of English at Rice University. He is the recipient of an Academy of Arts and Letters Award for his Rainer Maria Rilke translations and has twice received the Academy of American Poets' Harold Morton Landon Translation Award. He is the author of A Study of Vermeer and Inside Bruegel.
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The Play of Images in Children's Games
By Edward Snow
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 1997 Edward Snow
All rights reserved.
Thinking in Images
At the ledge of the window in the left foreground of Children's Games (see foldout), two faces are juxtaposed (Fig. 8). One is the round face of a tiny child who gazes wistfully off into space; the other is the mask of a scowling adult, through which an older child looks down on the scene below, perhaps hoping to frighten someone playing beneath him. Bruegel takes pains to emphasize the pairing by repeating it in the two upper windows of the central building (Fig. 9). Out of one of these, another small child dangles a long streamer and gazes at it as a breeze blows it harmlessly toward the pastoral area on the left; out of the other, an older child watches the children below, apparently waiting to drop the basket of heavy-looking objects stretched from his arm on an unfortunate passerby.
At the two places in the painting that most closely approximate the elevation from which we ourselves view the scene, Bruegel has positioned images that suggest an argument about childhood. The two faces at the windowsill pose the terms of this argument in several ways at once. Most obviously, they juxtapose antithetical versions of the painting's subject: the child on the right embodies a blissful innocence, while the one on the left makes himself into an image of adult ugliness. But they also suggest an ironic relationship between viewer and viewed: we see a misanthropic perspective on childhood side by side with a cherubic instance of what it scowls upon. And at the level of our own engagement with the painting's images, the faces trigger opposite perceptual attitudes: one encourages us to regard appearances as innocent, the other to consider what is hidden beneath them.
Interestingly enough, the two faces correspond in all these respects to the opposing interpretations of Children's Games that Bruegel criticism has given us to choose between. The iconographers, looking beneath the games for disguised meanings, view them as the inventions of "serious miniature adults" whose activities symbolize the folly of mankind and the "upside-downness" of the world in general. The literalists, on the other hand, argue that the games are innocent and carefree, and that they are depicted "without recondite allusion or moral connotation." Indeed, the faces at the window can be seen as images of these two ways of looking at things as well as epitomes of the childhood they view. The face on the right presents the ingenuous gaze. It is obviously incapable of perceiving corruption or looking beneath surfaces. Bruegel portrays its innocence fondly but has it gaze off into space, away from the spectacle that he himself has organized. The adult mask, in contrast, peers intently on the scene below, but with a misanthropic scowl that is ingrained in its features, and with eyes that are as empty and incapable of vision as the small child's wistful gaze.
The two faces, then, not only suggest that the issues underlying the critical disagreement about Children's Games are thematically present in the painting but also lead one to suspect that neither of the opposing interpretations quite corresponds to Bruegel's own view of things. The mask and the child next to it grow strangely alike, in fact, in their mutual blindness to what the painting gives us to see. Bruegel elaborates on what they have in common by opposing both to a girl in a swing behind them. Her active involvement contrasts vividly with their spectatorial detachment. Nor can her unrestrained kinetic exuberance be assimilated to the dialectic of innocence and experience they imply. The mask shows childhood growing into ugly, predetermined adult forms, and at the same time pictures the misanthropic, supervisory point of view where such ideas of childhood development thrive; the face on the right, for all its difference, reciprocates by picturing childhood innocence as fragile and passively vulnerable to corruption. The girl, by contrast, is the image of an empowered innocence: she could aptly illuminate the margins of Blake's "Energy is Eternal Delight."
This cluster of details is paradigmatic of how meaning suggests itself in Children's Games. There is evidence everywhere of a sophisticated dialectical intelligence and a capacity for what Cezanne called "thinking in images" at work binding superficially unrelated incidents into elaborate structures of intent. This is not, however, a version of Bruegel with which we are likely to be familiar. The critical tradition has accustomed us to think of him as a cataloguer of contemporary customs, or as a moralist whose images possess intellectual content only insofar as they illustrate proverbs or ethical commonplaces. Thus the many studies that undertake to identify the games Bruegel has depicted gloss the face on the left as "masking" and the girl in the background as "swinging," but they refrain from mentioning the face on the right, since that child is apparently not playing at anything. The iconographers, on the other hand, concentrate entirely on the mask and make it central to an interpretation that turns the painting into a comment on human folly and "deception."
As different as these approaches are, both address the problem of meaning by removing individual images from the painting's internal syntax and situating them in an external field of reference — in one case the everyday life of sixteenth-century Flanders, in the other a lexicon of conventional significations. Yet the painting's elaborate syntax (if that is not too orderly a term for something so unruly) is the medium in which its thought takes form. Within the apparent randomness of the games there is an incessant linking of antithetical details. We have already seen how the faces juxtaposed at the window are mirrored by two children looking out of the building across the street. The gently floating streamer of one of those children is balanced by the heavy basket of the other. That basket, open and precariously hanging from the boy's arm, is paired with one that is closed and tightly fastened to the wall. This opposition is embodied again in the two boys hanging from the narrow table ledge in front of the building's portico — one clinging to it tightly, the other dangling from it lazily — while behind them a girl balancing a broom on her finger takes up a position analogous to that of the girl swinging behind the two children at the windowsill (Fig. 10).
Such patterns begin to appear everywhere as one becomes attuned to the way the painting "thinks" in terms of oppositions. And where its pairs seem most obviously to generate significance, they tend to frame questions about the place and nature of human experience, not settled moral judgments about it. An especially pointed example of how the difference-creating syntax of the painting counteracts the impulse to burden individual images with moral content can be seen in the two barrel riders in the right foreground (Fig. 11). Taken by themselves they would be quite at home in any late-sixteenth- or early-seventeenth-century emblem book, where they would no doubt signify the treachery of worldly existence. But Bruegel has paired their mount with another barrel and established an elaborately antithetical relationship between them: one upright, the other tipped over on its side; one contended with by two awkwardly cooperating boys, the other being called into by a curious girl. Seen in terms of this opposition, the two boys seem an emblem not so much of the folly of the world as a certain mode of relating to it. They and the girl present us with dialectically related ways of worldmaking. One takes the object in hand in order to dominate it and undoes a given stability in order to create a man-made equilibrium; the other "lets be" and calls forth (into) the object-world's mysterious resonance. The painting works many subtle variations on this distinction, and they will be discussed later in this study. But what needs to be stressed at the outset is the presence in Children's Games of a shaping intelligence that tends to subsume moral issues in dialectical questions about human beings' place in a world that can scarcely be conceived apart from their bodily and imaginative participation in it.
There is also opposition within individual images. Time and again a detail will cause the viewer to vacillate between innocent and darkly emblematic readings. We know, for instance, that the boy running up the incline of a cellar door in the receding part of the street is only playing a game, and we can feel the fun of it; yet it is difficult to resist the adult perception that turns him into a figure of futility and despair. The children in the foreground play innocently at rolling hoops, but a sophisticated viewer must strain not to respond to them as evocations of human emptiness. A youngster in a cowl whipping a top under a Gothic arch (Fig. 12) can with the blink of an eye suddenly evoke the scriptural Flagellation or the judicial whipping post. A boy on stilts and an open-armed girl beneath him (Fig. 13) can conjure the iconography of the Crucifixion. Are such ambiguities and foreshadowings "in" the games or "in" our perception of them? Does the mask with the grimace on it represent the terrible adult countenance into which the children are already in the process of growing or the distorted perspective through which adults observe them? Is play a rehearsal for adulthood or is adulthood a loss of the spirit of play?
Such questions have no simple answers, especially in the form that Children's Games poses them. They are a function of instabilities within the perception of childhood (and childhood play) that Bruegel deliberately exploits. We will be concerned throughout this study with the fields (thematic, cognitive, kinetic, cultural, iconographic) within which these instabilities operate, and with the various ways they infiltrate the act of viewing. But again, it is worth noting at the start how often emblematic and iconographic cues that at first glance might appear to fix the painting's meaning turn out to be only one facet of an unstable, overdetermined perception; and how, as a result, "references" to external conventions and contexts tend to get subsumed in cognitive uncertainty and an unanchored connotative play.CHAPTER 2
Moral Fixities and Connotative Play
Bruegel uses permutations as well as antithetical pairings to weave authorial design into the apparent chaos of Children's Games. Consider the boy running up the cellar door and the blank-looking woman next to him throwing the contents of her bucket on two children fighting in the street (Fig. 14). The juxtaposition of these unrelated events is only an effect of perspective, but they tend to come together in the viewer's imagination as well — the spirit of the indifferent brick wall materializing in the woman who leans out of it, and her gesture becoming a displaced rejection of the boy's open-armed appeal. The feeling of intent in this overlapping of discrete incidents grows stronger when one notices how elaborately the elements of the image group reconfigure elsewhere in the painting. Against the wall of the building in the left foreground, for instance, where a group plays "blindman's buff" (Fig. 15), it is the maternal figure — here literally blindfolded rather than expressionless and unseeing — who gropes with the wide-open gesture of the boy on the cellar door (she even wears his colors), while the children who mill around her evade or refuse her reach. The components of this game are reconfigured again in the obscure game of covering and uncovering being played to the left of the central building's arches (Fig. 16). There the blindfold becomes a blue cloth (presumably an apron) which another maternal-looking figure (perhaps an older child) reaches out to cast over one of a group of small children, who instead of running from her sit passively in a cluster, awaiting her choice with what looks like happy expectancy. This configuration, in turn, is reordered in the juxtaposition at the side of the building: the older figure's covering gesture is the benign counterpart of the blank-faced woman's dousing of the boys fighting in the street, while those boys are the antithesis of the passive aggregate waiting for the blue cloth to descend on them.
The blue cloth undergoes a further transformation to become an improvised cowl draped over the head of each of two figures who bring up the rear of a baptismal procession moving toward the lower-left-hand corner of the painting (Fig. 17). Once again there is interaction between a small child and a parental-looking figure, and once again the link between them is indicated by a reaching gesture, which appears in this case both to express a watchful solicitude and to encourage separation.
What, if anything, are the ideas that correspond to this elaborate permutation of motifs? Carl Gustav Stridbeck is the only one of the painting's interpreters to address this question, and his answer is worth considering in detail, since it has proved so influential on subsequent commentary about the painting. Stridbeck calls attention to the motif of being covered with a blue cloth that is common to three of the games and asserts that it alludes to the "blue cloak" of folly and deception that figures prominently in Bruegel's painting of a year earlier, Netherlandish Proverbs (Fig. 18). It follows for Stridbeck that the three incidents in Children's Games must also refer to lying and deception. He informs us that blue is the color of deception and folly (and that red, the other dominant color-motif in the painting, signifies ignorance, rudeness, and "related concepts"). The conclusion of this and similar analyses of a handful of other games is that the painting is, like Netherlandish Proverbs and The Battle between Carnival and Lent (Fig. 19), a representation of "the world upside down," in which, among other things, "human existence is uncertain and treacherous, and no one can rely on his fellow man."
I think it is fair to say that the quality of this argument is representative of the growing number of studies that purport to find a "moral meaning" in Bruegel's paintings. One would think that such sweeping generalizations based on abbreviated analyses of a few of Bruegel's multitudinous details would be greeted with skepticism, but just the opposite has largely been the case. One of the disconcerting things about Bruegel criticism, in fact, is the way the easily remembered formulations of this approach have tended to become canonical to further study of the artist, regardless of how tenuous the evidence or questionable the logic upon which they are based. A modern study of Bruegel's landscapes, for instance, which sets out to prove that their aesthetic appeal is a form of worldly pleasure we are required to renounce for an ascetic Christian truth, at times bases its argument almost entirely on an uncritical acceptance of the formulations of Stridbeck and those who share his moralistic point of view: "If, for example, we agree with Grossmann's and Stridbeck's interpretations of the paintings devoted to peasant dances and weddings, then we see those paintings as being 'about' lust and gluttony." Or again, at the conclusion of an interpretation of The Conversion of St. Paul (1567) that relates that painting to the engraving of Bruegel's The Penitent Magdalene (1553):
If we agree with Grossmann that the painting is less a reference to the Duke of Alva than it is "an exhortation to follow God"; if we agree with Stridbeck that analogies with Hercules at the crossroads are possible, and the painting emphasizes how narrow the way is for the true Christian; if we agree with K. C. Lindsay and B. Huppe that the painting insists that Paul — who now sees the light while others remain spiritually blind — is separate from the worldlings who surround him; if we agree with these opinions, it would seem reasonable to see the whole landscape as the world from which Paul is now as separate as is the Magdalene beneath her thorny logs.
Excerpted from Inside Brugel by Edward Snow. Copyright © 1997 Edward Snow. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Table of Contents
Thinking in Images,
Moral Fixities and Connotative Play,
Childhood and Folly,
Intuition as a Control,
Nature and Culture,
The Middle Realm,
The Sexual Relation,
Also by Edward Snow,
Index of Games - Page Numbers in Italics Refer to Illustrations,
General Index - Works by Bruegel are Listed by Title Page Numbers in Italics Refer to Illustrations,