There was a time when it was perfectly normal to talk about magic and miracles. There was a time when we found it easier to accept that certain powerful events simply cannot be explained, despite the undeniable presence of their respective results. Art still belongs to this realm of the ineffable. Despite all of the theories ? sociological, psychological, anthropological, neurological, chemical, ideological ? which have been applied to the question of why human beings produce and consume art, it remains a mystery. And yet its effects are undeniably present. Art makes people happy. It helps them understand the world around them and how they fit into it ? or how they can change it. It collapses time and makes history feel present. It both reinforces the continuity of civilisation and punctuates it with moments of total change. It both rests the mind and spurs the body to action. It can evoke any of the thousands of nuanced human emotions ? elation, sadness, fear, rage, arousal, calm ? without moving a millimetre or making a sound. It reassures and it disturbs. It creates faith or doubt. It changes political opinions and unmasks falsehoods. Above all, it inspires people to create more art! It is the ultimate self-sustaining, self-regenerating, unextinguishable evolutionary lineage, because its chromosomes exist entirely in the minds of the men and women who make it, see it, like it and make it again. That is perhaps the most miraculous, the most magical thing about it ? and that is why art will always survive, and always rule.
Perhaps one of the reasons that people are so attracted to the making and consumption of art is that it helps them address the mystery of creation. For as long as it has reasoned, mankind has grappled with the logic of existence, inclining (more often than not) to the belief that some higher power must have authored our world. Art in its largest sense ? whether visual, literary, musical, etc. ? is the only realm of human endeavour where man creates, with total authorial power, something comparable to the cosmos. Every painting is a small, self-contained universe, of which every particle is an expression of the will of its creator. When such a painting attains the level of perfection required to speak to other human beings, that universe springs to life, transmitting the spirit of its maker to realms beyond. This is an achievement, for a mere mortal, that is nothing short of miraculous. It requires years of patient training, of passionate commitment and self-discipline, to learn to speak the non-linguistic language of images with an eloquence that merits the effort. In order to make Art that Rules, one has to learn the Rules of Art. The great artist is one who has observed these rites of passage, who has risen from the ranks of the Sorcerer?s Apprentice to that of the Man in the Mountain, and who possesses great wisdom ? wisdom that allows him or her to continue writing those Rules. In our metaphor of the artist as magician, as shaman, every work of art is a spell or a ritual that contains the full complement of the secrets of the past, if one knows how to decode them ? but that creates new magic, new miracles, with every whispered incantation.
Every work of art in this exhibition, which covers names as celebrated as D?rer, Brueghel, Cranach, Snyders and Savery, conforms to these analogies. Each one should be seen as a perfectly self-contained microcosm, a spell cast by one of the greatest wizards of all time. Each one has its individual aims and means, but all are united in the power of their effect ? a power which, sometimes subtle, sometimes overt, cannot be broken down into a formula perfectly expressible in words. As with all works of magic, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
To consider just one example, this exhibition includes one of the most recognizable images in the history of art: a winter landscape known as The Birdtrap (cat. no. X). In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when such works were painted, artists did not give their works titles in the way they do today ? works of art were expected to speak for themselves. This work, however, very quickly acquired the nickname ?The Birdtrap?, and it has been used to describe the painting ever since. Part of the pleasure of looking at the painting for a first-time viewer has become trying to solve the riddle of why on earth it should be called ?The Birdtrap? ? at first glance, it is an extensive view of the vicinity of a Northern European village, a frozen river winding into the distance, with villagers skating on the ice. It is only after some inspection that the viewer finally spots the birdtrap itself, hidden in one of the painting?s corners ? and sees the mechanism whereby the birdtrap is operated, with a delicate string leading away from the trap into a tiny window, behind which an unseen being holds its end, ready to pull the string, spring the trap and catch the bird, at a time of the being?s choosing. Unsuspecting birds are to be seen throughout the picture, cheerfully flying through the air, giving voice to their song. To the viewer of the time (and it is worth remembering that the creator of this painting was a contemporary of that master of subtext and encryption, William Shakespeare), this sudden encounter with the birdtrap, hidden in the picture?s mechanics, would have had an immediately obvious, mystical meaning. For the operator of the trap is God. His presence is obscured from our view, but He sees everything. Only He knows when it will be sprung; only He can cut short the flight of the birds, and their song, unpredictably, at will. Of course, this also holds true for the skaters on the ice, blithely disporting themselves without a thought for the icy peril that lies only inches beneath their feet. Like the birds, men too can be cut short in their trajectory, at the very height of their revels.
The message of The Birdtrap is not, however, one of doom and gloom ? rather, by reminding us of the fleeting nature of life, the artist tells us to enjoy the time we are given. He delights in the antics of the speeding ice-skaters, sharing their playful happiness with each other in groups and pairs, without a hint of judgment. By comparing the skaters with the birds, he invokes the famous lines of Matthew 6:26, exhorting men to consider the ?the fowls of the air? and the ?lilies of the field?, who live life without a care in their hearts. This, the painter tells us, is the secret ? to look around ourselves and to see that we are already provided for; that we have been put on this earth to be with each other; that there is a great mystery to the world we live in; but that the mystery is not one to fear, but one to celebrate and delight in. And that message ? that power ? is in the magic of art.
The Birdtrap is also a moving statement of the relationship between a father and a child. A composition invented by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, one of the great visionaries of his time, it would be returned to again and again by his heir, Pieter Brueghel the Younger. Soon after his father?s early death, at the age of 45, The Birdtrap became so popular, its message so successful, that art lovers all over Europe desired a painted version for their collections. Pieter Brueghel the Younger met this demand by recreating his father?s masterpiece in examples of jewel-like perfection. Much has been made of the commercial implications of this repetition. But there is a meaning much deeper, much more essential, than the mere economics of supply and demand. Pieter Bruegel the Elder, who had come from the utter obscurity of a Netherlandish farming village to become the f?ted artist of Antwerp merchants and intellectuals, trained by the premier artist of the Imperial court in Brussels and sent to Italy to complete his transformation into what we fashionably call a ?Renaissance man?, would ensure in his short life time that his descendants would never hunger again; his reputation ? the Brueghel ?brand? ? and the visual repertoire he left was a priceless endowment, a Golden Goose on which his sons could rely for their livelihood, and a solid footing on which they could build successful careers of their own. Conversely, every time we see Pieter Brueghel the Younger returning to The Birdtrap, we see him do so with genuine love for the composition, delighting in all of its minutiae, in every variation between versions, in every innovation of staffage or colouring, like a blues guitarist returning to a favourite riff, or a composer expanding on a ?theme in variations?. Taken together, Pieter Brueghel the Younger?s ?Birdtraps? are not unlike Monet?s varicoloured frames of Rouen Cathedral, or C?zanne?s views of Mont Sainte-Victoire, each with a slightly different mood, each a slightly differing attempt to approach the same ultimately unfixable notion. In the case of Monet, it is the ever-changing ?impression?; in the case of C?zanne, an ineffable, sublime perfection of form; in the case of Brueghel the Younger, it is that mystical message left behind by his father, for the son to ponder over and pass on ? the artist?s enlightened awareness of the eternity of the moment; of the necessity of abandon; of the ultimate goodness of life.
Old Master & Early British Paintings
Associate Director, Specialist