Bruegel in Brussels
Pieter Bruegel the Elder died 450 years ago in Brussels. A versatile Renaissance painter, he is famous for his genre paintings of everyday life in the country, earning him the byname Peasant Bruegel, as well as his grotesque images in the style of Hieronymus Bosch and his humour and irony, for which he is also known as Bruegel the Droll. Since the Royal Museums of Fine Arts in Brussels hold only six paintings attributed to him, three of which are of uncertain provenance, the city decided to celebrate his anniversary year with a show based on projections and immersion.
The “Beyond Bruegel” show in the Dynastiepaleis in Brussels runs until 31 January 2020. More an event than an exhibition, the show is designed to be a broadly accessible art experience. Visitors enter via the “Plein Publiek” – a café, restaurant or club, depending on the time of day. Along a gallery, a door opens on to an unspectacular staircase that leads into the first part of the show, consisting of three large projections of Bruegel’s art in each of two blackened rooms. Here, impressionistic piano music plays which, though undoubtedly anachronistic, succeeds in creating a contemplative atmosphere conducive to letting the images sink in. They are shown on six visual loops, each dedicated to a different theme: A Window on the World, Humor and Irony, A Glimpse from Behind, Demons and Monsters, Inspired by Religion, and Celebrations and Fairs. These first two rooms provide a wonderful introduction into the imagery and art of Pieter Bruegel. The metre-high projections zoom in on compelling details that tell of real life, such as musical instruments, money-pouches, jugs, toys and tools. Fascinating insights are also provided into Bruegel’s landscapes, with close-up views of details such as a group of travellers on a narrow mountain path and the scratches left by ice-skates on a frozen lake.
Seeing these details of Bruegel’s art awakens the visitors’ interest in the original paintings. And sure enough, the next blackened room contains projections of the Bruegel paintings that are on show in Belgian museums. Six of them are in the Royal Museums of Fine Arts, just a short walk away. From here, the visitor is lead down a darkened stairway, spectacularly illuminated by framed sections of the painting “The Fall of the Rebel Angels” on the walls of the landings. At least they appear to be sections of the painting at first glance. But after a few seconds, they transpire to be projections as well, which are even animated. Swords are brandished, monsters snarl and fantastic creatures – half-nymph, half-butterfly – swoop across the picture plane. In the background, we hear soundscapes of battle horns, barking dogs and watery gurgling. Not obtrusively loud, we need to concentrate to link the sounds with the images.
Bruegel’s famous painting is shown in six excerpts, from top to bottom, leading down to the show’s finale. This is an immersive visual experience, linking the stages of Bruegel’s life with his paintings and the history of the time, following a narrative told from the artist’s perspective.
“Beyond Bruegel” makes no claim to be a documentary survey. It aims to entertain: On the website it is promoted as “Your Must Do Art Experience of the Year”. The 360° projection on the ground floor marks the climax of the show. Visitors can sit on round stools or walk around; children can frolic. Images appear that make visitors want to follow the builders inside the Tower of Babel, shiver at the sight of the frozen river, shudder at the horrors of war, delight at the hope the next spring brings and chuckle at the peasants’ merrymaking.
On a technological level, less happens here than promised: The longitudinal and transversal walls are largely doubled, presenting visitors with a 180° panorama along the vertical axis and nothing but the floor along the horizontal. But an amazing impression is created, nonetheless. Without displaying a single original work, the show gives a compelling sense of the artist in his time and allows visitors to relate to the images by making them part of Bruegel’s scenery. By addressing the senses, the show conveys the relevance of the centuries-old works to today’s public: everyday heroes in a world that is out of joint.
Research and technology
The show was produced by CREATE.eu, a company specializing in cross-media installations for museums, science and events. In “Beyond Bruegel” they manage to make technology serve art. CREATE.eu describes the project in figures: 4 months to renovate and equip the Dynastiepaleis; 30 projectors for the images; 5 soundscapes as accompaniment; 90 days to conduct historical research; 160 hours consulting Bruegel experts; 1.5 kilometres of wiring; 2500 hours of image processing; and 180m² of AV screens on the walls. At the end of the day, it is an exploration of art, so not the technology deployed for its realization is the main attraction, but the amazing experience of Renaissance images inspiring the visitor to seek out the originals.
They are only a five minutes’ walk away in the Royal Museums of Fine Arts where Belgium’s national collections of paintings and sculptures are held. Six paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder are on show in the Museum of Ancient Art: “The Fall of the Rebel Angels”, “The Census at Bethlehem”, “Winter Landscape with Skaters and a Bird Trap” and three paintings of uncertain provenance but displaying motifs derived from Bruegel: “Adoration of the Magi”, “Yawning Man” and “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus”.
On the ground floor, then, the Royal Museum of Fine Arts shows what it doesn’t have. In a section dubbed the “Bruegel Box”, masterpieces held by museums in Vienna, Berlin and New York are presented as immersive video projections. Created by Google, the projections were also incorporated into the online platform “Google Arts and Culture” in 2011, making them available to people anywhere in the world with internet access. Alongside the five immersive spatial projections, seven other Bruegels are exhibited at touchscreen stations throughout the museum.
In addition, there is a VR installation on “The Fall of the Rebel Angels”, which I missed on my visit as the path through the various stations is rather confusing. In fact, the many digital extras in this show tend to blur the visitor’s perspective on Bruegel rather than sharpen it. The interactive touchscreens offer a plethora of information but no intuitive way of filtering it according to individual interests.