Artworks of Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Laura McPhee

The Metropolitan Museum of Art created an impressive project called The Met Artist: Past and Present. It is a series of videos united by a common slogan “What the artists see when they look at The Met”. These videos features artists from various spheres and backgrounds talking about their own comprehension of some particular works of art (paintings, sculptures, etc) exhibited at this museum. For this paper I have chosen the video where photographer Laura McPhee tells about The Harvesters by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. When I browsed through the seasons of this project I realized that I would like to find the video where two divergent areas of art are combined, for instance, a painter talking about the sculpture. I have been always interested in such combinations as, in my opinion, this multidimensional approach may lead to absolutely compelling discoveries. I like such “collage” approach to art, so I wanted to find the video that would provide me with new insights into the relations between different types of art. I believe that McPhee’s perspective as a modern photographer allowed her to observe and explore unconventional aspects of Bruegel’s painting, such as simultaneity, etc. This video from the Met project is a deep perception of the photographic nature of Bruegel’s art and an efficient analysis of the relations between people and the outside world.

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First of all, it is essential to outline the fundamental aspects of both artists’ biographies. Pieter Bruegel the Elder is a painter who worked during the Netherlandish Renaissance of the sixteenth century. Although he created a number of works devoted to the religious themes, he is mostly renowned for his paintings depicting the life of common peasants, such as The Peasant Wedding (1567) and The Fight between Carnival and Lent (1559). The painting titled The Harvesters (1565) belongs to a series of works commissioned to Bruegel by a rich merchant from Antwerp, Niclaes Jonghelinck (Richardson 49). These paintings were supposed to correspond to the months of the year, but it is questionable whether the cycle should have twelve or six paintings. The Harvesters is a representation of August with peasants engaged in harvesting wheat. Among other remarkable paintings of this series is The Hunters in the Snow (1565), probably corresponding for December or January (Richardson 51).

The Met Artist Project connects the past and the present, so the art of Pieter Bruegel who lived about four centuries ago is related to the works of a modern photographer, Laura McPhee who was born in 1958. She lives in Massachusetts. Laura McPhee is “currently working in the desert west of the United States where she is chronicling visual stories about time, both geologic and human” (“Biography”). The artist has created a multitude of divergent photograph series, such as The Home and the World, Guardians of Solitude, River of No Return and others. Her works are exhibited at Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, J. Paul Getty Center Museum, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and many others (“Biography”).

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As Laura McPhee specializes in landscape as she states in the video, she has probably chosen The Harvesters by Bruegel as this painting is one of the most striking and thought-provoking landscapes in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. However, it is vital to highlight that both Bruegel and McPhee do not limit their landscape to the representation of the nature only (Grundberg 29). The Harvesters tells a story of interaction between the nature and the people, as well as many McPhee’s works do. Another reason that may explain McPhee’s choice is, as she mentions in the video, the fact that Bruegel’s art is extremely similar to modern photography. She says, “It is as if you are out there with 8×10 view camera and the world is unfolding” (“Laura McPhee”). It is the similarity between various spheres of art that I was interested in and it was rewarding to find it in the video. I have never noticed before that some paintings, even those made before the invention of photography, employ a range of principles that rather apply to the art of photography than paintings. I was enormously impressed by McPhee’s remarks about Bruegel’s decision concerning the frames of the work and others.

While comparing The Harvesters by Bruegel and the photograph by McPhee offered at the same page with the video – The Blue Lagoon, Svartsengi Geothermal Pumping Station, Iceland (1988) – I was surprised to identify so many similarities and almost no differences except the actual historical context. The primary theme in both works of art is, as McPhee detects it, “the paradoxical nature of the world, that it’s so intensely beautiful and at the same time there’s so many problems” (“Laura McPhee”). Bruegel tells a story about wonderful Flemish fields where peasants do very hard labor for others, and McPhee in the above-mentioned photo tells that industry penetrates even into the far-away beautiful parts of the world, like hot lakes of Iceland. Moreover, it is deeply fascinating that neither of the works has clear negative attitude towards these problems, but rather they urge the viewer to think and analyze this issue and look beyond for the possible solution.

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Taking into account the historical contexts, it is valuable to highlight that both artists created their works in the period when the society tried to redefine their attitude towards the relations between the man and the outside world. Bruegel worked at the time when the Renaissance turned common peasants from unintelligent “beasts” to the specialized workers. “By the sixteenth century cultural paradigms that sought to redefine the nature of man, stressing life in the world, also came to celebrate the peasants’ daily activities. Peasants were shown in command of their fields” (Vardi 1357). As a result of these alternations, the peasants depicted at The Harvesters, although terribly tired and busy with work, do not produce an impression of slaves suffering from the cruelty of the nobles. They are seen as a small, though highly significant, part of the general system. Peasants harvest wheat, put it in the carriages, take them to the port where the ships would accept their harvest on board and take these goods to other places. The strikingly similar approach can be seen in The Blue Lagoon, Svartsengi Geothermal Pumping Station, Iceland. This photograph also tells about redefining the relations between the human and the world that in the modern context is mostly represented by factories, plants and other forms of industrialization. Furthermore, this work of art features the connections between routine activities of people (here a child is having fun in the water) and the exploitation of natural powers (energy made by the geothermal stations). As in case of Bruegel’s painting, nature and the people here are linked together in a powerful entity.

All things considered, the video from the Met project helped to reveal some new aspects of The Harvesters by Bruegel, namely the painting’s similarity to photography, the multidimensional nature of the composition, and others. McPhee’s analysis of the painting and the comparison of works by these two artists also showed many analogies in their approaches to depicting the relations between the people and nature. Moreover, this video stimulated me to better understand how art can represent these complicated relations in different historic contexts as it was done in the works by Bruegel and McPhee.

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