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Forcing the viewer to zoom in and out: “Haymaking”, 1565, by Pieter Bruegel (©Prag, The Lobkowicz Collections)

Exhibitions are regularly and hyperbolically touted as being a “once in a lifetime” show, but the Pieter Bruegel exhibition at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna (until January 13) is the real thing. It is an exhibition that could only happen in Vienna because it owns 12 of the 40 paintings generally accepted as being by Bruegel’s hand (Belgium is the next best endowed with four) and because he painted largely on panels — and exceptionally thin ones at that — the pictures are particularly delicate.

Bruegel the elder, the paterfamilias of a clan that would number some 15 significant artists over the course of 150 years, was born in Breda in what is now the Netherlands in 1525, and spent much of his working life in nearby Antwerp. He seems to us a one-off, standing outside the artistic currents of the time, but when he visited Italy and Sicily in the early 1550s Michelangelo and Titian were still at work and Tintoretto and Veronese were forging careers, as he was. Nevertheless, Bruegel was not a Renaissance artist in the accepted sense.

He was a religious artist who didn’t paint for churches, a painter of people who gave equal precedence to landscapes, an artist who treated the comic as well as the grave, someone who painted both life and death — carnival and apocalypse — with the same intensity. He was friends with and worked for a sophisticated humanist circle but he painted peasants rather than his milieu (even if the idea put about by his earliest biographer, Karel Van Mander, that he dressed up as a peasant to attend rural feasts is merely a picaresque piece of invention).

Each of his paintings contains multitudes. To walk round the galleries of the Kunsthistorisches is not so much to enter Bruegel’s world but his worlds. They remain ours too: here are vanity and insignificance in his two different and equally mesmeric versions of The Tower of Babel (both c.1563); gluttony and conviviality in The Peasant Wedding (1556-59); innocence in Children’s Games (1560) with some 80 pastimes crammed in; avarice in The Peasant and the Nest Robber (1568); fear as the mad-eyed woman Dulle Griet (1562) stalks a monstrous and devastated land; religion in the dramatic The Conversion of Saul (1567); and work and passing time in the Seasons series (1565).

In all of them Bruegel makes the subject subservient to the action. He may be interested in moral questions but he is even more interested in people. He was known as the artist of “busy pictures” that are alive with detail and he didn’t like the idea that the viewer’s eye — or perhaps his own — could be still, so he nudged it endlessly around each painting. In the Procession to Calvary a blustery autumn landscape overlooked by a windmill on a crag is less the backdrop for a moment of religious high drama than the setting for sheer human abundance. Christ, a tiny figure brought to his knees by the weight of the cross he is carrying, is almost lost in the throng of onlookers, farmers, squabblers, peddlers, children and animals that make his last moments ones of noise and bustle. There are swathes of the painting that are not religious at all but Bruegel’s message, hidden though it is, is nevertheless profound: if Christ died to save mankind, here is that mankind in all its variety, unruliness and indifference.

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