I went to see this show. It consisted of about 100 paintings, most from private collections (and therefore unlikely to be shown again anywhere soon, unless… they go auction – private pictures are often put in a show prior to sale, it helps prices). (Well, not quite: from Wroclaw the show goes to Paris, so you still have a chance).
I was not allowed to photograph any of the paintings, but the organizers put a few videos on youtube for you – every video on this page (except the first one) features a good painting in the exhibition – the best among the featured are without doubt this (Bird Trap by Pieter Brueghel, Jr) and this (Mountain Landscape with Travelers by Jan Bueghel Jr with Joost de Momper) with and this (Landscape with Ruins of a Temple, by Jan Brueghel Jr). (Bear with the lady talking in Polish, the camera soon enough switches to the piece at hand).
(Btw, there is a problem with attribution in the videos – they are not the same as in the show and catalog, I refer to them according to the catalog attributions).
The best paintings are, of course, not featured. They were four miniatures by Jan Brueghel Senior (one of them showing the same scene as The Bird Trap, above, but in summer) — all classic Jan Seniors: oil on copper plate (which preserves unusually vivid colors) done in that famous “velvet” or “feather” technique so smooth you could not tell a single brushstroke, even with a magnifying glass. I spent half my day going between these four; and a slightly damaged, beautiful Joost de Momper (not the one featured on the youtube video) which, because of the way it was hung and lit, could be seen up-close. (On the fruits of which momentarily). All of these paintings were features in the exhibition catalog but suffered from the usual reproduction problem: I won’t post photos of them here because they will only give you wrong impression of their absolutely amazing greatness.
Perhaps the biggest deal in the show were the two videos by Haltadefinizione – an Italian imagining outfit – of the two allegories by Jan Brueghel, Sr, in the possession of The Ambrosiana: this and this. Yes, I know, it is ridiculous, Ambrosiana’s pictures, like those of every other Italian museum, are NOT to be seen, NOT to be photographed, and NOT to be approached too closely when you actually go there to see them. (The reason why public collections acquire pictures is to make sure that nobody look at them, right?) Which means that the best place to see these two pictures was, this week, to see them by proxy — via video — in Wroclaw. The video was the view of an up-close camera gradually moving over the painting in an elliptical motion.
While this motion did not cover many of the features that I would love to have seen, it did cover some things I probably would not have looked at too carefully: ordinary “background” elements, such as soil, or the unclear jumble of lines and shadows inside shadowy thicket, or the texture of clouds. And this was a revelation: I realized that the Brueghels (from Pieter Sr to Jan Jr to Mompers, who was a distant relative and therefore also a member of the dynasty) painted this background detail with great attention, varied brush strokes, lots of lines, some in parallel, some intersecting, places where it seemed they used very thick paint and spread it using a wooden pin (perhaps the end of the brush-handle) and others where it seemed they perhaps smeared it with fingers. This texture makes for a fascinating, interesting picture with a profound sensation of depth and is missing from the mass-market production turned out by Jan Junior workshop for lesser/less important/less-well paying clients – which last line made up most of the show.
From the 4 or 5 good Jan Juniors at the show I was able to tell what I had never known before, btw: that he was not a lesser painter than his father, Jan Senior, as everyone seems to think, but that he ran, in parallel to his superb autograph line, a cheaper, mass-market line of products, and that these products are the ones most readily available in the public domain and from which art historians get their silly view of his artistic powers. All these mass market products feature well painted details – ducks, fish, pots, glasses, armor, etc. – but on a dull, workaday background with any depth; and are therefore… boring.
After I made this realization, I went back to look at the paintings and discovered, with my nose about 2 cm from the surface of the painting, that Momper painted in the same manner: vast swathes of what appears to be vaguely hazy sky – or just dull, dirty mud – are in fact immensely complex-textured work and this is perhaps the greatest pleasure one derives from looking at these paintings.
One last comment: art historians are by and large fools. One of the authors of the catalog claimed something along the lines that “the picture above introduces a sense of foreboding: here is a happy village, with everyone disporting themselves on ice and crows flying around happily unaware that they are about to be trapped”. The Polish art historian, closer in time to bad communist days of shortage, understands the painting better: it is winter, it is cold, and people are hungry. The trap is to capture some crow to make broth. “May you eat crow” is a familiar expression in English, but one no one seems to understand anymore. In short, the message (if there is a message at all) is this: winter sucks.