Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Mitchell B. Merback reviews Bosch and Bruegel

Joseph Leo Koerner. Bosch and Bruegel: From Enemy Painting to Everyday Life. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2016. 448 pp.

Review by Mitchell B. Merback

In 1562, five short years before hell broke loose in the Netherlands, the city of Antwerp, Europe's premiere hub of global commerce and home to a flourishing art industry, was celebrated in an engraved portrait by the local artist Melchisedech van Hooren. Presiding over the busy sea traffic on the Scheldt River, the peaceable city rises over the arc of the horizon, the spire of Our Lady's Cathedral piercing the sky, while a banner above unfurls its cosmopolitan message: "Praise the God of all, and drink the wine, and let the world be the world."[1] To the city's magistrates and merchant bourgeoisie, to its legions of skilled craftsmen and their customers, that paean surely captured a secular, laissez-faire attitude that understood "the world" as a great domain of human activity in collaboration with nature, an expanded field of production and profit, something like the benevolent world picture put forward by global capitalism today. Keep that admonition—let the world be the world—in mind while reading Joseph Leo Koerner's Bosch and Bruegel: From Enemy Painting to Everyday Life, however, and you'll find it undergoes a startling transformation. Detachment (Distanz) from the world always entails a view of the world—not so much a concept of its constitution and workings, who or what reigns sovereign over it, but an imaginative orientation within it, or toward it. It requires a human spectator and it requires a picture. But how can, how should, world be pictured? Can any one visual technology—the map, the landscape, the cosmological diagram, the allegory, the satellite photo—claim to encompass the total horizon, both the visible world as it is and the Lebenswelt, the world as we experience it?

Emerging from the same visual tradition—customarily called Netherlandish realism—Hieronymus Bosch (born Jheronimus Anthoniszoon van Aken around 1450, died 1516) and Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525–69), the painter protagonists of Koerner's story, put forward radically different answers to this question. Each postulated a different dilemma for the human subject as it discovered itself through "the conquest of the world as picture," a key condition of modernity as Martin Heidegger formulated it in a famous essay of 1938 (p. 280). Both artists, canonical figures of European art, strove to produce beautiful, demanding images that would stand as "expressions of life and objects of experience" (p. 278). And yet Bosch and Bruegel pictured radically different worlds.

That they did so should not at first seem surprising. After all, one painted on the eve of the Reformation, amid heightened apocalyptic expectations and competing platforms for the reform of church and society; the other worked in the Reformation's aftermath, during paroxysms of political revolt and religious persecution. One painted Christian altarpieces and function-bending pseudoaltarpieces, the most famous of which is the Prado's Garden of Earthly Delights; the other made his specialty landscapes, portrayals of peasant customs, and encyclopedic puzzle-pictures based on proverbs and folk wisdom. One focused his talents on terrifying visions of infernal punishment and demonic attack, dreamscapes peopled with hybrids, monsters, and devils—impossible beings and phantasms of the psyche; the other painted the world as he found it—the human habitat, with its warm synergies connecting nature's cosmos with the microcosms of village, hearth, and home. For Bosch the fundamentalist preacher—this is how Koerner portrays him—the admonition to let the world be the world would have meant resignation to an irrevocable corruption and a hostile alienation of humankind from God, the wrathful spectator of a global catastrophe wrought by human blindness and sin. For Bruegel as well the world was false—rife with deceptions, traps, and perils. All forms of human striving and making, living and dying, praying and playing were fated to proceed in world in which the true spiritual meaning of things could not be discerned. Yet Bruegel pictured a very different experience of the world, one made possible by God's detachment from it. Within this world, pain and suffering are no less pervasive and culture no less confused; fortune remains inscrutable and history unfolds as tragedy. But people—"imaginative, energetic, and sociable"—endure in it nevertheless (p. 304).

That Bruegel's amicable art of the everyday had its beginnings in the darkest dungeons of the Boschian abyss—an "enemy territory" that extended from hell below to the demon-infested earth above—this is the central paradox Koerner seeks to explain. "It was a dark, fantastical form of painting that contained the seed of future genre painting," he tells us in the preface, "but negatively, as a bad seed. Familiar human existence, vividly portrayed, constituted a trap secretly set by the enemy—indeed, by the Old Enemy, Satan—to ruin us" (p. viii). This is a strikingly original thesis about the relationship between Bosch and Bruegel, painters who have been repeatedly studied in tandem (Bruegel began his career as a Bosch translator); and Koerner unfolds it as a story of art-historical origins for it is, at the same time, a novel account of the birth of genre painting in European art.

Previous generations of scholars had described the emergence of everyday life as an independent subject for art in terms of an epochal turn toward "secular" picture types (portrait, landscape, still-life, and the depictions of popular “customs," habits, and folkways that Germans call Sittenbilder). These developments have been attributed to a range of factors: Protestant iconoclasm and the curtailed market for religious art; the rise of a moneyed class of art lovers (Liebhabers) alongside princely collectors with their unquenchable taste for the bizarre; the use of images as a supraconfessional resources for spiritual training and therapy; even the revival of classical models for  appreciating "low" subjects—the anonymous, the ephemeral, the rustic, the "humble things" whose portrayal the ancient painter Peirakos made a specialty, according to Pliny (p. 87). Once a pejorative term for what "history painting became when it failed" (p. 87), genre painting received its modern critical contours in the Enlightenment; its validation as an expression of national or regional identity in the nineteenth century (Flemish painting was "rediscovered" just as the Netherlands and Belgium were becoming nation-states); and finally its legitimacy among art historians as a branch of iconography in the twentieth. Its study continues to be an arena of lively interchange for the intertwined histories of European society, culture, art and science.

Enter Joseph Koerner, who has, in a sense, made the art-historical double portrait his métier. His great 1993 book on Albrecht Dürer, The Moment of Self-Portraiture in German Renaissance Art,[2] pioneered a way out of the monograph, for it was, in many ways, an essay on interpretations of Dürer, including the artist's own, but most dramatically that of his student, Hans Baldung Grien, whose subversions revealed much about the Dürerian enterprise, visual and theoretical, that had previously gone unnoticed (if Bosch and Bruegel is like a stately portrait of the founders of genre painting divided by a thick curtain, think of The Moment of Self-Portraiture as a Dürer selfie photobombed by Baldung). Koerner's consequential study of Protestant art and iconoclasm, The Reformation of the Image,[3] likewise required its leading man, Lucas Cranach the Elder, to share the stage with others—in some passages it was his friend Martin Luther, in others their common nemesis, Andreas Karlstadt, radical theologian and street-instigator of iconoclasm in the early 1520s. These volumes formed a trilogy with Koerner's earlier book on Caspar David Friedrich—the historical endpiece as it were, but written first[4]— and hence took their place in a larger project of tracing the genealogy of a specifically German experience of modernity, forged in the tensions between aesthetics, hermeneutics, and Geistesgeschichte.[5] Bosch and Bruegel realizes a similar ambition to tell the story of modern art's constituting moment. It does so more colorfully than anything prior in Koerner's oeuvre, perhaps because it can bypass the fixations of German thought: the Sonderwege, and other myths of arrested cultural-spiritual development (a historical theme inaugurated in the trope Lutherana tragoedia artis).[6] Once again the Reformation is made to figure an inaugurating moment for art, not because theological and cultural critique has unmasked the work of art as an idol, but because antagonistic imagery of a very special kind has revealed the Christian ego as irrevocably idolatrous.

Across his books Koerner has advanced a conception of the work of art as inherently doubled. Situated historically and embedded in a cultural context recognizable to the historian, the ambitious painted picture is, simultaneously, in some sense always breaking free of this temporal constraint, anticipating and paving the way for its subsequent receptions. Through experience in our own present—Koerner repeatedly emphasizes "the secretly decisive now" of experience (p. 30)—we hold hands with historical viewers across great divides. Of course, the proposal that ambitious paintings figure the responses of their beholders has been made by many other art historians (E. H. Gombrich, Wolfgang Kemp, Svetlana Alpers, Michael Fried, David Freedberg, W. J. T. Mitchell, to name the most prominent) with varying degrees of commitment to displacing "meaning" from artist to beholder in the manner of Rezeptionsästhetik or reader-response criticism. With the possible exception of Fried, however, no other art historian on this list has maintained such a solid insistence on the painter's agency in steering these figurations of experience as Koerner, or argued for the primacy of the great painted picture with equal conviction.[7] Attentive readers of Bosch and Bruegel will notice how many of its author's key assertions come in the form of sentences in which the painter leads as the active subject, even when he's the object of someone else's attention ("Bruegel enters the history of art as a traveler out to see the world" [p. 341]). Whatever travails the Renaissance master had to endure in the agonies of postmodernism are clearly past.

Resourceful historian, discerning critic, and exceptional prose stylist, Koerner knows how to drive a narrative. Passages hewn in a rugged parataxis give way to learned expositions that stretch out and wind downhill like clear-running streams, always returning to their source in the image. Ideas that another author might wish to parse, qualify, specify or inflect, Koerner compacts into brilliant gems, much like the mottos appended to Bosch and Bruegel's drawings and prints. Sentences so pithy that they read as aphorisms become thought images (Denkbilder) the reader carries as the narrative unfolds. Description and thought are so closely allied it is often hard to tell them apart. Insights deftly forged from close looking and keen description realign the gaze and send it back out into the picture, there to pick up on emblematic details and structures, telling visual rhymes and metaphors—a strategy of dialectical reading that recalls Theodor Adorno's maxim, "Nothing can be interpreted out of a work without at the same time being interpreted into it."[8] Metaphors trade places with concepts while the author, with enviable finesse, directs a busy cross-traffic in theology, philosophy, anthropology, and history. Excess creeps into the rhetorical machinery from time to time, but the fun Koerner has with language in this big book is infectious. It allows him to be magisterial here, impish—and occasionally hilarious—there.

Adorno considered the kind of dialectical give-and-take I am describing a characteristic of the essay, as distinct from the scientific treatise, and for all the meticulous research that stands behind the book, its chapters read as interlinked essays, fluid, impressionistic, and often reversible. Koerner proceeds in full awareness, it seems, of how readily the high craft he brings to his writing could slip into craftiness, a conjuring that casts a certain alien allure over the products of human making, much like the exotic luxury gifts borne by the Magi in Bosch's Epiphany triptych in Madrid (circa 1510). Koerner himself finds this slippage in both the things Bosch paints and in the worlds he creates to contain them. "Powerful, skillful, and cunning, [this art] is potentially malicious, since the things that humans make (fallen sinners that we are) are nothing but idols" (p. 127). By contrast, it is the spirit of intellectual amity that runs through these fashionings. Nearly every page of Bosch and Bruegel glows with an incandescent charm that betokens a genuine affinity with his subjects, and partnership with his readers.

How well Koerner's interpretations will stand up to the scrutiny of Bosch and Bruegel's scholarly partisans is another matter, and one that remains beyond the scope of this essay. One thing all reviewers will notice, however, is Koerner's discerning yet mischievous eye for the intellectual company he keeps: in addition to perennials such as Sigmund Freud and Heidegger, he calls here upon Franz Kafka, Walter Benjamin, and Gershom Scholem, Hans Blumenberg, Alfred Gell, Michael Taussig, and Bruno Latour, and, most eyebrow raisingly, the authoritarian political theorist Carl Schmitt, who joined the Nazi party in 1933 and developed a distinctive legal philosophy justifying the state of exception in which the highest form of administrative justice would be exercised by the Führer. Knowingly playing with fire, Koerner casts Bosch's painted sermons as "enemy pictures" against the backdrop of this Schmittian theology of absolute sovereignty. Arguing that the "spectacles of retributive justice" the artist conjured would have "delighted" the Burgundian nobles who patronized his art while subjugating their own rebellious subjects, Koerner ventures an interpretation of Bosch's conspicuously delight-laden spectacle, the Garden of Earthly Delights, as a "vision of humanity without law" (p. 238), construing its creator as a brutal antagonist of the Christian ego. Spoiler alert: at its literal and symbolic center, inside one of Bosch's fantastic fountain-pavilions, Koerner points us to the unspeakable, the paradigmatic crime against nature—sodomy—as it emerges from the shadows and water. Contaminating the innocent naked frolicking around this centralized "eye," and forcing the beholder to reckon with his own sinfulness in looking, the perversion of Bosch's mysterious threesome becomes, for Koerner, the Leitmotiv of a painting that only "whispers infamy but nowhere speaks it" (p. 211). The ultimate subject, however, is the self, the "destroyed human subject [which] remains permanently in the thrall of the visual" (p. 218). Emblematic of the ruin of selfhood is the fantastic "Tree-Man" Bosch installed at the center of his hell panel. Tree-Man casts a knowing gaze backward, across the sprawling splendor of bodies abandoned to perverse desire in the central panel, there to see his—our—origin in Adam, who, seated at the feet of God in Eden, aligns his gaze (more or less) along the same diagonal axis. This "disfigured self-portrait" (p. 218), in its reflexive doubling of the first man, implicates everyone in the catastrophe of the human.

Bosch excelled in painting such "states of exception," according to Koerner—hell, final judgment, Black Mass, satanic domination, wars of all against all (p. 238) —and recognized the terrorism wrought upon man by God and Satan as a submission to law (the power of exceptional "decision" that Schmitt laid at the feet of Adolf Hitler was, in the fifteenth century, God's alone). In the aftermath of Europe's confessional struggles, by contrast, Bruegel could no longer entertain such certainty. "Whereas in Bruegel law so blurs at all points into life that it stops being law, in Bosch life opens to reveal in its entirety the cruel but absolute framework of the law" (p. 70). Here we come up against the iron curtain separating the two subjects of Koerner's double portrait.

Bosch and Bruegel also doubles as a primer on the constitutive categories of Western representation—mimesis and illusion, invention and imagination, poēsis and facture, projection and performance—as they play out, above all, in the painted picture. Tropes of the painter's ability to go beyond the mere copying of nature (natura naturata) and actively collaborate with nature's productive powers (natura naturans) lie behind the most fertile Bruegel myths, for example, Karel van Mander's claim that, because he came from the peasantry, "Nature found and struck lucky wonderfully well with her man—only to be struck by him in turn in a grand way—when she went to pick him out in Brabant in an unknown village amidst peasants, and stimulate him towards the art of painting so as to copy peasants with the brush" (quoted on p. 13). Koerner's reflections on the conditions of painting are productively interwoven with a number of brilliant excurses on the constitutive categories of Western seeing, notably the denigration of carnal vision -- what Augustine called the "lust of the eye" (concupiscentia oculorum)—as the gateway to erotic enchantment, fixation on the grotesque, and pleasure in cruelty (p. 186). These concerns link up, in a manner that defies summary, with two preoccupations that recur throughout Koerner's oeuvre: the consequences of original sin for human experience, and idolatry as an alienating force haunting Christian imagery and infecting everyday seeing with the viruses of sin, lust, and heresy.

A more conventional type of scholarly review would point out errors, omissions, and other sins of neglect. As I am not a Bosch or a Bruegel specialist, I will skirt the first of these ritual requirements. Critical amendments of the latter sort are unavoidable, however, and not only because of the book's aspiration to be a global reading of the Bosch-Bruegel trajectory. By the author's own admission, the channeling of new scholarship had to be closed off around 2007, and much has happened between then and the quincentenary celebration of the master's death ("Bosch Year 2016"). It will be within this convergence of landmark exhibitions and publications that future bibliographers will assess Koerner's contribution.[9] The interval's most dramatic event was surely the Prado's announcement (autumn 2010) that a large Bruegelian canvas depicting a riotous pile of squirming and slobbering wine drinkers on St. Martin's Day—its schema modeled directly upon Bosch's Haywain Triptych in the same museum—was in fact by Bruegel, signature and all.[10] The second, quieter event was the appearance in 2011 of an excellent monograph on the Garden of Earthly Delights by another doyen of northern Renaissance studies, Reindert Falkenburg, a "rhapsodic reading" of the triptych that reconstructs its historical viewers' speculative work within the complex "para-typological" and mnemonic web spun by Bosch's phantasmagorical recombinations and his references to Burgundian visual tradition.[11] Somewhere, perhaps, a reviewer more industrious than this one is already juxtaposing these two master interpretations, assessing each in light of the other. One should also note the excellent monograph on Bruegel's Months by Bertram Kaschek and an important exhibition held at the Kunstsammlung in Chemnitz in 2014.[12]

Among the artworks Koerner passes over without mention is Bruegel's drawing—subsequently turned into an engraving—known as "Elck," a compact philosophical paradox lamenting a world in which "nobody" (Nymant), and only nobody, attains to self-knowledge.[13] This omission surprised me because Koerner's account of Bruegel's efforts to give pictorial form to the "Faustian problem of knowledge, where you think you catch something, it escapes, and it is you who get caught" (p. 41) finds such sharp realization in this picture. Koerner is totally persuasive in showing that Bruegel exploited the metaphor of the trap for images that lure the beholder into an ever renewable now fraught with moral peril, and Elck is one of these. Such pictures test and challenge the ethical subject. With them, Bruegel exposes a "blind spot in the midst of life" (p. 31).

Meanwhile, art historians who confidently claim to have discovered the "key" to interpreting works like the Garden of Earthly Delights and The Peasant and the Bird Thief fall into their own, specially-laid traps (a well-designed trap, we learn, is triggered by the prey's panicked reaction to being caught). Koerner displays a perspicacity like no other art historian I know when dealing with works of art that demand a hermeneutics of openness, and he does so, remarkably, without resorting to terms such as ambiguity or paradox,[14] or invoking the deconstructive mantras of indeterminacy or aporia (though apophatic terms such as nothingness and emptiness do punctuate the account). Koerner leads us instead to the "ominous proximities of half-related things" strewn throughout Bruegel's works—frustrating to the art historian who wishes to see significance coalesce into meaning. "Seeking to draw conclusions, we expect our objects to be conclusive," Koerner chides. Given the rich history of "delusional scholarship" both artists—especially Bosch—have attracted, the indictment is easy to make. What ultimately attracts us to Bruegel is the way his "plots never end . . . his pictures remain ongoing. . . . Their endings remain as inscrutable as our own" (p. 10). Closure becomes another idol of historicist thought. "With Bruegel we lack a key not because it has passed from historical memory. Its absence belongs to the human predicament that the artist timelessly portrays" (p. 42).

Given its magnitude and splendor—364 large-format pages supporting 325 mostly-color illustrations, the whole beautifully produced by Princeton University Press—and the grand sweep of its coverage, Bosch and Bruegel will convey to some the sense of a closed case, a finished account. No one more than its author, I suspect, will understand how deceiving that impression would be. On its own Koerner's distinctive method of argumentation—expanding and contracting, casting ahead and circling back, the play of metaphor and concrete language, minute observation and grand synthesis—announces the impossibility of ever reaching a perfect endpoint, where the dialectic of poēsis and historia has nowhere left to go. Similarly, no distilled "takeaway" can ever be pried loose from Bruegel's parabolic and paradoxical images of life; and neither will Bosch's vividly portrayed states of exception ever let us go our way as subjects, at least, not so long as the world remains the world. An undoubted achievement of art-historical thought, Bosch and Bruegel is, at the same time, what Hans Blumenberg, confiding to a friend about a project he could advance no further, called a Halbzeug, a "semifinished product," half-raw and half-cooked. Like metaphor itself—which is always "half-conceptual" according to Blumenberg[15]—a Halbzeug is an interpretative artifact in process. This open quality affords Koerner's project a striking structural affinity and sympathy with the works of Bosch, the maker of monsters, and Bruegel, the painter of everyday life. Profoundly at odds with the sensational future discovery of that elusive "key" that will decode these works once and for all, Bosch and Bruegel offers an experiential moment capable, under the right conditions, of echoing down through the many receptions it has already anticipated.


[1] See figure 16: Melchisedech van Hooren, View of Antwerp (1562).

[2] See Joseph Koerner, The Moment of Self-Portraiture in German Renaissance Art (Chicago, 1993), and the important review by Peter Parshall, review of The Moment of Self-Portraiture in German Renaissance Art by Koerner, Art Bulletin 76 (Sept. 1994): 537–39.

[3] See Koerner , The Reformation of the Image (Chicago, 2004).

[4] See Koerner, Caspar David Friedrich and the Subject of Landscape (New Haven, Conn., 1990).

[5] The larger project is lucidly drawn in Stephen J. Campbell, "Twilight of the Idols: Martin Luther, Art History, and the Disenchantment of Art," review of Reformation of the Image by Koerner, Bookforum (Oct–Nov. 2004): 216–18.

[6] See Alexander Rüstow, "Lutherana Tragoedia Artis," Schweizer Monatshefte 39 (1959): 89–906.

[7] "Great painting itself—the superlative performance of all that painting as an art comprises—excites our enthusiasm for the story and underwrites our faith in its depth" (p. 277).

[8] T. W. Adorno, "The Essay as Form," trans. Bob Hullot-Kentor and Frederic Will, New German Critique 32 (Spring–Summer 1984): 153.

[9] See Nina Siegal, "Painting Damnation: Celebrating 500 Years of Bosch," The New York Times, Book Review, 22 Dec. 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/22/books/review/books-about-hieronymus-bosch.html

[10] See Michael Kimmelman, "When Overlooked Art Turns Celebrity," New York Times, 13 Dec. 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/14/arts/design/14abroad.html

[11] Reindert Falkenburg, The Land of Unlikeness: Hieronymus Bosch, “The Garden of Earthly Delights” (Zwolle, 2011).

[12] See Bertram Kaschek, Weltzeit und Endzeit. Die 'Monatsbilder' der Pieter Bruegels d. Ä. (Munich, 2012); Pieter Bruegel d. Ä. und das Theater der Welt, ed. Ingrid Mössinger and Jürgen Müller (Berlin, 2014).

[13] See Mitchell B. Merback, "Nobody Dares: Freedom, Dissent, Self-Knowing and other Possibilities in Sebald Beham's Impossible," Renaissance Quarterly 63 (Winter 2010): 1062.

[14] Koerner's attitude toward paradox is curiously deferred, however, and deserves a closer look than I can give it here; he mostly avoids identifying it as a figure of thought within the works that could readily be described in such terms or, as Jürgen Müller showed, as a thought model for pictorial form; see Jürgen Müller, Das Paradox als Bildform: Studien zur Ikonologie Pieter Bruegels d. Ä. (Munich, 1999). The paradoxes encountered by the reader of Bosch and Bruegel seem to be strictly those authorized by the art historian.

[15] See Robert Savage, “"Translator's Afterward," in Hans Blumenberg, Paradigms for a Metaphorology, trans. Savage (Ithaca, N.Y., 2010), 135–36.