16th-century art sums up spirit of an age vividly

Phantasmagoria: 69 etchings and engravings of Pieter Breugel are on display at the Mitchell Gallery at St. John's College in Annapolis.

September 16, 1999|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Few works of art sum up the spirit of an age as vividly as Pieter Breugel the Elder's "Temperance." For there the 16th-century Flemish artist, whose extraordinary images were etched and engraved by so many of the leading printmakers of his day, expresses with quintessential clarity Renaissance Europe's love affair with measurement.

With startling immediacy, Breugel's cartographers measure lunar angles, his merchants and accountants count money, and his musicians perform the latest music so neatly divided into -- what else? -- measures. Dominating the center is Temperance, wearing a clock atop her head, hinting that the gift of moderation is linked to mankind's newly found penchant for timekeeping.

Not for nothing is Pieter Breugel of Antwerp (c.1525-1569) still seen as one of the greatest purveyors of evocative images the art world has ever known.

That is the overwhelming message of "The Printed World of Pieter Breugel the Elder," an exhibition of 69 etchings and engravings on display at the Mitchell Gallery at St. John's College in Annapolis through Nov. 7.

Organized by the St. Louis Art Museum, the exhibit consists of replicas of Breugel's paintings and drawings executed by the world-class printmakers of his day. One of the most prestigious printing houses of Europe employed a stable of engravers and etchers to reproduce the master's drawings. Even after Breugel's death in 1569, printmakers including Philipp Galle, Lucas Vosterman and Hendrik Hondius were at work, transferring the artist's images to their complementary medium.

Surely it was the richness of Breugel's imagination that captivated their attention, for this exhibit bursts at the seams with landscapes, seascapes, biblical figures, peasant scenes and satirical images. And if you like allegory, Breugel's visions of "The Seven Deadly Sins" and their mirror images, "The Seven Virtues," will have you seeking out the philosophical inferences of his storytelling for hours.

The paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, Breugel's predecessor in surrealistic expression, cut a wide swath through 16th-century art. Breugel's images often conjure up Bosch's eerie and ironic world of distorted imagery. His "Temptation of St. Anthony" almost seems a sequel to Bosch's phantasmagoric "Garden of Earthly Delights."

And for a witty appropriation of Boschian distortion, there's "The Big Fish Eat the Little Fish," in which themes of human aggression, nature's pecking order and 16th-century class exploitation pour out of Breugel's imagination with the same slippery ease that previous dinners slither out of the belly of that disemboweled fish. What wonderfully bizarre images these are. Old Hieronymus would have been proud.

Information: 410-626-2556.

Pub Date: 9/16/99

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