Bruegel's Opacity

How does the current interest in the “presence” of the object fit within the study of the visual? Art history, a discipline more interested in the historical location of pictures rather than their continuing activity in the present, often acts to define and freeze images in time. How can we let them breathe in order to recognize their power over us in the present? Is there an alternative to iconographic and iconological analyses that might offer something new to an understanding of Bruegel’s paintings. “Bruegel’s Opacity” is meant to call attention to the way in which his paradoxical pictures resist interpretation while at the same time demanding that we make “meaning” from them.

Can we walk the tightrope of the distinction between our relation to the object as an object, our phenomenological response to its material existence, and the desire to give it significance--including that which it may never have had? Or, must we accept that this distinction is a heuristic tool that often blinds us both to the nature of the encounter and to the quality of the interpretations we place on it? Can we escape Michael Baxandall’s conclusion that: “… what one offers in a description is a representation of thinking about a picture more than a representation of a picture (?)”

In the painting, “The Triumph of Death” (Madrid, Prado, ca.1562) for example, representatives of various classes and occupations of the social hierarchy fill the foreground. From kings and cardinals to aristocrats and pilgrims, they have little to do with the landscape represented behind. In fact, they register as outlined shapes on the surface of the painting regardless of their location in illusionistic space. Bruegel has little recourse to foreshortening, and his actors tend either to be depicted in profile or seen from above so that their actions may more readily be recognized. The absence of perspective plunges us into a wealth of incidents that would escape perception if the principles of either linear of atmospheric perspective had been observed. Our gaze travels the picture surface looking in vain for stasis, for there is no focal point. The picture tells us how to look, or perhaps how not to look, insisting that multiplicity and difference are more important than a single act of comprehension. No one major event or figure offers us the key to the painting’s meaning. The work itself insists on a restless movement during which incident upon incident develop in richly terrifying detail ways the manifold dimensions of the concept of death.

Does this description actually make contact with the picture before us? Does ekphrasis bring the work closer or simply push it further away? Is it any more informative than what the iconographers attempted? Gottfried Boehm refers to what he calls the underside of painting, the fact that it works only by concealing the invisible within the visible. This approach seems relevant to our problem. Citing Husserl he writes:

His conclusive argument postulates namely that the visible front and the invisible back [of an image] categorically and totally diverge from one another and belong to completely different classes. The front of something is always thematic, that is to say that it is grasped in the act of focusing; the back is never thematic, but rather implicit and therefore potential. (1)

My brief description of Bruegel’s painting has focused on what Boehm would call the “thematic.” I have followed the artist’s invitation to “read” the work as its illusionism demands, but I have also been acutely aware of the limits placed on the meaning created by this process in the medium of the visible--what Boehm calls the “potential.” Is the translation of the potential into the thematic all that ekphrasis does; is it both its enduring contribution and its fatal curse? As description attempts to bring the image to life before our eyes, it seems to blinds us, substituting a text for the image and an author for the artist.

Scholars have taken Bruegel’s works apart, objectifying their experience of them to the best of their ability, in the effort to stabilize their conclusions as part of an enduring epistemological system. The “transparency” achieved by these means, in which time is equated with intelligibility and insight with the semiotic, must ignore the “opacity” of visual objects. Belonging to a historical moment that is long gone, these pictures are still with us today, and an encounter with them cannot ignore the contemporaneity of the experience. Confronting the painting as an object, what Heidegger might have called a “thing”--something that has significance for somebody--is crucial for the development of intimacy and the establishment of a bond. (2) Even if the nature of the experience is constituted in retrospect, with the aid of memory, its immediacy, that which took us by surprise--that which cannot be translated into words--will figure in the account, if only by indirection.  

Some words in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis that might help. Lacan speaks of Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological project of putting the eye back in touch with the mind. Referring to Cezanne he asks: “…what occurs as these strokes, which go to make up the miracle of the picture, fall like rain from the painter’s brush is not choice, but something else. Can we not try to formulate what that something else is?” (3) In this talk I have tried to encourage the pictorial rain to keep falling, resisting the interpretive urge to freeze the visuality of Bruegel’s paintings into yet another triumphant declaration of iconographic meaning. Difficult as it is to keep the visual specificity of this art alive and working free from the ice that clings to words predicated on the promise of transparency, I have tried to restore a certain opacity to Bruegel’s art.


(1) Gottfried Boehm, "Indeterminacy: On the Logic of the Image," www.imagehistory.org/texts/2008/3-2-Boehm.pdf, 6.

(2) Martin Heidegger, "The Thing," Poetry, Language, Thought (New York: Harper & Row, 2001), 163-180.

(3) Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Norton,  1981), 114.