If I were to about to take a long trip through space to visit a distant planet, I would want to take a reproduction of Pieter Bruegel's "Hunters in the Snow" along with me to remind me of what I had left behind on Earth.
Although painted several centuries before I was born, and in a country thousands of miles from where I live, this painting, more than any other, represents our world to me. Not the idealized, untouched (and untouchable), ravishingly beautiful world of the Chinese Sung Dynasty painters, or the world of Claude Lorrain, Albert Bierstadt, or the Hudson River School, or of the sparklingly visual world of the Impressionists, but the world within where man and nature live in careful balance with each other. Where both retain their separate identities and where neither encroaches upon and gradually destroys the other.
I know this sounds romantic, and I don't mean it to be, for there is absolutely nothing romantic about this painting of Bruegel's: no wish in it for a return to the soil, or any ache for a simpler way of life. In 1565, when it was painted, notions like this were foreign to even such a sophisticated man as Bruegel. Life in Europe, at that time, was rough and brutal, and Bruegel painted it pretty much the way it was.
But, while Bruegel's winter landscape may not have been romanticized, it was most certainly humanized. I know of no other major landscape that is so thoroughly lived in. It would lose half its effectiveness if all traces of man were withdrawn from it. There is hardly a portion of it, large or small, that doesn't echo in its own variant detail the painting's overall sense of communion between man and his natural world.
Man belongsm in this world. There is no doubt that he occupies this vast countryside that stretches out before us -- and that he is here to stay. This is where he lives, works, and plays. This is the land from which he draws sustenance and with which he has made his peace.
The fact that Bruegel depicts this world during the height of winter, and not during the more welcoming days of spring or summer makes his accomplishment all the more remarkable. On the other hand, such a winter scene permits him to utilize the formal device of balancing opposites against one another to extraordinarily good effect. This picture is a textbook study of what an artist can achieve by playing off dark against light, extensive detail against blank areas, warmth against cold, and the human spirit against the cool indifference of nature.
And, as if all that weren't enough to set the mood, Bruegel sees to it that a roaring fire is included to make the contrasts even sharper.
But then, such attention to detail is typical of Bruegel. He so thoroughly immersed himself in his paintings, and worked so hard to make certain that everything in them was authentic and true to life, that we, in turn, can enter them as easily as though they were actually spread before us.
"Hunters in the Snow" is no exception. Every time I see this painting I feel that the hunters returning from the hunt at the left have just been set in motion, that the man closest to us has just stepped into the snow with his right foot and is about to lift his left leg in order to move it forward. And that sense of life happeningm extends throughout the painting: from the dogs sniffing the snow to the fire roaring in the wind, the man crossing the bridge at lower right, the men and women skating -- even to the bird that has just started to swoop downward.
Now I know this sort of thing, most especially the storytelling aspects of Bruegel's art, runs counter to our "modern" artistic sensibility. And yet, oddly enough, I've yet to meet anyone, "advanced" artist or conservative layman, who dislikes Bruegel's work.
I think the reason for this lies in the breadth of his humanity and in the simple integrity of his art. His life, the world he saw around him, and his art were all pretty much one and the same thing.
This all sounds simple, and yet it is so very rare.
Bruegel, for all his appearance to our modern eyes as a conservative and "easy" painter, was actually a pioneer, a revolutionary of the first order. But it was a revolution that went "with the grain," and not against it. It was an act of cultural fulfillment and harvesting rather than a self-conscious questioning and searching for new premises and roots. Beyond him lay three- quarters of the 16th century, surely the most glorious of all centuries for painting. And then, beyond that, the decline of what he represented, and the painful, obsessed search of artists for something that would fulfill the driving needs and the vision of another age.
To us today, Bruegel, together with Vermeer, Rembrandt, Rubens, and a few others of this 100 year span represent a kind of perfection and balance in art.
But, while we can look back and enjoy this art, we cannot update it and bring it into our own time. We can, however, give it its due and learn from it. And so it seems particularly fitting that this painting of Bruegel's should accompany me on my fictional trip to another planet. In the midst of all our evidence of man's ability to change the face of the earth, and to go beyond it into outer space, this picture remains the perfect reminder of our basic and tr aditional relationship to the world upon which we were born.