The Fall of Icarus by Bruegel

[Landscape with the Fall of Icarus - Pieter Breughel ]

I had mentioned a post or two back that this painting by Bruegel has been so ubiquitous for me lately that I thought it merited its own post. Here it is. (right-click to enlarge in a different window...its worth it)

This painting is my painting. When I say that I mean that it is the piece that I could look at for long durations of time and feel at peace, yet invigorated...content with the harmony, but not content to rest idly while observing it.

It's the painting I would own above all other things (if only I could). It's the one shard of realized beauty that I would want to keep with me if all other luxuries were denied.
When my eye falls upon this painting, it works. When my mind falls on this painting it recognizes beauty. There are layers of perception here:

I am suffused with color. I fall into the red that is so obviously central, so assertively commanding. But once it has done its purpose, the red moves away and the delicate golden tones take over. I look at the man's face, the profile pleases me, as does the off-center cap, the downward tilt. My eye follows the angle of his nose, moves along the most perfect pleats down to the most perfect topographical gradation. A completely harmonious-sinuous-mellifluous movement. I lose myself in the slightly-off plow, it seems to be making the earth move elastically, not like earth, but like some extended taffy-substance, smooth, pliable, resilient. I dwell in those curved furrows in the earth all day long, I luxuriate in the simplicity of their line, in their perpetual ability to move me, to activate my senses and to keep them electric. Look how the concenctric earth circles continue to echo beyond the horse.

No, wait, look at the horse! This is no mythic
Stubbs monstrosity, this is the horse in my mind: the image of plodding, diligent, work. It is cartoonish in its flatness of plane, but it is Horse to me. The horse makes me turn to the sheep. Little, perfect sheep. The sort of friendly sheep that exist in dreams or in children's books, the sort of sheep that actually frolic (and are there black sheep? a sheepdog? a shepherd?).

The "pastoral" quality isn't lost on me and I bask for a moment with those sheep, warming myself in those golden rays, capable of lighting the clearest of seas into a vivid cerulean blue. I may spend some time wondering about that seaside village off to the left, or wondering if that's a building on the island, or where those ships are headed. I think of the ships and my eye hits that immensely billowing sail. It's a gusty warm day, I imagine that strong warm breeze, lifting the sails and pushing the boats out to sea.

I might even imagine the cries of the few birds in the air, noticing that their feathers have detached themselves and floated down around the boat. I follow the feathers down. And I find legs, splashing, sinking, stuggling legs. Feathers don't come from fallen legs. Then it clicks: Sun, Wind, Feathers, Disappearing Legs. Headstrong and foolhardy was Icarus, a prodigal son who wouldn't be welcomed back.

Consciousness of a painting's import (whether valid objectively or not) is arresting. Arrived at from a commentary or preconceived notion of expectation, this consciousness may not filter down from pure superficial fact to wrenching feeling. It is one thing to know what Guernica is about and quite another to feel what it is about.
I know this Bruegel now. Or do I? Now my knowledge must inform my pleasure of looking at the colors and lines and atmosphere. Now I cannot stop the nagging whisper of "why?" How can these idyllic creatures be so clueless? Or is it sill Icarus, flopping off to stage right who is distracting? Why couldn't he have listened to his father and stayed out of my lovely picture? Instead, he plunged, headlong (as Michael Frayn has helped me with) into the mix. He is there and I can't get him out. His legs are locked forever on the cusp of drowning, horrible plunged drowning. He was flying in those warm breezes that I felt for a moment, flying above sails and birds and sea. He saw that glitter-play of sunshiny-light on water. And then this...this wet, cold, Shocking moment of reality. I can't stop thinking about him. He nags at my enjoyment of this painting, and then the floodgates of "Why?" really open up.

Bruegel paints Icarus into this painting for a studied reason. The beauty of not knowing this reason is that we might combine our pure sensual enjoyment of the image with this annoyingly important and frustratingly assertive Icarus story. We want to luxuriate in the pleasure of seeing, but we also crave to know the "Why" of the juxtaposition...the "Why" of the two stories needing one another to produce this one.

I have said that this painting has become ubiquitous for me. I have used it for over two years as my computer wallpaper (and I STILL love it...shows the true worth of this image for me). About two weeks ago, one of my favorite faculty members came into the library and we entered into the sort of art-historical conversation that is common to us. He mentioned having recently read Michael Frayn's novel Headlong which takes its title from this painting and involves our friend Bruegel very intimately. He carelessly referred to a poem by Auden that I didn't take the initiative to search out. About a week later, before receiving this book through inter-library loan, I was reading through the lovely FMR magazine, which I have mentioned before, and came across an article on Catherine the Great's collection of Dutch art entitled: "The Flemish Window: A picture-puzzle" by Hans Magnus Enzensberger. In it he mentions Bruegel, The Fall of Icarus, and W.H. Auden's famous poem which was not yet famous to me, but concrete enough to make me finally go and read it:

Musee des Beaux Arts
W.H. Auden

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

This poem, now known to me, enriches my initial and quotidien enjoyment of this painting. I enjoy the poem through the painting and am sorry to Auden for that. But the painting came first, it is a picture lodged in my memory and omnipotent in its power. A chain of connections is marvelous when found...and I can think of no thing I'd rather have exerting such a strong impression on me.