Wednesday, November 16, 2011
Have you ever been in an art gallery and wondered what it would be like if the people in a painting could step from the frame and tell you their story? Or if the artist could explain his vision directly to you? This is exactly what happens in the new film by Polish director Lech Majewski, The Mill and the Cross, a living tableaux of Bruegel’s painting The Way to Calvary. Like all Bruegel’s work it is crowded with people, over 500 in all, and in the first scene of the film the artist walks among his subjects as they are costumed and posed. He talks with his aristocratic benefactor about the ideas and symbolism that he intends to communicate in the painting, what he means to say about his world. For though the scene is a traditional religious subject, Bruegel’s real subject is his own 16th century Flanders, suffering under Spanish rule and the cruelties of the Inquisition. He does not paint Roman soldiers leading Christ to Calvary, but red-coated Spanish horsemen leading a heretic to execution. The film follows the crowd of people out of the painting into the fullness of their lives at work and play and love, dancing and merriment going on in one corner while in another a mother mourns her tortured son. High above the people the windmill turns and grinds out the fates of all. The old wooden mill with its whooshing cloth covered sails and huge creaking interior gearwheels was painstakingly recreated for the film and is in some sense the central character. The Mill and the Cross casts a mesmerizing spell as it slowly unspools Bruegel’s vision of the human condition and his times. (The Mill and the Cross was shown at film festivals worldwide including Sundance. It is in limited release in theaters. The DVD is forthcoming).
Seeing this film reminded me of one of my favorite books, Headlong by Michael Frayn, a novel that is also inspired by Bruegel’s work. It’s a suspenseful and comic combination of art history lesson and art heist caper. Two young academics, Martin Clay and his wife Julia, move to the English countryside where they hope to concentrate on their studies. But distraction soon appears when they visit a local couple living in genteel poverty in a dilapidated mansion. Martin sees what he believes is a long missing Bruegel painting being used as a fire screen. He embarks on an obsessive dual mission to prove the painting is indeed a genuine Bruegel, and to separate it from its oblivious owners and make his fortune. In alternating chapters we follow Martin’s research into Bruegel and the progress of his madcap scheme. It is a measure of Frayn’s skill that the chapters on symbolism in Bruegel’s work are as suspenseful as the ill fated plot to steal the painting. This is a great read with appeal for art lovers, book clubs, and anyone who enjoys good writing and an out of the ordinary story.
When I read Headlong I also checked out a book of Bruegel’s paintings to refer to as they were discussed in the novel. There are many more novel/art pairings to enjoy like the bestselling Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier/Vermeer, Luncheon of the Boating Party by Susan Vreeland/Renoir, and Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper by Harriet Scott Chessman/Mary Cassatt. For more ideas search the library catalog for the words or phrase “art and fiction” or “artists and fiction.” You can limit the search results to Item Category 2 “Adult” for a more focused list. And if you can’t get enough of Bruegel, there is also a novel based on his life, As Above, So Below by Rudy Rucker. So during these cold winter months forget trekking to a museum to enjoy art, just pull up a chair to the fire and let the paintings speak for themselves.