Philosophizing with brushstrokes

What if Bruegel the Elder had been a Spinozist before Spinoza? This is the bold hypothesis formulated by Laurent Bove by placing the works of the Flemish painter in their common historical and spiritual universe.

“A red winter hat / laughing blue eyes / nothing but head and shoulders / cramped on the canvas” … The Paintings after Bruegel by William Carlos Williams opens with a Self-portraitwhose reflection spreads from poem to poem until the evocation of the artist, immersed in the painting of Games of children, these games of budding painters, capable with a few hats – three brown, one red – of making a face appear sticking out its tongue. In his recent work, Laurent Bove in turn celebrates Bruegel’s modernity, the reflexive dimensions and the critical virtues of his pictorial play: “these are all of Bruegel’s works which have, at their principle, an emancipatory power of play” capable of “transmuting a melancholic stupor into a powerful meditation on life” (p. 264). A gripping portrait of the artist as a philosopher.

Throughout the pages, the Flemish painter of XVIe century no longer appears as a maker of jokes, a slight emulator of the terrifying Hieronymus Bosch, but finds his place in the family of philosophers, between Nicolas de Cues, Erasmus, Machiavelli, Montaigne, La Boétie and Spinoza. At the very least audacious, Laurent Bove’s wager does not only recommend itself to the delight of the amateur. The epiphany presupposes a long-term historical and philosophical research, that carried out by Laurent Bove through the prism of Spinoza in his seminars and his previous works, as well as a scholarly and sensitive interpretation, attentive to the detail of each painting and documented by the history of art (Max Dvorak, Charles de Tolnay and Pierre Francastel), whose methods and results the author discusses. It is in this demanding perspective that the work of Laurent Bove discovers an unsuspected support in that of Bruegel, and, through this contemporaneity that transcends eras, makes it appear in all its topicality.

Bruegel sive Spinoza?

Far from the portrait painted by Karel Van Mander, “Pieter the Funny” would therefore have worked as a philosopher, each of his paintings proceeding to the “positive reversal of what was once conceived and painted through the negative vision of the fall and of “second nature”” (p. 16). A dark manifestation of the Middle Ages, Bosch’s “nihilistic” work acts as a foil; it would oppose in all respects that of Bruegel the Renaissance. In this perspective, the experiment conducted by Laurent Bove consists of testing the validity of a history of philosophy “in the broad sense”, where “thought by concept” would dialogue with “this philosophical thought of painting (and by the image)” (p. 108). By constructing the figure of an innovative and misunderstood painter, the author immerses his work in philosophical history as in a “revealing bath”. Against all expectations, privileged links then emerge between Bruegel and Spinoza:

The lens glasses that Spinoza polished with care and skill, in his workshops in Voorburg and Rijnsburg as in the concepts of his Ethicswe also find them, in the form of drawings and paintings, in the studios of the painter Pieter Bruegel as so many devices (devices) and/or ways of accessing the effective truth of things. (p. 43)

Elck or One Each (1566)

What Spinoza conceptualizes a century later, Bruegel already elaborates in his own way in painting: a philosophy of affirmation and resistance, exalting, beyond passionate and imaginary wanderings – and even in death, misery or illness – the power to act on the principle of life, of true joy and freedom. Laurent Bove cites as proof a number of Bruegel’s works that he interprets in the light of Spinozist philosophy, in particular Elck or One Each(1566), engraving-manifesto of this “reform of the understanding” where the ordinary man would seek and gradually find the right lantern, that of his own understanding, stepping over the imperial terrestrial globe, symbolizing the world and its domination. In this perspective, the Parable of the Blind Men (1568) takes the appearance of a “strange elongated body, which gradually stretches” more geometric in a dynamic of accelerated fall (p. 227). Similarly, the “monstrous dance” of the beggars (1568) – leitmotif of the work – makes up the “common body of the crucified, truculent and resistant, which turns all established powers into derision” (p. 302).

Beggars (1568)

At the opposite end of the spectrum from Italian idealism, Bruegelian “realism” paints each man as a being in need, caught up in “the most naturally animal actions: eating, urinating, defecating” (p. 73), sleeping too… By affirming the “effective and positive reality of the ordinary” (ibid.), the artist throws out the precursors of a philosophy of immanence, which criticizes the theories of emanation and transcendence of the One as the myth of the fall and original sin. In this sense, Bruegel constitutes one of the first milestones in this genealogy of the positive reversal of the “second nature” on which Laurent Bove has been working since his first works on Spinoza. The historical moment which, from one century to the next, sees the Netherlands revolt against Spanish hegemony (1566) and take their “theological-political” independence, before tragically losing it during the assassination of the de Witt brothers (1672), takes on the consistency of a true philosophical and metaphysical turning point. In this respect, Bruegel does not only “prefigure” Spinoza, but each constitutes the double or the stand-in for the other, in an astonishing “symmetry” – intellectual and not only historical – of the image and the concept. Laurent Bove draws the following conclusion:

The ontological thesis of immanence and the double identity of right and power, as well as of power and perfection, which Spinoza’s work will develop a century later, Bruegel’s characters therefore expose, absolutely already, in action, before our eyes. (p. 74)

Between Bruegel’s characters and Spinoza’s theses, there would therefore be convergence if not consequence. But how can such “symmetries” be explained without giving in to the danger of retrospective illusion, noted by the author himself? And, more generally, what is a philosophical painting or a “demonstration” in painting? The author does not answer these questions in a block but on a case-by-case basis, making them as many heuristic levers to interpret Bruegel’s work, from painting to painting.

For a close history of Bruegel’s painting

Against the pitfall of the iconographic method, which ends up substituting the work with its source text, it is a question of letting the work explain itself, unfold by itself. Thus, The Fall of Icarus (c. 1558) does not denounce human pride as Ovid does, on the contrary. We must question the painting itself, starting with its surprisingly low sun on the horizon, to enter into its “reflexive device” (p. 142) and see the dawn of a new world unfold, open to the progress of reason, from the farmer to the navigator. The paradigm is that of the police investigation, which Laurent Bove conducts brilliantly, not without sometimes falling into rebus interpretation, when the indexical decipherment produces the assertion of a univocal and systematic discourse. In this sense, the bravura pieces are less those that call upon a sort of symbolic lexicon (the horse of domination, the theocratic cross, etc.), than those which, responding to the semantic richness of the image, are composed of details, repetitions and relationships. Thus, a work like the Beekeepers (c. 1568) is enriched throughout the essay, notably by the reference to Machiavelli’s drama, the Mandrake (1524), and the astonishing plant detail that it brings out in the engraving. Better still, by joining together like diptychs certain works that the history of art, by classifying them by genre or medium, tended to study separately, Laurent Bove produces unexpected resonances and contrasts, thus between The Conversion of Saul And Elck or one each, Big fish eat small fish And The Census of Bethlehemor The Land of Plenty And The Massacre of the Innocents.

Beekeepers (c. 1568)

Throughout the pages, the same work is arranged, deployed and accentuated in as many potential altarpieces, open or closed, on the obverse or reverse of these mobile panels. It is less a question of “deciphering” Bruegel than of practicing the game. Assembly and disassembly are suitable for training the critical mind. Like Diderot or Kurosawa, Laurent Bove brings us into each of these paintings: surveying the plain of Carrying the cross (1564) and look among the crowd for the “recrucified Christ”, or admire the young and handsome black magician, wearing a crown of thorns and a golden caravel in The Adoration of the Magiand sympathize with the fate of his fellow slaves. Finally, it is the evolution of Bruegel’s work as a whole that is captured, from the “overlooking glance by which we jump from one singular to another” to the “material participation” of the spectator “in the work of the harvest, in the sharing of the wedding feast and in the peasants’ dance” (p. 299-300).

Carrying the Cross (1564)

The table or the infinite sphere

This world that Bruegel paints is that of the infinite sphere, whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere: a world that manifests itself as much by the popular power of the grotesque (…) as by the philosophical meditation that his work envelops and arouses. (p. 248).

Haymaking (1565)

Echoing the famous pamphlet by Nicholas of Cusa, The Table or the Vision of God (1453), Laurent Bove suggests seeing in Bruegel’s painting an infinite sphere, both immanent and divine (God is Nature), fully current, vision of a god made man – “Christ-Multitude”, “without Church against the Church”, “Christ of immanence” – who takes part in the rhythmic march and labour of the Haymaking (1565) as in the service of the Peasant wedding (1567). Like his contemporary, the artist-philosopher Dick Coornhert (pp. 196-203), Bruegel painted as a disciple of Erasmus and a contemporary of La Boétie: thus the paintings which display the body of Christ in its abundant multiplicity contrast with the works in black, such as the Suicide of Saul (1562), where the tyranny of the One is increased tenfold by the division of the same. To the variegation of Proverbs (1559) or Child games (1560) opposes the “massification of the multiple”, where the gray silhouettes of the combatants line up and fall like so many tin soldiers. Conversely, the Child gamesretitled The Wisdom of Children at Playconstitute the acme of this “pictorial and philosophical construction of the infinite sphere”, “of the infinite Game” (p. 249): painting becomes a popular and democratic matrix for a new constitution of the common. Unlike the portrait commented on by Nicolas de Cues, the Bruegelian painting “no longer concerns us”, because:

“no one” is looking at us anymore. It is the active, causal, connecting and cognitive force of the bodies of the singulars that produces the plane of immanence of an infinite sphere in the process of being made. (…) the painted work of Pieter Bruegel is already that, philosophical, of a Christianity without God (p. 300) (…) a magnificent and powerful perceptive and speculative device of active resistance to theological and political powers, for and by a continued reform of the understanding” (p. 304).

To understand Bruegel’s painting would therefore be, in the strong sense, to play his game, to practice his “strategy” of life (p. 97), to follow his propositions of existence, the ultimate guarantee of this conception of painting as “philosophy by image” becoming one with the radical experience of the spectator called upon to transform himself there.