Master Ironist Pieter Bruegel the Elder at the Met

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There's been all that talk lately about the end of irony. Critics unhappy with the state of contemporary culture have denounced the practice of saying one thing to express its opposite as counterfeit, decadent, just this side of unpatriotic. Yet irony, a pantry-stocked staple of American culture during the past century, enjoys a distinguished pedigree that goes back to at least the Greeks.

As old as the realization that reality does not always square with official truth, irony in its most robust state makes its appearance precisely during times of crisis. There is the biting sarcasm Rabelais used to skewer medieval scholasticism and superstition in Gargantua and Pantagruel; the darkly exaggerated experiences of modern war Celine set down in Journey to the End of Night; James Rosenquist's ur-ironical juxtaposition of a fighter jet and a tub of spaghetti in his Vietnam-era masterpiece F-111. Irony, historical example teaches us, is the perfect artistic trope for wartime. A monument to the persistence of human folly and the impenetrability of truth in periods of uncertainty, the art of master ironists is capable, in the words of British theater critic Kenneth Tynan, of repeatedly grasping the critical high bar: to "Rouse Tempers," that is, "goad and lacerate, raise whirlwinds."

We may count ourselves lucky, then, to find among exhibitions on view in New York a rare glimpse of the work of Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Best known for his affectionately mocking paintings of peasant life in the Low Countries and for much-reproduced allegorical works like The Tower of Babel, Bruegel achieved renown in his time chiefly through a series of fantastically wild and caustic engravings. These popular prints circulated as far as France and Italy, gaining him the moniker of "the second Hieronymus Bosch," and prompting Giorgio Vasari, the Renaissance's great critic, to dub Bruegel "an excellent master."

Now, as if to demonstrate modern irony's continuity with the best art of the past, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has assembled "Pieter Bruegel: Drawings and Prints," the largest exhibition of the artist's drawings to date (50 of an existing 61) together with some 60 prints of his own design. Crowded into three modest-sized rooms inside New York's largest museum, these works on paper redefine for the ages the phrase "cruel to be kind."

Very little is known about Bruegel. The information he left behind consists of a few surviving art works, his 1551 inscription in the Antwerp artist's guild, a single painting commission set down in a contract, his marriage to the daughter of a painter who may have been his teacher and a certificate of death, dated 1569. The fact that no one knows when or where Bruegel was born or how many works he may have made during his lifetime has led one scholar to compare our idea of his full artistic output with the notion of trying to conceive of a lake on the basis of a small pond.

Yet we do know a few things. Thanks to a two-and-a-half-page biography published by one Karel van Mander in 1604, we know that Bruegel followed other Northern artists into Italy in artistic pilgrimage. There, experts assume, he marveled at the paintings produced by Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo and Titian?the last two of whom were alive when Bruegel was in Rome in 1552. Having imbibed "the Italian manner" like his most ambitious compatriots, Bruegel set about recording a group of finely wrought landscapes as he moved down into Southern Italy and Sicily. One drawing, though, Mountain Landscape with River and Travelers, presents an invented scene that could provide clues to Bruegel's eventual jettisoning of "Italian" naturalism and perspective. An astoundingly detailed scene of an expansive background of valleys and mountains done in red-brown ink, the drawing is dotted with the activity of multiple travelers whom Bruegel made antlike in their scattered, minuscule inconsequentiality.

He returned from Italy around 1554 and settled in Antwerp, where he soon embarked on an eight-year stretch as a designer of prints. Having no other steady source of income, the married Bruegel began his most prolific phase of activity as a draftsman for the engraver's stone, a period that encompassed some 40 drawings, among them the originals for his widely celebrated The Seven Deadly Sins and The Seven Virtues. Having previously imitated the great Italian Renaissance masters, Bruegel suddenly began producing what Vasari described as works full of "fantasies, bizarre things, dreams, and imaginations." From painting life, Bruegel dramatically turned to painting the ghoulies of the most fevered crania, fiery hells and chaotic bedlams in which human endeavor is continually mocked and embraced in all its rawness.

Borrowing freely from Bosch in the popular The Seven Deadly Sins, Bruegel concocted a world (not unlike ours) in which sins are repeated in an unbroken cycle. He invented densely packed landscapes of vice, and provided each drawing with a female personification of the sin portrayed, identified both by its attributes and a Latin inscription. Gula (Gluttony), for example, appears drunk on the back of a pig; Desidia (Sloth) rests her head on an ass' haunches; Luxuria (Lust) permits a demon to fondle her breast. Swirling around the individual drawings is a portrait of collective depravity in vivid detail (defecation, copulation, violence, torture of the worst sort) leavened by a nervy dose of black humor. If a beneficent God was in the details for Italian painters, for Bruegel so was the devil.

But however allegorical Bruegel's compositions turned out, the real world and its myriad symbols, such as ships, mills and towns along with recognizable everyday characters like priests, monks, farmers, merchants and fishermen, were never far behind. Very much "personifications of the soul," Bruegel's drawings also teem with information about real life during the artist's own rather chaotic time. Alluding directly to the rapidly increasing wealth and power of merchants in Antwerp, the problems of urban poverty, the greed of entrepreneurs and their families, the value of labor versus the lash of idleness and, more cryptically, the brutal repression of his fellow Flemings by the Spanish Counter-Reformation, Bruegel demonstrates in many of his drawings a keen awareness of the social and economic concerns of the day.

The drawings of Bruegel's that we are fortunate to have conserved clearly show the artist working as if the world were in terminal crisis, and many of his contemporaries believed it was. Apocalyptic imagery abounded in the Netherlands during Bruegel's time, abetted largely by the reign of terror of succeeding Catholic Spanish governors, the most prominent of whom was the murderous Duke of Alva. Fear of the Inquisition even reached into illuminated Italy, where the celebrated painter Paolo Veronese was asked at trial: "Do you not know that in Germany and other countries infested by heresy, it is habitual, by means of pictures full of absurdities, to vilify and turn to ridicule the things of the Holy Catholic Church, in order to teach false doctrine to ignorant people who have no common sense?"

Bruegel was thus persuaded to couch his ironical asides in the language of cryptologists. The monk and the whore, the soldier with a lizard's tail, the burning towns, the cardinal with a simian's face naturally gave way to equally fanciful but less direct imagery: a papal envoy emerges from an egg, a naked prisoner rides a richly cloaked beast to the gallows, a monkey pulls down the pants of a sleeping man and holds his nose ("Phew!"). The drawings come together to create a spiritual worldview, a notion of man's character as essentially flawed and beyond repair, yet earthy, voluptuous, full of life. As the Roman Pliny said of the mythical Greek painter Apelles, Bruegel "painted many things that could not be painted." That he very often did so with a view to providing a vigorous burlesque of the human condition is what still connects him to us like a contemporary.

"Pieter Bruegel the Elder: Drawings and Prints," through Dec. 2 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 5th Ave. (82nd St.), 535-7710.

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