The Flight of Form: Auden, Bruegel, and the Turn to Abstraction in the 1940s

Alexander Nemerov in Critical Inquiry:

Pieter Bruegel made Landscape with the Fall of Icarus in 1938—or so W. H. Auden helps us see. Auden wrote his famous poem “Musée des Beaux Arts” that year, with its last stanza devoted to Bruegel’s picture, and under the poem’s pressure The Fall of Icarus becomes a commentary about events in the months leading up to inevitable world conflict. More precisely, the poem transforms Bruegel’s painting into a surrealist diagram concerning the place of the intellectual in violent times. What do artists and poets and critics do in the face of catastrophe? How do they register it in their work, or should they even try to do so? Auden makes Bruegel’s painting address these questions with a special urgency, indeed with enough power that this picture painted around 1560 becomes a template for understanding literature and visual art at the end of the nineteen thirties and into the forties. In particular the motivations and underlying energies of American abstract painting of that era—that of Robert Motherwell and Jackson Pollock, for example—become unexpectedly clearer in light of The Fall of Icarus. What did it mean for the artist to turn away from the world? Bruegel suggests some answers.

Auden wrote “Musée des Beaux Arts” when he was in Brussels in December 1938, biding his time before he and Christopher Isherwood moved to New York early the next year.1 The poem refers to two other Bruegel paintings, The Massacre of the Innocents and The Nativity, both in Vienna, but it is the Brussels Fall of Icarus that Auden concentrates on the most. Then as now in a second-floor gallery of the museum the poem is named after, the painting depicts the story from book 8 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses of Daedalus and his son Icarus (fig. 1).


Figure 1. Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, ca. 1560. Oil on panel transferred to canvas, 28 5/8 x 43 5/8 in. Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels. Photo: Scala/Art Resource, New York.

Daedalus fashioned wings of wax, thread, and feathers to escape imprisonment on the isle of Crete and made a second set of wings for his fellow prisoner Icarus. He warned Icarus not to fly too close to the sun, which would melt the wax and bring him crashing down, but the impetuous youth ignored his father’s advice and suffered the forewarned meltdown, falling to the earth.

Some artists—Peter Paul Rubens, for example—focus exclusively on the airborne drama of father and son, but Bruegel omits Daedalus and shows only Icarus’s pale legs as he plunges into the water at lower right (fig. 2).


Figure 2. Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (detail). Photo: Scala/Art Resource, New York.

Bruegel concentrates on other aspects of Ovid’s tale: “Some fisher, perhaps, plying his quivering rod, some shepherd leaning on his staff, or a peasant bent over his plough handle caught sight of [Daedalus and Icarus] as they flew past,” Ovid writes, “and stood stock still in astonishment.”2 These figures appear throughout Bruegel’s picture—the fisherman at lower right, the shepherd at midground center, and most clearly the plowman at left foreground—but Bruegel departs from Ovid, as Walter Gibson notes, by showing them oblivious to the drama around them. Even the figures busily scaling the rigging of the ship at lower right notice neither Icarus nor the feathers floating past the sails. Indifference and preoccupation are everywhere. In the distance, the culpable sun sits half-submerged, as if in sympathy with Icarus’s sinking, but it too is part of a vaster world—even the icon of that world—that goes about its business, its daily cycle, unconcerned with particular tragedies.

This of course is the quality Auden seized on in his poem, with its famous last stanza devoted to the Brussels painting:

Musée des Beaux Arts

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 Brueghel’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.3

More here.