Tim Smith-Laing at Literary Review:
They might seem an incongruous pair at first, but historically speaking Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel the Elder are a natural duo for comparative study. When Bruegel entered the painters’ guild of Antwerp in 1551, Bosch, who had died in 1516, was still the most famous and imitated artist of the age. Antwerp, the centre of European art production at the time, was home to a whole mini-industry of Bosch imitation and forgery, and Bruegel himself cashed in on the continuing demand for his predecessor’s characteristic style. Look at the Boschian pastiches of his ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ series (1558) or 1557’s Big Fish Eat Little Fish, printed with the misleading inscription ‘Hieronymus Bos inventor’, and you can see why a contemporary dubbed Bruegel a ‘second Hieronymus’.
Imitation is not the same as kinship, though, as Koerner is quick to note in this rich and illuminating study of the two painters. Bruegel’s mature style, clear-eyed, intent on the human, temporal and mundane, is a world away from Bosch’s fantasias of the demonic, eternal and infernal. And more fundamentally still, Koerner argues, they belong to two different ages of art history and represent two distinctive conceptions of what art was for. Bosch was a devotional Catholic painter (despite what Koerner pithily calls the ‘rich body of delusional scholarship’ striving to make him a heretic or madman), and he belonged to an age in which artistic ‘subservience to the sacred’ was the norm. Bruegel marks the ‘watershed’ at which European painting ‘emancipated itself’ from that subservience – thanks in no small part to the démarches he himself made. Retrospectively at least, his ‘genre’ scenes of everyday life, his prints and his landscapes seem instrumental in art’s successive migrations from the church to the palace, then to the home and eventually to the museum.