Auden and Brueghel – sailing calmly on

“About indifference they were never wrong / The Old Masters…”

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus hangs in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Brussels. Long believed to be by Renaissance artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder, after careful examination in 1996 its attribution has been called into question because Bruegel’s other paintings on canvas are in tempera. It may be a good copy by an unknown artist of Bruegel’s lost original.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder is generally considered the greatest Flemish painter of the 16th century. His paintings stress the absurd and vulgar, and are full of zest and fine detail. They also highlight human weakness and folly. In subject matter Brueghel ranged widely, from conventional Biblical scenes and parables of Christ to mythology, religious allegories in the style of Hieronymus Bosch, and social satire.

According to the Roman poet Ovid, who got it from the Greek historian Appolodorus, Icarus, son of Daedalus, fled from Crete on the fragile wings his father had fashioned for him. Exulting in his new found freedom, the boy ignored his father’s advice and flew too close to the sun. The wax holding his wings together melted and the boy fell into the sea and drowned. The irony is that his miraculous flight and ignominious death go unnoticed.

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus figures in the British poet W. H. Auden’s poem “Musée des Beaux-Arts”, written in December 1938 while Auden was staying in Brussels with the novelist Christopher Isherwood. In fact, the poem includes references to three of Brueghel’s works, all of which Auden would have seen in the Museum.

The Census at Bethlehem (1566) is alluded to in lines 5-8. The painting includes Mary (on a donkey and bundled up in the winter of Bruegel’s Flanders) and Joseph (with a red hat and long carpenter’s saw over his shoulder). They are surrounded by many people: “someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully / along.” And there are children “On a pond at the edge of the wood” spinning tops and lacing up their skates.

The Massacre of the Innocents (1565-7) appears in lines 9-13. The scene is once again a snowy northern landscape and it depicts Herod the Great’s order to kill all the boys in Bethlehem two years old and under. We can see five of the dogs in Auden’s poem going about their business and the “torturer’s horse” that might, given half a chance, scratch “its innocent behind on a tree.”

And lines 14-21 refer directly to Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, which shows peasants at work and ships in a tranquil landscape. Icarus is barely visible in the bottom right-hand corner of the picture, his legs splayed, drowning.

Both poem and painting underline how daily life clings to its dull routines in the face of passing sorrows and the tragedy of conflict after conflict. It begs the question: where are today’s blind spots? And what are we going to do about them?

“… 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.”

Icarus

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