Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Breughel for the People?

This week I was pleasantly surprised to receive in the post an A3 colour reproduction of The Road to Calvary (1602) by Peter Breughel the Younger (but just possibly by his much more famous dad). The Art Fund sent it as part of their current campaign to raise £2.7M, in order to keep the Brueghel on display in Nostell Priory in Yorkshire, and save it from auction and possible export. (You can see the picture here: www.artfund.org/procession).

The poster is arresting and rich in detail, if not exactly cheerful – there is an intricate seventeenth-century cityscape, a distant windmill, mounted soldiers with Habsburg standards marching Christ up to a very hilly Calvary, and scores of figures milling about. The accompanying letter from the director of the Art Fund points out that the precise meaning of much of this detail is controversial and slightly mysterious. Is it a commentary on the tensions in 17C Dutch society? An allegory of the Dutch Revolt against Habsburg rule? The letter then invites the reader/potential donor ‘to form your own [historical?] interpretation of the painting.’

I baulked slightly at this line, just as I was a rather thrown to be asked, in the Battle of Bosworth museum, for my personal opinion/judgement on the meaning of key archaeological artefacts recovered from the site. I myself have no killer insight into the Brueghel painting, but I did at first worry that the Art Fund invitation was a little silly – is the opinion of ‘everyman/woman’ really by implication as valid, or as useful, as that of an art historian who specialises in early modern Dutch art and has a formidable grasp of the context, genre and painterly oeuvre? But then I remembered what I say to the Somerville History Freshers when they arrive in Oxford (but not this year, because I’d lost my voice!) – don’t be afraid to challenge the historical experts you read, because as non-specialists you (potentially) bring a panoramic and fresh perspective, and can see things that a specialist who has spent 20 years immersed in their chosen field can perhaps no longer see. So, let’s wait and see if any of the Art Fund’s members come up with an iconoclastic, radical interpretation of Brueghel’s lively but gloomy panorama. In the meantime, I’m going to pin up the poster on the notice board outside my tutor room.

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