MARK A. MEADOW Pieter Bruegel the Elder's Netherlandish Proverbs and the Practice of Rhetoric Zwolle: Waanders Publishers, 2002. 176 pp.; 50 color ills., 50 b/w. $60.00
JOHANN JOSEF BÖKER Architektur der Gotik/ Gothic Architecture: Bestandskatalog der weltgrössten Sammlung an gotischen Baurissen der Akademie der bildenden Künste Wien/ Catalogue of the WorldLargest Collection of Gothic Architectural Drawings in the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna Salzburg: Verlag Anton Pustet, 2005. 464 pp.; 501 color ills.; 8 b/w. euro195.00
The art and architecture of the early modern period are rarely considered together, partly a consequence of the way academic disciplines have been institutionally constituted. Yet both can shed light on similar problems from different perspectives. One of these is the relation of the work to the text. With the painting of Pieter Bruegel, this most clearly refers to the problematic dependence on a verbal text. With architecture, it concerns the relation of buildings to the drafted text-the architectural drawing.
Few of Pieter Bruegel's paintings are so distinctive as his large panel of 1559 in the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin, known as Netherlandish Proverbs. Across its span of more than five feet, diminutive figures of modest villagers and well-heeled burghers act out more than eighty vernacular sayings. The ostensible subject is curious enough, and the overall design, which seems to deny the usual narrative access, is bewildering to modern eyes.
Mark Meadow's concise monograph on this picture (volume 4 in the Studies in Netherlandish Art and Cultural History series) raises some crucial issues for the study of early modern art in northern Europe. First among these is the relation of art to rhetoric, to the principles and procedures that governed the fashioning and comprehension of written texts. Second is the epistemological value of art, its potential for creating or facilitating the construction of knowledge. The book necessarily considers the connection between Bruegel's ethnographic interests and learned humanist culture.
The author also addresses the early theoretical writings on northern art and Bruegel. Meadow includes a short discussion of Bruegel's critical reputation among early writers, his status as a learned and self-reflective artist, and his adoption of a vernacular style. Because these observations do not greatly expand on the views expressed in earlier articles by Jan Muyle, David Freedberg, and Meadow himself, I will concentrate on the author's central interest, the genesis and semiotic properties of Bruegel's painting Netherlandish Proverbs.
Meadow introduced many of these issues in an article of 1992 in the Volkskundig Bulletin, a rather recondite ethnological publication.1 Since then he has found time to elaborate on these concepts and make them available in a more accessible venue. He focuses chiefly on the peculiar accumulative manner of design that characterizes this picture. His principal insight is his perception of a relation between the painting's structure and rhetorical procedures for amassing authoritative quotations, including proverbs. Thus, Bruegel's compositional techniques are found to derive from mental habits formed by strategies of textual collection. In attempting to come to terms with Bruegel's strange invention, Meadow has recourse to two roughly contemporary cultural phenomena: the Wunderkammer, with its rules for ordering artifacts from both the natural and man-made world, and the so-called notebook system, an educational procedure for collecting and arranging textual references.
A significant section of Meadow's book concerns not Bruegel's painting directly but rather the notebook system itself, its development, and its adaptation to the collection of proverbs in the sixteenth century. The author recounts the pedagogical practice of collecting valuable passages and, more important, of organizing them according to topics that imparted a structure to these particles of knowledge. …