The Netherlandish Proverbs: An International Symposium on the Pieter Brueg(h)els

By Doyle, Charles Clay | Western Folklore, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

The Netherlandish Proverbs: An International Symposium on the Pieter Brueg(h)els


Doyle, Charles Clay, Western Folklore


The Netherlandish Proverbs: An International Symposium on the Pieter Brueg(h)els. Edited by Wolfgang Mieder. (Burlington: University of Vermont, 2004. Pp. 241, preface, introduction, plates, illustrations. $15.00 cloth)

The indefatigable Wolfgang Mieder in the spring of 2004 arranged for a showing of The Netherlandish Proverbs, painted by Pieter Brueghel the younger in 1610, usually referred to as a "copy" of the famous 1559 painting by his father (who commonly spelled the surname without the h), though with significant differences. The younger Brueghel's painting-the only rendition of The Netherlandish Proverbs in North America (in all, some twenty "copies" by the son or other artists in the Bruegel workshop survive)-belongs to Mrs. Adele Klapper of New York City; it had been exhibited only once before. Not only did Mieder negotiate for the painting to be brought to his campus, the University of Vermont, for a three-month stay; he also organized a conference on the painting and saw to the publication of the lectures in an attractive volume containing eight color plates and a multitude of black-and-white pictures-for the bargain price of $15. Sometimes you get more than you pay for.

Framing the collection are papers by two giants among modern folklorists, Mieder himself at the end, "One Picture That's Worth More than a Thousand Words': Pieter Bruegel the Elder's Netherlandish Proverbs-Past and Present" (195-241); and the late Alan Dundes at the start, '"How Far Does the Apple Fall from the Tree?': Pieter Brueghel the Younger's Netherlandish Proverbs" (15-45)-probably the last piece by Dundes to be published during his career.

It is vintage Dundes. After a concise and lucid introduction to what folklore is and what folklorists do (directed, mainly, at art historians and connoisseurs), he pleads for attention to unconscious elements in the interpretation of artworks-noting, for instance, the sublimated affinity between the act of painting and infantile daubing with feces, then calling attention to the particularly high incidence of anal and fecal imagery in The Netherlandish Proverbs. (Dundes missed the opportunity to linger over the "nether" part of the painting's title.) The very project of the painting, the literal rendering-therefore misconstruing-of folk metaphors (most of them are not true proverbs), is a sort of rowdy carnivalesque fools' game-in fact, several of the papers advert to the "world turned upside" motif.

The papers in the collection seem to have been printed very much in the form of their oral delivery. Most of them, in one degree or another, are concerned with matters of identification:, they isolate details of the painting to ponder just what verbal expressions they visually represent (with what emphases or implications), occasionally supplementing or correcting previous identifications of the more than 130 expressions present in the painting(s), sometimes by examining comparable depictions in other "proverb" paintings from the time (or later times) or early printed collections of (verbal) proverbs, and relating literalized idioms to one another within the Breug(h)el paintings. …

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