fall-of-icarus

The Fall of Icarus

Long believed to be Pieter Bruegel’s original experts now speculate that the original was lost and this is a copy by one of his followers.

Taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Icarus was trapped in a labyrnith made for King Minos to imprison the deadly Minotaur. Daedalus, Icarus’s father and creator of the labyrinth, constructed wings made of feathers and wax to help him escape. As they are flying Icarus becomes overly confident in his abilities and ventures too close to the sun, despite his father’s warnings. The wax melts and Icarus falls to his death in the sea below.

In this landscape Icarus is visible in the bottom right corner. Only his leg and feathers are above the water. The farmer and shepherd are also in Metamorphoses though Bruegel portrays them in a different light. Ovid wrote that the farmer and shepherd were astonished and related the incident to the gods. Bruegel painted them as indifferent and still going on with their work.

Though titled after a tale from antiquity the main focus of The Fall is the landscape. Icarus is the last figure the audience sees, overshadowed by the brilliant seascape. This style had been recently established in the Netherlands but not yet spread throughout Europe.

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TEXT AND IMAGE I: W. H. Auden, W. C. Williams and “Brueghel’s" Icarus

1.  W. H. Auden, “Musée des Beaux Arts” (1938).

About suffering they were never wrong, 
The Old Masters; how well, they understood 
Its human position; how it takes place 
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along; 
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting 
For the miraculous birth, there always must be 
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating 
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot 
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course 
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot 
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse 
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Brueghel’s Icarus, for instance: 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.

2.  William Carlos Williams, Icarus (1962).

According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring

a farmer was ploughing
his field
the whole pageantry

of the year was
awake tingling
with itself

sweating in the sun
that melted
the wings’ wax

unsignificantly
off the coast
there was

a splash quite unnoticed
this was
Icarus drowning

3.  The subject of these poems is a painting, known as The Fall of Icarus in the Musée des Beaux Arts, in Brussels. it was attributed to Pieter Brueghel the Elder and dated around 1560, until scientific analysis of the picture done in 1996 led curators and scholars to conclude that the work is probably a high-quality copy, made in the 1590s, of a painting by Brueghel, now presumed lost. The two arguments made by both poems are dependent on the picture being by an "Old Master.”  The picture is certainly old, but whether a copyist qualifies as a master is a question we will leave unanswered out of deference to the Auden and Williams. 

youtube

This evening as part of the ‘Random’ exhibition at the ANU art school foyer gallery i will be installing my video projection piece 'fall of icarus’ full scale.
It will be one show between 4-6 so anyone with spare hour after work should swing by.

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus
painting by Pieter Bruegel (1555)
poem by William Carlos Williams (1954)


According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring

a farmer was ploughing
his field
the whole pageantry

of the year was
awake tingling
near

the edge of the sea
concerned
with itself

sweating in the sun
that melted
the wings’ wax

unsignificantly
off the coast
there was

a splash quite unnoticed
this was
Icarus drowning

According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring

a farmer was ploughing
his field
the whole pageantry

of the year was
awake tingling
with itself

sweating in the sun
that melted
the wings’ wax

unsignificantly
off the coast
there was

a splash quite unnoticed
this was
Icarus drowning