pieter the elder bruegel

In Praise of Face-Plant Guy

I’ve blogged before about Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Hunters in the Snow. It’s a famous painting; according to the website of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna where it lives it is “perhaps the most famous depiction of winter in European art.” Bruegel painted it on a 5-foot-wide wooden panel in 1565.

I’m only a sporadic appreciator of art, but I’ve known about this painting for a while because a poster of it hangs on the wall of a ski condo I’ve been visiting since I was a teen. It was only a few years ago, though, that I noticed something cool about it in a Tumblr post that showed a detail of the painting’s ice-skating scene:

This guy:

I thought it was funny, and cool, that in the midst of painting that amazing scene Bruegel included that little bit of physical comedy, that pratfall, the guy face-down on the ice.

I’d always assumed that the version you see above, which was cropped from a moderately high-res online scan, accurately shows how he looks in the painting. I mean, he’s tiny; in the condo poster he’s just a fraction of an inch across. I figured he was just a crude stick figure in the painting, with that big round head and all.

Fast forward to today, when my partner and I were doing some last-minute Christmas shopping at Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara. It’s one of the better brick-and-mortar bookstores still around, and as sometimes happens I got sidetracked in the art section. When I spotted a big coffee-table book on Bruegel I grabbed it and flipped to the part about Hunters in the Snow.

There was a big detail of the ice-skating scene. And oh my god:

Face-Plant Guy!

He’s not a crude stick-figure at all. He’s a rounded, anatomically correct human caught in the moment before impact, his hat flying off as he tries to break his fall.

I can’t help but see it as a metaphor. I think I see so clearly. I think I can reach through the screen and grab anything I want, pull it close and examine it, make it mine, have my private in-joke with the universe.

But it’s an illusion. I’m not interacting with the actual thing. I’m interacting with my idea of the thing. And it’s a crude, distorted idea, more about my own limitations, my capacity for self-deception, than about the rich, mysterious world I drift through unaware until it smacks me in the face.

Face-Plant Guy is me.


The Harvesters, 1565 by Molly

<br /><i>Via Flickr:</i>
<br />This panel is from Bruegel's great series The Seasons. An extraordinary painter, draftsman, and etcher, he is one of the giants of Netherlandish art.

The Harvesters, 1565 Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Netherlandish, act. by 1551, d. 1569) Oil on wood; Overall, including added strips at top, bottom, and right, 46 7/8 x 63 ¾ in. (119 x 162 cm); original painted surface 45 7/8 x 62 7/8 in. (116.5 x 159.5 cm)

Rogers Fund, 1919 (19.164)