Detail, The Wild Man, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, woodcut, 1566. I made this detail to highlight one of four figures in the foreground of the only completed woodcut from a Bruegel design, namely the “wild man.” In the background, one of the troupe of actors collects money from spectators looking out of the building facing the scene.
My Grandfather was a healer. People would come from all around and knock on my Grandparent’s door. Grandmother would answer and tear them a new one. Mocking them and telling them Grandfather was a fake and a phony. All along in fact, it was my Grandmother who was the Master.
“People are stupid and lazy. They want a magic pill,” she’d say. “Healing is an incomprehensible contradictory journey that will shatter your mind. There is no cure. It’s about seeing truly, you were never sick. The universe is fucking perfect!” Then she’s laugh and offer me her cigar.
Anyway, Grandmother was complete and utter love, yet she would mock these seekers that would come to the door. The real pure ones would see through her words and threats immediately and fall at her feet. She would take them in and it was all very simple. Others would come back or hang around her as much as they could. They didn’t know what was going on but they loved her and needed to be around her. The dipshits and hardheads that persisted in trying to find Grandfather (The Master!) were unable to see her obvious truth because they were lost looking for some perfect god. “They just want god to love them, but not the devil.” So, she’d season them with some ridiculous errand or a series of tasks. Once they proved themselves or she got tired of em she’d send em up the mountain. The mountain was an epic 3-day hike through some of the most beautiful country in the world. It was also quite dangerous. When the poor bastards finally got to the top of the mountain where Grandfather’s cave was, there was a sign that read, “Out to Lunch”. Grandfather, had died long ago in the war.
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:
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:
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.