Walter Gibson, Pieter Bruegel and the Art of Laughter. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006. 287 pp, 84 illus. ISBN 10: 052045210.

In the Prologue, Walter Gibson describes his book as a more detailed version of the study of laughter that extends the fourth chapter of his earlier book, Pleasant Places (2000). However, here the author’s methodological focus seems to have shifted away from an investigation of the images themselves and toward a broad sketch of the context of their reception, in terms of both who could have owned the paintings and the rooms in which they hung. His aim, as he states it, is to resurrect Pieter Bruegel the comedian, whom Karel van Mander described in his Schilder-boeck as an artist whose work no one could contemplate without laughing. This Bruegel has largely been discarded in twentieth-century art historical discourse in favor of Bruegel the ‘ painter-philosopher.’ Gibson argues against the contention that humor in Bruegel is a means to a larger end, i.e., didactic moral instruction, instead advocating the idea that the laughter provoked by these paintings is an end in itself. ‘Hoe geleerder, hoe verkeerder’ (The more learned, the more wrong) – this Netherlandish proverb is offered by Gibson as a recourse against the lofty, often contradictory interpretations applied to Bruegel’s work by modern scholars. He argues for abandoning the idea of Bruegel as an erudite painter whose images conform to a single system of philosophical thought (even though humor could also be understood as a single system of thought) and for embracing a much simpler, straightforward approach. Bruegel’s art, according to Gibson, would have been viewed and understood by anyone who might have purchased his prints or paintings.

While the Prologue argues for Bruegel the comedian, Chapter One argues for humor as a cultural commodity – that is, something people deemed useful. Gibson offers a rich array of textual sources from antiquity to the seventeenth century, written by scholars, poets, theologians, and politicians from both Italy and the North, which assess the act of laughter, its different levels and uses, and whether or not it would have been appropriate for those who are civilized. Both positive and negative characterizations abound and by contrasting the different opinions of writers like Erasmus and Castiglione, among others, Gibson makes the case that by the mid-sixteenth century laughter was socially acceptable and that the people who owned paintings like Bruegel’s would have welcomed light-hearted humor in their home and at their social gatherings.

In Chapter Two, Gibson offers interpretations of a number of Bruegel’s works, as well as those of his predecessors, starting from the premise that for viewers humor always eclipsed moralizing. Paintings like Bruegel’s Boschian drolleries and the Netherlandish Proverbs , as well as various works on paper – such as his Seven Vices, Elck and Alchemist – would have inspired laughter as much as, or more than, devotion, fear or moral edification. The chapter concludes with a lengthy discussion of depictions of facial expressions and the representation of the passions.

Chapters Three, Four and Five can be described together as a discussion of Bruegel’s peasant paintings and the probable convivial context in which they would have been viewed. Historiographically, these chapters (if not the entire book) should be situated as the latest response to a debate that began almost thirty years ago between Svetlana Alpers and Hessel Miedema regarding the way in which Bruegel’s viewers would have understood and responded to his depictions of peasant festivities. In many publications since that interchange, Gibson has made clear that he favors Alpers’s view; whereas earlier representations of peasants were almost always negative – foolish, boisterous, quarrelsome – Bruegel’s peasants are not caricatures, but rather monumental figures in oil on panel; therefore, argues Gibson, they would have been viewed in a more favorable, idealized light, possibly eliciting laughter but certainly not disdain or moralizing judgement.

It has been convincingly argued (Smolderen, Goldstein) that Bruegel’s Peasant Wedding Banquet, now in Vienna, probably hung in the back dining room of the wealthy Jean Noirot, Antwerp Mint Master from 1562-1572. The aim of Chapter Three is to show that the type of people we know who owned Bruegel’s paintings – Cardinal Granvelle, Niclaes Jonghelinck, Noirot – were not a part of the humanist circle of Abraham Ortelius and, therefore, would not have possessed the profound knowledge of Greek and Roman literature used by modern scholars, especially Margaret Sullivan, to justify their ‘learned’o interpretations of the artist’s work. The primary concern of these men, argues Gibson, was the luxurious display of their wealth and social standing. To determine their response to Bruegel’s peasant scenes hanging in a domestic interior, it is important to understand the specific character of their relationship with the peasant class.

In Chapter Four, Gibson argues that urbanites had long encountered peasants in the countryside, particularly by the mid-sixteenth century when many wealthy individuals had second homes outside the city walls, and that the relationship between the two was friendly and dignified. Kermises were often visited by city residents, and evidence suggests that their attitudes toward these festivities were not nearly as negative as the condemnations of Charles V and Martin Luther would have us believe. Rather, paintings and documents show that they attended the celebrations, possibly out of curiosity and a desire for entertainment, but certainly not out of the desire to make moral judgments. This carefree attitude toward peasants and their revels, Gibson argues, would have been the filter through which someone like Noirot viewed Bruegel’s peasant paintings that hung in his dining room, a space in which he and his guests gathered together for their own kind of festivity – a feast. Chapter Five examines further contemporary convivium literature, proverbs, theological texts and paintings that depict or describe appropriate manners and attitudes during mealtime. Humor, Gibson claims, was the main ingredient in a good meal. Therefore, the dining room would have appropriately displayed pictures like Bruegel’s Vienna Peasant Wedding Banquet or Peasant Dance, not so much as models of behavior to avoid, or as moralities to contemplate, but rather as festive backdrops for mealtime sociability that would have inspired laughter.

The final chapter presents an in-depth examination of Dulle Griet, a painting that, like the Netherlandish Proverbs, Gibson argues ‘takes proverbs literally’ and, therefore is mainly meant to be funny. The author, following Jan Grauls, sees the painting as a representation of a hot-tempered woman and her equally angry army, who ‘plunder in front of Hell and return unscathed’ (127). But, he also more specifically defines the folkloric theme by providing an abundant collection of visual and textual support from plays, proverbs, poetry, woodcuts and engravings.

Although Gibson provides extensive evidence from literature, popular practices and art to support his thesis, there are two primary problems. First, the author alternates between saying that laughter is one response among many that would have been inspired by the image and that laughter is the primary or only response inspired. These are two very different arguments – the first being undoubtedly true and widely accepted and the second being impossible to prove and a doubtful simplification. A second problem is that for many of the works, Gibson offers a standard description and interpretation, then simply states that it would have been funny without going into any further detail. For example, the lack of any visual analysis in his discussion of the Netherlandish Proverbs, leaves his interpretation – that the painting’s function is mainly to provoke laughter at the absurdities involved in taking proverbs literally – unconvincing.

Gibson’s talent as a scholar has always been his ability to situate art in its broader cultural context by making connections with theatre, poetry, or politics, then organizing this information and writing about it in such a way that it is valuable to both specialists and the general public. This book is no exception. Despite inconsistencies in his argument and the neglect of specific ways images represent and inspire various forms of laughter, the significant, even primary, role Gibson assigns humor in the reception of Bruegel is a nice reminder of the element of play in the work of the artist.

Todd Richardson
University of Leiden


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