Art Zoom: Feist x Pieter Bruegel the Elder

I'm Leslie Feist. And together, we're going
to look at one image. Just one. Very closely. This is the Tower of
Babel, or Tower of Babel, depending on where you live. This is a very rare
subject for painting– a Genesis image that comes after
the flood, when mankind drunk with pride built a very
high tower, whose goal was to reach the sky. Seeing this, God
rankled at the hubris of building a
stairway to heaven, and scrambled their
languages so all of humanity would be incomprehensible
to one another. And this is how
languages were reborn. Pieter Bruegel the
elder was born in 1525. He was a Dutch and
Flemish Renaissance painter, and a contemporary
of Rafael and Michelangelo. So to put that in
context, that's like the Kings of Convenience
and Chance the Rapper. This painting is almost as
tall as me, and stands 5'1". It seems to have been
painted so viewers can almost dive into its details. All around here,
there's a feeling of bustling and busy work, a
site where work and life are fading into one another. With the cranes,
and the scaffolding, and the human sized
hamster wheel. Some temporary houses have
been built like tiny mushrooms up on a giant Redwood tree. The extraordinary sense of
detail Bruegel possessed is highlighted by his gifted
drawing and kind observational skills. I feel he was a
humanist at heart. Zoom in and you'll see
hundreds of tiny characters. A sailor in a crow's
nest of a ship. Workers curled up
napping in the grass. Women hanging transparent
brushstrokes of linens while children gather
under archways. The ghost of a fisherman. A man in the river–
oh, never mind. The story goes that Bruegel
would dress as a peasant and take gifts to
weddings of strangers. As an uninvited guest, he'd dive
into the peasants' partying– reveling, eating, dancing, and
flirting, and develop his love and warmth for the people
that he depicted later in his paintings. Both these miniature people and
the very tiny Flemish styled port city here provide a sense
of scale for the gigantic Tower of Babel. Like an onion slowly
being peeled through time, we feel that we're
seeing the conception and the construction, the
completion and the crumbling of the tower all at once. See how the foundations are
still under construction, even though the
structure already towers above the valley? It's a very human mistake to
aspirationally aim for the sky, but without solid footing. Contrary to the
Bible, Bruegel seems to tell us that the reason
the tower was doomed had more to do with
structural failure than divine intervention. So was the Tower
of Babel designed by some inspired architect? Or was it the grandson of Noah? King Nimrod over
here– you can see him with his scepter, and robes,
and retinue of yea-sayers at the bottom left. Or like a golden tower in New
York City, some megalomaniac trying to compete with God? The fact that the tower
looks like the Colosseum is a direct allusion to the
destruction of the Roman Empire, which grew
excessively unwieldy, and hence, it was
promised to ruin. While mankind was never able to
truly build the Tower of Babel, Bruegel the Elder managed
to paint three of them. The first is lost. The second smaller one
you can see in Rotterdam. And the great
Tower of Babel here belongs to the Museum
of Fine Arts in Vienna, where you can go and dive
into its details as well. That's art. It's great. The end.

10 Replies to “Art Zoom: Feist x Pieter Bruegel the Elder”

  1. Beautifully narated. Enough informations, enough energy to engage us and surprisingly likeable sense of humor. Good job Ms. Feist!

  2. Just the right tone, the right narrator, and the right artist for students to start with. I hope there will be more of these, and they'll imitate this one. It wasn't about how clever the narrator is, or how learned, enlightened, woke– or how dumb all rival interpreters have been– it was about the work, and the increasingly heretical idea that looking at art is a pleasure. Thank you, Ms. Feist.

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