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Peering Deep Into Soul of a Painting

INSIDE BRUEGEL The Play of Images in 'Children's Games' by Edward Snow. North Point Press/Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 204 pages, $40


"Caress the details, the divine details" is an exhortation (from Nabokov) that appears early on in Edward Snow's "Inside Bruegel: The Play of Images in 'Children's Games,' " and it sets the tone for this thoughtful, intricate and, indeed, detail-caressing study of Pieter Bruegel's 1560 masterpiece. Following Snow's widely esteemed "A Study of Vermeer," "Bruegel" has been 20 years in the making and is a similarly percipient, sometimes difficult piece of art-historical reflection from this Rice professor of English and translator of Rilke.

To go "inside" an artist, for Snow, means to question most accepted art-historical precepts. It means to examine the informing facts and the content of a painting, yet to ponder over and over how they might (never "should") be taken. It means to look carefully at the use of color and shape, the repetition and opposition of motifs, the range of psychology and the interplay of themes. In the end, "Inside Bruegel" is a book as much about a specific canvas as about more general acts--and challenges--of reading.

Bruegel's canvas is a rich tapestry of children spinning hoops and barrels and tops, children walking on stilts, balancing on fences and playing tug of war, blind man's bluff and dozens of other simultaneously enacted games. They are set in a landscape that changes from the pastoral to the urban to (in the populous middle ground) somewhere in between. Like the conventional essayist that, in most other senses, Snow is not, he takes on the painting's earlier interpreters, who insist on seeing these children as miniature adults who depict the folly of mankind or, alternately, constitute a catalog of contemporary customs or ethical commonplaces. Snow maintains, however, that there is no evidence for such moralistic uses of children's games in art history up to Bruegel, and he feels, in any event, that the "taxonomist's delight" Bruegel takes in children's behavior is far too varied and nonjudgmental to be so narrowly applied.

Instead, Bruegel is a painter who "thinks in images" (as Cezanne put it) rather than in simple ideas or truisms. And Bruegel's image-thinking often favors antithetical pairs or echoes. Consider, for example, the top-spinners who, gathered under one arch of the painting's central building, delight in their game; in the next arch over, another boy, whose clothing alludes to a monk's robe, doesn't so much spin as flagellate his top: Bruegel depicts two incarnations of one form of play and suggests that both are valid expressions of a child's behavior. Similarly, in a game of leapfrog, dominant players vault over the backs of their passive counterparts, at first giving an impression of "two distinct classes, one of which rises and enjoys mobility at the expense of another." But since it is clear that the leapers will soon change places with the boys being leaped over, the total group "poses succinctly the ambiguities of childhood and play that are scattered throughout the painting."

Snow is exquisitely sensitive to the ambiguities and contradictions in Bruegel's work, yet he honors its lucidity as well. He sees Bruegel as a painter who imagines the body from the inside out. Snow's Bruegel is an anthropologist who recognizes that boys' games and girls' games differ, though seldom along obvious lines: A boy on stilts is ambitious and transcendent, yes, but he is also precarious and risking downfall; a girl nearby stands on her own two feet and is more earthbound, but her arms are free to "reach, cling, grasp, contend, devise, exult, assist, despair, drop sadly, register isolation and connection, express fullness of being and emptiness of self."

Snow also clearly identifies Bruegel's understanding of the prominence of victimization and persecution in children's play; the loneliness often felt by participants in games; and the way the painting takes up the question of whether play is a rehearsal for adulthood or whether adulthood is a loss of the spirit of play. In following these and dozens more threads (some of which unfortunately get knotted in places into a clumsy postmodern academic speak), Snow also manages to extend his attention to other images in Bruegel's oeuvre.

Ultimately Snow's stance is celebratory. For him, "Children's Games" is a painting that "testifies vividly to the instinctive human will to turn barren and impoverished circumstances into a multifarious, imaginatively grasped world." In a way, the same might be said of his own book, which elevates our own impoverished, cursory glances and shows us how (in a passage from Nietzsche that Snow cites admiringly) "to read slowly, deeply . . . with doors left open, with delicate eyes and fingers."

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