"Sometimes imagination is no more than randomness applied." —Piet Francke

Monthly Masters DiscussionMonthly Masters' Discussion - December 2018 - Bruegel's "Census At Bethlehem"

Post Reply
User avatar
minniev
Mentoris Imperator
Mentoris Imperator
Posts: 4230
Joined: Sun Apr 17, 2016 3:55 am
Location: Mississippi
Social Media Opt-In: Yes
Editing option: Yes, feel free to edit my image
Contact:

Monthly Masters' Discussion - December 2018 - Bruegel's "Census At Bethlehem"

Post by minniev » Sat Dec 01, 2018 11:45 am

Introduction

For our December Masters, we will consider “The Census of Bethlehem” by Pieter Bruegel, an artist of the Northern Renaissance whose visually engrossing paintings offer a celebration of the common mass of humanity. His work contrasts with the pious artworks of the previous era. Born a peasant in what is now the Netherlands in the 1520s, his work focuses on themes such as rural working life, religion and superstition, and the political and social intrigues of his day. These themes were tackled with a droll humor and skepticism for narratives of great deeds and men. Bruegel's most distinctive stylistic contribution to art history was a form of narrative composition in which a sprawling landscape is filled with a teeming mass of humanity, figures grouped together across the canvas to form various intersecting focal points. Reminiscent of his older countryman Hieronymus Bosch's surreal hellscapes, this approach set Bruegel apart from many Renaissance artists who favored more visually harmonious compositions, offering a snapshot of a lingering medieval view of human society as chaotic and unruly.

As you consider this artwork, please review some of the linked articles to see more of Bruegel’s work, and read some analysis and history. Here are some questions to spur your thinking. Answer any questions that you feel inclined to, or simply share your own ideas.

Questions to Consider

1. What do you think of the composition? the presentation of subject matter? Would you want this on your wall? Why or why not?
2. Bruegel’s paintings are very “busy” and crowded with material. He seems to use every corner and inch of the frame. Is it too much? Does it work? Why or why not? Is there a parallel here for photography? Why or why not?
3. What is the subject? How can you tell?
4. The colors Bruegel chose were dull, and decidedly un-Christmasy. He used brighter colors in much of his work. What do you think about the color palette? For a Christmas painting, is there meaning in the drab colors? How do they work for you?
5. Do you see parallels for this type of composition in modern art or photography? Have you ever taken a photograph so filled with subject matter? If so, would you share it? Please tell us a little about why you decided on the composition and framing.

Links for Further Study
https://www.theartstory.org/artist-brue ... pieter.htm
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder
https://www.britannica.com/biography/Pi ... -the-Elder
https://www.italian-renaissance-art.com ... uegel.html
https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/brue/hd_brue.htm
https://www.pieter-bruegel-the-elder.org/biography.html
https://www.thevintagenews.com/2017/05/ ... spiration/
https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesig ... n-pictures
Attachments
46d398db-70a9-49b0-94fa-6f2fdb8f6547-2060x1412.jpeg
fair use - https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/gallery/2014/dec/24/artworks-that-define-christmas-in-pictures
"God gave me photography so that I could pray with my eyes" - Dewitt Jones

User avatar
Psjunkie
Mentoris Magnus
Mentoris Magnus
Posts: 2017
Joined: Sun Apr 17, 2016 4:20 am
Social Media Opt-In: No
Editing option: Yes, feel free to edit my image
Contact:

Post by Psjunkie » Sun Dec 02, 2018 3:11 am

so far above my pay grade I don't even feel I deserve the right to comment.....unbelievable there were even materials back then and to figure out how to use and apply them with such stunning results speaks volumes......thank you minniev for another wonderful educational thread.......

User avatar
minniev
Mentoris Imperator
Mentoris Imperator
Posts: 4230
Joined: Sun Apr 17, 2016 3:55 am
Location: Mississippi
Social Media Opt-In: Yes
Editing option: Yes, feel free to edit my image
Contact:

Post by minniev » Sun Dec 02, 2018 7:27 pm

Psjunkie wrote:
Sun Dec 02, 2018 3:11 am
so far above my pay grade I don't even feel I deserve the right to comment.....unbelievable there were even materials back then and to figure out how to use and apply them with such stunning results speaks volumes......thank you minniev for another wonderful educational thread.......
Thanks for jumping in Frank, hopefully you'll encourage someone else.
"God gave me photography so that I could pray with my eyes" - Dewitt Jones

User avatar
PietFrancke
Mentoris Primus
Mentoris Primus
Posts: 1507
Joined: Mon Jun 26, 2017 1:38 pm
Location: WV
Social Media Opt-In: Yes
Editing option: Yes, feel free to edit my image
Contact:

Post by PietFrancke » Tue Dec 11, 2018 1:48 pm

I like the subdued colors/light - reminds me of a cloudy day. I suspect Minnie likes Bruegel's kitchen sink very well. And I do too, everything seems to have its place and the images speaks about hustle and bustle and community and building, collecting, keeping things going, working, LIFE.

User avatar
minniev
Mentoris Imperator
Mentoris Imperator
Posts: 4230
Joined: Sun Apr 17, 2016 3:55 am
Location: Mississippi
Social Media Opt-In: Yes
Editing option: Yes, feel free to edit my image
Contact:

Post by minniev » Tue Dec 11, 2018 5:22 pm

PietFrancke wrote:
Tue Dec 11, 2018 1:48 pm
I like the subdued colors/light - reminds me of a cloudy day. I suspect Minnie likes Bruegel's kitchen sink very well. And I do too, everything seems to have its place and the images speaks about hustle and bustle and community and building, collecting, keeping things going, working, LIFE.
You know I do. Kitchen sink for me. Bruegel, Grandma Moses, etc etc. I like finding all the parts, especially when there is a little surprise involved!
"God gave me photography so that I could pray with my eyes" - Dewitt Jones

User avatar
Duck
Key Founding Member
Key Founding Member
Posts: 2529
Joined: Tue Nov 25, 2014 6:31 am
Location: Shelton, CT
Social Media Opt-In: Yes
Editing option: Yes, feel free to edit my image
Contact:

Post by Duck » Tue Dec 11, 2018 7:52 pm

Interestingly enough, I am in the process of refining my lecture on composition and this image has so much going for it, compositionally.

The first point I would like to say is that you first need to consider both the medium and the time frame of this painting. Being a painting, the artist has a certain advantage of being able to carefully direct the large amount of content presented to the viewer, unlike, say, a photo of opportunity of the street photographer (Pieter would have been the 'street photographer' of his time). Even a studio photographer, with the luxury of space and time, would have a hard time justifying creating such a complex composition. Where you would see this type of visual composition today would be in modern cinema. In particular, period pieces that rely on background elements to "sell the era".

Secondly, the era in which this was created was a much slower time. People had the luxury of spending very long periods of time to contemplate a painting, unlike the average 15 seconds an image has to grab your attention in social media today, though this is an unfair analogy. Visual appreciation is not what it used to be but because of that time luxury artists imbued their works with a lot of meaning. In this case this is an allegorical reference to a passage from the bible denoting the mandate for a census from Rome. Not to mention that most artists would have created artwork that pandered to their patron. This would obviously sway the content and meaning of their creations.

On Inspiration

Taking this painting in reference to modern image making there is a strong lesson in inspiration. In this case Pieter took a passage from the bible and made it his own;
And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered... So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child.

— Luke 2:1-5
Wikipedia
With 'Census at Bethlehem' you can see all the elements of this passage clearly represented in a modern (for his time) interpretation. Historically, this is nothing new. Many artists of all types have pulled reference from the bible for inspiration, but what the takeaway here is in the reinterpretation. If ever one has a mental block about what to create... just pull a passage from the bible and reinterpret it photographically. I can see Piet Francke and Dave Chinn getting inspiration from this. :)

On Composition

The beauty of this painting, for me, is the thematic use of tableau vivants throughout the entire scene. Everywhere you look there are carefully staged scenes of everyday life (snowball fight, chafing the wheat, bringing goods to market) while coalescing into the overall theme of census taking and the pilgrimage of Joseph and Mary into Bethlehem. To be honest, I am not a religious person so I completely missed the titular reference and the obvious depiction of Joseph and Mary at first.

Pieter_Bruegel-Census_01.jpg
Dynamic Symmetry
Pieter_Bruegel-Census_01.jpg (140.25 KiB) Viewed 29 times
If you are one that has settled on the Rule of Thirds and have not wandered far from that compositional rule you will be hard pressed to analyze how this scene is arranged. There are two very strong compositional elements (rules?) used effectively here; the Dynamic Symmetry and the Gestalt theory of Proximity or Common Region. This is the principle where groups of elements are seen as a whole. In this case, the assembly in front of the census building at lower left is the main focus point because of the mass of grouping and the intersection of points based on Dynamic Symmetry.

Pieter_Bruegel-Census_02.jpg
Rule of Thirds
Pieter_Bruegel-Census_02.jpg (136.39 KiB) Viewed 29 times
That doesn't mean the Rule of Thirds isn't there. On closer inspection you can clearly see elements purposely conforming to that principle. Take a look at the horizon line created by the row of buildings in the background and the row of travelers making their pilgrimage to the census house at bottom. Then notice the two trees with their strong dark color and vertical placement equidistantly left and right. It's just happens that other rules take precedence.

Pieter_Bruegel-Census_03.jpg
Rule of Contrasts
Pieter_Bruegel-Census_03.jpg (138.04 KiB) Viewed 29 times
Another Gestalt principle in use is the principle of Contrast. In this image pay close attention to the light area of snow covered ground coming in at a diagonal to the census building. This use of color, along with the carefully placed leading lines within that space, all comes together to pull the eye into the scene, down the path and to the congregation in the lower left corner.

Pieter_Bruegel-Census_04.jpg
Leading Lines
Pieter_Bruegel-Census_04.jpg (136.92 KiB) Viewed 29 times
Speaking of leading lines... This entire painting is just riddled with all kinds of leading lines. Some are very obvious, like the trees and the paths, while others are more subtle, like the progression of the travelers leading into the town center or the direction of view from the majority of the people in the scene.

Pieter_Bruegel-Census_05.jpg
Dissection of Composition
Pieter_Bruegel-Census_05.jpg (23.81 KiB) Viewed 29 times
Overall, on first impression the composition can appear as being intangible. Specially if all you know is the basic Rule of Thirds. Hopefully you have now come to understand the brilliance of Pieter's use of complex compositional decisions to direct an otherwise overwhelming scene. This last diagram simplifies the composition and hopefully allows you to see the painting in a new way.
"If you didn't learn something new today, you wasted a day."
Image ImageImageImageImage

User avatar
PietFrancke
Mentoris Primus
Mentoris Primus
Posts: 1507
Joined: Mon Jun 26, 2017 1:38 pm
Location: WV
Social Media Opt-In: Yes
Editing option: Yes, feel free to edit my image
Contact:

Post by PietFrancke » Tue Dec 11, 2018 9:42 pm

Holy cow Duck - this is awesome. I had never considered the Gestalt rule of Proximity before. If I were a street photographer, I would now seek the contrast of crowds - vs not crowds. Or perhaps seek clumps of trees/bushes in a landscape. Something that struck me but that I was not able to verbalize until now is that while he has a kitchen sink, it is an extremely well organized kitchen sink - he has brought order to the chaos. Anyway, thank you. I enjoyed reading your lesson very much.

User avatar
minniev
Mentoris Imperator
Mentoris Imperator
Posts: 4230
Joined: Sun Apr 17, 2016 3:55 am
Location: Mississippi
Social Media Opt-In: Yes
Editing option: Yes, feel free to edit my image
Contact:

Post by minniev » Tue Dec 11, 2018 10:13 pm

Duck wrote:
Tue Dec 11, 2018 7:52 pm
Interestingly enough, I am in the process of refining my lecture on composition and this image has so much going for it, compositionally.
...
Well, I must say you picked a perfect time to share a lesson in composition based on a kitchen sink artwork! I fully agree that this is carefully ordered chaos at work. The little subplots scattered throughout are not random but by design. Those little subplots are the key to what I love about busy but effective compositions like Bruegels, Bosch, Grandma Moses, Edward Hicks, and others. They seem able to crowd up their canvases with stories but order it in such a way that we enjoy wandering through it. Today's viewers would likely not have to patience to find Mary and Joseph plodding through the crowd.

You've brought out some intriguing explanations for the design pieces in this one, and I'll be forced to keep on studying! Thank you so much for sharing this.
"God gave me photography so that I could pray with my eyes" - Dewitt Jones

Post Reply
  • Similar Topics
    Replies
    Views
    Last post

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 2 guests