Some people dream of seeing a game in every stadium in the major leagues. Others are content to stream all 16 seasons of “Grey’s Anatomy.” For his part, Toby Ferris wanted to stand before every painting by the Dutch Renaissance artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder. It would mean traveling across Europe and the United States, visiting nearly two-dozen museums, but as he describes it in “Short Life in a Strange World,” his oddly charming, deeply intelligent chronicle of the experience, he felt he had little choice in the matter. “A mania for Bruegel had recently gripped me,” he explains, “and I had been thinking about little else.”
The idea for the project wasn’t totally random: Ferris, who lives in Cambridge, England, is the writer behind the website Anatomy of Norbiton, which he calls a “series of essays on suburban life and universal failure as seen through the lens of the art of the Renaissance.” So he’d already been pairing a study of old paintings with an attempt to make sense of things. For the author, on the brink of middle age, those things included the recent death of his unhappy father and his strained relationship with gainful employment.
Precisely how Bruegel - who early on painted religious images and fantasies in the manner of Hieronymus Bosch but who is best remembered for his naturalistic depictions of peasant life - might help Ferris gain clarity was an unanswered question. No matter: “Every project has its point of weakness,” he writes. “A niggle, a suspicion, a discord. If there were not, there would be no need for a project. Straight life would suffice.”
So in 2012 Ferris began to fill the empty spaces of a spreadsheet with pertinent information about the 42 paintings reliably attributed to Bruegel, including their locations. Soon enough he was making little trips to places like Antwerp, in Belgium; Rotterdam, in the Netherlands; and Darmstadt and Bamberg, both in Germany - “cities named in a dream of Europe,” he writes - to see the pieces, produced between about 1553 and 1569, up close.
This author wears his gloom lightly. He takes ideas, but not himself, seriously, contending that he is less like someone on a quest than like a peddler moving from town to town. His approach, upon entering a museum “is not that of awe-stricken acolyte; I do not knee-tremble up the imposing marble stair.” In fact, he’s a bit compulsive, pacing out the dimensions of the rooms in which the paintings hang, counting the other visitors, and timing his interactions with each image.
Mainly what he does is offer interesting thoughts. Over the course of the book, readers may come to think of Ferris’s spreadsheet as a kind of latticework for his musings. The subjects include not only the painted panels of the master, the parables often illustrated in them and even the unexpected pleasures of the museum cafe. They also include such divergent topics as the nature of cold weather (it “searches out your disequilibriums, and politely, remorselessly, addresses them”) and an early-modern pastime called cock-throwing (“one variant of the great theatre of suffering which kept the sixteenth century amused”).
The connection between Ferris’s father, whose life was fascinating and sad, and Bruegel, whose life was short, productive and in other ways unremarkable, is never convincingly made. But the author’s attraction to Bruegel begins to make sense. Anyone asking questions about their own place in the world might be drawn to these portrayals of ordinary life from almost 500 years ago - scenes of human beings who work and return home, who carry their kids and tend to chores, who nap, play, eat, drink and do other, less decorous things. And, with the author’s help, we look at them more closely than before.
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“Here is spring again, says the dance,” Ferris writes about the “The Village Kermis,” better known as “The Peasant Dance,” which hangs in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. “The young people marry, the old remember their youth. Drone and melody of village cycle: a little vigour is piped into the heart, an insufflation of warm memory.”
According to Ferris, Bruegel understands the “transformational” quality of “the habitual, the daily, the seasonal.” His work is a reminder: “The possibilities of existence are not always exhilarating, or exciting, or simple; but they are intricate, detailed, subtle, and bear scrutiny.”
As the author points out, Bruegel’s paintings of village life often include figures who stand alone on the margins of the crowds. This is the position of the observers, of the artists or writers who must distance themselves from the world in order to see it. It is also the position of those, like Ferris’s father, who retreat from both the miserable and the mundane, as well as those who are currently off on strange projects while their spouses and kids wait for them to return. The problem with such a stance is that “in isolating ourselves, we dehumanize ourselves,” the author concedes. “We remove ourselves not only from the foolishness of the world, but from its love, from its communal possibility.”
Ferris is not one for spelling things out. Subtlety is his game. But by the book’s end, we understand it’s time for him to head home, reenter his life and “step into the clear light of the ordinary.”