The Play of Images in Children's Games
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 Translator and art historian Snow (English/Rice Univ.; A Study of Vermeer, not reviewed) turns a close reading of the multifarious Bruegel into a colorless exercise in pedantry. The Elder Bruegel's range of subjects and richness of detail make it easy to structure a whole book around the imagery of his paintings, a task to which Snow, alas, brings jargon-mongering and donnish analysis. Any art historian would of course be attracted to Bruegel's scope of accomplishment--peasant genres, Bosch-like fantasies, religious histories, parables, landscapes--and his combination of Dutch realism, Renaissance humanism, and medieval motifs. His painting Children's Games, for instance, with its minute social observation, masterful composition, myriad details, and underlying moral subtleties, make it a favorite subject of study. Snow not only examines the significance of almost each frolicking group in the painting, but also contrasts, not always convincingly, the figures with those in other Bruegel canvases. The games Bruegel's children play are not the moralized images of his Netherlandish Proverbs, however, though the two paintings are similarly crammed; nor is the composition of the carefully structured Children's Games as straightforwardly realistic as Peasant Dance. Snow's efforts unfortunately turn into academic interpretations of other academic interpretations or spiral into abstruse theory-speak, featuring ruminations on the ``unstable libidinal field'' of a painting or the ``oasis of pre-volitional well-being'' in a work. Snow may be sensitive to the problem of our aesthetic responses to an artist so subtly nuanced and historically distant, but his impulse is toward amorphous hermeneutics rather than the essence of the images before him. Reading into Bruegel's paintings, Snow renders the Dutch artist, in recondite prose, into an abstract impressionist. ``They were never wrong, the Old Masters,'' as Auden writes, but the same can't be said for this particular commentary on one of those masters. (150 b&w illustrations, one color plate, not seen)

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1997
ISBN: 0-86547-527-X
Page count: 248pp
Publisher: North Point/Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15th, 1997