Birth to Death in 42 Panels
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An obsession with Pieter Bruegel the Elder elicits a vibrant portrait of the artist’s work and world.

Ferris, creator of the web-based Anatomy of Norbiton, which he describes as “essays on suburban life and universal failure as seen through the lens of Renaissance art,” makes his book debut with a captivating chronicle of his journeys to collections around the world in search of paintings by Bruegel. In 2012, the 42-year-old author became overwhelmed by “a mania for Bruegel,” incited by Landscape With the Fall of Icarus—not an authentic Bruegel, he discovered, but more likely a copy—which he saw at the Musée des Beaux Arts in Brussels. “Why Bruegel?, why all of it? and why now?”: Ferris never fully answers those questions as he embarks on his quest, revealing only that at the time he felt at loose ends, “on the payroll of a dying software company,” and working mostly at home, tinkering with Anatomy of Norbiton. Tracking down works by Bruegel gave him “a defined and manageable project.” Ferris does not explain why he juxtaposes his insights into Bruegel’s work with a memoir about his father, an engineer who worked for the General Electric Company and who died in 2009. The author portrays his father with affection but strains to connect him to Bruegel. Documentary evidence for his father’s life is scant, Ferris admits, consisting of a few methodically kept lists; similarly, for Bruegel, there is “only the vivid remnant flesh of the paintings and drawings and engravings.” The author illuminates those works with an astute, knowing eye and penetrating insight, admiring Bruegel’s precision in rendering scenes of peasant life: “the marginalized, the outcast, the strange,” whom the artist depicted “not necessarily with sympathy”; or “the great theatre of suffering,” such as bear-baiting, “which kept the sixteenth century amused.” Along with reflections on artworks, Ferris shares sharp, often amusing details of ambience, hotels, trains, meals, and much beer in each city he visits.

A profusely illustrated, deeply thoughtful meditation on art.

Pub Date: Feb. 25th, 2020
ISBN: 978-0-06-293175-7
Page count: 336pp
Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15th, 2019