Understanding Bruegel’s Babel

by

Special To The Japan Times

Tokyoites, that is to say the 13 or so million people who somehow manage to live with the certain knowledge that chaos and confusion will be wrought on the city by a massive earthquake in the not too-distant future, have the opportunity to ponder Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s 16th-century depiction of the “Tower of Babel” at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Art. The exhibition also includes a number of supplementary paintings and etchings that give the painting some context.

Not much is known about Bruegel, so it’s only possible to speculate on the philosophical outlook that resulted in his highly detailed and endlessly fascinating depictions of vernacular and mythical landscapes. Purely from a visual point of view, the Flemish painter’s inventiveness, like his predecessor Hieronymous Bosch, was to make the anecdotal and sometimes comical detail that often appeared in the background of medieval European religious painting the main content of many of his images.

The original story of Babel in the Bible’s Book of Genesis is a lesson in hubris and divine judgement, and it’s not much of a stretch to imagine that Bruegel’s depiction of an unfinished tower spiraling upward to the very edge of the picture frame, with humanity rendered as tiny anonymous figures, is also making a point about the insignificance of man in the face of God.

However, if Bruegel had only wanted to create an illustration of the Bible story, in which the population of the world’s first great post-flood city is scattered in confusion by suddenly being made multi-lingual, he wouldn’t have included a sea port in the image, or perhaps shown the tower as such a magnificent structure.

This is the tack taken by art historian Steven Mansbach, who suggested in a 1982 essay that in the context of the Netherlands’ growing resentment of the Catholic rule of Phillip II of Spain, it’s possible to read the image not as a reaffirmation of divine omnipotence and human frailty, but as praise for the humanism of northern Protestantism.

As for the exhibition space itself, it does a pretty bang-up job of replicating the biblical narrative of the “Tower of Babel.” Punters hoping to catch a glimpse of greatness and be able to ponder the mysteries of the cosmos are funneled into a spiraling line that snakes its way past various ancillary works before rising to the next floor of the museum.

The painting on which the exhibition hinges only measures 60 × 75 centimeters, and if you have hopes of being able to take in its minute and myriad details, these will be swiftly crushed by staff who will indicate, in no uncertain terms, that you must not linger in front of the painting and are to be cast down to street level forthwith.

Granted, there are a few alternative forms of display, such as a giant reproduction of some of the detail of the painting, which aim to provide viewers with a chance to inspect its content without standing directly in front of it. Unfortunately, these were not inspiring enough in themselves to attract much attention.

Regular museumgoers in Tokyo will not be surprised by this state of affairs. Art exhibitions at major venues are often marketed on the back of one or two renowned works, and this is a structure that’s doomed to failure, so to speak. If museums are serious about art as a medium of contemplation and refinement of critical judgement, they need to stop thinking of their spaces as digestive tracts and then bunging in something that they know will cause a blockage.

“Collection of Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen Bruegel’s ‘The Tower of Babel’ and Great 16th Century Masters” at Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum runs until July 2; 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m.(Fri. until 8 p.m.). ¥1,600. Closed Mon. www.tobikan.jp/en