Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Hunters in the Snow is a study of apocalypse. In 1565, the year the painting was completed, as a number of climatologists and historians have noted, Europe was in the midst of the Little Ice Age.¹ People starved. Agricultural communities regressed to hunting and gathering. Good Christians regressed to survival of the fittest. Except for one dead fox and a tiny, full-ish game bag, Bruegel’s hunters have come home empty-handed. They pass a tavern whose sign shows Hubertus, the patron saint of hunting. The sign hangs crookedly, one stiff gust away from falling.
The Hunters in the Snow is also an extraordinarily gentle painting. For Nicolaes Jonghelinck, the Antwerp banker who commissioned it, starvation was a distant curiosity. Bruegel’s Low Land countryside was carefully scrubbed of all signs of religious strife and simmering rebellion, leaving Jonghelinck to enjoy the crisp harmonies of black trees on white snow and the ravishing bluish greens of sky and ice. The final product must have seemed almost as anachronistically tranquil in 1565 as it does today—so steeped in nostalgia it was destined to end up on Christmas cards.
We tend to like our old masters a little naughty, and Bruegel fits our preferences only too well. He painted mud and blood and shit (his nickname was “the Turd”), dressed Christ’s torturers as contemporary Habsburg soldiers, and left behind so many dirty sketches his widow had to burn them. Hunters has its share of sardonic touches (notice the chimney fire in the distance—the nasty joke of too much heat in the midst of too much cold), but somehow they don’t overwhelm the image. Even after you accept that you’re staring at a town on the brink of mass starvation, you can let yourself be seduced by the beauty of the landscape. The painting’s sentimentality doesn’t mask its “true” horror any more than its horror masks an underlying sentimentality: each is as true as the other.
Some paintings cry out for interpretation. Hunters, I think, cries out for something more like resolution in a musical sense: counterpoint, improvisation, variations on its themes. A number of famous poets—William Carlos Williams, John Berryman, Walter de la Mare—wrote ekphrastic responses to Bruegel’s painting, and they’re all kind of terrible. They trudge past the details of Hunters, making a mockery of the painter’s light touch. At least part of the problem with the literary interpretations of Hunters is language itself. Viewers are free to glide over Bruegel’s image, drinking in its figures and colors and themes in a single long gulp, but readers must settle for the strictures of a beginning, middle, and end, with every element of the painting assigned its own rank and value. Even W.H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts,” probably the best Bruegel poem, can’t help falling into this trap. Auden lovers remember the second stanza, about Bruegel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, but the first, modeled in part on the painter’s The Census at Bethlehem, may be even more revealing:
About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening
a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
Auden praises Bruegel, in effect, for simultaneity, the strange tragicomedy that arises from many different parts jostling for attention. But no poem, not even his, can truly convey the sense of this simultaneity, because no reader can read two words at the same time. When Auden makes words out of Bruegel’s paintings, he winds up with something like tragicomedy, but perhaps closer to comedy than tragedy: he begins with suffering and dilutes it with skating, rather than beginning with skating and poisoning it with suffering. It’s lovely, but it’s not quite Bruegel. In Hunters, neither ice skating nor suffering is allowed the last word—or, to borrow from the Bruegel scholar Edward Snow, “It is difficult . . . to know which is host and which is parasite in this symbiosis.”
BRUEGEL SEEMS LIKE A BETTER FIT for a certain type of film than for poetry. His indiscriminate eye; his contempt for obvious “takeaways”; his wide, lucid images withholding judgment—in all these ways, he anticipates the “slow cinema” of the last few decades. It seems appropriate that director Andrei Tarkovsky, a pivotal figure in the flourishing of this kind of cinema, should be the first major filmmaker to put Hunters to work onscreen.
Tarkovsky left behind two unmistakable Hunters homages, one a long, aching look at the image and the other a bizarre, fractured tableau vivant. Even if he’d shot neither, people would compare his work to Bruegel’s. Andrei Rublev (1966) opens with one of the most Bruegel-esque scenes ever filmed: medieval peasants build a hot air balloon, launch it with one of their number tied beneath, and hoot with delight as he floats off over the countryside before crashing Icarus-like to earth. The scene ends with a zoom shot of the ground—Tarkovsky, like Bruegel, is always looking down at his figures, so that they don’t seem to reach up to the heavens so much as sink into the mud.
When Tarkovsky sends his characters off into the heavens, they look back at terra firma with a mixture of longing and pain, far more powerful than longing alone. In Solaris (1972), the scientist Kris Kelvin (his surname echoing the temperature scale) travels to a space station orbiting a distant planet. The space station is decorated with Bruegel paintings that serve as constant, bittersweet reminders of the world Kelvin, whose wife committed suicide, has left behind. Like Auden, Tarkovsky admired the seductive clutter of Bruegel’s work. In an interview with French film critic Michel Ciment, he noted that “there’s something very Russian”—something very good, we can surmise—“about . . . the way [his] pictures always have parallel action, with numerous characters each busily going about their own business.”
How strange, then, that in Solaris’s most famous scene Bruegel is stripped of precisely that quality. The single wide shot of Hunters is broken into a series of extreme close-ups: the camera follows Kelvin’s gaze slowly, almost tenderly, across the surface of the painting, and the soundtrack fills with ambient sounds, some familiar, some not. The paradox of the scene, or at least one of many, is that by studying Bruegel’s painting so intimately, Tarkovsky makes it seem not just strange but otherworldly. It’s as if the intensity of the character’s nostalgia (or is it Tarkovsky’s?) brings Bruegel almost, but not quite, to life—appropriately so, since Kelvin is standing next to a creature who is almost but not quite his wife.
Would this scene be half as powerful if it featured another painting—another Bruegel painting, even? In Hunters, longing and horror are inextricably mixed, and no director was better than Tarkovsky at exploring the relationship between the two, showing how our secret desires lurch on like zombies long after we think we’re through with them. A few minutes of screen time later, Kelvin’s “wife” commits suicide once again by drinking liquid nitrogen, and it’s hard not to look at her lifeless body, recall the gorgeous blue-greens of Bruegel’s frozen ponds, and feel your heart being yanked in two directions at once. Horror and longing are, if anything, more intricately bound in Tarkovsky’s second Hunters homage, from The Mirror (1975), which intercuts a winter scene, nearly identical to the one in the painting, with various enchanting or disturbing images, including stock footage of Hitler and nuclear annihilation.
It’s perfectly clear and perfectly mysterious, surprising but also frank in a way that feels inevitable, as if Soviet scientists had invented a way to turn dreams into movies and made a sleeping Tarkovsky their first test subject. It reflects Tarkovsky’s belief that Bruegel and other old masters put aside “allegorical tendentiousness” in favor of sheer “vividness,” so that they were precise about the things they painted and enigmatic about the emotions the objects should elicit. “A true artistic image,” he wrote in his book of reflections Sculpting in Time, “gives the beholder a simultaneous experience of the most complex, contradictory, sometimes even mutually exclusive feelings”—as apt a description of Hunters as it is of his own films.
SINCE THE ’70s, HUNTERS HAS MADE a number of film cameos: in Alain Tanner’s In the White City (1983), in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011), in Abbas Kiarostami’s 24 Frames (2017). One reason there haven’t been more, one suspects, is Tarkovsky’s beatification among cinephiles. Using the painting, post-Solaris and Mirror, reminds viewers of Tarkovsky as much as Bruegel, and only fools or geniuses would court that comparison.
I’m not sure if von Trier is a genius or a fool, but in the first eight minutes of Melancholia alone, he swaggers from one homage to another: Bruegel, Tarkovsky, Alain Resnais, Henry Wallis, John Everett Millais, and so on—if you dare to throw one master into the mix, you might as well throw them all. Like Hunters, von Trier’s film is about an apocalyptic event that is both horrifying and unspeakably beautiful: the collision of Earth with the rogue planet Melancholia. The film has a hard, chilly virtuosity but none of the painting’s taut neutrality—if Hunters holds horror and beauty side-by-side, Melancholia mashes them together until it’s impossible to tell them apart. In the seconds leading up to the apocalypse, the world becomes as beautiful as a painting. And even this, von Trier hints, is just a preamble to the overwhelming beauty of destruction, which no artist, not even Bruegel, could have imagined. Almost as soon as Hunters appears onscreen, it bursts into flame.
In his final film, 24 Frames, Kiarostami gives Bruegel the opposite treatment—his Hunters is a quiet land of dogs and crackling fires. “I always wonder to what extent the artist aims to depict the reality of a scene,” the film’s only intertitle reads. “Painters capture only one frame of reality and nothing before or after it.” And so, Kiarostami gives us a half-still, half-computer-animated Hunters, with the hunters frozen in place but smoke rising from chimneys and birds pecking around on the ground. The results are charming but superfluous in a way that makes the original image seem more miraculously whole. The film’s twenty-three other “frames” (discrete fixed-camera scenes) are based on photographs, and one wonders if Hunters was left in as evidence of a dead end—Kiarostami’s modest admission that, even with four-and-a-half centuries of history on his side, he can’t add much to Bruegel beyond a few puffs of smoke.
Kiarostami’s is not the most ambitious reinterpretation of Hunters. But it is in some ways the most characteristic of the bunch—the one that sums up the others’ successes and failures. In some sense, every poem and film I’ve discussed fails to capture the full meaning of Bruegel’s original, and succeeds, if it succeeds at all, only by owning up to that failure.
No modern viewer can see a sixteenth-century painting quite the same way its original viewers did—as the period changes, so does the eye. But one important reason Hunters remains alluring—and, perhaps, a reason it has enjoyed such a warm friendship with poetry and film—is that a sense of failure, of the lost meaning floating just out of reach, seems built into the painting. If we can’t feel exactly what Bruegel’s contemporaries felt, we can still experience some of the thwarted enlightenment the painting evokes. The art inspired by Hunters, taken together, offers a rare strain of nostalgia, not for the world Jonghelinck lived in or the one he imagined when he glanced at Bruegel’s work, but the imaginary world Bruegel himself was hinting at: a place where horror is alive and well but, tempered with beauty, at least adds up to something more than itself.
Revisiting poems and clips for this article, I imagined that I was watching a single continuous film. The film is shot and narrated from the perspective of a typical modern viewer—in my head he looks a little like Kris Kelvin. This viewer studies Hunters carefully, marveling at little details and muttering clever poetic observations. Slowly, his admiration changes to longing, then confusion, then envy. He tries to make Bruegel’s painting come alive, first by prodding and shaking it, then by using tricks of modern science. Nothing works. In the end, the viewer burns the painting rather than have to look at it any longer. In his dreams, he is haunted by the afterimage.
1 The benchmark work on this topic is Hans Neuberger, “Climate in Art,” Weather, vol. 25, no. 2, February 1970, pp. 46-82, based on a survey of 12,000 museum-held paintings created between 1400 and 1967. Notable subsequent analyses include H.H. Lamb, Climate, History, and the Modern World, London, Routledge, 1982, esp. “Artists’ Impressions,” pp. 233-35, where Bruegel’s Hunters is specifically discussed; Brian M. Fagan, The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300-1850, New York, Basic Books, 2000; Peter J. Robinson, “Ice and Snow in Paintings of Little Ice Age Winters,” Weather, vol. 60, no. 2, February 2005, pp. 37-41; and Philipp Blom, Nature’s Mutiny: How the Little Ice Age of the Long Seventeenth Century Transformed the West and Shaped the Present, New York, Liveright, 2019, esp. the chapter “A Picture of the World,” pp. 109-17.
This article appears in the November/December 2020 issue, pp. 26–28.