In October 2007, the painting was sold by Sotheby’s, Amsterdam, as The Crucifixion by a “follower of Pieter Brueghel the Younger” for €55,450. The auction catalogue stated that it was derived from an original composition by Brueghel, ca. 1618, in a private collection. As was his practice, Brueghel also painted other versions of the composition, one of which can be found in the Museum of Fine Art, Boston and another in the Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest. For a work by an anonymous “follower”, The Crucifixion has an unusually distinguished provenance, said Sotheby’s, having been presented by Maximilian Emanuel, the elector of Bavaria (1662-1726), to Count Johann Franz Ignaz von Seyboltsdorff (1673- 1711), chamberlain and privy counsellor to the elector, in whose family it then remained for several generations.
A year or so after the auction, the painting was acquired privately for the Chapmans by the Triumph Gallery in Moscow for an increased price of €220,000 ($310,000)—expensive for a “follower”, but cheap were it an original Brueghel.
The brothers have made a number of artworks in which they have transformed old paintings and prints, turning them into realized works of their own. These have included Francisco de Goya’s prints of The Disasters of War, watercolours by Adolf Hitler and numerous paintings by unknown artists which their gallery, White Cube, normally buys for them. The Crucifixion, however, was by far the most expensive outlay on such “raw material” for the brothers to utilize at their discretion.
Given the Chapmans’ predilection for hellish subjects (their sculpture Hell was destroyed in the Momart fire in 2004, only to be replaced by F****ing Hell), the gallery’s choice of a “Brueghel” painting was appropriate: the artist was nicknamed “Hell Brueghel” because of his depictions of the underworld.
The Chapmans kept the painting for a year before deciding what to do with it, and then, having made the changes they wished, exhibited it in Zurich at Cabaret Voltaire gallery last summer. Now it has re-emerged in White Cube’s “Jake or Dinos Chapman” show—the exhibition asks viewers to consider which works might be by Jake or by Dinos. Accompanied by a dark, skeletal mannequin wearing a Ku Klux Klan hood, the Crucifixion has thus become part of a sinister installation which is jokingly entitled Oi Pieter, I k-k-kan see your house from here.
Comparing the painting before and after the Chapmans’ interventions, one can see dozens of tiny alterations, though they do not affect the overall composition. The “Brueghel” has become more like a Hieronymus Bosch vision of hell as the crowd attending the crucifixion mutates into a menagerie of monsters. Previously normal faces have been given ghoulish masks, eyes are blackened or goggled, noses elongated and bleeding mouths sprout devilish tongues. At the base of the cross a woman now smokes a cigarette. Walking away from the scene, a man’s back has been emblazoned with “666”, the number of “The Beast” in the Book of Revelations.
Shortly after the White Cube exhibition opened last week, Oi Pieter …, the crucifixion painting with the mannequin thrown in, sold for £750,000. The buyer, ARTnewsletter has learned, was not remotely interested in the prices the painting had sold for before.
Their “Brueghel” also appears to have been, like most of the Chapmans’ works, a collaboration. By coincidence, a version of The Crucifixion, accepted as by Pieter Brueghel the Younger, sold at an auction in Zurich last summer for £673,000 ($1.2 million). The piece was catalogued as a joint work by Brueghel and Joos de Momper, the Flemish landscape artist, who painted the backdrop. The Chapmans’ “Brueghel” also includes a landscape backdrop, this time with houses seemingly done by another hand; perhaps, as some observers have suggested, a follower of de Momper.