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Sometimes viewers are puzzled by the names of the paintings that the artists call their creations. And often it remains a mystery to them what the author meant when he gave names to one or another of his work. Today we will talk about the famous canvas of the Dutch painter and graphic artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder "The fall of Icarus", at the first glance at which it is difficult to understand where the hero himself is, where he fell and how it happened …
The mythological plot about Icarus, known to almost everyone, at one time became a source of inspiration for a number of artists, prose writers and poets. He also formed the basis for the work of Bruegel the Elder, who very specifically portrayed the finale of this tragedy.
And, in order to refresh the memory of the story of a stubborn young man who ascended high into the sky and, because of his carelessness, paid for disobedience with his life, I suggest reading a fascinating article: A step towards a dream or a childish prank: Why the story of Icarus is interpreted differently from the ancient Greek myth itself.
And, returning to the set topic, I would like to note that this is the only canvas by Pieter Bruegel, written on a mythological plot. The uniqueness of this work lies in its composition, and not only because this is the most important aspect in the creation of artistic creations. Because artists sometimes work on compositional construction for a long time in order to convey their thought, idea, their vision of what is happening to the viewer as effectively as possible.
The composition of the painting "The Fall of Icarus" is very original and mysterious, which confuses the uninitiated viewer. So, in the foreground, the artist depicted completely secondary figures, while the main character - Icarus - has to be looked for quite a long time with a glance on the picture plane. And the viewer only has to guess that the legs sticking out of the water, and several feathers circling above the surface of the sea hint that it is Icarus that is about to sink.
But this is not the end of the artist's compositional intrigues. There is no image in the picture of the brave Daedalus, the father of Icarus, who made wings and developed a plan to escape from the island. And only the gaze of the shepherd, directed to the sky, indicates the location of Daedalus, located behind the plane of the picture. And the character of the plowman in the foreground, who is not at all a key figure in the main idea of the picture, with all his appearance emphasizes indifference to the fallen Icarus. For he is not at all interested in anything that does not concern his hard daily work on earth.
The main character's fall into the water was completely unnoticed by anyone present. No one noticed him: neither the shepherd looking after the departing Daedalus, nor the plowman, who lowered his gaze to the ground, nor the fisherman, focused on his own occupation. Even the faces of the sailors on the passing ship are turned in the opposite direction.
However, there is one living creature in the picture who is very interested in the fate of Icarus. It is a gray partridge sitting on a branch above the edge of a cliff.
And this interesting detail has its own explanation. According to ancient Greek myth, Icarus's father Daedalus was forced to flee to Crete after he killed his own nephew Perdix, who was his student. Fearing that the student would surpass the skill of his teacher, Daedalus pushed the young man out of the wall of the Athenian acropolis. The goddess Athena, who saw this scene, took pity on Perdix, turning him into a partridge. So the little gray bird, the partridge, had every reason to gloat, watching as the only heir of her abuser was drowning. And according to the idea of the picture, which Bruegel laid in the plot, the death of Icarus is not at all a tragic accident, but a just retribution to Daedalus for his mortal sin.
And, curiously, the paradoxes do not end there … Even the sun, being a full-fledged "hero" of the picture and the main culprit of the tragedy, is hidden behind an impenetrable blurry haze. Pale, translucent, it sits below the horizon. And it is completely incomprehensible how the dim evening rays of the sun could melt the wax that fastened the wings of Icarus. And this is also another mystery of the artist.
And one more nuance is a sword, purse or bag and a sack lying on a stone in front of a plowman and his horse. Today it is difficult to unequivocally determine what exactly Pieter Bruegel the Elder and his contemporaries invested in these symbols, but by and large it indicated what the life of an ordinary person revolves around - protecting oneself, fighting poverty and caring for food.
But the most important meaning that the artist laid in his creation, as many researchers believe, is the embodiment of the Dutch proverb “Geen ploeg staat stil om een stervend mens”, which in Russian means: “No plow will stop when someone dies". And this says only one thing, that life never stops, even if someone leaves for another world.
And this is vividly confirmed by one inconspicuous detail. For several centuries it was believed that a pale speck on the left side of the canvas, which appears against a black background of bushes, is the face of a sleeping person. But recent studies using infrared radiation have shown that this is a completely different part of the body, belonging to a person squatting and relieving his needs.
And this is not surprising if we turn to the work of Bruegel, who often used such allegorical inclusions in his works ("Forty on the Gallows", "Children's Games") - this is in the spirit of that era and directly in the spirit of the master's work.
There are also several versions of the attitude of the master himself to this story. On the one hand, the artist, condemning the pride and unjustified courage of Icarus, opposes the main character with the daily hard work of an ordinary plowman, who is the compositional center of the canvas. This worker stands firmly on the ground and clearly knows his goal, in contrast to a dreamer hovering in the clouds, who at any moment can fall from them, like Icarus.
But there is another side to the medal: the artist showed the tragic death of one of the most courageous and daring heroes of ancient Greek mythology. And in this case, the image of Icarus is a symbol of the flight of human thought and fantasy; human desire for the new and unknown. And then this picture is already interpreted a little differently, namely, as the defeat of the sublime in the struggle with everyday life, which has nothing to do with those who strive for the light.
And, in spite of all the mythological symbolic and semantic loads, the canvas of the great master is not only a vivid illustration of the legend, but also a beautiful landscape, made in the best traditions of the masters of the Netherlands, where the landscape played the main role in the composition.
There is another mystery in this picture. The fact is that two versions of this canvas are known: one of which is kept in the collection of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels, which has gained worldwide fame, and the other, belonging to the Van Buren Museum (Brussels, Belgium).
There is a significant difference between the two works. Among art critics, heated debates are still going on about the ownership of the second version by the authorship of the great Dutch master. Various theories have been put forward, according to which some argue that this was a preliminary sketch of Bruegel the Elder for the main picture, while others - that this is a copy made by the artist's son Pieter Bruegel the Younger. But some still hold a dissenting opinion that this is not a very good quality, finished with details, a copy of an unknown author.
Yes, indeed, in the second version, Daedalus is depicted hovering in the sky, and the sun is almost at its zenith, which is quite logical. Therefore, many art critics believe that the composition of a painting from the Van Buren Museum is quite ordinary and traditional, while only a genius could make a spectacular and paradoxical composition of a painting from the Tsar's Museum. However, researchers have not yet come to a consensus.
Read also: Pieter Bruegel Muzhitsky: Why a famous artist refused orders and dressed like a poor man.