Aesthetic Realism Consultant Nancy Huntting



"How Can We Be Composed?: Bruegel's Hunters in the Snow"
By Nancy Huntting

Part 3: Smoothness and Sharpness, Indolence and Wrath

In one of the first Aesthetic Realism classes I attended taught by Eli Siegel, he asked me:  "What did you condemn yourself most for?" I said, "For wanting to do nothing." Mr. Siegel asked me if I had read a famous poem by Alfred Tennyson called "The Lotus Eaters." This poem is about soldiers returning from the Trojan wars who land on an island and discover the lotus, and just want to lie on a hill, eating the lotus and letting the confusing world go by while they dreamily look down on it. "Were they Hunttingish?" Mr. Siegel asked. They were. I like to look down from my indolent heights. 

Bruegel has a very different purpose as he looks down on a valley from a hill. Bruegel respects the world, is energetic in his perception, "precise" (as Helen Gardner describes it) in composition. Bruegel wants the distant world to be close to us, and he wants us to feel warm, even about snow. 

In this class, Mr. Siegel asked me "Did you also get very angry? People who have indolence," he said, "can also tear up the place." I had never put these two aspects of myself together, they were so different. It interfered with my sense of composure to think of myself as angryexcept, of course, when I was, and then I could yell and throw things. Mr. Siegel composed these two things in me, and in people, in a couplet: 

Excessive indolence and a tendency to wrath,
That is what Nancy Huntting hath.

I learned from Aesthetic Realism that my indolence came from my having unjust contempt for the world—I got pleasure thinking I was too good for it and it wasn't worthy of me getting excited about. Mr. Siegel defined contempt as the "disposition in every person to think he will be for himself by making less of the outside world." And my anger came from my preferring to blame the world for my dislike of myself, rather than criticize myself

I wanted to see  reality as making too many provoking, sharp demands of me, and to get to some composure through making it softer and vaguer. People make the world worse than it is—but also nicer, smoother than it is. Then it can suddenly come at us sharply and we see it as our enemy. A large reason I love this painting is because Bruegel shows that sharp, angular lines and softer curves complete each other, and the relation makes for something so surprisingly warm and energetic! In Bruegel's winter scene, snow blankets everything, yet unlike the way I tried to smooth down reality, the snow does not dull the picture, it intensifies the red brick of the houses and the shapes of the figures, while at the same time it make for unity and calm. 

The hunters are silhouetted sharply against the white snow, and they stand for fierceness. It seems though, they haven't been so successful—we see only one fox has been brought back, and their heads are bent as their dogs are, laboring through the snow. They are humble figures in relation to the vast, lively world before them. 

Bruegel is telling us reality, like ourselves, is always a relation of intensity and quiet, sharpness and gentleness. I learned this tremendous fact: when our purpose is to have contempt for the world, these opposites are split in our minds, not composed, and this makes for boredom, unkindness, and self-dislike. Bruegel as artist shows that respect for the structure of the world composes these opposites, making for beauty. Those mountains are the sharpest I've ever seen, but they are also in softer colors, in some mist, with curving white snow. 

The houses are warm red,  and hidden, too. The people skating and working are remote, unknown, but they are so lovingly detailed by Bruegel that we can feel their emotions. 


I'm proud to end this talk with Mr. Siegel's description from his essay "Art as Composition": 

Pieter Bruegel's Hunters in the Snow is a picture that tells us, Everything can be composed. Lines can be composed. The general direction of the picture is at a slant, or diagonal; the trees are assertively vertical; there are horizontal lines with the snow. Varying white shapes differ and coalesce. Houses, as volumes, mingle with snow as weight, and with space. Birds are diagonal, vertical, horizontal. The immediate in the picture mingles with a various middle ground, and a spacious, rising, misty background. Here is reality's plenty caught hold of by Bruegel and arranged. In Bruegel's composition, there are tenderness and mystery—corresponding somewhat to curved lines and straight lines. Composition and reality make for a pleasure from reality as the picture.     —Eli Siegel, Art as Composition

Through the study of Aesthetic Realism, we can have the composition of art in our lives, and the great pleasure it makes for. This is the greatest news I know. 

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