Bruegel and Me
From my column “Play’s the Thing,” Woodstock Times, December 28, 2006: Walking through the European Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art last week with my son Mark, returned from college for the holidays, we glided from gallery to gallery at a leisurely pace. He had seen many of these glorious paintings before, but only as color plates in an art history textbook. I had visited them at the Met before, but never with him; our earlier visits, when he and his older brothers were still living at home, had tended not to stray far from the mummies, the hieroglyphs, and the Temple of Dendur, unless it was to check out the medieval armor and, as a sop to me, the American Wing.
Now we were two adults, with his interest in Northern Renaissance and Flemish painting far exceeding mine. His newfound passion would determine our path, as it had the very idea of a full-day ascent of this cultural Matterhorn. We were still father and son, I was still the guide and he the willing initiate, but the gap had narrowed. We were near, if not at, the point at which my relationship had twisted and turned with his brothers, from parent to grownup friend and, enduringly, to peer.
Our mission was to gawk until we dropped. By our second hour of strolling through Constable and Gainsborough and Rembrandt and Goya I was beginning to get hungry. Maybe we should go to one of the cafes now, I suggested, as there might be a line and I didn’t wish to be starving when I faced a pre-made sandwich in cellophane. But he had come especially to revel in Van Eyck, Vermeer, and Bruegel, and we happened to be standing in a gallery that marked a neat end to our morning circuit.
We had paused right in front of Bruegel the Elder’s “Corn Harvest” (1565), one of the world’s great paintings of everyday life. Bruegel is a marvel not only for his craft but also for his bottom-up approach to story that tells us more about the human condition than paintings of battle and royalty; his dedication to landscape tells us more about heaven than dreamy depictions of anthropomorphic deities and silly putti. Mark and I resolved to place hunger on hold and take our time in this last room of the section. (Why, you may ask, is “Corn Harvest” called by that name when the crop is obviously wheat? Because a generic name for grain in German is Korn, and it labeled this painting in English early on.)
Turning 90 degrees to the wall, my eye fell upon a tiny tableau at the left-center of the painting in which young men appeared to be playing a game of bat and ball in a meadow distant from the scything and stacking and dining and drinking that make up the foreground. Mark agreed: there appeared to be a man with a bat, a fielder at a base, a runner, and spectators as well as participants in waiting. The strange device opposite the batsman’s position might have been a catapult. As I was later to learn with hurried research, this detail is unnoted in the art-history studies.
Now, it could be argued that as a historian of early sport, particularly games of bat and ball, I may tend to see instances of my specialty popping up everywhere, like hobgoblins. Or I may just be lucky; you may judge.
It might be argued as well that the title of this column is misleading as it is less about Bruegel than it is about me. But I would rejoin that is about both of us, and all three of my children, and you and yours too.
Christmas vacation is a great time to reconnect with your kids, whether they live at home, are away at college, or are grown and live at great distance. It’s also a way to connect with how children everywhere view the world — not as a series of milestones to be marked, honors to be won, and rewards to be earned … but as an arena for new experience. And in the end, it’s a great way to connect with your own childhood and thus who you are and always have been. A recurring theme of [my Woodstock Times column] “Play’s the Thing,” of which this piece is the last of a third year in this space, has been that play is serious business, broadly revealing of who we are and yearn to be. Getting older is an opportunity to revisit one’s happy childhood or to set one’s unhappy childhood right, if only through one’s own children.
Seeing this mysterious game of ball depicted in Bruegel’s “Corn Harvest” recalled for me another of the master’s great works, his “Children’s Games” of 1560. Although not yet 500 years old, this painting is nearly as mysterious as the hieroglyphs of the pyramids and requires no less a Rosetta Stone. Although some 80 different sports and games are depicted, scholars have only been able to identify 32 with certainty. A few of these will be familiar to 21st-century readers: Blind Man’s Buff, Bowls, Crack the Whip, Follow the Leader, Hoops, King of the Hill, Leap Frog, Marbles, Mumblety-Peg, Tug of War. As to the rest, an interactive key to “Children’s Games” (a floating cursor prompts a detail of Bruegel’s painting and a description of the game) may be located at the wonderful interactive website of the Elliott Avedon Museum & Archive of Games at Waterloo University in Ontario, Canada: http://goo.gl/SuCX8T.
When I unearthed the now celebrated bylaw of 1791 which prohibited the play of baseball within 80 yards of a soon-to-be built meeting house in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, I noted that baseball was but one of the banned games: “wicket, cricket, baseball, batball, football, cats, fives, or any other game played with ball.” For reporters covering the press conference in which the find was announced in May 2004, I felt obliged to explain what these games were, as no one any longer plays wicket or batball or cat (one-, two-, three-, or four-hole varieties), and on this side of the Atlantic few would know that fives was handball. A century earlier, the Mills Commission investigating the origins of baseball had declared that Abner Doubleday was its inventor and Cooperstown its Garden of Eden. That was history from the top down. The Pittsfield prohibition, seeking only to preserve the glass windows of a new structure, opened a new (if broken) window onto what children actually played and thus what really happened. That is history from the bottom up, a la Bruegel.
We play fewer games today than a century ago, and fewer still than in 16th-century Europe, just as the evolution of species has produced the dubious triumph of fewer and not necessarily superior survivors. Because increasingly our children exercise their minds and thumbs in play but not their limbs, young men and women must build suppleness and mass through the simulated play of fitness routines that translate, upon reflection, to just another form of work. We are overstimulated mentally, underutilized physically and, bombarded with media messages, discontented with our daily lives more than ever before.
Or at least that is what has often been reported, and not only in these days of virtual reality. The New York Times of December 30, 1883 published a story headed “Boyhood’s Merry Games; Some of the Sports in Which Our Fathers Indulged; The Healthful Games of a Generation Ago of Which the Boy of Today Knows Little or Nothing.” The anonymous author was stunned to learn that the only game his 10-year-old son played was marbles. “Now, marbles is all right,” he wrote, “but I don’t like the idea of a steady diet in that line. It isn’t broadening. It’s a sort of one-sided development. Boys are dying out in this country, or at least the boy I’m bringing up is of a different species from what I used to know.”
How we play is ever changing. Play is a constant. Today we still have a few things to teach our children, and a lot to learn from them.