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Visual arts

Anatomy of an artwork

Virtues and vices of peasants who know how to party

1. Jugs, big ones.
2. Brides wore black during the Renaissance period.
3. Codpieces were no doubt an important part of men's clothing.
4. Voyeurism is a strong element to all of Brueghel's works.
5. Giving it a good wail, a man plays tunes on the bagpipe.
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Published 2/8/2006

Pieter Brueghel the Elder — the name sounds like it belongs to a man who painted proud pictures in churches. But the truth is the 16th century Flemish artist was fascinated by the art of the everyday. He knew that how people act in public is a gauge of how their society functions, and that the foibles of individuals often reflect larger issues.

"The Wedding Dance" (c. 1566), in the Detroit Institute of Arts' permanent collection, is arguably Brueghel's most famous painting. According to George Keyes, the DIA's chief curator and curator of European paintings, the artist was interested in the deep-seated traditions of Netherlandish culture because during his time, society was under threat: Spain's King Philip II, a devout Roman Catholic, had governmental authority over the Netherlands and wanted to suppress the rise of Protestantism throughout northern Europe. "This painting was Brueghel's way of reminding his fellow citizens of traditional values," Keyes says.

The artwork features drunks making out and lots of gossiping. Brueghel, whether he knew it or not, even painted "that" guy — the sleazy one at every wedding who can't help but harass ladies on the dance floor. (See the gentleman second from the right in the foreground, who looks suspiciously like he's copping a feel of a round rear.) Most of the peasants in Brueghel's "Wedding Dance" are as plump and colorful as balloons, giving the whole image a bobbing energy. But Keyes has a better name for it: He calls it a "pregnant silhouette."

"The figures are flat, but the work is packed with three-dimensionality. It's in the curved bellies, and there's a huge sense of volume to the women that makes it quite realistic." Even though Brueghel etched a very famous series based specifically on the seven deadly sins, "The Wedding Dance" is worth a closer reading in this Metro Times issue. Here's one of few paintings in Western art history that represents the other side of lust: not the debilitating obsession to fulfill the most primal human urge, but the joy of desire — and how comforting that actually is.

1. Jugs, big ones, are located throughout the party so that we know the crowd is drinking heavily and having fun.

2. Brides wore black during the Renaissance period. Keyes says, “White was a color associated with death and funerals back then. It wasn’t until the 19th century onward, that wedding dresses were white. Also, if you look over to the far right, there are two old women seated at a table. Nearby, there&dqou;s a crown suspended in front of cloth, that’s where the bride should be sitting, but she’s absent from the table.”

3. Codpieces were no doubt an important part of men’s clothing, especially since they had to relieve themselves often while spending an afternoon drinking. Here Brueghel makes an obvious reference to sexuality by showcasing the codpieces, fabric pouches that were worn to enhance the genitals and designed for easy access.

4. Voyeurism is a strong element to all of Brueghel’s works. The artist wanted his audience - the aristocracy and literate class - to feel like they were in on a part of the world they would not otherwise observe. That's one reason why so many of the figures have their backs turned, as if it is a snapshot of peasant life. This kissing couple adds to the feeling that we are peeking in on an intimate affair.

5. Giving it a good wail, a man plays tunes on the bagpipe, a strident-sounding instrument often associated today with Scotland. But Keyes explains that this particular kind of bagpipe sounded mellifluous, with a soft and very refined sound. By featuring it, Brughel is giving us a visual cue to the aural pleasure, setting a tone for the whole event.

Rebecca Mazzei is arts editor of Metro Times. Send comments to or call 313-202-8012.

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