When you look at a barrel, it is apt to seem plump and complacent, in a way. It is an ordinary object, quite at home in the obvious world of things. But the inside of a barrel is something else again. That is a dark little world of its own. Psychologists find this big difference inside people, and spelunkers note the same thing about the Earth itself. In more subtle ways the same is true of art. I happen to be something of a sports enthusiast, but art history is my main field. To me it seems that every masterpiece is like a wine barrel ready to be breached. For instance, take the picture called Children's Games, which Pieter Bruegel the Elder painted a little over 400 years ago. Recently I spent some weeks in Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum looking at that picture. It said new things to me every day. The time came, finally, when I had to leave it and return to my home in England. But I bought a large reproduction of the picture and collected all the books and pamphlets I could find that related to it, just to keep drinking the fine wine from Pieter Bruegel's bottomless barrel. And now what I would like to do is pass a glass or two of that wine on to you.
Children's Games is fantastically complex, yet alive all the way. It contains over 200 figures actively engaged in more than 70 different games. Most of the children present look like miniature adults, which is just how children appear to each other's eyes. There is no hint of sentimentality in the entire picture. These kids play with more passion than grace. Their games foreshadow adult furies, follies and aspirations. Each game seems to have been caught in mid-action by a fast camera; you get the feeling that it will whirl on again the moment you look away. But all the same, each separate child's gesture is really forever. And there you have the baffling sort of paradox that makes a masterpiece. Abraham Ortelius, the great geographer, was a good friend of the artist, and when Bruegel died Ortelius wrote an epitaph that helps explain this paradox: "In all his works, there is more intelligence than painting."
The full force of Ortelius' judgment comes home the moment you let your eyes roam across Children's Games. The picture radiates intelligence, and also plenty of painting. No artist ever exhibited finer craftsmanship. No one ever composed a picture on this scale, so loaded with detail, in such seemingly effortless fashion. A suburban crossroad lies before you. The season is summer, and masses of children have come tumbling out of doors. Their scurrying, yelping, scuffling, dusty cries thread the sweet air.
You are looking down on the foreground from about the height of a second-story window. But as you glance into the background, your vantage point rises imperceptibly. Bruegel has used perspective tricks of his own invention to just about triple your field of vision. In this way he avoids overlapping and lets you see distant figures fairly clearly. You notice that his main design takes roughly the form of a lower-case y. The long stroke of the y is a straight street that bisects the picture from lower left to upper right. In the middle of the street six boys are having a camelback tournament while a second six play leapfrog. Farther along, some children are bowling against a wall. Others play follow-the-leader, and in the extreme distance they dance around a street fire. The street ends at a cathedral, yet its long canyonlike effect is vaguely sinister. Not so the short stroke of the y. This starts at about the picture's center, with two boys doing acrobatics on a hitching rail. This line of the design curves left under a portico where some little children are whipping tops. It ends at a cool and inviting swimming hole under the trees.
So much for a general view. The picture is built up of individual dramas and relationships that require much closer inspection at your leisure. Look, for example, at a few games near at hand in the painting's foreground. Has your eye yet happened to mark a portable toilet seat in the center there? A tiny trouserless boy has just stood up from that. He gallops off to the right. The hobbyhorse between his knees may seem a quaint form of transportation, the reason being that in our time the internal-combustion engine has supplanted horsepower, and tricycles have pushed the hobbyhorse from our sidewalks. But, from 3,000 years ago until the other day, hobbyhorses were standard equipment for kids.
As a case in point, consider the Nuremberg peace fair of 1650. That celebration, which occurred 90 years after this picture was painted, featured a hobbyhorse jamboree. Nearly 1,500 boys took part, each with his wooden mount. They must have made a bonny kind of cavalry. There is nothing particularly bonny, however, about Bruegel's embryonic horseman. His steed rears phallus-like from the grip of his hidden right fist. The stick body dragged beneath his shirttails seems to lunge. With the switch held in his left hand, the rider flicks at his mount's imagined flank. The boy is crouching down as he gallops, making a jagged pinwheel of intensity astride the rushing beast. Regard his floppy gray coat, several sizes too large. No doubt that is a hand-me-down from some elder brother. The same thing goes for the boy's cap, which he has yanked well down over his face in imitation of a knight-at-arms' visor. The eyes beneath that cap may or may not shine with concealed rainbows of fantasy. The boy himself may or may not be destined for trial in actual fact, upon some battlefield over time's horizon.
A small girl troubadour seems to be leading the hobbyhorseman along. Her cheeks are pink and puffed, her eyes tight shut. She bangs a drum and shrills upon a pipe at the same time. In cacophonous pretend parade she circles round a second little girl who is stooping to jab at some offal with a stick. Bruegel painted the stooping girl to be especially pristine in her blue and white costume. Like a stray bit of summer sky bending down to make contact with the Earth, she earnestly pokes and peers. The loose ends of her kerchief lie along her neck as tremblingly as rabbit ears.
Just in back of that first little group you notice a second trio. Two children are rocking a rather big baby on their joined hands. This pastime is usually accompanied by a nursery rhyme of some kind, such as London Bridge. No doubt it dates back to the very beginnings of human family life. One could easily collect a hundred different ditties that are still sung to this particular game. Here is one example only, the words of which seem nicely calculated to increase the baby's half-fearful delight:
Catch him, crow! Carry him, kite!
Take him away till the apples are ripe;
When they are ripe and ready to fall,
Here comes baby, apples, and all.
Like a ripe apple swinging down into the world of time and space is just how Bruegel depicted this red-gowned infant. The baby constitutes a delicious burden, perhaps. Yet he must be a good bit heavier than bargained for. The boy and girl who bear his weight with awkward good nature are playing and practicing both at once. They are practicing for parenthood, consciously or not.