Joseph Leo Koerner is as likely to quote W. H. Auden or Franz Kafka, or even to point out relevant themes in films such as The Truman Show and The Matrix, as he is to refer to a distinguished critic when discussing art. The extensive notes following the text of Bosch & Bruegel: From Enemy Painting to Everyday Life show he is prodigiously knowledgeable in art history and criticism, but Koerner nevertheless wants “to communicate to a general public the achievements of two great painters of everyday life. Non-experts are an ideal audience for this, since with everyday life everyone is an expert.”
Despite some sections that include too much philosophical jargon (“Although compendious, this is world as lifeworld—not the world’s totality, but that totality looked at from the ‘how’ of its experience by one who lives in it”), which sometimes makes it a slog to read, Koerner succeeds in elucidating for the common reader “how a new form of painting devoted to ordinary life could begin with something altogether unordinary: a metaphysical struggle, waged through the medium of painted images, against the Old Enemy, Satan.”
Hieronymus Bosch—he of the “metaphysical struggle”—was born around 1450 and died in 1516. He was from Aachen, a West German city near the borders of Belgium and the Netherlands. Although he most often painted “works of a traditional kind,” he became best known for paintings that showed scenes of hell and the tortures of the damned. With Bruegel the Elder, who was born four years after Bosch’s death and lived until 1569, the opposite was the case; in the beginning of his career in Antwerp, he imitated Bosch’s monstrous creations, but then developed his own vision centered not on metaphysical struggle, but on, as Koerner calls it, “everyday” life.
What united the two painters, besides their common culture, popularity, and surfeit of wealthy patrons, was that both liked to paint scenes that gave a bird’s-eye view. Bosch began this process with “a species of painting that seeks to encompass, from an impossibly elevated perspective, earth’s entire geographic reach.” This became its own genre as Flemish landscape painters used the same techniques for views of nature. Bruegel then, according to Koerner, gave “new life” to this transformation.