Musings on Breughel's Enigmatic Masterpiece

We all know the myth of Icarus – his father, Daedalus, fashioned him a pair of wings made of wax and feathers. He warned him not to fly too close to the sun, but he was so giddy with the joy of flight, that he forgot his father’s words, flew too close to the sun, the wax melted, he continued happily flapping his arms, but without feathers he could no longer fly. He fell into the sea and drowned. And we all know the painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, attibuted to Brueghel. It’s a beautiful painting of a beautiful landscape, with people going about their business, unaware of Icarus’ fall, which is small and on the edge of the painting.

And poets have written  about the painting. Auden’s Musée des Beaux-Arts, in which he describes how suffering “takes place/ While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.” And William Carlos Williams wrote a poem by the same name as the painting, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, which seems to frame the image in the context of the indifference of nature, so full of new life and beauty and the business of spring that Icarus' fall is quite unoticed.

Is Auden suggesting, as the word “dull” implies, that the ploughman and the angler are too coarse to take note of the tragedy of loftier men? Or is it that, simply, things go unnoticed. There's a Flemish proverb, "and the farmer continued to plough..." suggesting the ignorance or indifference of people to each other's suffering. We’re so taken with our own lives and concerns that we don’t have the time or energy to commiserate with others. Is the original myth really a warning about excessive hubris? Or, was Icarus just enjoying the feeling of flight to such an extent that he forgot to be careful? People suffer all the time – ploughmen and anglers and painters and poets and master inventors. I suppose all the suffering is equally important (or unimportant) whether somebody paints a picture of it, or writes a poem or about it, or doesn’t notice it at all.

The painting itself is so gorgeous, the people walking along with supposed dullness are so vibrantly portrayed. And, as the poets say, spring is in full glory, the sea is cool and pretty, the sun is hot and strong, and all of this will be true no matter what the fate of the men passing through the landscape. And then I can’t not think of Stephen Dedalus, with his suggestion that ‘The artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.’ Surely not, Joyce. Surely not! Surely the artist is a part of the work, as the work is a part of the artist.