Once in a Lifetime: Visiting Bruegel in Vienna
Story by Michael Shapiro, photos by the author and Phyllis Shapiro

A chance to see a rare collection of a 16th-century painter's work that never before appeared in one place, a mother and son connect on a spontaneous journey to Austria.

Visiting Bruegel in Vienna

My five-day winter's journey with my mother to Vienna began 45 years ago. When I was kid of 10 or 11 years old in suburban New York, my mother, Phyllis, brought home a puzzle of a painting called Children's Games by 16th-century Dutch-Flemish master Pieter Bruegel the Elder. I remember coming home on winter afternoons and piecing the puzzle together, sometimes with my mom or brother, sometimes on my own. The work featured more than 200 children in a Flemish courtyard playing about 90 different games, so even a few pieces of the puzzle could compose a complete scene.

I wasn't sure then why I liked the painting but reading about Bruegel's work recently gave me a clue: Bruegel (sometimes spelled Brueghel) was a people's painter, typically depicting real-life scenes such as an exuberant peasant wedding, rather than religious motifs or portraits of high-society patrons. He had a sense of whimsy and fun, and, as a trained miniaturist, a phenomenal eye for detail. Most of all, his work evinced deep compassion for ordinary people.

Flash forward to November 2018: Phyllis, a longtime docent at San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art (as a volunteer guide, she led tours for school groups for nearly 20 years) sent me an email with a link to an Art News story. The headline: "It Took 450 Years to Get the First Pieter Bruegel the Elder Retrospective. It Will Probably Never Happen Again. Here's Why."

Born between 1526 and 1530 in Breda, about 50 kilometers southeast of Rotterdam in the Netherlands, Bruegel was active as an artist for only 18 years. He worked slowly and died in his 40s; only about 40 of his paintings survive, the Art News story said. Many of his masterpieces were painted on wood panels, making them fragile and susceptible to warping and other types of damage, so museums that own them are reluctant to lend the precious works, even for a blockbuster show.

Yet somehow the persuasive director of the Kunsthistorisches (Art History) museum in Vienna collected about two-thirds of Bruegel's paintings and more than half of his engravings and drawings for the exhibition, which was open for less than 15 weeks. Entitled "Once in a Lifetime," it closed Jan. 13, 2019, but the Vienna museum still houses the world's largest collection of Bruegel's art.

Vienna from St. Stephen's

Vienna Calling

"This is a rare and wonderful show-and will not travel anywhere else!!" my mom wrote in an email. "We should fly to Vienna for a few days to see it. Children's Games is in the show!!" I thanked her for the generous offer but said I had a book due soon and couldn't take the time to fly from San Francisco to Austria. Her reply: "If by some miracle you can pull it off, we will go, however briefly. If not, it has been fun to dream about going and I will save money. A win-win situation."

Since I was a teenager, I've often accessed emotion through music, yet for my mom art is the gateway to her heart. Our ideal visions of travel are different: I love spontaneous shoestring journeys in Asia and Latin America and am happiest paddling a raft or kayak or trekking though mountains. Phyllis loves art museums, grand hotels, and cosmopolitan cities. Yet with our decades-long connection to Bruegel, and especially to Children's Games, I wanted to find a way to Vienna, where my maternal grandmother's family lived in the 19th century. My mother has a tremendous intellect and grasp of history, so I knew it would be illuminating to travel with her.

I spoke to my book editor—he extended my deadline. In late November, I found a great deal on flights for the second week of January and went online to get tickets for the Bruegel exhibition. It was sold out, every day, every time slot. I kept checking, and miraculously a few days later the museum added more tickets for "an extraordinary evening at the special exhibition including a guided tour and a champagne reception." We were on our way. I sent the PDF of the tickets to my mom. Her reply: "This SO EXCITING and we will LOVE the tour!!!!!"

Which is how Phyllis, who recently celebrated a milestone birthday, and I found ourselves arriving at Vienna's airport, greeted by billboard-size posters of Bruegel's art with the caption: "Once in a Lifetime." My mom suggested: "That could be the title of your story." I said I didn't know if I'd write about this, and she said, "Oh, you will." Part insight, part command. The following day when we passed the museum in a hop-on-hop-off bus, my mom raised her fists and shook her arms in excitement.

Vienna Klimpt Billboard

Face to Face With Bruegel

And so, on a frigid Friday night two days before the exhibition closed, it was time to meet Bruegel. We took a taxi down the Ringstrasse, the road that encircles central Vienna, then crammed into the entryway of the Kunsthistorisches museum with hundreds of other art enthusiasts, getting pressed against the doors. The palatial building, which dates to 1891 and is capped with an octagonal dome, had closed for regular admission and wouldn't open for the evening program for 15 minutes. I feared we might be smothered to death before we could see the master's art.

At precisely 6:30pm the doors opened and the crowd surged toward the ticket takers. Our English-language tour wouldn't start for another half hour so we shot up the museum's grand central staircase, flanked by elaborate marble carvings. We unknowingly went in through the out door and skipped straight to Children's Games.

Phyllis gasped the moment she saw the painting. It was larger than I imagined: I still had the 16-by-23-inch puzzle in my mind. The actual painting is 46 by 63 inches, and beholding, in person, this scene painted more than 450 years ago took away my breath too. Only one person stood between us and "Children's Games." Phyllis asked him to take our photo so it would be just the two of us in the image.

Bruegel Children's Games

Still ahead of the tour groups, we wandered through the nearly empty galleries, taking in Bruegel's epic works, such as Hunters in the Snow, a wintry scene viewed from an elevated perspective that's part of a series of paintings depicting the changing seasons. When we revisited Hunters with our tour group, our guide, a highly knowledgeable young woman, told us that the painting representing spring remained at The Metropolitan Museum in New York because the Met's curators felt it was too fragile to travel. She noted Bruegel lived during the Little Ice Age that lasted from the 1300s to the mid-1800s, when winters were often brutally long and severe.

We moved on to The Adoration of the Magi in the Snow, which our guide said was the first painting in which falling snow is depicted. It shows the realistic decrepitude of the village with its crumbling church, a note of symbolism about religion's waning influence. The light in the painting comes from a flame within a makeshift tavern.

Our group of about 25 people trundled over to Children's Games. Phyllis darted ahead so she could be front and center during our guide's narration; I'd hung back a bit. Out of nowhere my mom's arm reached out, and with superhero strength grabbed my right wrist and pulled me next to her. We would be together for this. Painted in 1560, Children's Games is known as a wimmelbild (busy picture) because it has hundreds of small figures. "Never before in art had children been given a stage of this size," read the program for the exhibition.

Yet what impressed me most were the painting's luminous colors—nearby Antwerp was known for the high quality of its red pigment—and the ebullience of the kids wrestling with one another. They are walking on stilts, climbing walls, swimming in a creek, and playing all sorts of other games. One young child learning to swim uses a pair of floaties, probably made from the bladders of pigs. Oddly the children's faces look preternaturally old, perhaps related to Bruegel's fascination with death—he was profoundly influenced by Hieronymus Bosch after all. Bruegel's two paintings titled The Tower of Babel, both part of exhibition, are testament to that.

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