Pieter Brueghel and W.H. Auden

This post begins a new series, Story Structure.

Pieter Brueghel, in his painting The Fall of Icarus
Pieter Brueghel, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus

You know what “they,” the screenwriting gurus and the Hollywood suits, tell us: “Icarus is your main character. Keep focus on him. Make sure he’s got motivation. Make sure he’s got an antagonist. Make sure every scene ratchets up the tension.”

Well, that’s “their” humble opinion.

Pieter Brueghel, in his painting The Fall of Icarus seems to have other methods.

Brueghel (or, “Bruegel,” as he later economically signed his name) doesn’t waste an inch of canvas. In fact, his brush strokes have a consistent power we’d be lucky to achieve in words, even occasionally. But what Brueghel does is not what “they” tell us to do.

Instead, Brueghel starts with a story (rather than a rulebook) and then he creates a structure that makes his story work.

Auden describes Brueghel’s procedure:

Musée des Beaux Arts (1938)
by W. H. Auden

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Brueghel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the plowman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.


See the table of contents for this topic: Story Structure.


Note: So, I’m putting the last touches on this entry, and adding the link for The Fall of Icarus. And what do I find? Wikipedia informs me they’re now saying the painter is, “probably not Pieter Bruegel the Elder.” Sigh. I hate art historians.The only good point is that, according to Wikipedia, the officials at the Musée des Beaux Arts in Brussels are saying that, although the execution of the painting is not by Brueghel, the composition (which is what I — and Auden too — was discussing) is almost certainly his.

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