Thanks for All the Fish

What would there be left in the picture if we took the big fish out of it? Basically nothing: the poor fishing hut on the left and the harbor town on the horizon, as well as the open sea bay between them, with a large, formless sandy beach. The landscape apparently was created to be a worthy frame for the matchless prey, the Great Fish, which is being cut open by a Liliputian man with a knife far greater than himself. From the stomach and mouth of the Fish, as if the blade of the knife also cut its throat, big fish-matrioshki are pouring out, those that had been swallowed by the Fish, and which immediately before that, or already in its stomach, tried to swallow further fishes. The pieces of the prey falling into the sea are awaited and immediately swallowed by other fishes, as by the seals on the fish market, and there is even a fish that come flying in for its share. The paroxysm of this gobbling frenzy grew to the point that even the mussels try to swallow fishes, even though they would think twice at this in their natural habitat. At the bottom of the picture, in a fishing boat, an oarsman points to the spectacle to his son: ECCE, and in the Flemish-language Italic inscription at the very bottom he shares with him the basic experience of his life: Look, my son, I have known for a long time that big fish eat small fish. The same is said by the Latin legend, in hexameter: “GRANDIBUS EXIGUI SUNT PISCES PISCIBUS ESCA” – small fishes serve as food for big fishes. And a much later version of this 1557 print, published by Jan Galle, active in Antwerp between 1620 and 1670, who even adds a trilingual explanation over the image, so that nobody can misunderstand the metaphor: “OPPRESSION OF THE POOR. The rich suppress you with their power. Letter of James, 2:6.”

If the Fish – and the large fishes swallowed by it – illustrate this basic injustice, then it is possible that the Knife ripping its stomach, with its representation of the world in the form of a royal insignia on its blade, like the one usually held by Christ on the scenes of the Last Judgment, represents the ultimate justice.

Who is the author of the picture? The inscription gives two signatures. To the left: “Hieronymus Bos. inventor”, and under it: “PAME”, while to the right: “COCK EXCU[DIT], 1557”. This means that the design is by Hieronymus Bosch, and the print was made by Cock in 1557. Neither of which is true. That Cock was not the engraver is proved by the monogram PAME, which indicates Pieter van der Heyden: he was one of the permanent engravers of Hieronymus Cock, the greatest print publisher of Antwerp. Thus, Cock boasted with the authorship of the print not as its master, but as its publisher. But neither can the original drawing be attributed to Bosch. It is akin to his style, but the usual composite monsters are missing (except for the fish next to the hut, which tries to get away with its prey on two legs).

The Albertina in Vienna, however, preserves the original drawing which served as a model for the print (inv. no. 7875). And this, rather than the signature of Bosch, bears that of Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Here he writes his name with an h, but soon he will drop it, and only his sons Pieter the Younger and Jan will return to the form Brueghel.

And Bruegel also uses this motif for one of the scenes in his “Netherlandish proverbs” of 1559.

In 1556, the young – perhaps thirty years old – Pieter Bruegel the Elder just recently returned home from his Italian study trip, where he improved his draughtmanship and made a lot of sketches, especially of the mountainous landscapes, which were unknown and attractive to the public in the Netherlands. He was looking for a living in Antwerp, which was the center not only of trade, but also of the art market of the contemporary world. In 1540 the first European permanent painting and print gallery was opened here, to which three hundred masters of the city delivered their products, and these reached such far away places as, for example, the Armenian cathedral in Isfahan, where the walls were decorated with frescoes made after biblical prints from Antwerp. One of the city’s best-selling art dealers, Hieronymus Cock, opened in 1548 his publishing house At the Four Winds (In de Vier Winden), where highly sought-after prints were printed on the device, and for this, he sorely needed talented draughtsmen. As the young Bruegel arrived from Italy, he immediately contracted with him (and perhaps he already supported his Italian trip), and from then on they produced together a multitude of successful series of prints, from the Large Landscapes to The Seven Deadly Sins and Seven Virtues, which promoted the reputation of both of them.

Hans Vredemann de Vries, Antwerpen Street View, with Hieronymus Cock’s publisher in the right corner, where this engraving was also printed in 1560, and with Hieronymus Cock himself in the door

In the Antwerp art market, a promising young beginner might prevail by positioning himself as a master of the popular themes that had come to life in the previous decades. Until the early 1500s, there was one single marketable theme: the altarpiece, whether for the church or private. At the establishment of the art market and collections – Kunst- und Wunderkammer – in the 16th century, however, new themes appeared in which collectors specialized: landscapes, exotic topics, peasant scenes, and so on. Among the new themes, Bosch replicas were an independent sector. Bosch’s thrilling fantasy creatures were extremely popular, but his original paintings were mainly accumulated by Philip II of Spain for his private collection, and the market cried for substitutes. A lot of painters specialized in this, the production of copies after Bosch and new creations in his style. Among them was Bruegel, who made several drawings of Boschian monsters, and they were published in print by Cock for great profit.

Bruegel, The temptation of St. Anthony, 1554. This scene was one of the main themes of the imitators of Bosch, because the demons tempting the holy hermit offered a generous pretext to the representation of Bosch’s typical monsters.

One of the most successful pieces of the collaboration of Bruegel and Cock was the series of prints representing the seven deadly sins, the seven virtues, and the Last Judgment, in 1557-60. The success was largely attributed to the Boschian devileries, which flooded almost every sheet of the series: those of the sins naturally, but also those of the virtues, in the form of the demons defeated by them.

Bruegel, Ira (Anger), 1558

Bruegel, Fortitudo (Strength), 1560

In 1572, the humanist Dominicus Lampsonius from Bruges published at Cock’s a portrait collection of great Netherlandish artists. By that time, Bruegel’s reputation as a Bosch imitator was so great, that Lampsonius could write about him: “He is the new Hieronymus Bosch, who with his brush imitates and sets in front of our eyes the clever dreams of the Master, and mimics his style so greatly, that at the same time he surpasses him.” From here comes the attribution of Bruegel as the “second Bosch”, which, thanks to the description of the Netherlands by Lodovico Guicciardini, was also spread through Southern Europe.

In the fish print of 1557, Bruegel did not yet use such typical Boschian monsters. But to the contemporary viewer, the fishes swallowing each other were already a trademark of Bosch, who often depicted his demons likewise. Interestingly, the motif is repeatedly featured in the film Ruben Brandt, the collector (2018), which works with numerous references of art history and absurd images. If you have not seen it yet, do so (and if you have, watch it again) and count the fishes.

Bosch, The temptation of St. Anthony, c. 1501, detail

Bosch, Adoration of the Magi, c. 1485-1500, detail

Bosch, The garden of earthly delights, c. 1490-1510, detail

Bosch, The Haywain, 1516, detail. To the right, the fish on two legs from Bruegel’s fish print

Bruegel, The Last Judgment, 1558, detail

Milorad Krstić, Ruben Brandt, the collector, 2018. A detail of the episode about the Tokyo pop art exhibition

In 1556, when Bruegel drew and signed the model of the fish print, he was still an unknown young talent, who might have a future thanks to Cock (and Cock a profit thanks to Bruegel). Bosch, however, was a brand. Perhaps this is why Cock decided to name Bosch as the “inventor” of the print. At that time, this did not necessary mean deceiving the consumer. It was merely a genre: this is “a bosch”, or, in greater detail: “designed after Bosch by a fellow of our publisher”. And the consumer who bought it and kept it for at least fifteen years, by which time Bruegel had also become a brand, well, he could boast of having a bosch, that was actually a bruegel.

To illustrate the career of the picture among the consumers in the Netherlands, let us see this example sixty years later.

The facing page image shows that it was copied from Cock’s original print. However, the general social criticism is sharpened here into a political debate. The Fish bears the label “Barnevelsche Monster”, from which – and from other details – it can be inferred that the pamphlet celebrates the execution of Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, the Chancellor of the United Provinces of the Netherlands in 1619. The Chancellor, who had been the supreme judge of the Free Netherlands for thirty years, finally came into conflict with the States of the Netherlands as a supporter of the Arminian branch of Calvinism, and they convinced Governor-Prince Maurice of Nassau to condemn and execute him in a kangaroo court, just as in the print the Prince cuts open the stomach of the “monster” with “the knife of righteousness”. The “monster” is killed by the harpoon of the “Oude Leer”, that is, orthodox Calvinist teaching, and the city on the horizon rises up and gains independent features as Utrecht, Oldenbarnevelt’s last refuge. Posterity considers Oldenbarnevelt as a great statesman, but in the course of thirty years he may have injured some: their names can be read on the fishes slipping from its stomach and throat. Truth triumphed, from someone’s point of view. The question is – just as a big fish once asked a small fish before swallowing it –: what is truth?

Faces of Tehran

The revolution has devoured downtown Tehran. The governmental quarter, built by the old Pahlavi Shah in the 1930s with French and German architects in art déco style, was taken over by the regime of the ayatollahs, but they did not like it, and left it to its fate. The bourgeoisie living here perished, emigrated, or moved to the northern part of the city, to the foot of the mountains, founding there the so-called “Republic of North Tehran”, which markedly differs from the rest of the country. And the old city center was overwhelmed by the millions coming from the countryside in search of luck. In the neighborhood of the National Museum and the Shah Palace, at the ground floor of the ministries, in the lobbies of the former cinemas and theaters, there are spare auto part and hardware shops; the aristocratic-style tea houses work as daytime warming places, and the first floor windows of the palaces of the old bourgeoisie yawn empty, because only their ground floor is used for shops, but nobody lives there any more. The beautiful, colorful, Shiraz-type late 18th and early 19th century tiles are freely drilled and chiseled to serve new functions.

Peyman Hooshamadze, today a classical master of Iranian photography, photographed this world, the new population seeking its place in the old scenery, at the end of the 1990s. In his recent album “100” he publishes a hundred portraits from those years, grouped by scenes. He starts at the old railway station, like the newcomers did, and passes among those who have succeeded as clothiers or retailers, and those who were waiting for their luck or simply killing time in a decaying tea house. But he also notes the remnants of the former civilian world: he whiles a lot of time in Shouka Café, which, exceptionally, was preserved as a haunt for publishers, intellectuals and artists, and also visits the zurkhânân, the traditional gymnasiums.

These faces, photographed by Hooshamadze, are not held at arm’s length, regarding them as “others”, but with a real attention and empathy, are not unknown to us. Similar faces were photographed with similar attention during similar social changes in the 70s and 80s in Hungary by Endre Lábass and Péter Korniss, and by others in other countries of the East. Looking at the Persian faces, we can almost tell their stories, or what they are saying to the photographer.

At the time of these photos, as much time had passed since the revolution as the time of their publication. This means that Hooshamadze was already recording a fragile, but established new world. And also that you can still find this world and these figures in downtown Tehran, in the alleys, eateries and shops. Soon I will write about some such encounters.

Persian tea houses were once the gathering places of wealthy citizens, merchants and officials, and often intellectual workshops. Their former rank is indicated by the surviving furniture, the traditional colored tiles, and the enormous scenes and heroes from the Book of Kings, also modeled in tiles. In the Tehran of the 1990s, however, this is all past. Tea houses are visited by the assistants of the nearby cheap shops and those who have nowhere else to go. At that time, there were still a number of wandering singers with long-necked lutes, the aşiks, who nowadays still sometimes play in the Tehran metro, and who today, in the age of nostalgia for the ancient tea houses, are sometimes hired for night-time performance by one or another revitalized and fashionable tea house.

Morteza Ahmadi: شاطر علی ممد Shater Ali Mammad. The characteristic “rap” of old Tehran from the CD صدای طهرون قدیمی Sedâye Tehrûn-e ghadimi (Sounds of old Tehran, 2012).

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To the north of the railway station unfolded Tehran’s red-light district Shahr-e No – about which Kaveh Golestan made a shattering photo series –, and its gate, the Gomrok quarter, Tehran’s jumble sale, the world of old-clothes-men, pimps and fences. The end of the nineties was the last moment it could be photographed – of course, only after proper integration –, because later both districts were swept away by the city administration.

“I was lifting weight in prison when they razed my house.” Ahmad Soltani, 46, from Qorveh, arrived at Tehran 4 days ago, the 43rd time

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“I have nine children, all of them Tehranis.” Esmail Elhami, 60, from around Ardabil, illiterate

Today Shouka Café has a reputation and a patina as one of the few old cafés which has lived through the “difficult times”. At the end of the 90s, however, they were just living them through. Playwright Yar-Ali Pourmoghaddam found it as a kind of Noah’s Ark, which provided shelter and company for the editors and artists from near and far. Some of the young faces photographed by Hooshamadze at that time are today influential Persian intellectuals at home or abroad.

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Another important community venue to survive the revolution are the zurkhânes, the “strength houses”, the traditional bodybuilding clubs. Their history reaches back to pre-Islamic times, and their rituals and customs evidence Zoroastrian traditions. From the late 19th century on it was particularly fashionable to visit such clubs, either as a wrestler or as a fan of the most prominent athletes. The Islamic regime initially tried to suppress the zurkhânes as a pre-Islamic tradition – it is in this period that these photos were taken in the small strength houses scattered between the railway station and the Shah Park –, but since then they have been incorporated in the official culture, and are again an element of Iranian identity.

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One of the central pieces of the impressive Pieter Bruegel exhibition in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum is the Tower of Babel (1563). In the painting, a gigantic, high-rise, half-finished zikkurat rises into the sky. Hundreds of small construction workers bustle around it, and in the foreground, the ambitious king is just visiting the construction site. The king, identified by Josephus Flavius (1.4) with the pagan Nimrod, Noah’s grandson, apparently pays much more attention to humiliating the construction workers than to the construction, to which he turns his back, so he does not see the enormous storm in the sky, which will soon ruin the tower. At the first sight, the picture thus represents that moralizing genre, in which Bruegel created so many pictures and with so much invention, the world of the illustrated proverbs and moral truths: he who flies high falls deep, and he who humiliates others will be humiliated.

The king visiting the construction site. Below: the signature of Bruegel on the stone to the right, and exactly above it, at the base of the tower, a small figure who “shits on it all”.

Another, political interpretation of the image is also widespread in the literature. According to this, in the context of the Catholic-Protestant opposition and Hapsburg expansion in the Netherlands, the tower – whose structure was taken by Bruegel from Hieronymus Cock’s Colosseum engraving of 1551, and from his own drawings of the Colosseum made during his Italian travel – alludes to Rome and the Roman church, while the king humiliating the workers, Philip II and the Spanish repression in the Netherlands. The hidden condemnation of Rome and Spain is not uncommon in Bruegel’s other paintings either. In the Massacre of the Innocents (1565), for example, Spanish mercenaries are doing the executioner’s job in a Flemish village. And after his death (1569), one of his major patrons, Abraham Ortelius, the great cartographer of Antwerp, explicitly advised his widow “to burn his anti-Spanish paintings”.

Hieronymus Cock, The Colosseum, 1551

Pieter Bruegel, The Massacre of the Innocents, 1565-67

However, the most elaborated line in the picture is what you can hardly on reproductions, only in front of the original picture. This is the multitude of the tiny construction scenes that make the tower rise to the sky. Ships lay the building material on the beach, people carry stones on handbarrow, wagon and ladder, scaffolds are built, strange elevating machines are turned, clothes are dried and lunch cooked. The whole tower is a well-coordinated construction site, apparently before the confusion of the languages.

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All this fits to Bruegel’s two characteristic compositional methods. One is that the actual subject of the picture is represented somewhere in a secondary place, in the side, in the back, almost hidden, like the legs of Ikarus drowning in the water in the Fall of Icarus. The other is encyclopedicism: that he passionately collects all the examples of a subject, such as in Children’s Games or in the Netherlandish Proverbs. In the Tower of Babel, in the background, on the walls of the tower, where only the attentive observer sees it, he creates a veritable catalog of building industry. From this single picture one could reconstruct the methods and logistics of 16th-century Netherlandish construction.

In 1563, Antwerp was the fastest growing city in Europe, enriching and expanding at an incredible speed. Bruegel daily encountered the building procedures represented in the Tower of Babel, and he supposedly collected them in sketches, according to his usual method, in order to assemble them in a great composition. Thus, this hidden dimension of the painting at the same time documents the enrichment of Antwerp – the city in the shadow of the tower –, and, in the context of the moral message of the picture, it warns of the danger of rapid enrichment:

“The merchants who became rich from her, will stand at a distance because of the fear of her torment, weeping and mourning: “Woe, woe, that great city, she who was clothed in fine linen and purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and precious stones, and pearls! For in one hour such great wealth has been laid waste!” (Rev 18:15-17)

In Antwerp, this catastrophe occurred on 4 November 1576, in the first act of the Spanish-Dutch Eighty Years’ War. Fortunately, Bruegel did not have to live it.

The exhibition is completely captivating. When coming out, we even see Bruegel in the window of the opposite travel agency.

Holy Thursday in Seven Cities, Azores

The volcano crater of Sete Cidades, with its double lagoon: the Green Lagoon in the foreground, and the Blue Lagoon in the background. Seen from the Cerrado das Freiras.

We are in the almost most westerly parish of Europe. This is due to São José, in the freguesía of Fajã Grande, in the Isla de Flores of the Azores – of course, if we accept beforehand that these islands belong to Europe, despite sitting on the American plate. But where we are now is the westernmost parish of the Island of San Miguel, halfway between the Finis Terrae of the old continent and the coast of Newfoundland. Exactly, in the front of the church of San Nicolás, erected in the nineteenth century, in a particularly beautiful volcanic crater that bears the crowded-sounding name of Sete Cidades. Even though there are no cities here, and even of people there are very few. The name comes from the legendary Isla de las Siete Ciudades, the Island of the Seven Cities, never found, but very much alive in the literature and dreams of the cartographers, sailors and explorers of the Atlantic, described for centures in endless variations.

Any visit to these islands, with the omnipresent sea and harsh geographical conditions, evokes the world of the whales and whale hunters. Among the men and women who gathered on this Holy Thursday in the church of San Nicolás, few would not have had a family member who earned their bread hunting whales. Surely, too, most have had family members who emigrated to America. The two things used to go together. They called it “taking the leap”: to go out at night, clandestinely, on an American whaler, to have a job, and above all, to avoid the obligatory recruitment for military service. Under cover of darkness, when they were aware that an American whaling ship was nearby, the men who wanted a new life would light a bonfire on the rocks of the coast, and at this signal the captain sent a boat to enroll them. The presence of the Azorean whalers (or, as they were known in Nantucket and New Bedford, the men of the Western Islands) is recorded even in Moby Dick.

José Pecheco, Luís Silva: Canção de despedida (Farewell song). From the album Chants des baleiniers portugais de Faial, Açores (Songs of the whalers of Faial, Azores, 1958)

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Whale hunting put roots in the islands from 1756 on, when the first whaling boat from New England circumnavigated the Azores. By 1880, a third of the 3.896 whalers of the New Bedford fleet were Azorean. At that time, the islanders themselves were developing a fleet and a local industry. It was relatively weak, almost artisanal, because they never had enough capital to compete with the American vessels. Only for a few years, beginning with 1951, did local whaling reach a significant industrial level (751 sperm whales and 16,000 barrels of oil in the same year), but it was very ephemeral: In 1957, with the destructive eruption of the Vulcão dos Capelinhos and the subsequent massive emigration, it went into rapid decline until its total cessation on August 21, 1987, when a group of men hunted the last sperm whale, a 15-meter leviathan, and processed it on the Isla de Pico. We’ll talk about it in a future post. Today there are very few old whalers, usually men of few words, testimonies to a way of life that, like so many others, will never come back.

Jueves Santo en Sete Cidades, Azores

Caldera volcánica de Sete Cidades, con su laguna doble: la Laguna Verde, más cerca, y la Laguna Azul al fondo. Vista desde el Cerrado das Freiras.

Por poco no estamos en la parroquia más occidental de Europa. Este título le correspondería a la de São José en la freguesía de Fajã Grande, en la azoriana Isla de Flores  —si aceptamos antes, claro está, que esta isla es Europa a pesar de asentarse sobre la placa americana—. Pero donde sí estamos ahora es en la parroquia más occidental de la Isla de San Miguel, es decir, a medio camino desde el Finis Terrae del viejo continente a las costas de Terranova. Exactamente ante la iglesia de San Nicolás, erigida el siglo XIX en una hoya volcánica especialmente hermosa que ostenta el populoso nombre de Sete Cidades. Aunque ciudades propiamente dichas aquí no hay ninguna; y gente, poca. El nombre le viene de la legendaria Isla de las Siete Ciudades, nunca encontrada pero viva en la literatura y las ensoñaciones de cartógrafos, marineros y exploradores del Atlántico, y contada a lo largo de los siglos con infinitas variantes.

Cualquier visita a estas islas, con el mar omnipresente y la dureza de las condiciones geográficas, pone sin remedio en nuestra imaginación el mundo de las ballenas y de los balleneros. Entre los hombres y mujeres que se congregaban este Jueves Santo en la iglesia de San Nicolás, pocos debía haber que no tuvieran un familiar que hubiera vivido de la caza de ballenas y cachalotes. Seguramente también la mayoría habrán tenido familiares que emigraron a América. Las dos cosas solían ir unidas, y llamaban «dar el salto» a subirse de noche, clandestinamente, a un ballenero norteamericano para tener trabajo y, sobre todo, por evitar el reclutamiento obligatorio para el servicio militar. Ayudados por la oscuridad, cuando sabían que algún barco ballenero americano estaba cerca, los hombres que deseaban una vida nueva encendían una hoguera en las rocas de la costa y a esta señal el capitán del barco botaba una chalupa para enrolarlos. Hasta en Moby Dick se recoge la presencia de balleneros azorianos (o, como se conocían en Nantucket y New Bedford, hombres de las Western Islands).

José Pecheco, Luís Silva: Canção de despedida. Del album Chants des baleiniers portugais de Faial, Açores (Canciones de los balleneros portuguese de Faial, Azores, 1958)

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Fue a partir de 1756, al avistarse la primera embarcación ballenera de Nueva Inglaterra rondando las Azores, cuando la caza se hizo presente en las islas. En 1880, un tercio de los 3.896 balleneros de la flota de New Bedford eran azorianos. También los propios isleños fueron desde entonces desarrollando una flota y una industria local. Relativamente débil, casi artesanal, porque nunca llegó allí capital suficiente como para competir con las embarcaciones de alta mar americanas. Solo durante unos pocos años, a partir de 1951, la caza de ballenas alcanzó un nivel industrial significativo (751 cachalotes y 16.000 barriles de aceite en ese mismo año, por ejemplo) pero fue muy efímero: en 1957, con la erupción destructora del Vulcão dos Capelinhos y la subsiguiente emigración masiva, empezó un rápido declive hasta el cese total el 21 de agosto de 1987. Ese día, un grupo de amigos cazó el último cachalote, un leviatán de 15 metros descuartizado en la Isla de Pico. Hablaremos de ello en una próxima entrada. Quedan ya muy pocos viejos balleneros, normalmente hombres de escasas palabras, testimonios de una forma de vida que, como tantas otras, es imposible que vuelva.