Two monkeys

Bruegel’s smallest picture (only 19,8 × 23,3 cm, 1562, Berlin, Gemäldegalerie) depicts two monkeys. They are sitting in the window of a thick-walled building, chained to the windowsill, and beyond the window you see the port city of Antwerp. Next to them, on the windowsill, the empty shell of a crushed hazelnut.

If someone who usually expresses himself with two hundred figures, in one picture unexpectedly uses only two, that must mean something. But what?

According to some authors, the painting, like Bruegel’s many other small pictures, is an illustration of a Flemish proverb: “to go to court for a nut”. Whoever goes to court, should not be surprised for being arrested there. And if he went for nothing, then he himself was looking for trouble. The two free birds flying in the sky over the city form a sharp counterpoint to the two monkeys chained next to the hazelnut shell.

Andrea Alciato also imagines the courtier in chains, with freely flying birds above him. Los emblemas de Alciato traducidos en rimas españolas, Lyon: Roville-Bonhomme, 1549, «In aulicos» (on courtiers), p. 146.

In other opinions, the painting is only a study, in which the master depicted for later use two of the exotic animals regularly brought to Antwerp. However, we do not know any other similar sketch from Bruegel, and the detailed elaboration of the small painting also suggests a finished picture.

At the same time, it is a fact that Bruegel also produced two other pictures in the same year, where he used the lessons of this study. One is the painting Dulle Griet (Mad Meg, Amsterdam, Museum van den Bergh, inv. no. 788). In the picture, an uprooted, helmeted woman runs swiftly with a sword, with female soldiers behind her, who seem to want to lay siege on Hell. This hell is populated with the monster figures of Bosch, which Bruegel had imitated so many times; but this is the first time he also includes monkeys, and the two monkeys looking out of the round window of the castle are very similar to the two in the small painting. The interpretation of the picture is uncertain, but it might be an example of the carnivalesque swap of roles, so popular among Renaissance authors: here, women take on the role of warrior men. The monkeys emphasize this role change by playing a human role in the hellish castle.

griet griet griet griet griet griet griet griet griet griet griet griet griet

The other picture is the print The monkeys rob the sleeping pedlar, made by Bruegel for the publisher To the four winds of his regular companion, Hieronymus Cock. In this, the monkeys take on the goods pulled out of the pedlar’s basket, and the human roles associated with them. The great number of small figures amounts to a complete study of simian movement. The monkeys’ round dance in the middle evokes a similar motif from Dulle Griet.

We do not know what piqued Bruegel’s interest in monkeys that year, and why it abated later. He may have found some inspiration in the unexpectedly seen exotic monkeys, and he painted them with the exclamation this will be good for something, but then one of his humanist friends begged for the painting for his curiosity cabinet. He may have wanted to dominate the genre of exotic animals sought by the Kunst- und Wunderkammers and encyclopedias, similarly to the other contemporary themes, such as landscapes, peasant scenes or Bosch’s devilries, that he tried and succeeded in, but this time it somehow did not come in. Nevertheless, the master never discarded anything he had created, so he also used the motif of the Two monkeys in the later painting and print.

And just as Bruegel created the genre of modern landscapes and peasant scenes, so these few monkey representations also had an impact on later art. In 1575, his popular monkey print inspired Pieter van der Borcht to publish a whole print series, where monkeys behave like human beings, thus emphasizing the comicality of a situation. With this series starts the genre of singerie, the monkey scenes parodying human society, which holds its popularity from the late Renaissance to the 20th century. Bruegel’s son and grandson, the Elder and Younger Jan Brueghel also took part in the early dissemination of this genre.

Pieter van der Borcht the Elder, The Quack, 1575

Pieter Feddes Harlingen’s version on Bruegel’s print, early 17th c

Jan Brueghel the Elder and the Younger, Monkey feast, c. 1620

Abraham Teniers, Monkeys arresting a cat, mid-17th. c

But the genre’s most touching representative is not a painter, but a poet, the Nobel Prize winner Wysława Szymborska, who wrote her ekphrasis on Bruegel’s painting shortly after 1981, the ban on Solidarność and the introduction of martial law in Poland.

Dwie małpy Brueghla

Tak wygląda mój wielki maturalny sen:
siedzą w oknie dwie małpy przykute łańcuchem,
za oknem fruwa niebo
i kąpie się morze.

Zdaję z historii ludzi.
Jąkam się i brnę.

Małpa, wpatrzona we mnie, ironicznie słucha,
druga niby to drzemie --
a kiedy po pytaniu nastaje milczenie,
podpowiada mi
cichym brząkaniem łańcucha.
Bruegel’s two monkeys

This is my great dream about final exam:
two monkeys in chains sit in the window,
behind them, the sky is flying
and the sea taking its bath.

The exam is in the history of Mankind.
I stammer and hedge.

One monkey stares at me sardonically, silently,
the other naps,
but when the question is followed by silence,
he prompts me with a gentle
clicking of his chain.

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