In the college art appreciation course that I teach at the local community college, we recently discussed different elements and principles of art, including line, shape and color as well as balance, contrast and pattern, among other concepts. For the image above, we were discussing emphasis and subordination. The subject of the painting is a landscape, but it also includes the story of the fall of Icarus from Greek mythology.
We had already talked about the Icarus story previously in a print by Matisse, so it was interesting for the kids to see a different interpretation of it. In Matisse’s image, Icarus is floating among the stars, free and full of exuberant abandon, unaware that the red beat of his heart will soon be extinguished because he flies too close to the sun. Icarus is the focus in Matisse’s bright modern work, filling up the picture space with his bold energy. Matisse adds text to his image: “At this moment we are so free, shouldn’t we make young people who have finished their studies take a grand trip by plane.” This is about Icarus in his moment of joy and wonder as he flies on his manufactured wings, and Matisse wants his image to encourage young people to likewise go out and experience the world firsthand. This is not a cautionary tale in any fashion.
In contrast, Icarus is all but hidden in Bruegel’s painting. He is completely subordinated to the the landscape. Our focus is on the man plowing in the foreground and the lovely seascape in the background. Color, line, and shape all focus our attention away from the sorry legs of Icarus disappearing into the water in the bottom right of the canvas. This image is often interpreted as an illustration of a Flemish proverb: “No plough stands still because a man dies.” Life goes on. Or perhaps, in a more negative interpretation, there is the fear that our life may pass unnoticed. Icarus’s fall and death is completely marginalized and ignored here. The focus is on life, work and economy.
My students enjoyed looking at and discussing this painting, and as we wrapped up our observations, one student rose his hand to comment: “What does it mean that the sun is setting?” I got his point. If Icarus falls because he flies too close to the sun, why isn’t the sun high in the sky melting the wax of his wings? Why is the sun low on the horizon, almost disappearing from view? I’ve been thinking about it since, and I’m not sure I have a good answer. Certainly the lovely glow cast by the setting sun reinforces our attention on the landscape and not on the mythology. And there is an interesting parallel of the sun slippling quietly into the water at the back of the scene just as Icarus sinks below the surface at the front.