Munich people looking at pictures: Bruegel

Where are the drinks?

Our author is not an art historian, but a trained chef. What does he think of Pieter Bruegel’s “The Land of Cockaigne”?

I must warn you: if you go through the Alte Pinakothek (art gallery) in a targeted manner, you will soon get a guilty conscience. I don’t like walking past art. I prefer to let it act on me, as it is often the case, especially with old art, that I am standing in front of a picture that I have already seen in art books, on postcards or on tote bags, and it affects me to stand in front of the original. What brings me to the Alte Pinakothek in the first place? I am looking at a picture with the title “Land of Cockaigne”, painted by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. It is hanging on the first floor.

As I am standing in front of the “Land of Cockaigne” for the first time in my life, the first thing I notice is how small the picture is. Brilliantly painted, but can such a size depict hedonism? Or perhaps we should ask ourselves whether the Land of Cockaigne has anything to do with hedonism in the first place. After all, the Land of Cockaigne always makes us think of the story of a place where roasted pigeons fly into the mouth – historically, it had a concrete location, once decreed to be south-east of Toulouse, as Pays de Cocagne, and another time to the west of Spain, as "Cokanien".

Bruegel’s Land of Cockaigne is, upon closer examination, anything but a hidden picture puzzle, but is much more clearly arranged than it appears at first glance: Three slightly stocky men lie beneath a tree, around which there is a laden table. One of them has a distressed look in his eyes; he can’t be enjoying himself that much. We can only see the round back of one of the others; he is lying slightly uncomfortably because there is a flail lying under him, diagonally under his short rib, which must hurt. Why is there a flail there at all? In the Land of Cockaigne, people don’t have to work, I think. A half-eaten egg with a spoon in it is walking between the two of them. Humpty Dumpty has settled his affair. The roasted pig, which is frolicking through the area with a knife in its side, the egg and goose, which is lying on the plate as if it were a sunbed, are so absurd and funny that they are very reminiscent of the pictures of Hieronymus Bosch.

As someone who works in the food service sector, I am almost worried, as the people in the picture don’t have anything to drink. The one bottle of wine appears to be empty.

The poor knight who is also lying under the tree has probably also had enough. He has even taken off his iron glove to eat. It is really surprising, how uncomfortably the figures in the picture are lounging there. However, it is relatively democratic, as it becomes apparent that one is a scholar (fur coat, notebook), one is a farmer (flail) and the other is a knight (armour). In the background, another knight is lamenting that no cake is falling into his open visor from the cake-laden hut. So much hasn’t changed, I think to myself: moaning is always rampant.

As someone who works in the food service sector, I am almost worried, as the people in the picture don’t have anything to drink. The one bottle of wine appears to be empty. As a host, I would find that embarrassing. There must always be slightly more available than necessary, water (still and sparkling), beer and wine, and no muck. Soft drinks are not really my thing. They disrupt your taste buds when you are eating. A maximum of one Spezi (orangeade-cola-mix ) is fine, then stop. And the people in the picture have nothing to drink. I almost want to hurry to their aid, to summon the waiter to bring water, beer and wine quickly. What is the matter here? The table is actually not that plentifully laden. Two sausages, quails and a rabbit – three men would almost have to fight over them. Perhaps that explains the look on the face of the scholar: Is anything else coming? Or was that it? No more wine, and what is that growing on the tree? A doner kebab? I can’t make it out.

I take a few steps back (sometimes, you need some distance), and then it suddenly occurs to me where I have seen this democratic arrangement of different men before: on the grassland behind the Oktoberfest, I have seen these three figures umpteen times! After all, isn’t the Oktoberfest our present day Land of Cockaigne? Abundance, hedonism, freedom – everything that is related in the story and in the picture also happens there. Does entry into Bruegel’s Land of Cockaigne cost anything? There is reason to suspect that it does, as there is a person at the top right of the picture who is trying to daringly escape through a hole in a cloud barricade via a tree – or to skip out on the bill. Why? Is his Catholic conscience plaguing him for having it too good? Heartburn? Homesickness? The flight from the Land of Cockaigne was something new to me until now and the only people to have complained about it are, of course, Deichkind (German hip hop band):

Coffee, ground pork and caramel
My heart is fat and racing fast
I cull from the shrub of cigarettes
I have to do it cos I'm a chain-smoker
I set light to the Cognac rain
Because I can't keep living that way
The roasted chicken flies into my mouth
I can't stand this any longer, I don't want to

Anyway, the trousers of the absconder strain suspiciously and I cannot decide whether the cloud is a cloud or candy floss. The situation at the time of the creation of the picture explains many things in the picture itself, as Europe was experiencing the “Little Ice Age”. The rivers and lakes froze for longer, the winters were longer and the harvests were not as good. That is probably why the three men are so warmly dressed, and also why Bruegel gave the Land of Cockaigne a thoroughly Mediterranean setting. This is indicated by the Opuntia ficus-indica, the so-called cactus pear at the right of the picture. Short digression: the Little Ice Age also caused the invention of chips, as Belgium’s rivers froze all at once in the winter and the people, who usually ate fried freshwater fish, now had to fry potatoes and dip them in mayonnaise.

There is not much else on the picture, but there is one thing that is very interesting: Bruegel depicted the “other side” beyond the Land of Cockaigne on the horizon. To enhance the status of the “paradise”? On the other side, we can see the sea and ships, possibly fishermen, the working society? Or are angry crowds trying to reach the Land of Cockaigne by sea? Is the cloud sufficient as a barrier? This is the problem with the story of the Land of Cockaigne. The issue of whether the Land of Cockaigne is available to everyone is not negotiated. In the less hedonistic version that Bruegel painted, I think that it can serve everybody, but this is, generally speaking, my opinion.

After all, isn’t the Oktoberfest our present day Land of Cockaigne? Abundance, hedonism, freedom – everything that is related in the story and in the picture also happens there.

We don’t know why Bruegel used an oak board for his picture, whether he couldn’t afford a canvas, but perhaps this is why it has been preserved. I am always fascinated about how it is possible that these pictures have made it into the Pinakothek without being damaged so far, as some of them are hundreds of years old and the times were not always the best. When I think of my own things, I cannot even take care of something for twenty years without a corner being chipped or the item being completely broken. The previous owners of the pictures in the Pinakothek galleries possibly had more stability in their lives than I have had and probably did not have to constantly move. Anyone who could afford such pictures would surely already have found the appropriate property. In Munich nowadays, this is rather difficult.

Sven Katmando Christ is a chef, food and music nerd and quite a good dancer. His favourite food is always what he has never eaten before.



Text: Nansen & Piccard; Photos: Frank Stolle


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