At the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, there is a room featuring a number of paintings by Flemish Renaissance artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Vibrant in colour and detail, many of Bruegel’s paintings can appear like a Renaissance version of a ‘Where’s Wally?’ book -the smorgasbord of characters on the canvas suggest a frenzy of activity, and one has to pay close attention to each individual figure to grasp the nuance embedded within the whole.
The painting’s large scale and unusual, encyclopaedic composition render it instantly striking. Stretching to a distant horizon, the ochre ground of Children’s Games is studded with over two hundred children playing around eighty different games.
The panel is carefully organized. A wide street sweeps from the lower left corner of the painting, encompasses the players in the central square, and extends to a distant vanishing point in the upper right.
The game motifs are all of a similar size and events at the centre of the picture appear no more charged with importance than those at its edges. This encyclopaedic compositional technique is at odds with the painting’s lifelike motifs: the former encouraging the eye to move continuously over the shifting surface of the panel, and the latter prompting it to pause at each cluster of children and study the drama unfolding.
The children, who range in age from toddlers to adolescents, roll hoops, walk on stilts, spin hoops, ride hobby-horses, stage mock tournaments, play leap-frog and blind man’s bluff, perform handstands, and play with dolls and other toys. They have taken over the large building that dominates the square, emphasizing the moral that the adults who direct civic affairs are as children in the sight of God. This crowded scene is to some relieved by the landscape in the top left-hand corner; but even here children are bathing in the river and playing on its banks.
The only adults in the image are the parents who play the game still seen today: the parents clasp hands, and the child rides atop the arm bridge, swinging and grinning from having both parents’ attention simultaneously.
All of the other figures are children, from toddlers to teens. One girl stands framed by a doorway, she balances the end of a stick on her finger, as if to balance the entire composition. The success of her activity depends on mentally blocking out the other 200-or-so children taking part in more than 80 games and activities all around her.
All the frenetic motion provides an inventory of childhood, each child absorbed in their pursuit and only interacting with the others immediately involved in the game at hand. This is painting in the descriptive mode: no morality tale unfolds, no beginning, middle and end.
Is this fictive setting a townscape as perceived by children, or an adult’s image of childhood, gloriously unburdened of meddling adults? To what extent was Bruegel himself expressing his sentimentality over his youth, for he is painting this as an adult? One thing this painting does is to make us think about our own childhoods. Once we recognize what is happening in the painting, we are compelled to move through it visually and rattle off the games.
Bruegel revels in idealized memories of childhood, and invites his viewers to do the same, then as now.