I'm a man of small obsessions. Some of these are new (like my fixation on single malt whisky) and some of them I've had since my childhood. The earliest of these obsessions is still with me - it's my deep love of, and fascination for, the paintings of Breugel.
I know when this started. It was autumn and I was less that five. As for the how, well in the classroom at my infant school hung a large print of The Hunters in the Snow. It seemed huge and almost alive and I looked at it every day for a year or so as the seasons changed in the playground outside. They were grey days back then and I was fascinated by the painting. It made me feel free and unburdened.
I'd spend much of my time making up stories about what the hunters were saying and thinking, where they had been, where they had come from, what their dog's names were, what they might be eating for supper - no wonder I didn't learn much. I imagined being one of the skaters on the ice below, the person crossing the bridge with firewood on his back, I wondered why nobody had fixed the inn sign so that it hung true and how warming those hot flames from the fire must have been on such a cold day. I wanted to be the flying bird on its way to the distant mountains and I wondered just what kind of bird it was anyway. It wasn't in my Observer Book of Birds.
I was hooked.
Later when I was about twelve I discovered a book in the library at Lord William's Grammar School. It was large, almost square, thick and glossy, and beautifully printed. Inside were really fine prints of all of Breugel's works from the early wonders of his Bosch inspired dreamscapes to his wonderful representations of peasant life. He was mystical, he was everything I wanted to be and I tried, painting my daubs and wishing I had even a finger's worth of the talent and ability that he had. Of course I never came close.
I read that book most lunchtimes for years, hiding away from reality, keeping myself to myself, trying not to remember the cross country run or the math's lesson I had to go to when my lunchtime session with Breugel was over. I lived in his world for a while and, even in times of war and pestilence, it seemed a good place to be. I have searched for that book in book shops and online for years and still never found it. Sometimes I wonder if it ever existed, but that is just the way my mind works. Everything could be a dream, every memory may be false, even real things may not exist.
I have found myself in those pictures a dozen or so times both spiritually and actually. I have a Dutch peasant face you see and I can find myself represented as a figure in a few of those paintings - The Fight between Carnival and Lent, Children's Games, The Peasant Wedding.
So here I am today, all old and ugly like a Breugel peasant and this is my reason for visiting Vienna. There is a room in the Kunsthistorisches Museum that is wall to wall Breugel. That room is my heaven, my whole life is there. I can't explain how I felt when I walked into that room. It was like coming home to a loving family or meeting up with all the best friends I've ever known in a single room. For a few moments I couldn't speak and I had to sit down. After that I just wandered from picture to picture taking it all in but not really seeing and it wasn't until I calmed myself that I really saw what I had come to see - the peacock feather, the broken jug handle, the egg robber, and me sitting on that barrel.
So there it was, a lifetime's ambition realised, my bucket list done in one single visit.
I owe Breugel a lot. I'm no great artist but it was he who started me on the path I took with art and with which I've managed to make a living - one way or another - for all of my life. I have much to thank him for, the joy he has brought me with his work and how he sent me along a road that I am so pleased that I travelled.
So thanks Pieter, I take my rough woollen peasant cap off to you. You set me free.