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In the Frame for July 2013: Pieter Bruegel’s ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’

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The puzzle is this: a copy of Pieter Bruegel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus hangs in Brussels’ Musée d’Art ancien, showing the boy of classical legend plunging into the sea to his death, the wax securing feathers to his back having melted when he flew too close to the sun. In the middle distance a shepherd stands with his back to the tragic scene to the right of picture, gazing up at an empty sky. This scene has been compared to sequences in a 2006 documentary film that show suicidal leaps from San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. ‘The analogy sticks’, writes a New York Times film critic, ‘because the fatal leaps go almost unnoticed by passers-by’.1 This Bruegel picture (or more correctly, this copy of the lost Bruegel original) has thus been considered as a depiction of an uncaring world against which suicide may be understood as the ultimate existential protest.

Yet there is a second copy of Bruegel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus in Brussels, this one at the art deco Van Buuren Museum in the suburbs, which the Archivist made time to see during a recent trip (and which, incidentally, incorporates a series of exquisite formal gardens). It is perhaps not as fine a copy as the one at le Musée d’Art ancient, but it contains a telling detail missing from the other picture: Icarus’ father, Daedalus, who accompanied Icarus in flight and is suspended mid-air to the upper left of picture, having escaped his son’s accidental fate. It is Daedalus to whom the attention of the central figure has been drawn. Rather than being uncaring, the shepherd is simply unaware, his attention having been momentarily - and understandably - caught by the extraordinary sight of a man in flight. By contrast, the figure to the right of the picture knows of the plight of Icarus, though he is too far away to render assistance.

In its conception, therefore, the picture cannot be used to support what The Guardian columnist Giles Fraser has recently called the 'poisonous connection' between suicide and the romantic hero against whom, so the story goes, the whole world is ranged. The 'aestheticisation of suicide', he writes, 'denies the reality that most people who kill themselves are trapped and desperate. They are commonly suffering from depression, or schizophrenia, or debt, or homelessness, or alcoholism, or drug addiction, or a combination of these things'.2 ‘Flying too close to the sun’ has become a metaphor for exposure (whether by accident or by design) to risk that endangers life or sanity. To those who find themselves in this situation, things can sometimes seem much more bleak than they really are. People (like Bruegel's shepherd) who appear not to care may simply be temporarily distracted. As a reviewer of some recent historical studies of suicide has noted, it has been ever thus:

The end of the Samaritans’ information page on self-harm urgently communicates the same message as that of the first full-length treatise on suicide published in English, John Sym’s Lifes Preservative Against Self-Killing (1637), and it can’t be said often enough: “There is always hope. There is always help”.3

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