JAKE Attree, the York-born artist with the Dean Clough studio in Halifax, poses the question “What is a northern sensibility” in his series of two exhibitions at the School House Gallery, York.
Part II opens today in Jake’s exploration of the abiding influence on Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s masterpieces on his work and his continuing fascination with Bruegel’s North European aesthetic.
“For me, it began in the library of Danesmead Secondary Modern School in York,” says Jake. “I must have been about 14 at the time; one particular Bruegel reproduction in the book of European painting I found there, The Gloomy Day, had a particular resonance for me as it reminded me of Baile Hill, a site in York that I visit frequently to draw from.
“So, I became, I suppose, rather obsessed with Pieter Bruegel the Elder, a Flemish painter from the 16th century. Perhaps having been born and brought up in a medieval city had some influence on how I responded, and continue to respond, to Bruegel’s work, who knows?
“What I do know is that I continued looking very hard at Bruegel, initially the sequence of five paintings which make up the Season series.”
Some years ago, Jake began to make a series of drawings and paintings of figures in extensive landscapes. “As I became more and more involved in this series, I began to look at Bruegel’s The Procession To Calvary and have been making work influenced by this great painting ever since,” he says.
Lately, he was introduced to The Mill And The Cross, Polish director Lech Majewski’s 2011 film that focused on 12 of the 500 characters depicted in Bruegel’s 1564 painting, starring Rutger Hauer, Michael York and Charlotte Rampling.
It was to become another prompt to push the as-yet-unformed project further. “As I pushed myself towards a contemporary take on Bruegel’s painting – which is, on many levels, deeply pertinent to the time in which it was painted – I at last began to use a more diverse range of imagery, as well as a direct response to the painting,” says Jake.
“Vast crowds making their way through an extensive landscape, inspired by some momentous event, are bound to have some resonance with our own time, whether it is intentional or not.”
The exhibition title of A Northern Sensibility is a nod to Jake coming from the north. “That is just a fact,” he says, as he recalls with wry amusement that his first exhibition with Messum’s in Cork Street, London, was entitled The Elemental North.
While a London gallerist’s perception of Attree as a northern painter is water off a duck’s back to him, he has cemented a sense of northernness through the lens of his great artistic mentor, Bruegel.
Jake has lived and breathed Bruegel since childhood. “I remember watching the drovers driving their sheep past my classroom window and how it reminded me of The Return Of The Herd,” he says.
School House gallery co-director Robert Teed says: “When Jake’s compositions include figures, often – as in Bruegel – they are depicted intent on their own private journey, indifferent to the vast landscape around them, or the importance of events happening just outside their field of vision, utterly absorbed by their own tragedies or triumphs.
“Bruegel famously celebrated the details of existence, revelling in people fighting, eating and drinking, and the consequences of that.
“This forms part of what Jake calls Bruegel’s ‘Northern sensibility’: the Flemish painter might have been regarded as vulgar by his Venetian counterpart, but behind the apparent chaos of his huge canvases depicting the rawness and messiness of human life there lies a cast-iron formal discipline.”
In The Procession To Calvary, Christ is a tiny figure almost lost in the melee. “But he is deliberately placed dead centre, and the diagonals of the composition lead to the exquisitely eloquent depiction of Mary’s grief in the right foreground,” says Robert. “This is what Jake believes epitomises Bruegel’s elegance, eloquence and intelligence.”
A Northern Sensibility presents Jake’s art in the context of Bruegel’s abiding influence on his aesthetic. “The figures in Jake’s landscapes are both timeless and contemporary, suggesting themes of rootlessness, displacement and migration; and in his figureless compositions we sense the tenacity and persistence of nature in spite of humans,” says Robert.
“A Northern Sensibility aims to prove that Jake Attree’s art also embodies elegance, eloquence and intelligence.”