Fleet Foxes And Titus Andronicus Give A Lesson In 16th-Century Painting

Pieter BrugelAnd now for the unlikeliest indie icon to emerge in the first half of 2008: Pieter Bruegel.

Pieter who? If you’re not up on your art history, allow me: Pieter Bruegel was a 16th-century Flemish painter whose depictions of peasant village life and landscapes with a busy, decidedly twisted look have caught the eye of art lovers for centuries. Now, Bruegel, known also as “Pieter the Elder,” has caught the attention of the younger set — or at least two bands creating a buzz within that set.

Seriously, what are the odds that two bands from opposite sides of the country with little in common musically — but which have emerged almost simultaneously in mondo bloggo — would each pay tribute on their debut albums to the same Renaissance master? I’m gonna say slim to none. But that, brothers and sisters, is exactly what we have.

First, there was Titus Andronicus — the six-man, four-guitar New Jersey angst rockers whose debut album, The Airing of Grievances, includes among its many highbrow lyrical mentions a song called “Upon Viewing Bruegel’s ‘Landscape With the Fall of Icarus’ ” — a reference to one of the artist’s best-known works. It is an odd painting in which the mundane and the mythic exist side by side — as peasants go about their daily chores, plowing the fields, etc, the ill-fated Icarus is falling to his demise. “It’s just like a pastoral scene, but the guy’s legs are falling into the water next to them,” Titus singer Patrick Stickles explained, “and he was apparently trying to get at that even in the face of epic historic tragedy, we are all just still pushing the plow.”

Stickles was moved to write the song — which, like the painting, rocks in epic fashion — after letting down a professorial candidate when he refused to write something about the painting in a college creative writing class. He then tried to use the painting to inspire others when he worked as a teacher’s aid last year. “There was this one kid who was a really good artist, and he would do amazing doodles, and so on the last day of class, I gave him a print-out of this painting and two poems about it by [W.H.] Auden and [William Carlos] Williams,” Stickles said. “I was like, ‘Do you see how art and literature are interconnected and all the places you can draw inspiration from?’ He was like ‘whatever,’ and probably never looked at it again. But at least I tried.”

That Bruegel reference from Titus was random enough — but imagine my surprise a few weeks later, when I was about to interview Sub Pop’s much-lauded indie-folk-chamber-pop harmony-lovin’ quintet Fleet Foxes and realized that the cover of their recent debut is a work by none other than that same Pieter Bruegel? Called “The Blue Cloak” (or “Netherlandish Proverbs”), it’s a depiction of aphorisms about generally foolish human behavior, from tossing feathers, to biting iron, to taking a dump out a window. Seriously, you can easily spend an hour finding stuff in this busy painting.

“It’s this sort of really detailed, 1500s thing, but actually it’s horrible, like, everything that’s going on is like a disaster,” Fleet Foxes frontman Robin Pecknold said. “All the stuff happening in that bucolic scene is weird, people defecating out of boxes and sheep getting cut through the gut.”

Granted, the FF record deals a lot with death and has a very “old” sound to it — but 16th-century old? Keyboardist Casey Wescott explains it just made sense. “When Robin sent what was to be the album artwork, there wasn’t any rational reason, but the minute I saw it, I was like, ‘Oh yeah, that feels like it.’ Even though it was just a completely intuitive feeling, you know? There was just something that resonated, hearing the songs together and then seeing the cover.”

So that’s it — different reasons, way different bands, and yet the same painter from 500 years ago. I can’t think of anything to explain it, except maybe this: Both Stickles and Pecknold are 22 years old and have big, bushy beards — as did Pieter Bruegel! That’s it! It’s all in the beards.

Don’t say you never learned anything from an MTV Newsroom blog post. And when you impress your friends with this art-meets-indie-rock fact, you can thank Professor Norris. Class dismissed.

Pieter Brugel