Short Life in a Strange World: Birth to Death in 42 Panels by Toby Ferris - review by Michael Prodger

Michael Prodger

About Suffering He Was Never Wrong

Short Life in a Strange World: Birth to Death in 42 Panels


Fourth Estate 326pp £20 order from our bookshop

In an earlier life, Toby Ferris was employed as a developer of an immersive video game. He became comfortable working at the intersection of data and imaginative worlds. The game he was trying to create eventually proved too complicated, the alternative, manufactured world’s possibilities being simply too multifarious. Ferris drifted off but took his skills with him. A few years later he decided to apply them to the paintings of one of art’s great originals, Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

Shortly before Ferris turned forty-two, his father died. Looking at Bruegel’s work – so rich in parables of life and death – he conceived a project to see every one of the forty-two surviving panels, which are spread across twenty-two galleries, nineteen cities, twelve countries and two continents. Bruegel died in 1569. His precise birth date is unknown, but 1525 or thereabouts is widely accepted, making the artist only a little older when he died than Ferris was at the start of his project. Ferris’s father, meanwhile, died at eighty-four, providing a tidy numerical symmetry. These statistical coincidences gave rise to an old-fashioned quest, albeit a slightly woolly one. He did not want his enterprise to resemble a form of artistic stamp-collecting: ‘It is not Bruegel’s completeness that I am interested in,’ Ferris states, ‘but my own.’ Bruegel is a funny person to turn to nevertheless: a painter of cavortings, the Tower of Babel and apocalypse.

The result of all this is an uncategorisable book that mingles paintings and pensées, history and life lessons, travel and memoir. The pictures, every one of them enigmatic, stimulate innumerable musings and thoughts, some random, some focused. Unlike the works of his Italian contemporaries, very few of Bruegel’s paintings have

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