Bruegel the Elder, Pieter: The Strife of Lent with Shrovetide (1550s)

Caravaggio dismissed the work of a rival painter with the remark that his "canvases were playing cards". It's an occupational hazard for anyone painting images on a flat surface. However much the artist pursues a sense of deep space and rounded volume, there is the risk that the solid bodies he depicts will go as flat as those figures of kings and queens and knaves that appear on cards.

When modern painting reacted against the three-dimensional illusion, and began to pursue a "flat" look deliberately, the critics responded in much the same way. They compared the work of Manet or Cézanne to playing cards, or sign-painting, or popular prints - until, that is, they learnt to love flatness, and wouldn't stand for anything else. But there are pictures in which flatness is used tactically, to introduce a strange spatial effect. The figures in this picture represent solid bodies, but they seem to be flat as well - to have actually turned into flat shapes with sharp edges, lying upon one another. Their flatness is more than a look, whether an error or a style-choice. It is made to feel like a fact about them.

The effect is used movingly in Russian icon paintings. These images treat every figure as a thin, sharp shape. When such figures come into contact, it's as if they were overlapping and interleaving like pieces of paper. In icons of the Virgin and Child, the tender cheek-to-cheek contact of embracing mother and baby is a simple overlap of shapes. Their faces are such slivers, and lie pressed perfectly flat upon each other. In other words, the figures are given an impossible intimacy, a more-than-bodily closeness - for no one ever really stuck to anyone like a stamp to a letter.

The effect is used cleverly in illustrations to Alice in Wonderland. Several of the characters in this dream story are, of course, playing cards. But Lewis Carroll often describes them as if, at the same time, they are also bodies occupying extended space. This is perfectly OK as dream logic. In a purely verbal description, no problem need arise. But an illustrator must decide what things look like.

If you take John Tenniel's Alice illustrations, you find he has various solutions. The Queen of Hearts is sometimes drawn simply as a monstrously solid woman, nothing flat or card-like about her. But there are also pictures, showing the assembled court, where the figures are drawn in a very flat way, in stiff poses. Though these characters are bodies standing around in a garden, they also appear to be as flat as overlaid sheets of cut-out card. The depicted world is deep and flat at the same time. The dream logic is preserved.

The essential ambiguity can be put like this: imagine a round shape in a picture. It can be a ball or a plate. It can represent a sphere, or it can represent a flat disc that's seen face on: it depends on what it's meant to be, on the way it's shaded in, and on the way it relates spatially to other things in the scene. Sometimes you get contradictory signals, as in icons and in Alice, where bodies are both solids and flats. Or there can be a local outbreak of flatness. A form that's voluminous is suddenly treated as if it were thin. It's impossible, and can only exist in a picture.

The effect is used cruelly in this picture by Bruegel. It's a comic painting, obviously, but it deploys volume-ambiguity to disturbing effect. It shows three heads, and it's called The Strife of Lent with Shrovetide, or simply A Fat Man and Two Thin Ones. The basic contrast/conflict occurs in other Bruegel pictures. The annual crunch point comes at Carnival (carne vale, "goodbye meat"), the end of eating and the beginning of fasting. Shrove Tuesday, Pancake Day, is the final blow-out before the lean weeks of Lent. It fell this week.

The fat friar is round-faced, his chin a mere dimple in his curving jowls, a smug smile on his lips. He is himself a pudding, fattened up for the duration. And he is confronted by two wretched, starveling, characters. One is in jagged profile. The other, driven by hunger and envy, lurches forward to take a bite out of the friar's cheek. Eat the rich!

It's an impossible bite - or rather, the bite makes it an impossible face. The starveling's munch is only a small nip. And you wouldn't get your face round something with such a small nip unless the thing was itself pretty flat. The friar's face here is both fat and flat. Its near, unbitten side is solidly chubby flesh. But the bitten side, within that narrow bite, is given a shallow, rim-like shading around the cheek and jowl, to make it as flat as a pancake.

It's not only the act of someone eating another's face that gets to you. This sudden jump from solid to flat, within the same object, is a piece of violence itself.

Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
News
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam