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
The starship in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
filmsThe first glimpse of JJ Abrams' new film has been released online
The Speaker of the House will takes his turn as guest editor of the Today programme
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special
Arts and Entertainment
Jude Law in Black Sea


In Black Seahe is as audiences have never seen him before

Arts and Entertainment
Johnny Depp no longer cares if people criticise his movie flops


Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game