Engraving dated 1557 by Pieter van der Heyden after a drawing by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Latin text at the bottom reads ‘Big Fish eat Little Fish’ and ‘the rich oppress you with their power’
I stumbled across this when I started looking into medieval engravings and woodcuts. Engravings and woodcuts often illustrated political commentary, for example statements of dissent toward the church, and were distributed widely to communicate messages to a largely illiterate audience.
The ‘Big Fish Eat Little Fish’ engraving is after a drawing by Breugel, which illustrates an ancient proverb and known saying: ‘the rich get richer while the poor get poorer’. The drawing alludes to greed, a gruesome image of the big fish being sliced open to reveal that it has gorged itself on the other smaller fishes. The fishes pouring from its mouth and insides, themselves also eating smaller fishes. Emperors and kings live at the expense of their subjects, merchants abuse their positions of wealth and power to oppress the weak. One interesting detail about this drawing is that there is a symbol of the imperial orb on the sword, referring to the monarchy or state.
The fact that the big fish lies beached and gutted illustrates the moral of the story, that the accumulated wealth at the expense of others is now useless and that greed does not pay.
Greed, the increasing wealth divide, and the negative impact of capitalism have been themes central to my artistic practice for the last year or so, and greed will be the focus of mine and Twinkle Troughton's forthcoming duo exhibition at Galerie Michaela Stock in Vienna, titled 'Affluence and Avarice'. Research naturally led me to 16th century Flemish painter Pieter Breugel whose subversive images contain strong messages of social protest. A painting I made last year ‘But why does the Wealth Divide just keep getting bigger?’ uses Breugel’s ‘The Triumph of Death’ as a starting point.
What fascinated me about ‘Big Fish Eat Little Fish’ is the resonance it has today. Increasingly the concentration of wealth is ending up in the pockets of the fewest, in effect reducing the spending power of the majority and having negative implications for our economy in general. Bankers bonuses and high executive pay packets have been a discussion point in the media for months, interestingly in Switzerland recently voters overwhelmingly backed proposals to curb executive pay. (link)
With current welfare reforms and cuts to public services it seems that the people in power are contributing to the increasing wealth divide and helping to tip the balance in favour of the people with the most. For example the government expenditure on targeting and demonizing the ‘Benefit thief’ is far greater than the allocation of funds to target corporate tax evasion. Yet, the money the government loses from benefit fraud is a miniscule fraction of the amount lost to tax evasion. So basically they are looking after the rich and targeting the poor. (interesting article on this here)
I decided to use the 16th century engraving as a starting point for a series of paintings about this issue.
Admittedly I’m naturally quite neurotic about how I approach my painting! Usually questioning everything and wanting there to be a reason for every decision I make… After thinking on it for a while I decided to step back from all of those thought processes, and decided simply to revive the original and create my interpretation of the image in paint. See below some iphone snapshots of as yet untitled studies so far.
It is my intention to use paint in an intuitive and experimental way, trying out different techniques and brush marks, to make the physical process of my art making as much an explorative endeavor as the rational thinking behind my work.
When I first came across Gerhardt Richters’ Baader Meinhof series years ago I was in awe of their intensity and powerful political presence. Simply by translating those images into paint, he creates a new perspective on the subject and different arena for reflection. I hope that my ‘Big Fish Eat Little Fish’ paintings might attempt to simply revive an ancient engraving and proverb to comment on a contemporary issue.
'Hanged' by Gerhardt Richter, 1988
'Dead' by Gerhardt Richter, 1988
'Man shot Down' by Gerhardt Richter, 1988