I showed one of my younger students Bruegel the Elder's 'Hunters in the Snow'. It was an attempt to spark the imagination, get them digging for details then have them join a few dots, make up some human patterns, tell some tales. It seemed to work.
The student talked about the men running to put out the fire. I thought he was making this up, and was pleased. Making anything up is good. Either that, or he was mistaking a controlled blaze in the left foreground of the painting for a fire that needed extinguishing. But it turns out he'd noticed a detail I'd failed to spot.
In the background of the scene, a tiny cottage appears to be emitting a small tongue of flame from its chimney. Someone is ill advisedly climbing the thatch. Others are circling the hut with ladders. A couple of figures are dashing across a snowy field nearby. I questioned, out loud, what I was seeing.
'Is it a fire? Are those people running to put it out? Or is there something else going on?'
My student answered calmly and confidently. 'Yes, it's a fire. You can see it coming from the chimney. That's not smoke. It's orange.'
That week, at my request, he wrote a short story based on the painting. In his story, he suggested that the cottage on fire had been filled with grain. The village's winter was about to get much worse. The title of the story had something to do with famine.
I'd asked him to talk about whatever it was he saw, whatever drew his attention. He didn't want to talk about the hunters and their sea of dogs, returning from the hunt with only a single fox slung over a shoulder. He didn't want to talk about the wheeling figures on the ice, or the bird carving an obsidian arc above them, carving your line of sight as it goes, or the skeletal trees and the golden thorns and the frost all over, or the tamed blaze in the foreground, built for warmth and fed with hay, a fire that I initially thought he'd misread, when really he'd just spotted a more interesting fire, far away. He wanted to talk about a possible, tiny, looming disaster, right at the back, tucked beneath the jagged peaks.
I couldn't believe I hadn't seen it before. I thought of myself as one of those ice-drunk villagers, toppling around on their frozen pond, enjoying the brief intensity of a bright winter's day. I was glad I hadn't seen it. I was glad I saw it now.