Growing up, my parents used to read my sister a book called Pish Posh Said Hieronymus Bosch. This fragment of memory is like a lot of things about childhood that seem unremarkable until you discover that they are not widely shared. What sort of parents decide that this is an important artist to have an early exposure to? Bosch is most associated with his nightmare hallucinations of sinister, punitive religion. Certainly, this simplifies the breadth of Bosch’s work, but it is certainly the most immediate or impactful aspect. Furthermore, his contributions are specialized to make him debatably significant. Come to find out Hieronymus Bosch is not exactly a household name, and rarely an inspiration for crayons, colored pencils, and construction paper. But a lot of us have something like this occur. Some complex and confusing world which we half understand but attaches to our subconscious. It is clearly frightening, but more so intriguing, and furthers other notions of other worlds. Parents let these slip into wholesome, approved content, but often young minds are ready for a push. Maybe it was Frank Zappa or Twin Peaks or Edward Gorey or The Wrath of Khan. Naturally our nightmares inspire as much as any dreams well into the 21st century.
2016 is the 500th anniversary of Bosch’s death and has occasioned retrospective appreciation across Europe. Part of Bosch’s modern appeal seems to come from his positioning of nightmare on the continuum of daily experience. In such a staunchly religious time, Bosch seems inward focused and inscrutable. Rather than simple biblical illustrations or scenes of redemption and damnation we are confronted with vast panoramas of abstruse persons and beasts and unholy abstractions. Bosch depicts Heaven, Hell and the mortal coil as concurrent and overlapping. Angels demon and men sit side by side with living tools and giant animals. There is a convenient collegiate impulse to define these scenes as byproducts of so many bad trips. Certainly they contain a sort of unhinged vibrance but there are steady currents. Bosch describes an unrelenting and studied interiority; an ambiguous inner conflict.
But little is known about the artist and much of the motivation and method behind the mad visions is still speculative. This too may account for the continued popularity of Bosch, his interpretive malleability. Another result of this is Hieronymus Bosch: Touched by the Devil (2015) is a sort of deceptively titled art procedural. Naturally, themes and predilections are discussed by the team of Dutch experts attempting to stage an exhibition in Bosch’s hometown of s’ Hertogenbosch. The owl as otherworldly watcher or sinister nocturnal predator proves once again this animal is rarely what it seems. The overwhelming focus here is how the Dutch team curates its potential exhibit. This is interesting, and its narrative is well handled, but there is very little new information about the artist. Perhaps most revealing are suggestions that he may have had considerable aid in creating some of his best known works. Still, nothing gets at our notions of creativity quite like the thought of many hands on the canvas. The idea makes Bosch something more of a director. Still, it’s a possible world proposed and then mostly left unexplored.
What most enticingly recommends this new film is its unfettered access to scrutinizing Bosch’s work. Of the experts, one is a photographer, and good time is spent capturing the paintings for further study. Though collections in Madrid and Venice were not shared for the s’ Hertogenbosch retrospective we are allowed to get in closer than any exhibit would allow. Added to this are infrared excavations of initial sketch work beneath the brush strokes. Whatever your position on collectors v. connoisseurs or art world machinations, ample time is spent poring over the prodigious details in this endlessly fascinating work.
Hieronymus Bosch: Touched by the Devil
dir. Pieter van Huystee