Hieronymous Bosch from my scrapbook 2001




Rotterdam, Musem Boijmans van Beuningen, through 11 November 2001.

Rotterdam is striving to regain a position on the culture city map, and this exhibition is for effect. Take a mediaeval artist to pieces, examine the bits, and put him together again. This used to be called deconstruction, and was mandatory for rising critics in the l980s. But today, in the hands of ambitious curators, the effect can be to confuse rather than to revise and clarify. Bosch remains a household name, and this exhibition does little to add to that identity.

The impact of Bosch’s notebooks, together with carefully selected paintings, reminds us, among other things, of Bruegel’s own debt to Bosch as the initiator of key images. A work such as ‘Big fish eat little fish’ by Bruegel can reveal this debt without any undue prompting. Bosch was an inventor of imaginary beasts, and Bruegel did acknowledge this debt. In the first edition of the engraving by Pieter van der Heyden, for which Bruegel’s drawing was the preparatory work, Bosch’s name is duly credited, as ‘inventor’. Bosch is also re-emphasised as a ‘spoiler’ painter, upsetting Renaissance perfectibility by the introduction or insertion of the inconceivable: the two panels, ‘Saint John on Patmos’ and ‘Saint John the Baptist’ are cleverly brought together here, to this end. ‘The Pedlar’ is shown with its proper encasing; three panels as one narrative, not as isolated works. Bosch soars above the menagerie of monsters that he created, a painter who could reveal the devils inside the human mind, when the mediaeval world only saw them outside. Bosch reveals a grace and balance of ingredients here. We do not need further reconstructions of hypotheses about Bosch’s mysterious life. The mystery that has served his public well through the ages will continue.

Bosch has also served as an inspiration for 20th century painters – the Australian Arthur Boyd springs to mind, who drew both from Bosch and from Bruegel. Bosch, perhaps, represents the antithesis of urbanity and civility, instead he represents the unpredictable, unfathomable nature against which agrarian society remains pitted. Witness, pedlar, the spread of foot-and-mouth disease, the massive slaughtering and the sense of uncontrollability against nature’s way.

Here is the original article by Tim Adams:

Billy Connolly used to recommend sending Hieronymous Bosch prints to elderly Catholic relatives at Christmas, to add a certain edge of devilment to the tinsel and turkey. The new Bosch exhibition in Rotterdam would give you plenty of tormentors from which to choose. The artist appears to have doodled visions of hell on every spare scrap of paper, his demons tumbling over one another, competing for infernal house room.

The pages here attributed to his notebooks offer little outtakes from these genetically modified daydreams: grouper-mouthed and bat-winged devils in pen and ink; goat-headed and louse-backed monsters as marginalia; men with arms for legs and legs for arms; scuttling figures with chicken feet and frog’s mouths, wild-eyed creations with spoonbills and duck’s arses. And that’s before you get to the paintings.

Only Dante ever detailed Christian hell with comparable persistence and invention, and even in his lifetime Bosch had gained a reputation for offering the last word in bogeymen: if you wanted torment, Hieronymous was – among the nobility of Spain and Italy, as well as in his native Low Countries – known to be the man. Over the centuries since, and particularly since the invention of the subconscious, this reputation has only grown. There have, as the curators here attempt – and mostly fail – to reveal, been innumerable imitators; but no one has ever had quite Bosch’s capacity for envisioning the precise mechanics of pell-mell purgatory.

Those behind the Rotterdam show have half a mind on rebranding Bosch as a social realist. There is painstaking evidence to undermine the notion that the painter (whose name the locals pronounce ‘Boss’) emerged fully formed as a one-off. In the little satellite galleries that school projects are made of there are thus attempts to put the main works in context. Artefacts culled from 3,000 different architectural digs in northern Europe produce the not entirely surprising evidence that Bosch faithfully incorporated domestic detail in his paintings – children’s toys and ceramic bowls. A somewhat patchy collection of work from contemporaries show the pervasive nature of particular themes in Bosch’s oeuvre: sin, death, pleasure, flagellation, that sort of thing.

Part of this impetus to deconstruct and explain away Bosch seems to be born of a compelling urge to make this a landmark exhibition, to give some credence to the idea of the world’s biggest container port being ‘European City of Culture, 2001′. This anxiety seems apparent in the production of not one but three separate lavish catalogues. Among these, a collection of ‘New Insights into His Life and Work‘ provides such small gems as ‘The significance of the toad in the works of Bosch’ (mainly that toads were thought to be evil) and ‘ The Garden of Earthly Delights as the Crux of the Conflict between William the Silent and the Duke of Alva‘ (this reader for one, was not entirely convinced).

All this excess baggage serves mostly to demonstrate how little is known about the painter’s life, and how resistant to neat interpretation his work remains. We know that he was born in about 1450 in a town called Hertogenbosch, but thereafter the detail becomes a bit sketchy. It is thought he may have trained as a priest, may have visited Italy and possibly Spain, may have lived in the town’s market square, and that he married a woman called Aleid when he was about 30, who may or may not have been wealthier and older than him. Even Bosch’s name is the source of immense debate, only appearing half way through his career and thereafter being rendered variously as Joen, Jeroen, Jheronimus and the appropriate Jheronimo, which you might imagine as a childish battle cry as he pitched once again into the fray of saints and sinners.

This uncertain provenance extends to the work. Many of the panels and drawings here come attended by the caveat ‘Bosch and/ or workshop’ and others carry the parenthetical question mark of scholarly wishful thinking. These grey areas are not made any more black and white by the apparent fact that Bosch’s uncles and father worked in his studio. For a painter who has left such an indelible mark on the Western imagination it is surprising how difficult his hand is to identify; conversely, when you are brought face to face with an incontrovertible Bosch, the imagination seems unmistakable.

We like to think of crazy Jhieronimo as a painter of extremes, not-so-secretly of the devil’s party. Much of the most notable work gathered here – from Venice and Berlin and Madrid – makes it clear that he was more than capable of a more restrained perfection, but chose to upset his pious Early Renaissance geometries with little Gothic gatecrashers. Two of the long-separated altarpiece panels that are properly united here, Saint John on Patmos and Saint John the Baptist, each demonstrate Italianate certainties of per spective, sublime mastery of landscape and drapery and light, into which little horror stories intrude. On Patmos John unwittingly shares a grassy knoll with an armour- plated reptilian-tailed, accountant-faced little freakshow, while in the latter panel he seems dangerously unaware of the triffid-like vegetation, a poppy head as big as his own, which threatens to overwhelm him.

Similarly, in The Temptation of Saint Anthony from the Prado, the subject is a forlorn figure staring into middle distance with the requisite pig at his side, both quietly assailed by a Robot Wars troop of nagging temptations: a crane-beaked castle wielding a lump hammer; and an armoured dwarf with an anteater snout for a tail who looks about to tip boiling water over Anthony’s saintly backside. (Bosch’s fol lowers made this raiding party a batallion; in one painting here by Jan de Cock winding post-office queues of of naked voluptuaries, duck-billed demons and dog-faced women wait in line to tempt the saint, who keeps his eyes on the Bible.) Oddly, in this sense, part of Bosch’s greatness lay in his sense of propriety. Half a dozen demons seem almost credible, any more and you started to look paranoid.

There are sins of omission in this collection: the Prado, understandably could not be persuaded to part with, or risk transporting The Garden of Earthly Delights, but there are enough genuine discoveries to justify at least some of the considerable hype.

Most notable among these is the restored triptych casing The Pedlar – which shows Bosch at his most colloquial and humane – and the three panels from within this casing that were thought to date from different periods of Bosch’s career but which research shows now to be part of a narrative whole. In The Allegory of Gluttony a fat man on a barrel pushed upstream by drunkards passes a pork pie resting on a pair of upturned buttocks; in The Ship of Fools a nun and a monk play a version of bob apple with a communion loaf; and in The Death of a Miser a single angel pleads the case of a bloodshot rich man, while half a dozen rat-faced demons ransack his treasure chest and his soul. Bosch, incorrigible and unrepentant, always sought to balance his visions of damnation with the chance of salvation; but you can’t help feeling that he had a sense it wasn’t quite a fair fight.


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