Exhibition on Screen: The Curious World of Hieronymus Bosch
On March 23 and 24 a/perture screened The Curious World of Hieronymus Bosch, part of the international art film series Exhibition on Screen.
I first discovered Hieronymus Bosch, the famously weird Netherlandish painter of the late middle ages, as a sixth grader. As a class assignment, we were to reproduce a famous painting in Western art; I was tasked with Bosch’s Ship of Fools. My attempt has been lost to time, possibly tucked in a box in my mother’s basement. But I do remember thinking the figures in the painting looked remarkably modern and very funny. Especially the boy dressed as an animal, clinging to the prow of the ship and drinking something out of a goblet, his attire and mischievousness very reminiscent of Max and his wolf costume from Where the Wild Things Are.
Bosch’s use of humor, as well as his striking imagination, continues to make him relevant to modern audiences today. When we think of Hieronymus Bosch, we probably picture chaotic scenes of naked humans and odd creatures taking part in some downright strange activities. As an art history major in college, I discovered Bosch’s fabled series The Garden of Earthly Delights. In it, he depicts a fantastical prelapsarian landscape overflowing with symbols of fecundity, lust, and pleasure, juxtaposed alongside a vicious hellscape bursting with anguish and torture.
The Curious World of Hieronymus Bosch is about an exhibition staged by the Noordbrabants Museum, located in Bosch’s hometown ‘s Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands, from February 13 to May 8, 2016, to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Bosch’s death. This exhibition marked the first time almost all of Bosch’s extant work was exhibited together, a feat made even more remarkable by the fact that the Noordbrabants Museum does not possess the works shown in the exhibition. Each work loaned by another museum—in many cases, internationally prominent museums, such as the Musée du Louvre, the Museo Nacional del Prado, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Kunsthistorisches Museum, to name a few—in exchange for research to be performed on the works, which was completed by the Bosch Research and Conservation Project (BRCP) in conjunction with the Noordbrabants Museum.
The film details some of the BRCP’s fascinating findings in performing various tests on the paintings, in which they discovered hidden figures and dedications to patrons long painted over. But it is the film’s depiction of the artist himself that is most eye-opening. When we think of Bosch, it’s likely that we picture a misunderstood, heretical genius ahead of his time. Surrealists have long tried to claim him as one of their own, while others posit that his work belongs in a category all on its own. However, his subject matter, while certainly idiosyncratic and adventurous in its undertaking, was typical of many Early Netherlandish painters.
Certain images in Bosch’s work appear again and again, making the viewer feel as though Bosch is trying desperately to transmit an important message—and this, as the film speculates, was exactly his intention. Bosch’s imagery was based on popular vernacular expressions, sometimes to the point of being literal depictions of language, as is the case with the drawing The Trees Have Ears and the Field Has Eyes. Omens also repeatedly appear in his work, especially owls. An owl in the medieval world portended death and dread. Thus, a medieval audience might interpret the owl presiding over Ship of Fools as a deterrent for gluttony and sin. Bosch’s wild imagery, therefore, was intended, at least in part, to be didactic: By utilizing his own inventive visual language, Bosch sought to teach religious lessons that could easily be understood by laypersons living in medieval Europe.
Hieronymus Bosch was born in ‘s Hertogenbosch around 1450 into a family of painters entrenched in the religious elite of his community. His father served as an artistic advisor to the Illustrious Brotherhood of Our Blessed Lady, a religious confraternity of ‘s Hertogenbosch. Like his forefathers, Bosch was a “swan brethren” of this Brotherhood, a name given to members who donated a swan to its yearly banquet. But outside of the Brotherhood’s official records of Bosch’s membership, we do not have details about Bosch’s personal life, especially his views on art; diaries and personal accounts simply did not survive. Later records of patronage and provenance, from both religious elites in the Netherlands and secular ones in Spain, only underscore the fact that Bosch has historically been viewed from vastly different vantage points, leading to rich, culturally-diverse readings of his work, readings which continue to be relevant today.