Hieronymus Bosch arguably had the wildest, most fantastical imagination in art history -- painting our deepest fears, our deepest desires.
500 years after his death, he is finally being accorded an honor almost certainly unthinkable during his lifetime -- a retrospective in his home city of s-Hertogenbosch (better known as ' Den Bosch' -- or the Forest) in the south of the Netherlands. A mere 16 years into the new century, one British art critic has already hailed the exhibition one of the most important of our time.
Like a later Dutch master, Vermeer, Bosch didn't leave us much -- just 25 paintings and 25 drawings. But the small municipal Noordbrabants Museum
has managed to borrow most of them (20 paintings, 19 drawings -- everything pretty much except "The Garden of Earthly Delights," his best known surviving work), even though it had nothing to lend in return.
The stuff of nightmares
The museum's director Charles de Mooij was astounded by the generosity of his museum colleagues, their desire to share and increase the public's knowledge of Bosch.
Paintings have come from the Louvre in Paris, the Prado in Madrid, the Accademia in Venice, the Metropolitan in New York and the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Many have been freshly conserved, altar triptychs thrillingly reunited. These are works that originally hung in churches, monasteries and royal and ducal palaces.
Bosch gave us the stuff of nightmares, things and people impaled, all manner of beasts. A King's Librarian (to Phillip II of Spain who collected Bosch after his death) described the work as "a satire in paint on the sins of men" and so it clearly is.
Bosch's influence in popular culture
In this case, the devil is literally in the detail. The manically inventive imagery, the bestiary has evidently continued to feed the modern imagination.
Critics habitually draw parallels with Dali and Magritte and Francis Bacon. George Lucas was apparently inspired by Bosch when he dreamt up some of his aliens for "Star Wars."
The American thriller writer, Michael Connelly has long regarded Los Angeles as being a contemporary "Garden of Earthly Delights"; he named his L.A. police detective Harry "Hieronymus" Bosch.
Charles de Mooij wouldn't be drawn on the subconscious affect of the imagery. "I'm not a psychologist," he said with a laugh. He suggested perhaps that from the 20th century onwards, we began to impose our ideas on Bosch rather than the other way around.
Mooij sees Bosch as an absolutely singular artist, hugely admired by his contemporaries and patronized by Church and nobility. He was a committed Catholic -- a member of an influential Christian brotherhood in his hometown with its 30 churches. We know that he came from a large family of painters: his father, his grandfather, his uncles, his nephews -- almost all of them painted. But Bosch's gifts set him apart.
The works on display have been extensively investigated and restored -- revealing unssen surprises. Credit: BRCP - Rik Klein Gotink
"Something quiksilver" about Bosch
He was a story-teller, depicting Everyman as pilgrim on his journey to death. The works were intended as conversation pieces, making the viewer ponder on their own weaknesses and sins. Fundamentally, Bosch was putting the fear of God into his fellow man.
Be warned -- take care of your eternal soul.
Mooij estimates some of the major works may have taken as long as a year to paint. And Bosch worked at a certain disadvantage. Time was relatively short. Like all good Christians, he wouldn't have painted on Feast Days -- and they accounted for almost a third of calendar.
After close infrared study, particularly of the drawings, Mooj marvels at how vividly and quickly Bosch worked. "You can see he was always changing, constantly changing." There is something quiksilver about him. He changes his mind, has another idea with the paint still wet. Finally, in the anniversary year of his death, Hieronymus Bosch is getting the same level of scholarly study long afforded his immediate Italian contemporary, Leonardo da Vinci.
The exhibition at the Noordbrabants Museum -- "Hieronymus Bosch: Visions of Genius"
-- runs thru May 8th before moving to the Prado in Madrid where it will join Bosch's work '"The Garden of Earthly Delights."