One of the most enigmatic artists to have ever lived now has a new documentary streaming on Netflix, curiously titled Hieronymus Bosch: Touched By The Devil (2015). But as this viewer noted from watching it last night, only about half of that title is accurate.
Produced, written, and directed by Pieter van Huystee, the film follows a group of art historians and art conservators across several different museums around the world as they cut through bureaucratic red tape to x-ray, scan, photograph, and examine the intention of the artist and perhaps in the process, gain a deeper insight into the inner life of this figure.
Essentially two unfolding plots -- one, a story about discovering the real Bosch through meticulous analysis of the artist's hand; the other, a much less interesting story about a group of prim & proper gents fussing over details of an exhibition and where to host it. The latter was a bit of a missed opportunity, especially considering the amount of effort it must have taken to request access.
About 37 mins in, a group of art historians launch into a (heated?) 10 minute-long conversation about wall plaques. And if you've worked in a museum like me, you know this is a hotly contested item among academics. A sample of the transcript:
- Will there be a sign underneath saying Hieronymus Bosch? Or from the studio of Hieronymus Bosch?
- In some cases the sign will say Hieronymus Bosch. In other cases it will say Studio of Hieronymus Bosch.
- Or the Artist and His Assistants. It will often be a combination.
- I think we will also have to explain the concept of Hieronymus Bosch. Hieronymus Bosch as a signature, as a brand name, as a group of paintings. We will also have to find a place for Bruges. I don't like the idea of branding it as from his studio or in the style of Bosch. That goes against the whole idea of the studio.
- The piece from Philadelphia presents exactly the same problem. The fact that you don't like the idea is not really relevant. The visitors will ask for it. You have to say something. You can’t hide behind…
- But the clarity we want to provide points the other way, Hieronymus Bosch. The concept of Hieronymus Bosch must be broad enough to include all of this.
- But for the visitors, it isn’t acceptable to take a painting where you can say this looks like a Bosch, but isn’t one and to identify it as a real Hieronymus Bosch. Whether you want to or not, you must provide the visitor with some certainty.
- We’ll really have to discuss this further.
And further they did. So much so that I had trouble staying awake.
However, the film was exceptional in parts. I think it was especially strong during the segments when the narration focused back on the artist -- exquisite details of Bosch's vignettes, x-rays of his underdrawings where he changed his mind, the sometimes very unsettling images of torture and pain, and the intentional ambiguities he left throughout. In Christ Carrying The Cross (currently at Palacio Real in Madrid), the figure leading Christ to crucifixion is painted with a gaze directed at the viewer, making us complicit in the his death, with the moon of Islam deliberately embroidered on his shoulder. In another polyptych painting, Visions of the Hereafter (currently at Gallerie dell'Accademia in Venice), Bosch's fourth panel suggests a powerful longing for salvation after a life in hell. Fire is a recurring theme, which the art historians attributed to a fire in 1463 in his home town of Den Bosch in Amsterdam. It made an impression to the 13 year-old artist. In his most famous work, The Garden of Earthly Delight (at Museo Nacional Del Prado in Madrid), his firescapes dominates the upper right panel for hell -- the smoky rays of light cutting through darkness, demons in the shadow calling to the dead, gargoyles that have come alive to circle the buildings they once adorned.
These are all moments when the real Bosch surfaces -- an artist way ahead of his time, wildly innovative, deeply conflicted, and searching for redemption. His work marked a turning point between the Medieval art mode of replication to the Renaissance art of invention and imagination.
Yet, this crucial aspect of Bosch's humanity was at times hard to get across with the bland academics in charge of his show. But this is not to say they aren't experts. I have a great deal of respect for their work as Bosch Scholars, but as dramatic subject of a story, they leave little to be desired. Or perhaps the writing could have dug deeper, the way that an Bosch might have done with his figures.
Towards the end of the film, about 2/3 of the way through in an interview, historian Luuk Hoogstede (also the main character of the film) dropped his facade for just a brief moment and revealed that he was always interested in studying artists because they created things. "And what do I do?" he said, "I just read books and type on a keyboard."
If only the story opened with that.
Bits & Pieces
A place for experimentation, a place for pieces unpolished and unpublished, a place to work out thoughts and ideas for larger collections. Typos aplenty. Enjoy (or not).