IN FEBRUARY, the Netherlands witnessed an extraordinary homecoming in ’s-Hertogenbosch. Thirty-six of Hieronymus Bosch’s 44 surviving works were returned to the place where he was brought up and died 500 years ago. Nearly half a million people visited the Het Noordbrabants Museum exhibition, and now cinema-goers around the world can do the same through The Curious World of Hieronymus Bosch (Cert. PG).
David Bickerstaff’s film is not simply a gallery tour. Extracts from the exhibition catalogue are read, and a host of curators, art historians, and critics provide contextual background and interpretation. Attention is paid to details within a picture; but we also learn about the artist himself.
A drawing, The Wood has Ears, the Field has Eyes, bears an inscription that sums up Bosch’s attitude: “Poor is the mind that always uses the inventions of others and invents nothing of itself.”
Far from the general belief that Bosch had a twisted and morbid outlook, we are told, he seemed to live an affluent and happily married life. His terrifying visions of hell are seen as acts of kindness: fearful warnings to re-examine our lives and take responsibility for them.
Critics assembled for the film, such as Leila Parker, consider The Garden of Earthly Delights Bosch’s greatest and yet most curious painting. This triptych, with its doors closed, depicts in monochrome a world already beautiful, but still only in its third day of creation. Opened, it reveals a fascinating and fantastic world that, in effect, has been turned upside down by the sin of lust.
Birds are huge and recorded in great detail. Fish fly through the sky. On the other hand, human figures are pale, diminished outlines. It is as if to say that we are much less than God meant us to be.
As with other pictures, though, what he depicts is not without humour or warmth. In any case, these underworld images are only part of Bosch’s output. The tenderness of The Christ Child with Walking Frame is palpable, and the film takes time to interpret it. A case is made in regard to The Wayfarer that he is Everyman. Will he continue on his way, or fall into vice as he passes a house of ill repute littered with minute observations of humanity’s foibles?
Peter Greenaway, artist and filmmaker, argues that Bosch ploughs a different furrow from contemporaries such as Michelangelo, Raphael, or Leonardo da Vinci; and that we would never have had Goya, the Impressionists, and the Surrealists but for him. Stratton Bull, the director of Cappella Pratensis, suggests that polyphony helped to inspire the artist. As with its musical counterpart, there is almost too much happening in the paintings, and yet somehow it all comes together.
You might also say that of this film. There is so much going on that there does not seem room for anything other than a consensus of opinion. A company that specialises in bringing artists’ works to the attention of film audiences, Exhibition On Screen, does not, on this showing, allow any dissent from the general adulation afforded Bosch.
An argument could have been put that, despite a fevered imagination, Bosch’s ecclesiastical beliefs were starting to be significantly challenged, and his pictures were part of a desperate attempt to stave off the rise of Protestantism.