Hieronymous Bosch: Visions of a Genius

BY BEN REISS

The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymous Bosch
The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymous Bosch

Hieronymus Bosch was born in the Dutch town of ‘s-Hertogenbosch (often called Den Bosch) in about 1450.  He spent most of his life in the town and died there in 1516.  In between he produced paintings and drawings filled with creatures and visions not previously found in large scale religious oil paintings.

‘Hieronymus Bosch: Visions of a Genius’ brought together the vast majority of these remarkable works in his home town for the first time since their creation.  The idea of homecoming was an important part of the exhibition – the sense of excitement was palpable not only within the museum but throughout the town as well.

However, the exhibition started in surprisingly muted fashion.  A tiny and beautiful Book of Hours (a manuscript or book containing prayers, often illustrated) belonging to Joanna of Castille was used to give an idea of the context that Bosch was working from. The exhibition then moved through his life’s work, refreshingly avoiding a dull chronological procession.  Instead, it broke up his works thematically and included sections on life and death, Den Bosch itself, the life of Christ, the lives of saints and drawings, fittingly culminating in a section on the day of judgement.

he Owl's Nest by Hieronymous Bosch
The Owl’s Nest by Hieronymous Bosch

This allowed for a deep exploration of Bosch’s treatment of different subject matters, which helped make the exhibition engaging and comprehensible.  A sense of how his style developed was lost through this approach. The technical side of how he painted was barely touched upon. In spite of this, the thematic approach contributed positively to the flow of the exhibition.

The exhibition revealed what a fine draughtsman Bosch was and allowed visitors to immerse themselves in his drawings.  The drawings had plenty of the weird and wonderful creatures that are associated with Bosch. The juxtaposition of these drawings with similar works by his followers revealed just how relaxed and fluid he was in comparison to the rigid hand of other artists.

This layout also separated the biggest draws in the exhibition.  ‘The Haywain’ of 1510-16 and ‘The Last Judgment’ of c.1495-1505 came at opposite ends of the gallery and in between were copies by followers of sections of ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’ from c.1530.  The ebb and flow created by this spacing ensured that the quality of paintings on view remained reasonably constant throughout.

The Haywain by Hieronymous Bosch
The Haywain by Hieronymous Bosch

It also ensured that the exhibition rarely became too crowded.  While, the copies of ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’ did not draw as large a crowd as the original surely would have done. The original painting remained in the Prado in Madrid. The throngs of people around the ‘Haywain’ and ‘The Last Judgment’ paintings demonstrated the sense of flow in this layout.  The crowds demonstrated how keenly the people of Holland and Den Bosch had taken the homecoming of Bosch to their hearts.

There is both pleasure and knowledge to be gained from seeing an artist’s work in the physical place it was created.  Seeing the works of Bosch in Den Bosch potentially offered a lesson in how place can influence an artist, although sadly it was one which the arrangers of the exhibition did not take advantage of.

The Last Judgement by Hieronymous Bosch
The Last Judgement by Hieronymous Bosch

The section on Den Bosch did touch briefly on the artistic environment Bosch was working within, referencing art and sculpture associated with the cathedral of St John in Den Bosch (completed in 1530) and locally produced books and manuscripts.

However, it failed to draw any significant parallels between these contexts and the work of Bosch, preferring instead to present him as a unique and isolated genius.  By studying the margins of medieval manuscripts and the edges of medieval world maps, one can find examples of the scenes and weird creatures Bosch brought to centre-stage in his oil paintings.  Even more pertinently, a trip onto the roof of the Cathedral of St John in Den Bosch reveals rows of beggars, gryphons and other strange beasts which bear significant resemblance to the creations of Bosch.

While it would be overstating the matter to say that Bosch was directly influenced by these little sculptures, they are indicative of the environment of marginal art which surrounded him.  To say that the stranger elements of Bosch’s paintings came from nowhere (as the exhibition strongly suggests) is to do great disservice to the marginal art which undoubtedly affected him.

Aside from the thematic side, the practical elements of the exhibition itself were of the highest quality.  The rooms were quite dark, partly to protect the drawings and delicate manuscripts from fading, but also to allow the recently cleaned and conserved paintings to be shown off to full effect with careful spotlighting from within the cases.  Almost every work was perfectly lit and their colours positively sparkled.

It also succeeded in engaging a variety of audiences.  By using the wall labels to only identify the works and nothing more, no-one was put off by huge slabs of text.  Those who wanted more information could refer to an informative booklet and the number of children present seemed genuinely intrigued.  No doubt Bosch’s gruesome subject matter played its part in holding their attention, but the placing of labels and objects on plinths at a low level certainly helped as well.

Furthermore, the use of video screens was impeccable – each one added value to the paintings.  Some of them showed off tiny details while others displayed the various conservation techniques used.  Perhaps the most impressive was the video which compared details from known Bosch drawings to one which has only recently been attributed to him.  It made the reasoning behind the attribution clear to all visitors without using any words.

Ultimately, this was a fine exhibition.  It was well thought out and well executed, clear, informative and insightful.  However, it was so focused on presenting Bosch as a unique genius that a fantastic opportunity to explore the context of his ideas was missed.  All the elements were there in the references to manuscripts and the nearby cathedral, but the final leap was never made.  A fine exhibition, but not quite a perfect one.

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