Sunday 6 March 2016

Hieronymus Bosch - chronicle of life and death at the end of the times

Paintings of the late medieval and early modern period are often suffused with symbolism that have increasingly become a barrier to understanding or even simple enjoyment. The works of most painters of that period are populated with biblical references that few of us are still able to decipher. What remains is a feeling of awe in the face of artistic skill, which is nothing short of a decapitation of meaning. That we still visit exhibitions may be testament to our hunger to be entertained and, at times our desire to be tickled by curiosity.

Hieronymus Bosch's painting has never been on top of my list of things to see (Vermeer occupies this place), but curiosity got the better of me recently and I made the journey to Bosch's birthplace which has just curated an extraordinary exhibition of most of his paintings. This is an incredible feat as his paintings are as prized as they are scattered all over the world and most museums are very reluctant to lend fragile pieces that are now about 500 years old. In addition, bringing the paintings of only one single painter together in a kind of retrospective removes his work of the vital historical, artistic and creative context, so these projects can be difficult to pull off. 

Bosch's works however are of enormous radiance and power to overcome any of these difficulties and  his paintings have clearly stood the test of time. In fact, they shine (in part because of the incredible restoration efforts of modern museums) as never before in the recent exhibition of the Noordbrabants Museum in his birthplace s'Hertogenbosch (NL). Seeing them all together in one exhibition is a real joy. Bosch's skills shows up most, however, when contrasted with paintings from his 'workshop' which retains some of the religious themes yet few of the artistic skills. Where his paintings tell stories and show multiple perspectives, depths and spaces, the paintings of some of his students look two dimensional and flat in comparison. 

Wayfarer or Prodigal Son?
Hieronymus Bosch, circa 1500-1510
Much has been made of his phantasmagorical paintings, the depictions of purgatory and hell, yet the exhibition also contains some of Bosch's more secular and mundane work (if that's the word for a world thoroughly defined by religion). That we still know very little and often cannot even agree on what his paintings show is demonstrated by the painting 'The Wayfarer' to the frame of which a previous owner has nailed the title: 'The lost son'. In truth, we have no idea what the painting depicts and some of the titles we give to Bosch's works are not much more than a good guess. 

If the exhibition is a magnificent achievement for the local museum and its curator, it does not steer clear of some grandiose claims, such as celebrating Bosch as a draughtsman in his own right. Whilst his sketches are interesting to see as part of the process of preparing paintings, they are nothing like the works of skilled draughtsmen like Albrecht Duerer, an example of whose work the curators (unhelpfully) included. 

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