2016 marks the 500th anniversary of the death of Hieronymus Bosch (probably about 1450-1516). Bosch–who, possibly, is my favourite artist of all time–is most well known today as the creator of what are amongst the most innovative (I refuse to use the term “strange” as people too often do) pictures ever to have been produced. These include the monumental and monumentally fascinating so-called Garden of Earthly Delights triptych that is now in the Prado.
Less well known, though, is the controversy that surrounds the artist, his life and his works. Bosch’s life is for the most part shrouded in mystery–we possess just a few scant references to the artist from his time, which, moreover, tend to be of a bureaucratic kind (e.g. “1486-7: Bosch joined the Confraternity of Our Lady”) and therefore tell us barely anything concrete about the artist’s beliefs or opinions. We possess no firm information about who Bosch painted most of his pictures for either (with a few, notable, exceptions), and no contracts for works have come down to us. Bosch is in other words an enigma: on the whole we lack the kind of information that might otherwise help us to understand better his pictures; his activities are hard to pin down; and the views or beliefs that inspired his works are graspable only in the vaguest sense.
Inevitably this has all only served to support the problematic rhetoric that surrounds Bosch’s name and which skews interpretations of his art. Bosch is, for example, often viewed as some kind of heretic, who, we are told, lived a secluded–or “hermetic”, to quote Wilhelm Fraenger who is responsible for what it perhaps the silliest contribution to Bosch scholarship–life at ‘s-Hertogenbosch, his hometown in what was then north Brabant, which he never permanently left. There, we’re sometimes led to believe, Bosch worked alone, in complete isolation, and as a result “unorthodox views” flourished that apparently inspired his “heterodox” iconography.
Needless to say that none of that holds true for me. I do think that if we look hard enough at the facts that are available, few though they are, and if we look really carefully at his pictures, we do stand to gain real insights into his art and are able to understand them in their proper (rather than imagined) contexts: artistic, spiritual, and religious. There’s not time here to go into this but let me just say that Bosch clearly was a practising Catholic–he after all held a senior position in a lay confraternity that was devoted to the Virgin (!)–and this should, though it hasn’t always, provide the basis for any interpretations of his pictures. This way we can do away with the erroneous and completely unhelpful point of view that Bosch was a heretic and that the keys to ‘unlocking’ his pictures lie in the realm of the esoteric.
Much scholarship recently has endorsed this view. And next year things look to set to improve even more, with the appearance of a brand new two volume monograph on Bosch that is the result of the 5 year long Bosch research and conservation project (BRCP), the appearance of which will coincide with the opening of a remarkable exhibition that will be held at ‘s-Hertogenbosch’s Noordbrabants museum: Jheronimus Bosch – Visions of a genius (12 Feb. – 8 May 2016).
The exhibition promises to be a must-see for all sorts of reasons, but not least because the show will feature the largest collection of Boschs ever to have been assembled in ‘s-Hertogenbosch since they were produced in that city over half a millennium ago. The organiser Charles de Mooij really has done a tremendous job managing to secure nearly ALL of the surviving Bosch paintings for his show, which is no mean feat if we take into account that he had not a single authentic Bosch to offer in exchange (though he did of course have knowledge gathered as a result of the BRCP). What’s more a couple of these are real coups, including the Haywain triptych, which is heading back home all the way from Madrid where it’s been for over 400 years! Other loans have been secured from collections in New York, Rotterdam, Paris and Venice (but apparently not London, as far as I can tell? Which is odd, since the National Gallery’s Bosch is one of the finest examples, to my mind, of Bosch’s less well known activities as a painter of more modest pictures intended as aids for domestic devotions… ). The show will in other words provide an unprecedented opportunity to study a large number of Bosch’s works alongside one another, in the city where they were made; a truly unique opportunity.
Equally exciting is the promise of Bosch fever that is set to descend on ‘s-Hertogenbosch to coincide with the exhibition. The town, it is plain to see, is bristling with excitement about the upcoming opportunity to celebrate the life and achievements of its most famous son: Bosch’s images are going to be projected all over the grote mark’t–where Bosch lived and operated his studio and where there now stands a bronze statue of Bosch (inspired by a portrait in the Recueil d’Arras that may or may not accurately preserve Bosch’s appearance) made in 1929 by the sculptor August Falise–, there are going to be 3D recreations of some of his most iconic inventions going up all over the place, there will be tours of the town’s most important sites connected to Bosch including St John’s, as well as circus performances, dances, processions, games, 15th-century food and drink, and so on and so on. Basically, a right old jolly in memory of Bosch, and I can’t wait.
But for now it’s the promise of things to come as a result of the BCRP that has grabbed my attention. The research project’s main aim was to subject the largest number of Bosch paintings as possible to rigorous technical examination, ranging from dendrochronological analysis (panel dating) to x-radiography, as well as various other high-res imaging processes. The main goal was to get a better idea of Bosch’s working methods, techniques and his creative process, which is embarrassingly little understood (only a few articles that I know of have even entertained the notion that Bosch’s inventions are the result of a coherent creative process!). All this scientific work doubtless will help us to get a better grasp of Bosch’s iconography and its meanings.
And already this work has generated some really high quality, interesting and useful images that, for a few works anyway, have been made available online. There we find images in high-res, infrared and infrared refloctographic formats:
There’s also the nifty option to see all 3 types of image tiled simultaneously, with a drag feature for the viewer to play around with:
It is especially nice in the example of Crucified Saint triptych, which usually lives in Venice’s Palazzo Ducale, to be able to get a proper up-close view of the donors which originally adorned the wings but were subsequently painted out:
We’ve long known about the donor portraits but high quality, zoomable images have not before been readily available. Their existence might help us to test the hypothesis that the donors are dressed as Italians, and thus might provoke research that will in turn shed light on the whole Bosch and Italy problem. Did he go to Venice? Did he work for Italian clients? What’s the provenance of the Bosch paintings (there are 3 of them) in Venice? I’ve spoken about this before at conferences and in lectures, and maybe the appearance of the BRCP’s researches will help us to arrive at firmer answers. Indeed a suggestion that the research project might have yielded such conclusions is suggested by BCRP’s decision to specify that the female saint depicted by Bosch in this triptych is St Uncumber (a.k.a. Wilgefortis), since this has been a subject of considerable debate. Is it not St Julia? St Liberata? Granted, none of these–Uncumber/Wilgerfortis, Julia or Liberata–are what you could call familiar saints, but their identification is actually germane to the Italy question because Liberata and Julia are, if you will, Italian saints (i.e. their cults sprung up and were concentrated in Italy) which is important if the donor portraits really are of Italians, whereas St Uncumber/Wilgefortis was virtually unknown south of the Alps. So I eagerly await to see what the monograph has to say about this. (Maybe they’ve discovered something to do with a beard, since one of the more interesting things about Uncumber’s legend is that she was bearded at the time of her crucifixion, whereas Bosch’s saint is clean-shaven? I’ve already had a play with zooming-in on the saint’s mouth and chin area in normal view and in infrared photograph and have looked in vain for evidence of a beard. Is that a whisker-ish suggestion of facial hair? I don’t think it is… )
Another important aim of the project is to refine Bosch’s oeuvre, which in the early 20th century expanded massively but was then narrowed and now looks set to be narrowed again. Though refining what is already a small(ish) corpus of works may seem regrettable, it is of the upmost importance for Bosch studies to be able to separate what’s Bosch from what’s not Bosch in order to provide a firm and accurate starting point for scholarly investigation. We know as a matter of fact, for example, that Bosch was not only copied or imitated in his own day but that he actually enjoyed a revival in the mid-1500s, when a number of imitators, pasticheurs and outright forgers (we can still read for ourselves grumblings from the 1560s about this!) made careers for themselves on the back of a vogue for all-things Bosch.
The “Bosch Renaissance” on the art market in the Netherlands in the mid-1500s is perhaps best illustrated by the engraving showing the Big Fish eat the Little Fish, which was published in Antwerp in 1557 by Hieronymus Cock and Volcxken Dierix:
When Cock released this engraving he ran it with the inscription ‘Hieronijmus Bos inuentor’, that is “Hieronymus Bosch designed this image”. We know, however, that that is a fib, since the preparatory drawing for this engraving was made by Pieter Bruegel–who is the focus of my Ph.D.–who signed and dated it “brueghel” 1556. Cock in other words replaced Bruegel’s name with Bosch’s in order to ride the wave of Bosch’s fame and popularity at a time when Bruegel’s own reputation was still in its ascendancy.
Given that the example provided by Cock’s redacting of Bruegel’s name in favour of Bosch’s is but one example of a much wider phenomenon it does strike me as being really important to figure out what is Bosch and what isn’t. This isn’t to say that Bosch’s posthumous reputation and his “Renaissance” in the mid-1500s isn’t an important and interesting topic in and of itself–I am, in fact, very interested in it and part of my thesis touches on it. It’s also not to say that works “demoted” from Bosch’s oeuvre are not important–simply by becoming “not Boschs” doesn’t de-value these works or make them any less interesting from an art historical point of view. But what it is to say is that to get a proper grip on Bosch, who up to now has proven to be so slippery, we need to know what he actually did. It’s a simple aim, but in reality has proven vexing. The BRCP, however, does seem to have made a number of interesting discoveries, which are now starting to emerge.
First there’s the idea that the Prado Museum’s famous “tabletop” showing the Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things might NOT, after all, be by Bosch’s hand.* The team have concluded that the underdrawing on this panel as well as its overall execution are not consonant with Bosch’s techniques and therefore attribute the work to a follower of Bosch’s (perhaps one who worked in Bosch’s studio, which is to say that this work has been deemed “close to Bosch” but not quite close enough). This really is an interesting conclusion since the tabletop has been traditionally feted as an exemplary early work of Bosch’s in which some principal characteristics of his art are announced. This reputation was of course partly formed on the basis of the picture’s stellar provenance, since this is one of the many works by Bosch, or perhaps better “works by Bosch”, that by 1560 had found their way into the collection of King Phillip II of Spain.
The team have also rejected, once and for all, the authenticity of the Carrying of the Cross in Ghent’s Museum voor Schone Kunsten. As of Jos Koldeweij, Paul Vandenbroeck, Bernard Vermet’s exhibition catalogue of 2001 we’ve had doubts about this work but the BRCP have amassed evidence that solidifies this work’s status as being “in the style of” or “after Bosch” rather than “Bosch”. The BRCP is even more convinced than Koldeweij, Vandenbroeck and Vermet had been that the execution of the picture just isn’t right. The framing also points to the 1520s as the probable date of this work’s production, which takes us to after Bosch’s death in 1516.
If these findings are likely to irk the owners of the pictures concerned–the Prado apparently is disinclined to accept them–one private collector’s luck is definitely in. For if the BRCP has trimmed the corpus of Bosch paintings by at least 2, it has enlarged the graphic corpus by at least 1:
This drawing, which is not new in the sense that I’ve never seen it before but is new in terms of its newly-proposed status, has long been thought to have been done by a follower of Bosch. Having thoroughly re-examined the sheet, however, the BRCP have determined that there is no reason to doubt its authenticity, and it will go on display as such, as a bona fide Bosch, in the Noordbrabants museum’s upcoming exhibition.**
All told this makes for pretty exciting stuff. On the basis of what we’ve already seen, it looks as though the show and the new monograph will mark something of a watershed moment in Bosch studies, forcing us to reassess some of the received knowledge about the artist and his activities, and giving us cause to think in new and innovative ways. What I really hope is that the show will inspire renewed interest in Bosch and generate probing and innovative new scholarship–and I suspect that it will.
In the meantime, though, we have a new documentary film to look forward to, which takes us behind-the-scenes of the BRCP. It premieres at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam on November 20 before being shown on TV next Feb. (in the Netherlands anyway, but I’m hoping that it will somehow be made available in the UK as well). The trailer is below, and I noted with interest Matthijs Ilsink’s reluctance to commit to making even a vague suggestion on camera about which works the project might end up wanting to remove from Bosch’s oeuvre. ‘I’ll end up in political matters- no comment’, he says, which is a telling example, I think, of the kinds of frictions that can arise between art historians and museums and collectors on the back of this kind of research (CAUTION: trailer begins with awful owl squawking):
*UPDATE 1: Renowned Bosch scholar Dr Bernard Vermet kindly writes to let me know that for him and others the tabletop’s authenticity has been out of the question for ages. Turns out my grasp of the literature in this particular respect isn’t as tight as it should be–tut, tut!
**UPDATE 2: The same Vermet tells me that when the sheet was auctioned in 2003 it went for 10 times the estimate–so, as he says, “at least 2 persons were convinced it was by Bosch already then.” Quite!