I’m just back from a scorching (and I mean scorching!) hot Madrid, where I went to see the Prado’s new exhibition celebrating the 500th anniversary of the death of Hieronymus Bosch: Bosch. The 5th Centenary Exhibition. It’s on until 11.9.2016, so you have plenty of time to see it. And all told, I think that you should–I am glad I came and the exhibition was good. It brings together a diverse collection of works by Bosch and others, active in his milieu and workshop, from collections all over the world, from Lisbon to London, Valencia to Venice via Vienna, which complement the permanent holding of the Prado that houses the largest collection of Boschs anywhere in the world.
I’ll get the moaning out of the way first, though. And the first major gripe concerns the crowds. As always with a “blockbuster” such as this one, there were simply far too many people crammed into the exhibition rooms (which aren’t exactly huge) and there was, as a result, lots of elbowing people out of the way to actually see anything. The exhibition promised to be remarkable, and in some ways it was. But my enjoyment of it–even as a committed Boschiophile–was certainly mired by the number of people crammed in. Entrance to this show is by timed slot (a fairly common strategy now) but I think they should also have capped the visitors for each slot at a much lower limit. Seriously, Prado: this was not enjoyable.
The kind of behaviour on display amongst people in the crowds was also baffling, as well as irritating. There were so many people planted firmly right in front of each of Bosch’s large triptychs, wielding odd little magnifying glasses, zooming in on individual bits of the picture. The irony, of course, is that nobody in Bosch’s day looked at his pictures in this way, which is to say with the aid of magnification instruments. I couldn’t help wonder: what do people actually gain from doing this? Or, perhaps better, what do they think they gain from it? For those with impaired vision, I do of course see the value of such aids… but it can’t be the case that every single person using these things in that room yesterday morning had severely depleted vision. So what was going on? An equally large amount of people usually spent about 5 or so minutes hogging precious space in front of the pictures reading the free little brochure that was picked up at the entrance to the show. Now, I get that people want to know “stuff”, including “facts”, about what they’re looking it (especially when they’ve paid to look at it). But this was frustrating because often these people took only a cursory glance at the picture in question after reading the brochure, before moving on to the next. Why, then, spend 10 mins hogging the space and obscuring the view of someone else, who perhaps wants to look first and read later. The same goes for those damn audio guides!
A particular low point of visiting the exhibition was being told off by a cantankerous fellow visitor (coincidentally, one holding a brochure, headset and magnifying glass…) for standing too close to the pictures: “If you stand back”, she said, “more of us can see the picture”. Well, sorry, but this misses the point entirely. I went to the Prado to look at these pictures closely. And, as I said to my partner (who courageously braved the crowds with me!), by getting up close, pondering over the individual parts of the picture, and discussing them, we were responding to Bosch’s paintings exactly as he would’ve intended, and as viewers in the late 15th and earlier 16th centuries would’ve done. Point is, I guess, that if more people put down the brochure, the headset and magnifying glass (sigh) and pondered the pictures up close for a few minutes and then moved on, the whole experience would’ve been less irritating.
Also baffling to us was the cavalier disinterest that many of the visitors had in some of the more interesting aspects of the exhibition. One of the nicest design features in this exhibition are the little “islands” they have created for displaying Bosch’s large triptychs such as the Epiphany, Haywain and, of course, the Garden of Earthly Delights (which you can make out in the above pictures). This is so that you can see what’s painted on the exteriors of the wings: either beautiful, and carefully executed grisailles, or a wayfarer etc. Yet nobody else except for us seemed to be taking advantage of this display. I, in fact, spent longer looking at the frankly stunning grisaille on the back of Bosch’s Epiphany triptych depicting the Mass of S Gregory–shown below–than I spent looking at the interior, because to catch a glimpse of the latter meant negotiating a semi-frenzied mob, whereas we enjoyed an unobstructed view of the back (and, let’s be honest, these paintings are immensely interesting and exceptionally beautiful!) Similarly, nobody else really bothered to look at Bosch’s exceptional–not to mention rare–drawings that are dotted about the place, including the famous Tree Man; ditto the virtuoso carvings by Adriaen can Wesel, which formed part of a carved altarpiece commissioned in 1475 by the Brotherhood of Our Lady, to which Bosch belonged, for their chapel inside S John’s church (this is to say that these are carvings that Bosch definitely will have known well); ditto a c.1600 manuscript copy of Felipe de Guevara’s Comentario de la pintura y pintores antiguos, which, written about 1560, contains one of the earliest ever critical appraisals of Bosch and his art, in which de Guevara raises some very interesting observations about Bosch’s decorum, naturalism and (most pertinently, given recent controversies ignited by the Bosch Research and Conservation Project) the number of imitations and pastiches of Bosch’s works doing the rounds already by 1560, not to mentioned outright knock-offs; and ditto the so-called Master of Princely Portraits’ Portrait of Engelbrecht II Nassau, of about 1475, which depicts the person who, in all likelihood, commissioned the Garden from Bosch… I could go on, but won’t. Point is, there was lots to see in this show–and I enjoyed seeing all these things–but lots of other people crammed in weren’t looking.
That was a fairly big moan and I am sorry to go on at length, but I hope it conveys some of the more frustrating aspects of visiting this exhibition. But, putting all that to one side and reflecting on it a bit more in retrospect, the exhibition was a little basic but good (by monographic exhibition standards anyway, and overlooking, for now (!), some of the unanswered questions and reservations I have). They’ve clearly spent a bit of money on it, it flows well, looks attractive and they’ve considered the likes of me, who want to see, say, the backs of the wings properly. Overall, it’s good.
The show is organised thematically rather than chronologically. As the little leaflet conceded, we can hardly ever agree amongst ourselves on the chronology of Bosch’s oeuvre–though, for my money, good attempts have been made to do just that–so to even attempt a chronological hang would’ve been sort of futile. A chronological hang will also have disrupted the suspense-building that comes from having (predictably but not wrongly) the Garden of Earthly Delights as its crescendo. Had the curators adopted a chronological hang, this couldn’t have happened, since the Garden would have featured nearer the start, given that even the Prado now admits that the Garden is an early work, not a late one (they now think the Garden was made in the mid-1490s; myself and others think 1480s). It addresses seven main themes: “Bosch and ’s-Hertogenbosch”; “The Childhood and Ministry of Christ”; “The Saints”; “From Paradise to Hell”; “The Garden of Earthly Delights”; “The World and Men: Mortal Sins and non-religious works”; and “The Passion of Christ”.
“Bosch and ’s-Hertogenbosch” locates visitors in the city where Bosch lived and worked throughout his life, from which Bosch took his chosen name that he used to sign his works (his actual name was Jheronimus van Acken; “Hieronymus Bosch” was thus a bit of an advert, his signature functioning to say: “this is by Jerome from ‘s-Hertogenbosch, if you want a painting such as this, come visit me there”). This section includes van Wesel’s carvings; a c.1530 view of the mark’t at ‘s-Hertogenbosch, where Bosch lived from 1462 (we know which house was Bosch’s and can see it in the painting); the portrait of Bosch from Lampsonius’s Pictorum aliquot Germaniae Inferioris Effigies, published in 1572 in Antwerp by Volcxken Diericx, the widow of Hieronymus Cock (it was a shame that Diericx’s role in bringing this publication to fruition was not made more explicit, with only Cock himself being explicitly named as publisher in the exhibition’s bumf… recognition of successful women in art history still clearly has a way to go); and three engravings by Bosch’s direct contemporary in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, the architect and engraver Alart du Hameel. This section also boasted the triptych showing the Ecce Homo, produced in Bosch’s studio in around 1500. This work is exceptional. For one its predella has survived, which is quite unusual for Bosch and shows the instruments of the Passion. And secondly, the donors depicted on the wings have actually been convincingly identified as Peter van Os (municipal secretary of s’-Hertogenbosch and fellow sworn brother of Bosch’s in the Brotherhood of Our Lady) and his wife Henricxken van Langel, who died early in 1501 (possibly from complications arising during childbirth; note the swaddled baby at the feet of Henricxken on the right wing). The Ecce Homo is thus a rare instance in Bosch’s oeuvre for which we can identify a patron. A rather odd inclusion in this section, given its localised remit, is the manuscript copy of du Guevara’s Comentario… , which, though I was happy to see it, didn’t really fit in with the aim of locating Bosch and his art in the artistic and social ferment of ‘s-Hertogenbosch.
“The Childhood and Ministry of Christ” takes as its focus the Prado’s Epiphany triptych. This work–genuinely one of Bosch’s most complex, not to mention most beautiful–is set in some kind of artistic context alongside the: c.1475 Adoration from New York (a work that was once believed to be autograph, then fell from favour, but has risen again recently and is proclaimed here as being genuine on the basis of new technical examination); another Adoration from Philadelphia (traditionally associated with Bosch and his workshop); a drawing showing the Wedding Feast at Cana by a follower of Bosch (which relates to a bunch of paintings of the Ecce Homo, none of which were exhibited, that are believed to be copies after a lost prototype by Bosch); and du Hameel’s engraving of Thistle Leaves from about 1490, which relates to the African Magi in the Epiphany, whose fabulous costume features a similar thistle design on the shoulder and collar. It was great to be able to see these works collected together and to compare them, which really drives home the immense quality of the Epiphany triptych.
But, having seen them all alongside one another, I do struggle to see how the Philadelphia Adoration can seriously be counted among Bosch’s autograph works. The former, which is here dated to 1495-1516, is supposed to be contemporary with or painted after the Epiphany triptych but I just don’t see how somebody responsible for the Epiphany can have turned out at the same time the Philadelphia Adoration, which is altogether much cruder and less impressive. Admittedly some workshop involvement is here acknowledged. And sure, the painted surface of the Philadelphia picture has suffered extensive wear from cleaning, which has perhaps eradicated some of its original subtlety and its maker’s skill. But it is nevertheless perhaps telling that the Bosch Research and Conservation Project (BRCP) has revised the date of the Philadelphia painting to 1495-1520, which possibly takes us beyond Bosch’s death, thus admitting the possibility that it is a solely workshop production (or even the work of a follower, imitator or pasticheur). The catalogue rejects the BRCP’s finding: “no explanation for the latter end of the range [i.e. 1520] is given”; yet the catalogue is similarly guilty, in which the BRCP’s suggestion is offhandedly dismissed without further qualification.
“The Saints” section–very large in scope–includes what must figure as being amongst Bosch’s most fantastical pictures: no fewer than three renditions of the Temptation of S Anthony (Lisbon and two from the Prado), as well as the fragment of Anthony’s Temptation from Kansas, only this year authenticated as an autograph fragment. Also here are: the Saint Wilgefortis (?) Triptych from Venice; the Job Triptych from Bruges (the latter by a follower), the Saint John the Baptist from the Museo Lázaro Galdiano in Madrid and Saint John the Evangelist from Berlin, the Ghent Saint Jerome, Rotterdam Saint Christopher, and drawings by a follower of Beggars and Cripples.
This section and the exhibition’s pronouncements on attributions again betray the fraught relationship between the Prado and the BRCP. Let’s take just one example: the Prado’s Temptation of St Anthony (above). Regular readers will remember that the Antony is one of two loans that the Prado withdrew at the eleventh hour from the Bosch exhibition held earlier this year at the Noordbrabants Museum in ‘s-Hertogenbosch. Problem is, the BRCP has rejected the attribution of this picture to Bosch. It believes it was done by a follower, in the 1530s or 40s. Others have previously chimed in to this effect: Fischer in 2013 called it a workshop production, executed in Bosch’s lifetime; the 2001 Rotterdam exhibition ascribed it to Bosch or follower (and, as Vermet told me, the Prado threatened withdrawal of the loan then, too, if its status was undermined); and as far back as 1987, Marijnissen put a big ? over the Anthony. The catalogue and show maintain the attribution to Bosch, and previously the Prado has dismissed objections to Bosch’s authorship on the grounds of unfair connoisseurial subjectivity; the catalogue upholds this view, stating that no “technical or stylistic evidence [supports] these conclusions”, and it also places emphasis on the fact that dendrochronological analysis has shown that the panel on which it is painted could have been used from 1464, within Bosch’s lifetime. The catalogue then launches into an extensive formal and technical analysis of the painting which, for them, all points to Bosch’s authorship (including panel prep. and the execution of underdrawings). For me, I’m not sure–on some scores, it’s a bit like splitting hairs. But for what it’s worth, I did think that the picture looked a bit “flat” when I saw it. I am also troubled by the catalogue’s emphasis on the dating of the wood and the way it manipulates this evidence to support its own ends. The catalogue finds it unlikely that a panel would have sat in storage for some 70, even 80, years before it was worked on, which is precisely what the BRCP’s conclusions presuppose as being a routine occurrence. Yet, the Prado’s own dating of the picture, to 1510-15 (the last half-decade of Bosch’s life), similarly assumes that panels did sit in storage for ages, just for a shorter period of time (about 5o years). I can’t get my head around this: I don’t see how you can criticise the BRCP for believing that panels lay around unused for 80 years but at the same time state that this panel did indeed go unused for 50.
Sticking with this section of the exhibition for a moment, I was also struck by the Prado’s decision that the woman being crucified in the Venice triptych is S Wilgefortis. The identification of this figure is by no means certain and has been hotly debated: Julia? Liberata? Eulalia? Wilgefortis? I haven’t yet been able to get to the bottom of why we suddenly apparently know that it is Wilgefortis (the BRCP also plump for this identification; and, to be fair, other arguments have been proffered in favour of is). The catalogue itself is evasive on the issue, if not confused: it mentions the Julia identification, which relates to the question of whether Bosch visited Italy, since Julia’s cult flowered in Brescia; it mentions the troubling fact that the saint in Bosch’s painting doesn’t appear to have a beard, which is one of Wilgefortis’s main attributes; it adds to the mix by raising Silver’s interesting proposal that it is Eulalia, a patron saint of Barcelona, adding that the donors on the wings were ‘notables of that city’ (which confuses me because I’ve always been led to believe that the obscured donor portraits are of Italians?). What appears to have swung it is Zanetti’s testimony of 1771, which describes the triptych, seen in the Doge’s Palace, as a “saint, male or female, on the cross”. The catalogue extrapolates from this that the saint must at one point have donned a beard–why else would Zanetti have been confused about the saint’s sex? But I’m still baffled: when and why did the beard go? No trace of it has been found (as the catalogue admits). One resolution it does tentatively offer, however, is that Bosch himself removed the beard, so as “not to offend” the taste of an Italian audience; but this is hardly satisfactory, since why would Italian clients want a depiction of an obscure saint (Wilgefortis was practically unknown south of the Alps), and, moreover, a representation of an obscure “Northern saint” that has been divested of its main identifying attribute. This still doesn’t quite make sense to me–it didn’t make sense when I last saw the triptych in Venice, and it still doesn’t now.
“From Paradise to Hell” really focusses on the Haywain triptych, which is positioned in close proximity to the so-called Visions of Hereafter panels from Venice and the Last Judgment from Bruges. It’s a natural grouping: the Hereafter panels present two opposing spiritual ends, election (the Ascent and Eden) and damnation (Fall of the Damned and Hell), the latter of which plays out in the Last Judgment, both of which complement the essential eschatological message espoused by Bosch in the Haywain, which is that in Eden (left wing) Original Sin was introduced into the world; the central panel shows the outcome of this, a world overrun by gluttony and selfishness in which everybody snatches what they can from the enormous stack of hay (the proverbial basis is: “The world is like a haywain, and each man takes what he can”); while Hell, on the right, shows the inevitable consequence of all this–eternal damnation. The Haywain is both staggeringly beautiful in execution and wickedly, subversively satirical in its message–note that even nuns and a fat monk are complicit in the vast cavalcade of irreverence that trundles across the central panel.
“The Garden of Earthly Delights” is an unabashed celebration of Bosch’s largest and most visually spectacular surviving work. Ample space is provided both in front of and behind the triptych, which is raised on an island in the middle of a large room. Displayed alongside it on the walls are reproductions of infra-red reflectographs and X-radiographs, which reveal to the visitor the changes that Bosch made during the execution of the Garden. Also displayed here is the famous Tree-Man drawing (relating to the enigmatic figure in the Hell wing of the Garden), the Master of Princely Portraits’ Portrait of Engelbrecht II of Nassau, most likely the patron of the Garden, as well as The Book of Hours of Engelbert of Nassau by the Vienna Master of Mary of Burgundy and the manuscript of the Vision of Tundale by Simon Marmion. This section speaks for itself; the design of the room bestowing grandeur on the Garden that befits its status as Bosch’s most iconic work. Happily for me, but somewhat inexplicably, fewer people seemed to want to linger in front of this work than they did some of Bosch’s others, so I got to walk straight up to it and enjoy it. It really is a staggeringly inventive work that testifies to Bosch’s abundant imagination. Its message is–like the later Haywain–conventionally eschatological but it is told in daring ways. It’s easy to imagine the kind of joy that this picture brought to an art-lover and bibliophile such as Engelbrecht, and likeminded friends assembled in front of it in his Brussels palace. Surely it functioned there as a visually captivating “conversation piece”, in the literal sense of that term, in which Bosch provides a frankly gluttonous amount of food for thought.
I was also pleased to see that the Prado now not only endorses the suggestion that Engelbrecht was the work’s patron but also concedes that this must have bearing on the triptych’s date, which must have been executed before 1504 (the year of Engelbrechts’s death). On both scores, the Prado unfortunately lagged behind. Experts, namely, Vermet, have been arguing that the Garden is early and most probably commissioned by Engebrecht for some time. (As an aside, but an important one nonetheless, the catalogue rather unfairly, in my view, glosses over the careful scholarship done in this regard. It, for example, summarily dismisses Vermet’s arguments (plural) in this respect, citing instead only the 2001 exhibition catalogue, co-edited by Vermet, and accusing him of having no evidence to support a date in the 1480s, which is patently and misleadingly untrue… as anybody familiar with the literature will know. Once more, this brings into sharp focus the sometimes rather nasty nature of the “politics of art”.)
The highlight of “The World and Men: Mortal Sins and non-religious works” is the grouping of Bosch’s Pedlar (Rotterdam), Ship of Fools (Paris), Allegory of Intemperance (more familiarly Gluttony, New Haven) and the Death of Miser (Washington), which originally were all part of a triptych that has since been dismembered. The central panel is lost: we have no idea what its subject was or the fate that befell it (though the drastic, heavy-handed dismemberment might suggest that the central panel was already in ruinous condition–a fire?). The Pedlar, Ship of Fools, Allegory of Intemperance, and the Death of Miser constituted the wings of the triptych. The two wings were detached and sliced down the middle, to separate the interior sides from the exterior. The two halves making up the Pedlar (originally the backs of the wings–that the Pedlar was the closed view is suggested strongly by its semi-grisaille colour) were then fixed together and sawn into an octagonal shape to make the picture now seen in Rotterdam. What was originally the interior left wing was then spliced horizontally to create two separate paintings (the Ship of Fools and Allegory of Intemperance), while the Miser remained pretty much as it was. Given that these fragments are now widely dispersed, I had never seen them alongside one another until now. Thinking about their themes standing in front of them all, I had the chance to think a bit harder about the likely subject of the non-extant central panel which must, in a similar vein to the Haywain, have focussed on unbridled human sin and folly (precisely the themes announced in the wings; while the pedlar, originally seen on the outside, reminded the viewer of their status as a pilgrim, who must negotiate the vicissitudes of human life–thus the interior functioned as exempla contraria).
Also here, in the “World and Men”, is the so-called tabletop showing the Seven Deadly Sins and Four Last Things, which, especially since the BRCP’s findings came out, is another “controversial” work. The Prado ascribe it without reservation to Bosch’s hand; the BRCP, following other, earlier arguments, reject such an attribution. Either way, it is a very interesting picture and its quite fun here to be able to walk around the tabletop to view each of Bosch’s representations of the Deadly Sins, in ways that Phillip II must have been prone to doing in his private apartment at El Escorial, where it was from 1574 until Phillip’s death.
“The Passion of Christ” does what it says on the tin. A range of works are on show here, from the London Christ Mocked (assuredly by Bosch and one of his more austere and restrained works but, for me, one of his most moving) to the Passion Triptych from Valencia, made by a follower of Bosch’s (possibly in his workshop), for the wife of Henry III of Nassau, who inherited the Garden from his uncle, Engelbrecht. Also here was the Entombment of Christ drawing from the BM, which is hesitatingly associated to Bosch’s hand here (though compelling evidence suggests it was not done by Bosch, and years ago, in fact, the then keeper of Netherlandish drawings and prints at the BM, An van Camp, told me in no uncertain terms that the drawing is by a follower).
Overall this exhibition is worth seeing–it is, after all, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see so many works by Bosch and his contemporaries in a single place. It is a visually stunning romp through Bosch’s art and Bosch’s world–the exhibition’s design certainly, for my money, does justice to the quality of the works involved. The partner objected to the lighting, which here and there is a bit severe. (The glare on the reverse of the S John on Patmos picture, for example, did make it very hard indeed to see the beautifully executed and subtle little monsters lurking about in the very dark background surrounding the grisaille Passion tondo.)
The shop has a veritable cornucopia of the usual tat, from pencils to iPhone cases, as well as the now seemingly-customary high-end items including rather pricey silk scarves (does anybody actually buy these?!?). I was obviously only really tempted by the catalogue, available in English or Spanish, edited by the exhibition’s curator Pilar Silva Maroto (400 pages, paperback, €35). This richly-illustrated catalogue boasts a number of essays that shed further light on Bosch and his art, with individual entries on each object included in the show.
The show runs until 11.9.2016. General admission is €16; concessions priced at €8.