Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Review: El Bosco: Hieronymus Bosch at the Prado, Madrid, September 2016

The Prado, Madrid

Okay... we're out of bacon now. Here's an omelet.

My wife & I were fortunate to be able to attend the Hieronymus Bosch 500th anniversary event in Madrid, skating in on the skin of our teeth the very last day. A follow-up to the spring show in Den Bosch, the Netherlands, the largest group of Bosch paintings ever collected together were presented in the rather more spacious circumstances of the Prado’s new wing. Despite this, crowds were still dense.

The show included a number of essential Bosch pieces which were not in the show at Den Bosch; notably, his acknowledged masterpiece, The Garden of Earthly Delights; also, its essential companion piece, The Hay Wain. In addition, the Prado’s exceptionally fine Adoration of the Magi and the sumptuous Temptation of Saint Anthony (from Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon) were here, rounding out the assortment shown in the Netherlands with most of the remaining critical oil paintings in the Bosch oeuvre. 

These paintings, taken together, reaffirm Bosch’s unchallenged status as the western world’s greatest symbolic and esoteric painter. He has no rivals; given the quality, originality and scope of his work, there are not even really other contestants. It can well be said of today’s visual world: everything we know about hell, we learned from Bosch. 

Painters, for the most part, are judged first on the excellence of their skills as artists. Using this yardstick, Northern Renaissance painters trump any other western school, at least of Bosch’s period; yet let us remember that the most essential measure of artists is not necessarily taken from the technical skills they exhibit. Art ought to first be about meaning, and only after that technique; painters are not athletes, but aesthetes. 

The essential meaning in any art must be imparted first by content and subject matter; even a fool should know that a technically perfect painting of banality remains banal, no matter how deft or contemporary its execution. (The celebration of banality is by now a passionate vice in our culture; but never mind.) And despite the modern obsession with such things, posturing, mockery, and dialogues about the deployment of materials, no matter how fascinating, end up being no more than intellectual masturbation—another favorite vice in contemporary art. The same has to be said for art so personal it effectively isolates itself from its audience — yet another all-too-common contemporary failing.

On this point of rich, mysterious, and intelligently—intentionally— imparted meaning, Bosch has few, if any, equals.  The meaning in his paintings is powerful, relentless, and insistent; his subjects provoke an endless and relentless questioning in the viewer, challenging and overthrowing assumptions about what art ought to look like, what it consists of, and what it means. 

In challenging our assumptions about art and life (Bosch’s painting are dramatically different that other artists of his own time, and they knew it as clearly then as we know it now) the paintings challenge our assumptions about the world; and this is the essential purpose behind Bosch’s paintings. They are, after all, not made just to delight, look pretty or provoke astonishment (although they so easily do all these things); they are of a certainty made to investigate; to educate. 

And they educate not just on the superficial level to our ordinary consciousness, but reach much deeper, into the cthonic, Jungian territory of our collective unconscious. In doing so, they touch and awaken very personal nerves… even ones we didn’t know we had.

The reader needs to be reminded that images in Bosch that may appear, to the uninitiated, to be sensationalist, prurient, or just plain sick or weird, are all in fact quite intentional and contribute significant informative value to each narrative. Many strange and bizarre images in Bosch paintings turn out to have straightforward and easily understandable meanings once the overall narrative is understood in the form of a nonverbal rebus for the viewer; and the design is such that the paintings can continue to yield to new meanings, since most images can be read on several different levels and in the context of multiple relationships.

Comparing Bosch to superlative contemporaries such as van Eyck and van der Weyden—masters of the greatest possible technical beauty and sophistication—is therefore nearly useless. professionals at technical execution and in the understanding of beauty, both artists were amateurs in the use of symbolism — that is to say, the symbols they use are from a standard lexicon used by almost every artist of their century and, for that matter, both earlier and later ones. They give us exactly what we expect, even if they do it better than everyone else.

Bosch displays no such weaknesses. The content is so different that analogies fail at once, even if we strain at them. Bosch is on a different level, a level of psychological and spiritual dialog his contemporaries were simply unable to engage in.

A show like the show at the Prado makes this clear. Seeing all the actual greatest work, at a single time, together, the magnitude of his achievement becomes evident in a way no book can bring across. If one of his paintings taken alone is extraordinary, all of them taken together are impossible. What flowering of inner genius produced this bounty?

One of the strongest impressions I took away from the show was the fact that Bosch’s paintings don’t just tell narratives within each painting. The major paintings are connected, forming a pilgrim’s progress where each tale is part of a greater whole. One can’t quite understand what Bosch was up to, in other words, unless one looks at many of his paintings together and sees the common symbolic and narrative threads: the colors, images, circumstances and situations that link them together.

The overarching narrative is man's life and his spiritual search, both inner and outer. This is, of course, examined in a specific sense in each individual painting; yet the paintings enter into dialog with one another as well as the viewer, laying out a comprehensive vision. The interconnectedness is fascinating; for example, jugs, knives, musical instruments of the same kind crop up again and again, implying a commonality of meaning and purpose. We can’t possibly think this was because Bosch’s imagination was too limited to paint a wide variety of such objects; the very idea is laughable. His objects are chosen because their place and use in each piece has a meaning that connects the narratives to one another.

In some cases the connections are more obvious, as in the relationship between the Hay Wain and the Garden; in others, one needs to dig deeper, because Bosch has buried the bones of his dialog across a range of paintings. 

This is particularly interesting because it shows us that even though he knew the works would ultimately be sold and divided, so that they could not be seen together, he conceived of them as a single whole: the wisdom paintings represent a thought on a major scale, with individual works collectively representing an entire octave of tones and half tones.

Bosch’s paintings, then, represent an octave, a harmonious musical scale; the notes have individual sounds, but a far greater meaning emerges from their relationship to one another. The idea of an octave cannot of course be applied literally here, but figuratively, it serves us well.

The collected works, which have not until now ever been seen together in this manner (and may not again for more hundreds of years) reveal themselves as a Decameron, a visual Canterbury tales. The literary precedent for such collections was set, of course, over a century before Bosch’s time, so perhaps he had exactly this in mind. 

Regardless, the deep interconnectedness between his paintings—such as still survive— tell us the master was up to an even greater enterprise than his individual works, each one great in itself, reveal. Across the breadth and throughout the depth of his works, Bosch chronicles a spiritual search undertaken across two frontiers: mankind’s outward, but even more importantly, inward worlds.

My books on Bosch are available at the following links, or (for apple users) in the iTunes bookstore.

The Esoteric Bosch

Bosch Decoded


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

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