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A New Film and Book Seek the True Hieronymus Bosch
- by Lauren Palmer on August 4, 2016
Roughly 30 minutes into Pieter van Huystee’s first feature-length film, Hieronymus Bosch: Touched by the Devil, Gabriele Finaldi, former deputy director of conservation and research at the Museo del Prado in Madrid, gives a sterling, succinct answer as to why El Bosco (as the Dutch artist is known in Spain) and his works are a source of continual fascination and study:
One of the reasons why Bosch is so successful and so admired is precisely because his work goes beyond that of a mere illustrator. Here is a fertile, inventive mind who is doing new things with traditional subjects and it’s that charge of originality, of invention. … [He’s] an artist who is extraordinarily brilliant and provides a new vision of things.
Bosch and his unique vision have certainly endured. This year marks the quincentenary of his death (c.1450–1516), and widespread interest in the Old Master and his oeuvre shows no sign of waning. Currently playing at New York City’s Film Forum, Touched by the Devil (2015) goes behind the scenes of preparations for a celebratory, large-scale exhibition in the artist’s hometown of ’s-Hertogenbosch at the Noordbrabants Museum. (It was on view from February 13 through May 8, 2016.) The film investigates the process of authenticating Bosch’s artworks — a premise it shares with art historian Nils Büttner’s new book, Hieronymus Bosch: Visions and Nightmares (Reaktion Books, 2016). Büttner delves especially into what might have motivated the Dutchman to paint his signature imagery of puckish demons and the expanses between paradise and purgatory. Both the film and the book seek to find the true Bosch, the enigmatic figure whose portrayals of the afterlife, whether serene or infernal, serve as admonitions to mortals concerned for their souls. His transcendental visions of heaven and hell have saturated the consciousness of admirers for over 500 years.
The documentary begins with the Bosch Research and Conservation Project (BRCP), as its members travel to multiple sites across Europe and the United States in an attempt to properly attribute 25 works to the artist and bring them home, so to speak, for display; ’s-Hertogenbosch does not have a permanent collection of art by its native son.
The team of scholars, conservators, and scientists has adopted a “standardized approach” for its mission, using advancements in modern technology, conservation, and art history to scrutinize the paintings. They rigorously inspect the works to create typologies that form the basis of a comparative analysis: Do the brushstrokes that compose “The Garden of Earthly Delights” (c. 1503) match those observed in “The Last Judgment” (c. 1505)? How are owls, ears, or staffs standard or dissimilar across each of Bosch’s canvasses?
Through techniques such as infrared photography and reflectography, X-radiography and dendrochronology, members of the BRCP are able to carefully examine both the surface paintings and underdrawings, noting discrepancies between layers and often across different areas of one piece, leading some scholars to suspect the involvement of multiple hands in the creation of a single artwork.Touched by the Devil immerses its audience in these processes through close-up shots of the team as they photograph, polish, and slice the wood that frames the masterpieces under review. In the end, the team dismisses two works previously recognized as Bosches, while the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City learns that “The Temptation of Saint Anthony” (1500–10) it holds is legitimate.
At times, we follow the team members, observing their discussions amongst each other in the archives and galleries they visit. We’re also privy to meetings among curators and phone calls between museums’ staff. But in a way it is van Huystee’s camera that is the most compelling character, as it assumes the role of auxiliary team member while simultaneously becoming a careful observer. The opening sequence immerses the viewer immediately, as the camera zooms in on the cracks and fissures in the surface of the paint. Some of the most thoughtful scenes are slow pans over particular elements of a canvas, allowing the viewer to get a sustained look at a mischievous demon or saint’s face. Given that Bosch’s works are often highly detailed cacophonies of figural shapes, the time to narrow in on select images and focus is appreciated.
In Visions and Nightmares, Büttner gives particular weight to the techniques employed by the BRCP, as he aims to give a comprehensive overview of Bosch’s life and insight into the artist’s motivations for his paintings, based solely on those that have been definitively authenticated. Büttner looks to information that can be traced back to historical record, and is clear about this from the first chapter, stating that “although the large body of surviving material evidence, the pictures, records, and documents, do not determine what can or should be said about the historical context, they do determine what cannot be said. What follows can be said.”
Mythology surrounding Bosch has incorrectly labeled him a heretic or practitioner of witchcraft. In his introductory biography of the artist, Büttner mines previous research to dispel theories about Bosch’s life and work that portray interpretation as fact and look for evidence of impious behavior in the bizarre scenes of depravity he conjured. Büttner’s dense prose informs and educates in a manner typical of academic texts, though the illustrations and relatively short length keeps its verbosity from becoming intolerable, placing importance on Bosch’s relationship to religion and his membership within the Brotherhood of Our Lady, a confraternity comprised of clerics and the socially connected. His artworks emerged from an environment imbued with theology and his patrons’ commissions were variations on religious narratives. Known for visually representing the choice humans face when confronted with the temptation of sin, or what might await a soul in limbo, as in “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” “Adoration of the Magi” (c. 1485–1500), or “St. Jerome at Prayer” (c. 1495), Bosch actually incorporates more realism than the fantastical into his scenes.
Bosch’s innovative approach to his art spawned countless imitators and assumptions about what it all might mean, but both van Huystee’s film and Büttner’s book attach more importance to his life and work. The paintings are instructive, divulging what might happen to people consumed by sin and those who fight it. Bosch’s style set him apart from his contemporaries precisely because of the speculative nature of the work. Who knows for sure what happens to a soul in hell? One could only imagine what horrors would await. But Bosch made visual this “what if?” in such idiosyncratic ways that scholars continue to try to pinpoint, to confirm what makes Bosch really a Bosch, a question that continues to captivate viewers centuries after his death.
A Deep Dive into the Legacy of LA’s Surrealists
- by Daniel Gerwin on August 3, 2016
LOS ANGELES — The official Made in L.A. show is at the Hammer Museum, but a felicitous counterpoint is currently at Richard Telles in the Fairfax district. Made in L.A., the third in a biannual exhibition at the museum, features artists who are already highly regarded, or else anointed as up-and-coming, whereas Telles presents a historical group show of 20th-century LA surrealists who, in many cases, were never much known outside their own circle. Curated by Max Maslansky (himself a Made in L.A. alumnus from 2014), Tinseltown in the Rain is a deep dive into an important aspect of this city’s art history that has much to offer to our present moment.
Made in L.A. includes a lot of artists addressing Los Angeles and its film industry in particular, most obviously Daniel Small’s excavation of Cecil B. DeMille’s destroyed set for The Ten Commandments. Telles’s small, focused show demonstrates how Surrealism permeated Hollywood, presenting a selection of videos including Loony Tunes and Disney animations, as well as films including “Meshes of the Afternoon” by Maya Deren and her husband at the time, Alexander Hammid. Oskar Fischinger’s synesthetic/psychedelic “Optical Poem” (1937) is a stop-motion animation of colorful geometric shapes set to Franz Liszt’s Second Hungarian Rhapsody. It feels a lot like early special effects on MTV and has a strong kinship with Kandinsky’s fusion of music and visual art. Maslansky’s well-researched exhibition essay recounts how Walt Disney hired European émigrés, including artists in this show, who inflected the company’s visuals with the surreal imagery they brought with them from the continent.
Sharing the video room are mostly photographs, of which I was particularly taken with William Leavitt’s “Random Selection: Bag, Glove, Fire, Mice” (1969), consisting of three photographs of unrelated items arranged to imply peculiar narratives — the middle picture shows two stuffed mice seemingly escaping from a paper bag along with two gloves that have come to life, one of them bursting oddly into flames. Edmund Teske’s two images titled “George Herms, Topanga Canyon” (1962) find Herms standing naked in the chaparral like a dazed amnesiac. The single painting in this room is a knockout by Robert Williams (who also made art for Zap Comix), “Ernestine and the Venus of Polyethylene” (1968) depicting a nude woman standing below a towering red female statue, seen from below and balloon-like in form, appearing to be made of highly reflective stainless steel. In this bizarre image Williams anticipates both Jeff Koons and John Currin (Currin seems to have learned the figure from Williams as much as from the van Eyck brothers). The impressively shiny highlights on the balloon-woman are made with ground fish scales, a material I would not have expected to survive for half a century.
All the other paintings and drawings are hung in the main gallery, on a single wall beginning at eye level and ascending toward the ceiling, salon-style. I felt as though I had walked into Gertrude Stein’s Parisian home, which was fun, though I had a crick in my neck by the time I left the gallery (we must suffer for art). On this wall the influence of Picasso looms large, with a few other canvases taking after Dalí or Klee. The work in this room clarifies that these LA artists, though many hailed from Europe, were not your mother’s (or grandmother’s) Surrealists. You will not find dream-like scenes à la Max Ernst, for example, but will instead see less familiar strains of Surrealism that grew out of the original experiments in the Continent.
Cameron’s work stuck in my mind with its witchy mystery. Her ink drawing “Sebastian (Imaginary Portrait of Kenneth Anger)” (1962) portrays Anger, her husband, as both female and male, melting into the earth while a house sits either atop or behind him. Her untitled drawing of a demon is alive with elusive energies. Cameron at times burned her work sacrificially, “not as a symbolic gesture,” Maslansky writes, “but as a means to reach deities.” Noah Purifoy has a smashed metal canteen in a wooden frame, simple and forceful, with the well-chosen title “Pressure” (1966). An assemblage piece by Ed Kienholz, “My Mother Was an Antique Table” (c. 1956), is a tall rectangular panel pierced by a semicircle of dowels toward the top, which are encircled by looping skeins of paint that trickle down. The work retains power despite the abundance of such work ever since Rauschenberg, a signal that Kienholz had a tremendous visual instinct. Beatrice Wood’s ceramic bas-relief “Three Buttocks” (ca. 1960s) is exactly what its title suggests, and feels uniquely fitting to our present moment in American presidential politics in which our Republican presidential candidate’s statements sound mostly like flatulence. I am reminded of the Mike Judge 2006 satire “Idiocracy,” which imagines the latest hit movie to be a two-hour close-up of somebody’s ass periodically farting.
Why look at Surrealism now? Far from being a throwback exhibition, the concerns of this period speak with sharp urgency. Fifteen of the exhibited works were made just before or during World War II, the remainder as the US was ramping up to the social upheaval of the 1960’s and ‘70s. Our 21st century has much in common with both these periods. Fascism and hate-based politics are gaining global ground in a manner reminiscent of the late 1930s, and the American social fabric seems to be wearing as disenfranchised populations demand overdue justice. It’s not that any works in this exhibition address these issues, but rather that the deep premise of Surrealism offers a cogent response to political coercion, technocratic authority, and violence. The surreal, with its irrational heartbeat, slips beyond the grasp of enforcement, creating a small space for alternative cultures to whisper their secrets.
Tinseltown in the Rain: The Surrealist Diaspora in Los Angeles 1935–1969 continues at Richard Telles through August 13.