Film review: “Hieronymus Bosch – touched by the Devil”.

Actually, this is no film but a documentary. Similar documentaries like one about the renovation of the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam or about the Tate Gallery proved a success in art house cinemas as well as on television. There is a public interested in and willing to pay for such documentaries providing a glimpse behind the scenes of museums and exhibitions. In turn, these documentary films give participants a chance to fund-raise.

Bosch 1The film “Hieronymus Bosch – touched by the Devil” is a companion to two major exhibitions about the Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch. This is no biographical film. It gives a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the world of art historians and specialists, museums, history of art, how exhibitions are created, how new techniques help date and attribute works and much more. However, though a fascinating glimpse, it remains a glimpse. ”

Such films are not everybody’s cup of tea. They attract a certain kind of public. “Hieronymus Bosch – touched by the Devil” is no exception. But there are impressive and hilarious scenes.

The film starts with a close-up of a painting. Someone is studying the painting through a lens. Odd figures, couples, large fruits, small and large devils show up in a light-beam – and there are pictures of owls.

A small team of experts is studying a painting. Team members are mainly from the Noordbrabants Museum in ‘s Hertogenbosch (the Duke’s Wood), or to use its modern name Den Bosch. Though 2016 is still about five years in the future, museum staff are planning an exhibition to commemorate Jeroen Bosch, or Hieronymus Bosch, or Jheronimus Bosch, or “El Bosco”, died in 1516.

What does the owl represent? At the time of Bosch, it was already linked to darkness, danger, evil, the Devil. Of the roughly 25 remaining paintings, the majority have owls. So they must have a personal meaning for Hieronymus Bosch; but only a link to evil and the Devil?

The team uses modern techniques. The film shows how wood chavings and rings help determine when a tree was cut and its wood could be used as the background for paintings. Unfortunately, the expert states the wood of a certain painting was still growing in a wood, after Bosch – Mr Wood – died. So the painting must have been by a student, or a follower; but not by the master.

Thanks to the Netherlands once being part of the Habsburg Empire, the majority of Bosch’ paintings are in Spain. So the team travels to the El Prado Museum in Madrid to have a look at his paintings there. The Prado has its own way of studying, its own techniques. The negotiating and haggling about which paintings can be loaned for an exhibition start as well.

Then, a Prado member of staff tells a personal story. When she was a child, they celebrated Epiphany at home and a fire accidentally started in the house. Her brother fled into the street. The horrors burned itself into her mind.

Though the family of painters of which Bosch was the third or fourth generation, originated from Germany, as a child Hieronymus witnessed a dreadful fire which destroyed about half of ‘s Hertogenbosch. This experience must have burned itself into his mind. She thinks this is the reason his burning hell scenes are so awful and horrifying. A close-up makes her idea highly plausible, but like many questions in this film about Bosch, there is no definite answer.

The team visits El Escorial in Spain and other museums the world over. A Venetian museum will gladly lend its paintings to the Dutch museum, but only if the Netherlands will pay for their restoration. Just one of the interesting and hilarious bartering scenes between museums, politicians, governments.

Staff of the museum is shown discussing how and where paintings will be displayed in the Dutch museum. They bicker about the right phrasing of display and catalogue texts. Art collectors and historians will undoubtedly complain if the wrong phrases are used, but the public?

Another hilarious scene is the interview outside El Prado with team members sitting on a wall, slightly devastated. Another Dutch museum has managed a coup. It will show Bosch’ “Haywain” in a large exhibition (see “Bosch to Brueghel”). The team think it is a disaster. In reality, the Rotterdam exhibition was more of an appetizer for the coming El Prado and Noordbrabant exhibition.

The film started with one painting no longer being attributed to the master. In Antwerp, a new drawing is found. Another drawing is also fascinating. It shows another owl, sitting in a tree which is part of a large wood. The wood has ears. The grass at the clearing has eyes. At the foot of the tree is a curled up fox. Is this how Hieronymus Bosch saw himself, or how he saw his world?

There were two other impressive scenes in this film. On the first visit to El Prado, the doors of a triptych are allowed to be closed. Suddenly, the work is shown as it must once have been displayed on ordinary days in a church. On the back is what looks like a medieval Jerusalem. Only on important feast days would the doors be opened.

The other scene is of a wing of a painting. It shows people – or rather souls – going to Heaven. What Hieronymus Bosch painted looks very modern and very much as some people describe their near-death experiences: travelling through a vortex towards a large light filled with overpowering love.

Bosch’ image is overwhelming – but made me wonder. How did he invent this? Or did he invent this? Did he once have a near-death experience himself and did he use it to paint Heaven, as he may have used the horrors of his burning home-town to paint burning hells?

The fascinating film “Hieronymus Bosch – touched by the Devil”, by Pieter van Huystee , is mainly Dutch-spoken but with English subtitles throughout. It premiered recently in European art house cinemas.
The exhibition “Hieronymus Bosch – Visions of genius” will open at the Noorbrabants Museum on 13th of February 2016; ticket sales through the museum website
The centenary exhibition “El Bosco” will open at the El Prado Museum in Madrid on 31st of May 2016.


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