I had never heard of Bosch until a few days ago when I was watching a special on PBS in celebration of Stephen Sondheim's birthday. As he spoke to the audience he mentioned the artists Bosch and Chagall. I knew of Chagall but Bosch was new to me. This review is on Bosch.
The experts in this film are:
Brian Sewell, Art Critic, Evening Standard
Dr. Jean-Michel Massing, Fellow of King's College, Cambridge
Dr. Christa Grossinger, Senior Lecturer, Manchester University
All have accents and two of them are difficult to understand.
In the Netherlands, the medieval spirit was still a great influence on society during Hieronymous Bosch's lifetime. Jeroen Von Arkin was his real name and it is not known why he changed his name. Details of his life are scarce. Nothing is known for sure! It is thought that he was born around the year 1450 according to the narrator. The art critic, Brian Sewell believes he was born around 1430. It's interesting that around 1480 he married into wealth as did another Dutch painter, Vermeer.
Bosch was a member of a religious order, The Brotherhood of Our Lady. In the 15 century, Europeans not only believed in God, they also believed in magic. Bosch showed this in some of his earlier works. One of which is called, The Conjerer in which one of the subjects is having his pocket picked while he is in awe of a magician. In medieval Dutch folklore, stupidity was thought to be cured by removing the "stone of folly" from the head. Many people believed in it so the narrator says. In another painting, you can see a man sitting in a chair outdoors while another man, who has a big funnel on his head, removes the "stone." This is a rather bizarre painting. In another painting, there is a nun sitting in a chair with a book on her head. The narrator explains that the painting depicts humor; this is easily understood but the symbols in Bosch's paintings are less easy to appreciate.
At first I agreed that Bosch showed humor in his paintings. However, after looking at all the paintings in the film, I changed my mind. Bosch struck me as being mentally ill or fanatically religious; possibly both. I don't see how anyone could get enjoyment out of some of these paintings. They seem sadistic.
Another odd thing about Bosch's paintings is that he chose not to date any of his paintings. So, we can't be sure when he created any of his paintings. Grossinger says that his works are divided into three periods starting in 1474 to about 1485 then to 1510, and the last to his death in 1516. She says that a lot of his paintings have been over painted and that there has also been a lot of damage.
Bosch was preoccupied with sin (and the ramifications of it.) The narrator said that no artist has ever matched Bosch's unique vision of hell and damnation. For me, some of the images are sickening, disturbing. I don't know how anyone can call them an "achievement". To make matters even worse, the filmmakers decided to add audio to these scenes of hell. People screaming seemingly from being tortured.
The commentators disagree on why Bosch painted these horrifying scenes. They each had their own theory. The narrator said that modern critics think that Bosch was on some type of hallucinogenic. One of Bosch's drawings reminded me of a Dali painting. I saw similarities in their work although Bosch's paintings seem obsessive, intense, and uptight. It's interesting to note that at least one of Bosch's paintings hangs in the Prada museum in Spain according to the narrator.
There is also disagreement among them regarding the significance of Bosch's landscape paintings.
Many of his paintings were in the form of the Triptych, usually on church alters. They are a 3-panel piece that was popular at the time. One of these was called, The Garden of Earthly Delights. It was his most famous painting. It is loaded with symbolism that would have been understood in Bosch's time. One of the panels depicted Hell. So much for a garden of earthly delights.
Massing says that the Seven Deadly Sins were a major theme in Bosch's paintings. "Bosch was a moralist."
A helpful commentary was by Sewell who explained what life was like during this time period. "There was a constant awareness of the imminence of death. There were no doctors to speak of and only rudimentary remedies. There was hunger, scurvy, your teeth fell out. It was common for people to marry at the age of 13 and have children by 14 and be dead by the time they were 24. They died of cold; hunger; scurvy, and all kinds of deprivation. Death is always over your shoulder."
Bosch died in 1516.
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