Over half a millennium ago an artist named Jeroen van Aken managed to revolutionize Western Painting by including scenes of everyday life in altarpieces whose subject matter had previously been wholly biblical. A work such as The Haywain is today so familiar that it is difficult to comprehend just how radical his secular depictions would have been at the time. The message – sinners go straight to hell – might have been conventional but his use of the traditional medium was anything but.
The citizens of ‘s Hertogenbosch who commissioned him must have been a remarkably open minded bunch. Not only do they appear to have actively embraced his unique take on the subjects of the period, redemption, sin and accountability, it seems they actively encouraged him, even as he went on to create worlds his contemporaries could not have begun to imagine. Jeroen, having Latinised his name to Hieronymus, indicated his gratitude to the town who supported him by changing his surname to Bosch.
Five hundred years after his death ‘s Hertogenbosch is celebrating their famous son with Bosch 500, a year long programme of exhibitions, events and performances with many pieces specially commissioned by the organisers.
The highlight of the programme is undoubtedly Visions of Genius, an exhibition that has already been hailed as one of the most important of the century. And no wonder. What the Noordbrabants has managed to do is nothing less than phenomenal. Without a single Bosch of its own to offer in return, this small provincial museum has managed to secure the loan of the vast majority of paintings and drawings known to exist. Loans from major collections across the globe have allowed previously scattered triptychs to be re-united for the first time in centuries and works which rarely, if ever, leave their home country to be displayed side by side.
It achieved this extraordinary feat by co-founding a research project and trading knowledge for artworks. Not only did this initiative lead to them acquiring 17 of the known 24 paintings and 19 of the 20 drawings, it also resulted in the discovery of previously unknown works and the restoration of nine panels to their former glory. All of which are now on show for the first time to the public.
Much to the chagrin of the Prado the research also resulted in the downgrading of two paintings in their collection previously thought to be by Bosch, which led to them taking the highly unusual step of withdrawing two if its loans in protest. Fortunately this did not include The Haywain, which made its first appearance outside Spain in 450 years at last year’s From Bosch to Bruegel – Uncovering Everyday Life at Rotterdam’s Boijmans Museum, a fascinating appetizer to the current exhibition which highlighted Bosch’s influence on the development of genre painting.
One of the first paintings in art history to depict everyday life, The Haywain features a procession of people walking behind a cart piled high with hay, a metaphor for materialism, which has a pair of lovers flanked by an angel and a demon atop it. Drunken monks, tooth pullers and fortune tellers sit calmly in the foreground as others brawl and fight in a desperate attempt to clamber on board while God looks down from above, his hands raised in despair. Bosch had a profoundly disillusioned view of humanity. Cruelty, barbarity and sin are rife in his work. But it is always punished. Although the revellers appear oblivious to the monstrous creatures at the head of the cart, they are leading them straight to hell.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that he was deeply religious Bosch did not shy away from portraying the failings of the clergy. Painted in the years leading up to The Reformation, The Ship of Fools, spectacularly restored and reunited with other surviving panels of The Wayfarer Triptych, shows drunken monks and nuns ignoring the pleading souls in the water around them. An owl, the medieval symbol of evil and a recurring motif throughout his work, casts a malignant eye over them from the top of a mast. Once again there is little doubt of their final destination.
The fragment now known as Gluttony and Lust, but originally part of the same panel, continues the theme with a portly merry maker ignoring the desperate souls clinging to the barrel on which he sits and a pair of lovers equally oblivious to their plight.
Amongst all the fornicating, fighting and debauchery it is sometimes easy to forget what an exceptional observer of nature Bosch was. The surreally monstrous creatures inflicting ingenious torments on unfortunate souls may be the images we consider to be most Boschian, but glance at the panel depicting Eden from The Garden of Earthly Delights (here only a copy, The Prado never lends the fragile original) and you will see exquisitely rendered birds and beasts.
His skill is perhaps even more in evidence in Saint John the Baptist where the almost Triffid like vegetation, created to obscure the image of a no longer wanted patron, comes dangerously close to demanding more attention than the Saint.
The two new attributions are The Temptation of Saint Anthony from the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City and The Infernal Landscape, a drawing form a private Belgian collection. The calm countenance of Saint Anthony, shown dipping an earthenware jug into a stream, is in marked contrast to the bevy of curious creatures surrounding him, including a fanged fish and a figure armed with a sword and decked in an upturned cone who appear about to do battle.
The Infernal Landscape had, somewhat bizarrely, previously been considered simply too Boschian to be Bosch. In it helpless sinners are drawn through a waterwheel into the mouth of a monster whilst human beings hang like clappers from bells above its head. In the foreground a hollow eyed ghoul, an arrow piercing its beak- like nose, grins sheepishly as it rides a barrel bodied creature with a curiously human face.
In addition to the paintings and drawings the exhibition also incorporates reconstructions and visual displays that draw on the technologies developed for the research project to provide a unique insight into the creation of Bosch’s works. There is unlikely to be another Bosch exhibition of this calibre for decades, if ever, which explains why almost 100,000 tickets have been sold already. It is probably wise to reserve your tickets soon.
Visions of Genius runs until 8th May but there are a host of other exhibitions taking place simultaneously and until the end of the year. The Noordbrabants itself is hosting Masterpieces from the Brukenthal Collection, which from 18th June- 9th October will offer a rare opportunity to see Flemish and Dutch masterpieces from the Romanian Museum’s collection. Works by painters such as Jan van Eyck, Hans Memling, Jacob Jordaens and Pieter Bruegel the Younger show how, both before and after Bosch, painting from the Lowlands was amongst the finest in the western world.
There is also Jan Fabre’s Tribute to Hieronymus Bosch in the Congo which runs from 11th June to September 18th. Fabre shares Bosch’s fascination with death, malice and desire and in this awe inspiring series of mosaics he depicts the cruelties and absurdities the former Belgian Colony was subjected to. The works shimmer from the walls in vivid shades of green, glimmering gold and deep blue. Look closer and you will see that they are made from thousands upon thousands of beetle wings.
Until 5th June the Stedelijk is showing Jeroen Kooijmans’ monumental installation The Fish Pond Song. Inspired for years by the paintings of Bosch, Koooijmans’ title comes from the fishpond featured in the central panel of The Garden of Earthly Delights.
Ten years in the making and occupying an entire floor of the museum, this astonishing multi-media installation recounts an imaginary war in three chapters. This is not an epic tale of battles, but a layered narrative filled with the fears, dreams and desires that lie deep within us. Here war is an abstract reality; it is the evil that lurks, the madness that can rage in people’s minds, a highly confusing and dangerous experience, but, in Kooijmans’ eyes, one with the hope of peace and salvation.
The theme of belief had already played a role in Kooijmans’ work but became even more important after he witnessed the aftermath of the attack on the Twin Towers in 2001. To Kooijmans it became clear that religious fanaticism, war and the search for personal salvation are not confined to any place or time.
Filmed in the Netherlands, Hungary and on Curaçao, this is the first time the entire trilogy can be seen together. Poems specially written by the Dutch novelist Tommy Wieringa can be heard as visitors wander through the different chapters.
Also at the Stedelijk from 24th September until 15th January 2017 is Heaven, Hell and Earth, a triptych based on Bosch’s main themes. British duo Jake and Dinos Chapman provide Hell, Swiss video artist Pipilotti Rist will depict Heaven and Dutch artist and film maker Gabriel Lester connects the two with Earth.
The ninth art is recognised in the specially commissioned Jheronimus by award winning Dutch comic artist Marcel Ruijters. Ruijters, whose early works showed a fondness for mysterious and malformed creatures, drawn in his trademark woodcut style, was perhaps the obvious choice for such a commission. A fictionalised biography of the artist, it hints at lost works in a playful way and doesn’t shy away from depicting the tough and gruesome city life of the period, suggesting how elements of his paintings could have been influenced by everyday life. A version is available in English.
Children, at least those who speak Dutch, will be delighted with the latest volume of Suske en Wiske, De Bibberende Bosch (The Quivering Bosch) which sees the characters travelling back in time to 1485 to seek Bosch’s help in tracing an alchemist. Artists Luc Morjaeu and Peter Van Gucht worked closely with Bosch experts and construction historians to accurately depict the city and the beautiful illustrations of ‘s Hertengenbosch in the Middle Ages – the market, St John’s Cathedral and Bosch’s studio – will charm even those who can’t read the language.
The powerful visual imagery and storytelling of Bosch’s oeuvre makes it ripe for physical interpretation and the programme offers a number of exciting performances. Sadly it is already too late to see Nanine Linning’s Hieronymus B, which took the seven deadly sins as its theme and turned them into a spectacular triptych in dance. Some footage is available on YouTube and it is possible that there may be a tour. In the meantime, visitors can still look forward to The Nederlands Dans Theater 2’s performance in November. One of the world’s most celebrated dance companies they perform Some Other Time by Sol León and Paul Lightfoot, Out of Breath by Johan Inger and a new, specially commissioned, piece by Jiří Pokorný.
Later in the year there are also world premieres by two international circus groups. Canada’s Les 7 doigts de la main perform Bosch Dreams in September whilst France’s Les Colporteurs offer us Sous la toile de Jheronimus in October.
Musical performances take place throughout the year but the Bosch Requiem at St John’s Cathedral on November 4th is likely to be one of the best. In conjunction with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, Bosch 500 commissioned composer Detler Glanert to compose a requiem for soloists, choir and orchestra. Glanert’s aim was to convert Bosch’s demonic paintings into music using comparable texts, an idea which refers directly to Medieval theology. Glanert has opted to combine classic requiem texts and parts of the Carmina Burana manuscript collection. The texts will be performed by both a mixed choir, soloists and an orchestra and by an organ and a small ‘Fernchor’ consisting of historic instruments. Every part of the requiem will be accompanied by a narrator reading a poem about the seven deadly sins with the text and orchestral groups alternating and commenting on one another. It will be performed by the Concertgebouw Orchestra and The Netherlands Radio Choir with soloists led by Markus Stenz.
Other events to look out for include the Bosch Parade in June. Held annually since 2010 it is water born parade with vessels and objects inspired by Bosch and featuring artists from all disciplines – art, theatre, dance, music and architecture.
Visitors will also be able to experience Bosch by Night when buildings along the Market Square will be brought to life using life sized projections of creatures and characters from his paintings to explain the stories behind the works. A lecture programme which has been running since the end of last year will perhaps offer more in-depth insights into Bosch’s oeuvre with subjects as intriguing and diverse as El Bosco: Bosch and Spain in the 16th Century (April) Beer, Monastery Life and Health (June) and Did Hieronymus Bosch Have a Sense of Humour (October).
One project which will sadly not be seeing the light of day this year is Peter Greenaway’s long planned film adaptation of The Garden of Earthly Delights, the stumbling block being funding. Dutch TV were apparently approached for support but declined, finding the project too rude. Clearly modern day TV executives are less open minded than the Sixteenth Century inhabitants of ‘s Hertogenbosch.
Full details of all events can be found in the Bosch 500 programme at bosch500.nl