Hell of an Exhibition
Dir. Pieter van Huystee, Netherlands, 2015, 86 minutes
World premiere at IDFA 2015 (Amsterdam)
At Film Forum (Kino Lorber)
Almost half a million people journeyed to the Dutch town of ‘s-Hertogenbosch or den Bosch this spring to see visions of hell painted and drawn by Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516). That number could be surpassed by the visitors who are now swarming, Bosch-style, into the Museo del Prado in Madrid to see more or less the same exhibition there.
Bosch the religious moralist who populated hell with visions of grotesque punishment is popular. He has been for some time. Bear in mind that this is the man whose work ended up on album covers in the 1960’s.
We don’t know much about the man or his life (although we know that he was the son of a painter), but the artist who painted warnings about the consequences of sin probably would have been pleased that the sinning multitudes wanted to see his work. Every preacher wants a crowd.
Why the crowds are going now tells you something about museums. The Prado holds more works by Bosch than any other institution. But if you market a special exhibition, and put a closing date on it, the everyday becomes a special event. The effect is that more people are seeing more works by Bosch than ever before.
Bosch seems to have been a deeply religious man, and a moralist, yet he also had a seething imagination that makes the audience of our generation see hallucinations that they find eerily familiar. “Did Bosch use consciousness-altering substances?” filmgoers always ask at screenings of Jheronimus Bosch: Touched by the Devil, the documentary about the exhibition directed by Pieter van Huystee. Given the realities of plague, war, fire and famine, he probably didn’t need them.
The doc is a case study of the organizing of an exhibition, with the added challenge that the Noordbrabants Museum in Den Bosch, where the show premiered and where Bosch was born, does not own a single work by him.
Then there is the question of attribution. Bosch, much-admired, was much copied during and after his life. The doc takes us into that search for authorship, with specialists testing the wood on which pictures are painted. It’s called dendrological research. In some cases, they determined that the tree that produced the wood surface of a particular work could not have been cut down before Bosch’s death. In other cases, images of ears from Bosch’s pictures are isolated and enlarged to enable scholars to judge shape and consistency. The jury’s still out on some of the works, not unusual in the world of Dutch Masters. Yet with the more than twenty paintings that we do have by Bosch, the camera, seeing the surface better than the human eyes does, takes us in for a closer look, with greater precision than previous technology offered. The colors are as faithful to the paintings as you’ll find in any published reproductions, making the doc a revelation for anyone who thinks he’s seen Bosch before. For comparison, see the two recent British films on Bosch, one from 1980 narrated by Nicholas Baum, and another that relied on the expertise of the late Evening Standard critic Brian Sewell. In Bosch’s triptychThe Garden of Earthly Delights, that closer look means a vivid trip into the kinky depths of hell (where the kinky end up, we assume), and into heaven, where the erotic pleasures of those lucky enough to be there seem far wilder than what might be expected from a Catholic moralist. Hell resembles an all-consuming fire in a medieval city in Bosch’s Temptation of St. Anthony, possibly inspired by the blaze the destroyed his own town. The ruins in the frame look like live coals.
In Christ on the Route to Calvary, from the forbidding Escorial outside Madrid, Bosch depicts an anguished suffering Christ, in tears, with a crown of thorns and shoes that put spikes into the soles of his feet, as he’s scourged by a figure who seems more dutiful than sadistic. Who needs a surplus of emotion when divine fate is predestined? Onlookers watch the execution of the day with the same equanimity. The procession is led by an everyman who looks out from the picture, seemingly aware that he’s being seen performing that task. In that look outward, he recognizes his own complicity, forcing us to recognize our roles as part of the larger crowd watching.
The central panel of the Triptych of St. Uncumber, borrowed for the exhibition from the Accademia museum in Venice – each if these loans is shown to be a delicate deal — portrays a female saint martyred on a cross. The martyr’s gender makes this an odd crucifixion, drawn from the legend of a saint also called Liberata or Wilgefortis. The saint was the beautiful daughter of an unbeliever who promised his child as a wife to another man who did not practice Christianity. The potential bride, through divine intercession, willed herself to be unattractive to her suitor, and she sprouted a beard. It worked, sort of. The groom-to-be called off the marriage to the now-undesirable virgin, but Uncumber, as the saint was known in the Low Countries, was crucified on order of her father, whose honor was violated. (Yes, there were and are honor killings in Christian countries.) As we encounter the picture in the documentary, it is being cleaned by one of the Den Bosch team. Some careful swabbing makes the female saint’s beard visible after decades of discoloration are removed.
It’s a peculiar legend, but nowhere near as hallucinatory as any ensemble scene from heaven or hell in a Bosch painting. And as with any of those pictures, the more you know about it, the more you keep on looking, whether it’s for something inexplicable in the iconography or for Bosch’s improbable skill at bringing the nuances of expression to the monsters that his imagination conjures up. The devil, as the doc’s title suggests, is in the details.
This documentary is a film that helps us to see. What more could we ask for? If you missed the exhibition, catalogs are available from each of the museums that presented it.
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