Jheronimus Bosch Art Center
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Review of the Hieronymus Bosch exhibitions and catalogue

Prof. Dr. Larry Silver

From HNA Newsletter 33:2 (November 2016), pp. 23-26

2016 © Prof. dr. LArry Silver


Matthijs Ilsink and Jos Koldeweij, Hieronymus Bosch, Visions of Genius. [Cat. exh. Het Noordbrabants Museum, ‘s-Hertogenbosch, February 13 – May 8, 2016.] Brussels: Mercatorfonds, distributed by Yale University Press, New Haven/London, 2016. 192 pp, 140 col. illus. ISBN 978-0-300-22013-1.

Pilar Silva Maroto, Bosch. The 5th Centenary Exhibition. [Cat. exh. Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, May 31 – September 11, 2016.] Madrid: Museo Nacional del Prado, 2016. 399 pp, fully illustrated. ISBN 978-84-8480- 317-1.

Matthijs Ilsink, Jos Koldeweij, Ron Spronk, Luuc Hoogstede, Robert Erdmann, Rik Klein Gotink, Henneke Nap, and Daan Veldhuizen, Hieronymus Bosch, Painter and Draughtsman. Catalogue raisonné. Brussels: Mercatorfonds, distributed by Yale University Press, New Haven/London, 2016. 608 pp, 850 col. illus. ISBN 978-030-022014-8. Luuc Hoogstede, Ron Spronk, Robert Erdmann, Matthijs Ilsink, Jos Koldeweij, Hanneke Naap, and Daan Veldhuizen, Hieronymus Bosch, Painter and Draughtsman. Technical Studies. Brussels: Mercatorfonds, distributed by Yale University Press, New Haven/London, 2016. 460 pp, 500 col. illus. ISBN 978-94-6230-115-3.

Even those of us who have been around for a couple of scholarly generations have just seen the greatest exhibition in our field of a lifetime, both in ‘s-Hertogenbosch and Madrid, cooperative yet competing installations, whose differences will become clear. Certainly other exhibitions rival these, especially Flémalle/Campin (Berlin-Frankfurt), Jan Gossart [sic] (New York), or, to include less-familiar media, two tapestry exhibitions (New York) and one big prints exhibitions, Grand Scale (full bias disclosure: organized in part by me). And I should also note at the outset that I contributed an essay to the Prado catalogue. But I want to evaluate these two exhibitions and the research behind them while noting some issues that remain outstanding in Bosch scholarship even after these milestone events.

Of course, the anniversary of Bosch’s 1516 death triggered these exhibitions, not to mention a flood of new books and even films. But to lead up to these installations, serious technical examination at both sites produced new infrared examinations of the paintings, so that now underdrawing and preliminary layouts can be considered as part of Bosch’s working procedures, within his workshop process. Yes, workshop process. Bosch came from a multi-generational van Aken family of painters, and even as inventor of his unique vision – albeit so often copied and even faked afterwards – he surely had assistants in his productions. Yet the urge remains – even more so with underdrawings newly available – to produce a definitive catalogue raisonné that separates wheat from chaff, particularly by the Bosch Research and Conservation Project in the Netherlands. They systematically visited all available and plausible Bosch attributions with the latest equipment and examined them under consistent conditions. Only the Prado and the Vienna Akademie (a major omission from both exhibitions) reserved their own rights to study their own objects; the critical results of the former appear in the current catalogue, whereas the latter, long reserved by curator Renata Trnek, still have not been published. The obvious presence of multiple hands on the surface of the large Vienna Last Judgment triptych makes it a critical omission from both the exhibitions and from these well produced catalogue publications, despite the best efforts of both organizers.

What do we know now about Bosch? Several principal arguments emerge from the Dutch BRCP group: 1) that the essential aspect of Bosch’s working method is his drawing, both as underdrawing and brushwork, which in turn together, they claim, 2) secure a core group of paintings as authentic works, not some broader “Groupe Bosch” as the KIK/IRPA would designate. As a result, they assign a very small number of paintings to the workshop and even fewer drawings. Perhaps some of this urge to assert Bosch’s mastership comes in reaction to Fritz Koreny’s recent (2012) emphasis on firm distinctions among the corpus of drawings and on discerning several workshop masters linked to specifi c core works, especially the Prado Haywain. Curiously, the Dutch team finds almost no major distinctions within the underdrawings, even for those of the widely noted “left-handed master” of the WashingtonParis-New Haven-Rotterdam panels. To my eye, the microdistinctions of Boschian drawings by Koreny emerged more clearly in the underdrawings than in the drawings themselves, but the Dutch team lumps together underdrawings as if there were no basic differences, which seems extreme in its own right. To be determined after further examination of catalogues and originals . . .

But any responsible curator will advise caution in putting too much stress on the evaluation of authenticity chiefly from underdrawings. After all, the most careful preliminary drawing could prompt clarity for delegated workshop execution, or the sketchiest suggestion could prompt improvisation on the surface for an assured master – not to mention the relative differences among parts, such as main figures, still-life items, and landscape backgrounds. And who is to say that Bosch did not have specialists in his studio who laid down his inventive monsters for him, like the eagle in Rubens’s Prometheus (Philadelphia)? Another surface element, all-but-ignored in both catalogues but newly revealed by the restored Garden of Earthly Delights as well as by the Lisbon St. Anthony, is Bosch’s fascination with animal forms, often extremely well modeled and precise, whether as monsters or as giants; lesser attention to animals might suggest workshop execution as a result.

And can’t a well drafted underdrawing be executed instead by the workshop? This process seems clear to me in the Bruges Last Judgment, a beautifully signed work that jointly exalted as original by both exhibitions, but one that still comes across as a flatly painted pastiche of earlier motifs. Additionally, the much-ballyhooed “rediscovery” of the Kansas City Saint Anthony as an “original” rather than a restored fragment (previously considered workshop by its museum) really adds very little to the oeuvre, though both exhibitions included it.

Where one really sees Bosch’s unique greatness is in his grisailles (Berlin St. John; Madrid Adoration; Lisbon St. Anthony). There we see him painting wet-in-wet and truly drawing with the brush. Some great drawings, especially the Tree Man (Albertina) and Owl’s Nest (Rotterdam) show Bosch’s distinctive, novel contribution to the finished independent drawing, whereas some of his individual figure sketches – the two-sided Berlin Monsters or Albertina Grotesque with Man in a Basket – show his ability to improvise figures in fine, scratchy linework (especially the charming infants frolicking on the latter sheet). All institutions that own Bosch drawings are to be praised for their generosity, and in Den Bosch the drawings, nearly complete, were clustered together, making distinctions among them – especially to separate imitators from originals – easy to evaluate (by contrast, in Madrid the drawings were distributed within the paintings according to themes, so separated from each other, making comparisons more difficult). A few drawings also emerged as anomalous, especially the multi-layered British Museum Entombment, whose figure types are truly Boschian but whose final effect, seemingly reworked by Bosch himself, remains inconsistent with the lighter appearance of the rest of the oeuvre. Or the exquisite Orientals in a Landscape (Berlin), which uniquely uses chalk, pen, brush, and white body color.

But what is also obvious from the cumulative effect of the painted works, shown to spectacular effects in both installations, is how Bosch’s overall painting technique shifted imagery from the prevailing fine detail and refined glazes of Flemish naturalism to a bolder shaping of figures and settings in subtle color tones with accents. Bosch set Dutch painting on the course of its seventeenth-century tonal processes, even if his imagery still extends a late-medieval, fifteenth-century legacy. Moreover, it is also clear from the basic narrative of Northern art, but newly evident now, that his atmospheric settings inspired Patinir’s career in particular and the Netherlandish landscape genre in general. Further, his novel representations of worldly sinfulness helped spark genre themes, as shown in last fall’s exhibition in Rotterdam (“Van Bosch tot Bruegel. Het begin van de genreschilderkunst”) by Peter van der Coelen and Friso Lammertse.

Now to review the installations themselves. ‘S-Hertogenbosch used large vitrines, well-lighted from below, which clearly displayed colors on newly restored painting surfaces. One colleague noted that this presentation turned the pictures into images, almost like giant slides, but to me they produced vivid, consistent display in meaningful small clusters. In contrast to the almost rectilinear, clustered layout of Den Bosch, Madrid built its display organically around its own celebrated triptychs (of which only the Haywain was sent north), creatively showing them open and mounted on curvilinear bases, so that one could easily survey both the front and the back in sequence. Additionally, Madrid placed a helpful photo reproduction of the closed exteriors between their open wings, so that each viewer could see the entire composition as well as the separated original wings. Drawings, however, chiefly provided an accompaniment to the paintings in Madrid, whereas in Den Bosch they formed a separate and well presented group in their own right, emphasizing Bosch as draughtsman.

Both exhibitions chose to organize all works by theme, beginning with the Life of Christ, then Saints, and finally “The World and Last Things,” to use the Prado segmentation. Of course, this layout has the virtue, especially for the general public, of providing some framework for assessing Bosch’s preoccupations and purposes, and in fairness most monographs, including my own, are organized along similar lines. However, great confusion also can result from this choice, particularly concerning Bosch chronology, even for a relative dating or clustering of pictures – still a basically neglected approach to his oeuvre. Some almost comical results could emerge, such as the hanging in the Prado, where the small-figured Vienna wing of Christ Carrying the Cross (dated in the catalogue ca. 1505/10-1516, a date usually linked to the – newly disattributed – Ghent Carrying of the Cross) was placed near the large-figured Escorial Carrying of the Cross (dated ca. 1500), a work close in concept (and hanging) to the London Christ Mocked (here also dated ca. 1500). These two works with the same subject are utterly different in figural conception, spatial layout, relation to the viewer, and any other conceivable criterion, so much so that they almost seem to be works by different artists, yet they still hung together because of the thematic organization.

How can we begin to make sense of Bosch’s development, even in terms of relative chronology? A century ago Ludwig von Baldass suggested using landscape as a criterion, and these shows reveal that his view has much merit. Start with the luminous atmospheric blue horizon of the newly-restored (and newly promoted over its Escorial replica) Prado Haywain (or for that matter even the Bruges Last Judgment Paradise wing), where thinly painted veils of color recede into deep distance. Similar distances are delicate sketched in both the mature Tree Man and the Owls’ Nest drawings. Then contrast such presumably late landscape constructions with the arbitrary flat screens of the Prado Garden (or its closely related set of dotted trees behind the Lázaro Galdiano John the Baptist), which still deserve the old-fashioned designation of coulisses. Incidentally, this kind of comparison also reveals how the cleaning of overpaint from the Louvre Ship of Fools has essentially now stripped off most of that landscape background.

Much work remains to be done on this kind of Bosch development of form, but close consideration makes clear that the Berlin Evangelist and Lazaro Galdiano Baptist cannot belong together, as first proposed in the 2001 Rotterdam Bosch exhibition (repeated in Den Bosch but questioned in Madrid), not least because of their contrasting landscape layouts. There are other major differences between them, notably the delicate grisaille reverse found only on the Berlin panel. Also among the findings of the infrared inspection is a newly-revealed donor beneath the overpainted evil plant on the Baptist. Another test case: what about the Calvary with Donor (Brussels), inexplicably withheld from both venues, a work often dated early because of its conservative layout, and whose figures and colors show close affinities with the Garden.

Indeed, because of our confidence in both the heraldry and family history of their patrons, the mid 1490s dates of both the Prado Adoration and of its related workshop Ecce Homo triptych have caused most Bosch datings to be posed relative to that “fixed” point. Not even a relative chronology is obtainable from these two exhibition catalogues, nor is any attempt made to clarify Bosch’s development, even if consensus seems to fasten on both the New York Adoration of the Magi (still strangely inconsistent in its parts to my eye) and the Frankfurt Ecce Homo as the earliest works. My previous support for the Philadelphia Magi as early, based on the awkward presentation of space, now seems unfounded, and workshop participation seems likely, yet the high quality of the two standing magi merits consideration as authentic (in contrast to the adjacent weakness of the much-restored Joseph, and amidst widespread condition issues in the panel). But for both New York and Philadelphia panels, how credible is finding multiple hands, where both Bosch and assistants would work together on fairly small pieces?

Good lighting and careful conservation now reveal how much these paintings have been subjected to damage over time, in part due to their thin, often improvised, paint layers. We now can see more clearly how much some of these works have suffered, even masterpieces such as the Rotterdam Saint Christopher. But we can be grateful to all lenders of these panels for their generosity in allowing the ingathering of Bosch works at both exhibitions, with the notable exceptions of the Vienna Akademie and Brussels. Because of the new emphasis on underdrawings (especially in Den Bosch) and on distinguishing between the master and his workshop or even his later followers (e.g. the Bruges Job triptych, Rotterdam Marriage at Cana, or Saint-Germain-en-Laye Conjurer), lost works did not come under consideration, though several come to mind, such as the Christ among the Doctors (best replicated at Opocno chateau and the Louvre). And while it was not the charge of these exhibitions, the replicas of extant works, especially of the Prado Adoration and the Lisbon Saint Anthony, deserve a renewed examination, extending the research on Bosch Rezeption by Gerd Unverfehrt (1980), to consider how lifetime replication by the workshop fits into the diffusion of Bosch compositions. The true catalogue raisonné still remains to be written.

But what a feast, especially in Madrid, which claimed that only three paintings were lacking (!), and the drawings too were also fully represented. Perhaps the marketing-driven title of the Den Bosch venue, Visions of Genius, most clearly reveals the prevailing notion that Bosch himself – master Jheronimus rather than Groupe Bosch – was the true driving force and could be readily defined – in underdrawings and drawings as well as in paint surfaces – despite his own documented family of professional painters. With the new technical studies (except Vienna’s Last Judgment) available at last in these catalogues, and soon to be online in high resolution, we can take Bosch studies to a new level with much truly fresh material. Our gratitude must be boundless, for such a pair of exhibition experiences and for their printed legacies.


Larry Silver University of Pennsylvania

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