Art as history, history as art – Jheronimus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel the Elder – Assembling knowledge not setting puzzles (Stephen Graham Hitchins) 2014
[Nijmegen Art Historical Studies – XXI, Brepols, Turnhout, 2014, 420 pages]
This is the commercial edition of Stephen Graham Hitchins’ (°Rochester, 1949) doctoral dissertation, which was defended at the Radboud University Nijmegen on 27th November 2014. The supervisor (promotor) was professor A.M. Koldeweij. The central thesis of the book, to which the main title refers, is that the works of Bosch (and Bruegel) reflect the political, religious, and economic climate of their time. Yet, no monograph on Bosch (and Bruegel) has ever carried a subtitle more ironical than this one (assembling knowledge not setting puzzles), at least when it is not applied to Bosch (and Bruegel), as the author intends it to be, but to the dissertation itself. To briefly and properly summarise the contents of this book is namely not possible. To assess its value for the study of Bosch (and Bruegel) certainly is, though. In this review, I will only focus on Hitchins’ approach to Bosch.
The Garden of Delights triptych
As a standard, monographs on Bosch can best be judged by what they tell us about the Garden of Delights. As is clearly shown by the style of writing used throughout this book, Hitchins seems to believe that he is an (art) philosopher and even a poet. He may be both, but then (unfortunately) a mediocre philosopher and a minor poet, at least in my opinion. The 25 pages dedicated to the Garden [pp. 135-150] are largely filled with pseudo-intellectual twaddle and conceited fine writing. In order to account for this harsh view, I will quote two passages, so the reader can judge for himself. On page 137 we read (about the male and female figures in the Garden’s central panel):
'The audience may recognise in the characters of this play a persistent and unrealisable pursuit of satisfaction and pleasure and where that might lead. The figures they stare at are mere shadows of time past, suspended moments that can only be possessed in memory, abstractions of past events and personalities, surrogates for lived experience: they are an acknowledgement of absence.'
And page 147 has the following lines:
'In that Bosch was attempting to transcend himself, to overcome his limitations, this work is not merely a reflection of anything, but has become something that transformed the artist and the recipient, unlocking the transcendental potential that resides in us all as he sought to open up his audience to another world.'
Roger Marijnissen liked to call verbal eruptions such as these Gelehrtenquatsch.
The paragraphs which make more sense than these two contain a lot of echoes from Falkenburg’s 2011 monograph on the Garden, including the use of the phrase conversation piece. Hitchins concurs with Falkenburg (and many others) on the interpretation of the central panel as a depiction of sinful lust, and when it is heralded (on the back flap, in the author’s summary, on pages iv and 145) that this central panel has always been misinterpreted, it hardly comes as a surprise that St Augustine (according to Falkenburg one of Bosch’s pivotal sources) and his De Civitate Dei are summoned up as the providers of a new ‘key’. Such a defiant claim raises the hope that finally someone has been able to solve the Garden’s manifold enigmas, based on sound research and convincing arguments. Alas, Hitchins’ new ‘key’ boils down to the following:
'The cycle of history is complete. As Augustine saw evil as a disorder in a good creation, a direct consequence of the misuse of human freedom, so with Bosch; as Augustine argued that evil was the result of human beings attempting to become something they were not, little gods with the power to give and take away the lives of others, so with Bosch. Augustine argued that we cannot diminish the moral responsibility for our actions, and should pray that good may come out of evil. Praying that good may come out of evil is a hard task, but that is the hope embodied in The Garden of Earthly Delights.' [p. 146]
By which Hitchins basically means – if I understand him correctly – that both St Augustine and Bosch brought an optimistic message: they both warned of sin and evil, and through this warning they both wanted mankind to stay away from evil and to follow the good path towards Salvation. Probably, I am not the only reader who had expected a ‘key’ with some more explanatory details instead of this general, albeit correct, observation.
Unfortunately, when the author does offer some rare, more detailed observations regarding Bosch’s painting, a number of them are clearly wrong. The Christ in the left interior panel is not the only figure in the triptych to look back at the viewer [p. 138]. Obscenity and perversions are definitely not absent in the central panel [p. 140]. And the Garden was not located ‘in a room with an enormous bed’ inside Henry III’s Brussels palace in 1517, at least not as far as we know [p. 147].
The reviews of Fischer and Rothstein
Hitchins’ approach to the Garden is confused and confusing, superficial, and at the same time far too categorical. The same is true for the remainder of the text. In his 2015 review of the book, Stefan Fischer points out that this is not ‘a real work of research’ (keine Forschungsarbeit im eigentlichen Sinne), but rather some kind of essay (eine Art Essay) with a philosophical-esthetical (philosophisch-ästhetische) character. He writes:
'Der rote Faden ist die Grundthese, die schon der Titel des Buches deutlich artikuliert: Bosch und Bruegel sammeln das Wissen ihrer Zeit, vor allem das religiöse und allgemein menschliche, in ihrem jeweiligen zeitpolitischen Kontext. Im Vergleich der beiden Künstler sieht Graham Hitchins Bosch als denjenigen, der die Dinge noch fast ausschliesslich aus dem Blickwinkel der Religion wahrnimmt, während er Bruegel für den Realistischen hält, ja fast für einen politischen Künstler.'
[The leitmotiv is the basic thesis which is already clearly announced by the title: Bosch and Bruegel assemble the knowledge of their times, particularly the religious and the universal humane knowledge, within their contemporary political context. When he compares both artists, Graham Hitchins sees Bosch as the one who observes things almost exclusively from the perspective of religion, whereas he considers Bruegel the realistic, almost political artist.]
Fischer is being friendly when he calls Hitchins’ book ‘inspiring’ (anregend), but he also thinks that a lot of patience and effort are needed to discover the connections between all the themes and ideas (man muss schon viel Geduld und Musse mitbringen, um Verbindungen zwischen all den Themen und Materialien herzustellen), and he also points out that the author only rarely focuses on Bosch’s works in detail (relativ selten steigt der Autor in eine detaillierte Deutung von Werken ein).
In his 2017 review, Bret Rothstein is even more friendly. He writes:
'While some may find (his) answers unpersuasive, Stephen Graham Hitchins deserves praise for defining his discipline as an instrument with which to address the world emphatically, rather than as one with which to perform ever-finer sorts of cultural dissection in the service of ever more recondite abstraction.'
He calls the depth of Hitchins’ research ‘striking’, at the same time pointing out that many readers will find the book ‘maddening’, and that ‘it will undoubtedly come in for its share of hammering’ (referring to the colloquial U.S. saying that ‘the nail that stands up gets hammered down’).
It is never a pleasure to ‘hammer down’ a doctoral dissertation, yet in this case it is impossible not to write down the following critical remarks. From the start, the author announces that he will principally focus, as far as Bosch is concerned, on the Vienna Last Judgement, the Lisbon Tribulations of St Anthony, and the Prado Garden of Delights. Isn’t that a bit strange for a monograph on the art of Bosch? And calling the Lisbon triptych The Tribulations of St Anthony, whereas everybody refers to this painting as The Temptations of St Anthony, isn’t that a little bit arrogant?
Hitchins starts from a premise which sounds fair enough: The historical framework that is essential for an understanding of any period of art history is a prerequisite for an examination of Netherlandish art from 1450 to 1550 [p. iii]. And: I have always thought, and still believe, that to comprehend what Bosch and Bruegel were painting, it is essential to have the social, political, and religious context [p. vi]. Yet, in my opinion, the way in which this premise is worked out for Bosch is indeed ‘maddening’. The structure of the book is hopeless, with its accumulation of (often obscure and woolly) titles for each chapter, accompanied by mottos that in most cases do not enlighten what follows and have nothing to do with Bosch but are apparently only intended to demonstrate the author’s widely-read erudition. References to and (often redundant) quotes from other writers (Bosch authors, but also modern novelists such as Proust, Einstein, even Miep Gies, the ‘helper’ of Anne Frank, is mentioned, see p. 157, note 196) are strewn all across the text itself, and so are the omnipresent references to endnotes, in some cases running over half a page or more, in which the reader can easily drown.
And then there is also the style of writing, always partial to the use of difficult words, to hazy formulations, and to endless digressions. It is a perfect example of what in English is called purple prose: ‘Overly ornate prose text that may disrupt a narrative flow by drawing undesirable attention to its own extravagant style of writing’ (Wikipedia). It makes very tiresome reading, and in Art as History, History as Art it does not bring us much closer to Bosch, apart from a few observations that may inspire further discussion (such as the question of whether the art of Bosch is basically of an optimistic or pessimistic nature).
There are definitely far too many words that say far too little in this dissertation, causing a reader’s indigestion. In fact, this is not a book about Bosch. This is a book about an author writing on Bosch while he is looking into the mirror standing on his writing desk. The result is an almost impenetrable stronghold of (pseudo-) scholarship. I am not a fan of this type of Bosch books.
[explicit 1st October 2022 – Eric De Bruyn]