Hieronymus Bosch. Weltbilder und Traumwerk (Hans Holländer) 1975
[M. Dumont Schauberg, Cologne, 1975, 196 pages]
[Dutch translation: Hans Holländer, Jheronimus Bosch. Wereldvisie en droomwerk. Andreas Landshoff, Amsterdam, 1976, 196 pages]
[Also mentioned in Gibson 1983: 6-7 (A29)]
Initially it does not become clear which method Holländer suggests to approach the Bosch problem. He writes that Bosch has painted a ‘world view’ and also ‘dreamwork’ (the monsters, the hellscapes) and that his message is about the ‘conditio humana’: man’s relationship with the world. He rejects the iconographical structure of Gibson’s book (1973) because it is often very difficult to link Bosch’s works to one particular iconographical context. He also has a negative opinion about the trials to approach Bosch in a religious-historical (Fraenger) or sociological (Marijnissen, Gibson) way because these methods suggest that Bosch was a local artist who could only be understood by a small group of people belonging to the same sect or country. Holländer’s method seems to be limited to ‘the analysis of some aspects of Bosch’s paintings’, but obviously this is something every author does when writing about Bosch.
Nevertheless in the first chapters we learn something more about Bosch’s ‘world view’. In a nutshell it boils down to the fact that Holländer sees Bosch as a cool, intellectual observer of what goes on in the world. Bosch was definitely not a member of a heretical sect, but he was not a saint either: on the outside he probably adapted to ecclesiastical conventions, keeping his own ideas about them for himself. It is likely that the triptychs he painted, were not altarpieces but scholarly, non-ecclesiastical panels: Holländer calls them studiolo-paintings. There is no doubt that Bosch had moralizing intentions, meaning that he painted about the struggle between good and evil, but did he also take up a personal stand in this?
In this context what Holländer writes about the owl motif is interesting. An owl is present in many of Bosch’s paintings, but he is never active, he is only watching and listening. He is a witness of what is happening all around him. Holländer refers to the The field has eyes and the wood has ears drawing, in which there is clearly also an owl present and in which an unambiguous emphasis is put on watching and listening. Otto Benesch interpreted the drawing as an allegorical self-portrait and now Holländer calls the owl the alter ego, the signature and even the probable symbol of the master. This would exclude a negative interpretation of the owl. One of Bosch’s followers (Herri met de Bles) was indeed nicknamed ‘civetta’ (little owl) in Italy. So Bosch is a moralist, but he is much more than that. His works don’t have the tedious characteristics of a moral treatise. Often the artist, the inventor, the magician in him is stronger than the moralist. This is one of the traits of Bosch’s great genius.
What Holländer writes about some early works and about the most important triptychs in the first chapters (minus the Garden of Delights which is discussed in a separate chapter), is not really new. In these and in other chapters, though, Holländer discusses a number of aspects which usually receive little attention in Bosch scholarship. In Marijnissen e.a. 1972 H.T. Piron had already written that Bosch’s landscapes (sometimes realistic, sometimes phantastic) deserve a separate study. Heeding Piron’s hint Holländer pays special attention to this subject. His final conclusion is that – just as with Bruegel – Bosch’s landscapes have to be interpreted in a positive way, unlike the diabolical world in which mankind lives. Diabolical things always pop up where man appears, whereas the landscape is represented as beautiful, rich and spacious. This has a parallel in Bosch’s style, for the landscapes are painted in a more subtle way than the human world.
Furthermore Bosch has introduced some novelties in this respect. He has adopted the traditional techniques of perspective and topography and of the clear demarcation between figures and landscape, but with a different, new intention: perspective and topography used to create a rational order in the world, but with Bosch they create chaos in the landscapes. In the past the demarcated figures stood above their surroundings with a certain dignity and exaltedness, but with Bosch they can hardly be recognized in the turmoil, which results in an alienating atmosphere.
After having analyzed a detail from the Hermits triptych (Venice), namely the weird structure which is partially spherical, partially cylindrical, Holländer reaches the conclusion that alchemy definitely plays a part in Bosch’s works and that very likely it had a positive meaning for the painter.
According to Holländer Bosch’s followers and imitators are not appreciated enough, which is why they have been studied far too little up to now. And yet, their works are important, not only because they can teach us something about the interpretation of Bosch’s oeuvre but also because they can lead to a better understanding of Bosch’s own works. It would also be interesting to find out how this Boschian tradition influenced the literary world and to study in which ways variations on Boschian themes were developed in different countries.
Eventually Holländer’s own method can be deducted from the separate chapter in which he discusses the Garden of Delights. This method may be called Mehrdeutigkeit (poly-interpretability). This ‘open system’ approach (in this book limited to the Garden of Delights) means that one interpretation, one ‘closed’ system to analyse the triptych, doesn’t suffice. We should continuously move to and fro, from one interpretation to another. But Holländer seems to contradict himself when he points out that Bosch intended an ambiguous, open approach with this triptych. Not only does he admit that a ‘closed’ system might still be provable in the future (thanks to an unnoticed clue or a literary source we don’t know yet), but he also believes that in all probability the central panel represents the Earthly Paradise in a pre-lapsarian state, whereas the Hell on the right wing depicts a world with awareness of sin producing monsters and horror (to be compared with St. Anthony whose bad thoughts materialize in the form of demons). So again a monolithic interpretation after all…