Bosch en Bruegel als Bosch – Kunst over kunst bij Pieter Bruegel (c. 1528-1569) en Jheronimus Bosch (c. 1450-1516) (Matthijs Ilsink) 2009
[Nijmeegse Kunsthistorische Studies – deel XVII, Radboud Universiteit, Nijmegen, 2009, 405 pages]
On Monday 21st December 2009 (a day when traffic in the Netherlands was rather chaotic because of heavy snowfall) the art historian Matthijs Ilsink successfully defended his doctoral thesis at the Radboud University Nijmegen. At the same time a commercial version (nicely edited in spite of the inevitable printing errors and amply illustrated) was published with the somewhat unusual title Bosch en Bruegel als Bosch [Bosch and Bruegel as Bosch]. The title is not the only unusual aspect of this book. The text comprises four largely independent chapters that nevertheless have a clearly visible common theme: each chapter deals with artists painting and drawing about themselves and about their art. The two artists in question are not the least important ones: Jheronimus Bosch and his sixteenth-century spiritual heir Peter Bruegel.
In the first chapter Ilsink focuses on three, unanimously considered authentic Bosch drawings: The field has eyes and the wood has ears (Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett), The Owls’ nest (Rotterdam, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen) and The Tree-man (Vienna, Albertina). He presumes that these drawings have functioned within a small circle in the artist’s immediate environment and thus he concurs with a 1937 article by Otto Benesch in which Benesch defended the (in later literature largely disapproved) thesis that The field has eyes and the wood has ears is a ‘disguised’ self-portrait of the artist. Ilsink expands on this thesis by suggesting that in the three drawings mentioned above Bosch’s art and artistic skills are the main focus.
In the drawing The field has eyes and the wood has ears Bosch is said to have played a game with the genre of the ‘speaking’ coat of arms. Ilsink’s intepretation is based on a thesis that his supervisor (Jos Koldeweij) forwarded some years ago: the large ears of the wood in the background, the eyes in the field and the wood itself are considered a rebus (oor/hoort – ogen – bos = ear/hears – eyes – wood) referring to the name of Bosch’s hometown (’s-Hertogenbosch). And because the name Bosch is derived from ’s-Hertogenbosch the artist himself is – in a literal and figurative sense – put in the picture. Furthermore, in the centre of the drawing we see an abnormally large owl, attacked by other birds, in a dead, hollow tree. Ilsink points out that in Middle Dutch the owl could be called a bosvogel [wood-bird] and as in Bosch’s art some 25 owls can be found, he interprets the bird as a symbol of the artist, as a ‘Bosch-bird’. This linguistic interpretation is even pushed further because Ilsink also suggests a relation with the word bôs (with a long o), a Middle Dutch variant of the adjective evil. In the drawing the owl and the wood but also the dead tree and the fox are said to be images of Bosch’s favourite theme, namely evil and sin, and Bosch presents himself here as the painter of everything that is related to ‘evil’.
In 1987 Paul Vandenbroeck interpreted this drawing as a representation of the medieval, internationally attested proverb ‘the field has eyes, the wood has ears (I want to see, keep silent and hear)’, an advice to be on the alert all the time and everywhere lest bad influences might get an opportunity. Ilsink calls Vandenbroeck’s interpretation ‘convincing’ but also suggests that the drawing has something more to tell, considering his own approach as the missing link of ‘the whole story’. Nevertheless, Ilsink’s interpretation gives rise to some inevitable questions and remarks. For one thing, I do not understand how the ears, the eyes and the wood in Bosch’s drawing would refer to the name of ’s-Hertogenbosch. There was indeed a rebus tradition in this respect, in which a deer (hert in Dutch) or a heart (hart in Dutch) could refer to the name sHertogenbossche or sHartogenbossche, but as far as I can see, the alternative reading sHoortogenbossche is not attested. How then are the two ears in the drawing supposed to be part of a rebus, even if one accepts the far-fetched transition from oren (ears) to hoort (hears)?
Of course, the rebus-like allusion to the city’s name can be dropped, interpreting the trees in the drawing as a wood (bos) and thus as a reference to the artist’s name (Bosch). And in the Middle Dutch textual sources of the proverb the alternative readings woud (forest), bos (wood) and bossen (woods) can indeed be found. Ilsink is also right when pointing out that owls are an important motif in the art of Bosch. But that an owl ‘was formerly also called bosvogel’ seems a rather rash conclusion. The only meaning of ‘boschvogel’ that can be found in the Middelnederlandsch Woordenboek [Middle Dutch Dictionary] is: bird that lives in the woods. Which speaks against the already dubious association Bosch / bosvogel [wood-bird] / boos [evil]. Furthermore, it is remarkable that according to Ilsink the fox in the drawing, supposed to be another symbol of evil, is ‘visited’ by a rooster. According to me the rooster (who obviously was not aware of the proverb) has been caught and killed by the fox.
After all this, Ilsink’s complementary interpretation of The field has eyes can duly be called provocative, but as soon as he also focuses on the verso of the drawing (only showing some rough sketches) his approach becomes somewhat reckless. He interprets these sketches as exercises executed by pupils and as the actual front side of the drawing. A displeased Bosch is supposed to have drawn the proverb on the verso to show his pupils how things are done properly. Ilsink concludes this from the Latin sentence at the top of the drawing, which can be translated as: ‘Miserable is the mind that always uses other people’s inventions and never has an original idea’. Here Bosch is supposed to present himself as the opposite of such a miserable mind, by means of a highly original reference to his own subject matter (evil) and to his method (language turned into image). Obviously, this impertinent look inside Bosch’s workshop is rather extreme. But what disturbs me more, is that Ilsink drily reports that Vandenbroeck had the sentence studied by a palaeographer (who dated it: early sixteenth century) and that no difference can be observed between the ink of the text and the ink of the drawing. Wasn’t it appropriate (for a dissertation) to ask a second opinion from another palaeographer, and was it impossible to have the ink examined by a scientist, so that we finally would know for sure whether text and drawing were executed by the same hand?
Ilsink’s thesis (in the art of Bosch dead trees and owls refer to the artist himself) is further elaborated by means of the other two drawings mentioned above. In the Rotterdam Owls’ nest we do indeed see owls and a dead tree and so these are also interpreted as a ‘reflection’ of the artist. The spider’s web with two spiders in the right half of the drawing is said to refer to evil that is lurking everywhere but at the same time it is a display of virtuosity: a self-conscious Bosch wanted to show his skills as an original creator of images. The most original image ever created by Bosch, is probably the so-called tree-man dominating the right interior panel of the Garden of Earthly Delights triptych but it can also be seen in a drawing preserved in Vienna. Whereas the figure in the triptych functions as a brothel in hell, Ilsink suggests that the drawing is not focusing on one particular sin, but rather on evil generally speaking, here again symbolized by owls and dead trees. Because the drawing also has a deer, a shrub (bosje in Dutch) and all kinds of ‘eyes’, the author recognizes a rebus-like allusion to the name of ’s-Hertogenbosch here as well.
The conclusion of the first chapter is that the three drawings are meant as exempla of Bosch’s artistic skills. Bosch consciously and actively created an image of himself that would steer the reception of his art in the sixteenth century and later: the name ‘Bosch’ became something of a ‘stylistic reference’ associated back then (and still today) with monsters, freaks and demons. Although this latter observation is no doubt correct, the question whether Bosch intended the three drawings as a kind of display window of his own skills (and moreover, only for a limited public of pupils and friends) cannot simply be answered with a yes or a no, because of some weak elements in Ilsink’s argument.
In the second chapter Ilsink focuses on the Bruegel drawing The painter and the expert (Vienna). Starting from the observation that the painter is holding a rough brush and not a fine pencil, the argument here wants to point out that Bruegel’s drawing presents a satirical image of a painter and his public: in the painter we should recognize a fake artist, and in the so-called expert a fake connoisseur. Bruegel would thus concur with the discourse about art in Antwerp circa 1550 that was aiming at raising the status of painters and drawers from tradesman to artist. Ilsinks considers the drawing Bruegel’s most explicit example of art dealing with art. Bruegel cleverly borrowed Bosch’s imagery (always referring to evil) by turning the ‘connoisseur’ figure (who is wearing glasses and is supposed to be ‘blind with eyes wide open’) into a mixture of the victim and the pickpocket in Bosch’s The Conjuror panel, which he probably knew from a mid-sixteenth-century engraving by Balthasar van den Bosch (active in Antwerp). To my personal taste the ‘connoisseur’ looks more like the pickpocket than like his victim, but that is only a detail in this context.
The third chapter offers a new interpretation of Bruegel’s small Two monkeys panel (Berlin, Gemäldegalerie), dated 1562. Via a long detour, called ‘somewhat elaborate’ by Ilsink himself (p. 183) but every now and then rather laborious (with too many repetitions), it is suggested that the adagio ars simia naturae (art is the monkey of nature) played an important part in the artistic discourse from the fourteenth until the seventeenth century: the mimicing behaviour of the monkey was seen in a positive way, as similar to the imitating skills of the painter who tried to equal nature (and reality) in his art. Ilsink states that Bruegel’s panel also focuses on the relation between art and nature and that it represents the adagio ars simia naturae. The arguments for this thesis are largely offered by the composition of the painting itself. What Bruegel paints makes an impression of being ‘almost real’ but it is also a bit ‘not real’: in an uncommon way the city of Antwerp is seen not from a western point of view, but from a southwestern one and although Bruegel paints a determinable species of monkey, he does not paint a portrait of an individual monkey. Because of this, and for some other reasons, the small panel is said to have functioned as a conversation piece during meals (convivium): several people could then exhange their opinion about the relation between art and nature. Although I am not an expert on Bruegel, every now and then Ilsink’s argument seems a bit too slippery here. On the other hand, in the last section of this chapter the author himself admits that his interpretation is only one among others and that his interpretation does not exclude others. According to Ilsink it may have been Bruegel’s intention to create a painting that cannot be interpreted in one particular way, although ‘this is not a licence for a story in which everything is possible’, as the author tells the reader on page 212.
Chapters 2 and 3 were dealing with imitatio naturae (art imitating reality), chapter 4 focuses on imitatio artis (art referring to other art including the idea of artistic competition). Starting from the idea that at least a part of Bruegel’s oeuvre is self-reflective Ilsink now tries to answer the question why Bruegel’s imagery so often goes back to the idiom of his predecessor Bosch. This is for example the case in a number of engravings designed by Bruegel and published by Hieronymus Cock. Ilsink’s thesis is that with these engravings Bruegel consciously attributed to a discourse about art that became more and more important in the course of the sixteenth century and in which the notions imitatio (imitation), aemulatio (equalling the model) and superatio (superseding the model) played a major part. Bruegel’s choice to execute part of his work in the idiom of Bosch can be explained by the idea that explicit use of a predecessor’s style makes it possible to compare both, model and imitation, with each other. The objective is to mingle clear references to the model (in the case of Bruegel: Bosch) with new, personal inventions in a subtle way. This will result in the spectator’s admiration of the artist’s creativity. In other words: Bruegel’s imitation of Bosch could gain respect by equalling and superseding his art. And if the artist is conscious of this, it means there is artistic self-reflection at work.
According to Ilsink Bruegel’s most brilliant imitation of Bosch is the Fall of the Rebel Angels panel (Brussels), dated 1562. Here Bruegel not only engages upon a masterly dialogue with Bosch (through his borrowing of the Michael figure from the Vienna Last Judgment triptych ànd by the invention of Boschian monsters that can nowhere be seen in the art of Bosch) but also with his contemporary fellow townsman Frans Floris who also painted a Fall of the Rebel Angels in 1554. In this latter case the influence does not concern the borrowing of motifs, but competition and antithesis: Bruegel invented an alternative for everything that Floris painted in his representation of the Fall of the Rebel Angels. According to the author Bruegel consciously intended this contrast: there was a pictorial dialogue between him and Floris. Ilsink’s analysis of Bruegel’s Fall is again somewhat bold (for example when he relates Bruegel’s imitation of Bosch to Lucifer’s objective to imitate God) but in my opinion his analysis of Floris’ Fall offers the finest pages of the book (in particular when the bee and the long-horned beetle in Floris’ panel are discussed).
Basically, a doctoral dissertation is meant to prove that the author is able to deal with a topic on a high intellectual level and that he can offer new insights about the subject opening up new horizons. In this respect, and with a wink at the sentence in Bosch’s The field has eyes: Matthijs Ilsink is definitely not the owner of a miserable mind that only uses other people’s ideas and never comes up with something original. The ideas presented in this book are even so original, not to say risky, that they will undoubtedly aggravate some readers. I have to admit that I also felt somewhat ill at ease when reading this dissertation. I have the impression that Ilsink’s theses are for a large part ‘ghost theses’ to which – in spite of the author’s praiseworthy efforts to collect as many arguments as possible – the only reaction can be: yes, it may be true, but it may just as well not be true. One could literally quote one of Ilsink’s own remarks here (p. 152): ‘Honesty obliges us to say that this is speculation’. In particular this is the case in chapters 2, 3 and 4 because as far as chapter 1 is concerned, my objections remain so strong that I am inclined to believe that Bosch did not intend the three drawings studied by Ilsink as artistic self-portraits.
That is also why I find it a pity that Ilsink did not work out his original plan to analyse the sixteenth-century engravings after Bosch in a monograph. The question whether Hieronymus Cock’s engravings with the caption bosch inventor can be traced back to Bosch originals, yes or no, is definitely not a ghost problem and it has been waiting for an answer for decades. That Ilsink limits this issue to a few sections in chapter 4 is of course quite understandable. On page 222 he writes: ‘It is impossible to demonstrate that the iconography of these engravings can be related to Bosch. For none of these engravings we have a painting or drawing executed by Bosch. But it is just as impossible to demonstrate the contrary’. A very disappointing but at the same time a very correct observation. Bosch scholarship will have to learn to accept it.
[explicit August 2010]