“Haunted landscape – the play with the viewer in Bosch’s backgrounds” (Agata Morka) 2008
[Paper, University of Washington, Art History Department, Bosch class (Dr Christine Goettler), Spring quarter 2008, 18 pages. Published online in http://www.academia.edu]
Apparently, this is a paper written by the Polish art historian Agata Morka when she was studying art history at the University of Washington (where she became a Ph.D. in 2011). Morka argues that the structure of Bosch’ s landscapes is a deliberate strategy of the painter intended to activate the viewer and to interact with him. Bosch wants to show that what one sees at first glance is deceptive and that the truth can only be seen when one wishes to meditate and to use the eye’s mind. The author illustrates this by discussing the Rotterdam St Christopher, the Vienna St James the Great (left exterior wing of the Vienna Last Judgement triptych), the exterior wings of the Haywain triptych (showing a peddler in a landscape), the central panel of the Lisbon St Anthony triptych and the Ghent St Jerome. In each of these paintings the landscape hides threatening details, creating a sense of hostility and fear and suggesting that the landscape is haunted by evil, demons, and sin, whereas the protagonist figure turns away from the landscape and thus sets a positive example to follow. However, the peddler in the Haywain exterior is an ambiguous figure, and it is not clear whether he should be interpreted in a positive or a negative way.
To agree with Morka’s main argument is easy enough, and a lot of her remarks on the paintings are to the point (most of them are based on earlier literature), but occasionally her text suffers from a superficial approach, wrong observations, and even a lack of cultural-historical insight. The tree with the giant jug in the Rotterdam St Christopher is called ‘peculiar’, and that is it. In spite of what the author suggests, there is no jug on the tree-man’s ‘hat’ in the Hell panel of the Garden of Delights, but a bagpipe. And when she interprets the dancing couple in the Haywain’s exterior as a representation of the idea of carefree joy which has no fear of robbers, it is clear that she is not aware of contemporary (late medieval) devotional and moralizing literature, which condemns dancing as evil and sinful.
[explicit 17th March 2022]
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