For Spike, Dean Kissick writes about everyone's favorite painter of torture, Hieronymus Bosch. Kissick ventured to the painter's hometown of 's-Hertogenbosch to view an exhibition of Bosch's work at Nordbrabants Museum commemorating his 500th death anniversary. Check out an excerpt below, or the full version here.
Close to his old townhouse on the market square at the heart of ‘s-Hertogenbosch are two McDonald’s with decals of monsters from his paintings displayed in their windows, such as a hunchback with a cross-beaked bird’s head and an upturned funnel for a hat. These are mixed in with avatars from the fast food chain’s visual iconography, such as Hello Kitty and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, all inhabiting the same space rather seamlessly. Bosch was not making cartoons for children, but nonetheless he was one of the first to conjure up the sorts of anthropomorphic animal characters that have come to fill our entertainment surfaces, and to make them more individual and more alive than the gargoyles on the nearby gothic cathedral or the beasts in the margins of illuminated manuscripts. He was able to design them with a perverted darkness and a comic originality of malformation that not only remains striking, but continues to shape the way we visualise hell. In his drawing The Field has Eyes, the Wood has Ears, he creates an unsettling horror-film-like pastoral scene that watches us, and he inscribes it with the following in Latin: “Poor is the mind that always uses the inventions of others and invents nothing itself.”
In the painted world of Bosch imagination and reality intermingle, and everything appears to meld together in a continuously inventive game of exquisite corpse. People turn into animals turn into musical instruments and kitchen utensils and back again. Essences and forms are very fluid in this world, as though anything can somehow be possessed by a magical spirit or a demonic force. Even an inanimate objects such as a kitchen funnel might sprout arms and legs and start chasing angrily after us. So what are these monsters, a visualisation of our desires? A representation of our corrupted forms? Some parallel universe that only the artist can see?
Whatever they may be it seems the farther we travel into hell, the more the boundaries between things, and the differences in scale, fall apart.
One thing that can be assumed about Bosch is that he was obsessed with the end of the world, and this is a reason his work resonates so much today, because we live in millenarian times. Think of the Islamic caliphate that is (allegedly) intent on bringing about the apocalypse and a grand showdown with the Antichrist in the farmlands of Northwestern Syria. Think of Leonardo DiCaprio’s recent audience with the pope: the pope believes that Jesus is soon to rise again, whereas the Revenant actor thinks that an environmental cataclysm is close by. Observed through Anthropocene eyes, nature certainly appears as a malevolent and wondrous force in Bosch’s imagery, in which the birds and beasts (whose symbolic significances might have been apparent to 15th-century audiences but are not anymore) come crawling out of the dark woods to wreak their revenge upon us, mutating as they go. Such monstrosities bring to mind the rarely seen deep-sea creatures that global warming is driving up out of the depths and into our fishing nets and our consciousness. They bring to mind those dreadful-mysterious invertebrates that are captured on smartphones and afterwards go viral.
Now the wildly inventive depictions of torture by Bosch – such as this instance of anal-musical eroticism recently recorded as “the torture-victim’s backside hymnal” – might be expected to evoke the cruel methods of the prison-torturers of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, except they don’t, because they are not actually upsetting images. It is unlikely that a visitor will emerge from this retrospective of painted nightmares suffering from nightmares of their own, because the overall effect is enticing more than it is horrifying. If anything these imagined scenes of animals and people sexually degrading one another are evocative of that story about British prime minister David Cameron sodomising a dead pig’s mouth in his student days at Oxford; they illustrate a sort of horror that we can take a variety of pleasures in, because we can pass moral judgement upon the act whilst also finding much mirth in its surreal concept.
*Image: Detail from central panel of, The Garden of Earthly Delights. Hieronymus Bosch, 1503-1515. Via Spike Art Quarterly