I’ve been a fan of Hieronymus Bosch for some time now, but have never really given him my public due. That will change as I plan to discuss at least a few of his paintings at some point, but suffice to say that I consider him one of the first truly great painters — greater, in some respects, than even some of the best-known painters of the High Renaissance, with whom he was contemporaneous. That is because while Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael were still at times stuck in the ancient Christian world of Old Rome, replete with its rote symbolism, simple — even twee! — tales, and predictable figuration, Bosch had turned to an unlikely, even contrarian, source: that of medieval art, with its clunky figures, simple landscapes, and other elements that, in lesser hands, stifled Western art of any real potential for many centuries.
This is because, under most circumstances, medieval art was simply flat. There was, on the one hand, no real technical merit, and on the other, no real idea, either. Bosch, however, was able to reach a compromise of his own making. Technical excellence, he likely realized, meant nothing without some intellectual heft, some deeper ‘trap’ or allure that would make mere technique absolutely REAL to the observer. So, forget the new standards of painting for a second, forget some of the better rules of perspective, and forget some of the repetitions, as well as the aesthetic demand for ‘beauty’. The more relevant thing, he instinctively thought, was not ‘beauty’ — which is always a tool or a preference, as opposed to an inherent good or depth — but COMMUNICATION. And not just communication, mind, but deeper communication, which might, in the right circumstances, involve less technically accomplished figuration, or colors and ideas that were presently out of vogue. Yet, in exchange, one would get a deeper look at the sorts of things the more popular painters were trying to do, via techniques that, while less showy, complemented the subject matter in a way that was not only richer, but more relevant to art in the long-term sense. Say what you will of the technical excellence required for the best Leonardo, or the greatest Michelangelo, but these are painters that have dated in a way that Bosch has not.
In fact, if one were to draw a line from the Italian Renaissance to modernity, the Renaissance painters would clearly be a kind of blueprint for the greater things to come. After all, who is Francis Bacon, Picasso, or Van Gogh more indebted to: the ideas (if not the artist) of Bosch, who revealed a more fractal sense of what art could be, or of the polish and re-polish of the Masters? Hell, even Caravaggio, who seems to be a direct descendant of Michelangelo, is only superficially of ‘that’ world. His ideas are just so completely different, and — even more importantly — are therefore treated differently by Caravaggio. Or Rembrandt, … Continue reading →