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'Hieronymus Bosch: Touched by the Devil' is dry but the art is still astonishing

The documentary 'Bosch' depicts the effort to assemble the artist's work for an exhibit in the southern Netherlands for the 500th anniversary of Bosch's death.

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    Art historian Matthijs Ilsink examines the work ‘Saint Christopher Carrying The Christ Child’ at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.
    Courtesy of Kino Lorber
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Pieter van Huystee’s documentary “Hieronymus Bosch: Touched by the Devil” is itself a bedeviling piece of work. In many ways, it’s a rather dry chronicle of archivists authenticating the works of the great Dutch artist, who died in 1516, and yet we are constantly presented with the paintings themselves – those supremely unsettling, hellish mindscapes that still have the power to astonish. 

2016 is the 500th anniversary of the painter’s death, and to commemorate the event, a historical exhibit (which has now run its course) was assembled in his hometown in the southern Netherlands at the Noordbrabants Museum. Because most of the Bosch paintings, numbering only around two dozen, are not housed in the Netherlands (and none in his hometown permanently), a portion of the film is taken up with the machinations of the Dutch as they attempt to pry loose some of the works from museums like Madrid’s Museo del Prado, which loans “The Haywain Triptych,” but steadfastly retains his masterpiece “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” which a Prado potentate refers to as “our ‘Mona Lisa.’ ” (Bosch is known affectionately in Spain as “El Bosco.”) 

The work of the authenticators is painstaking, since Bosch’s paintings were sometimes worked on by members of his family or assistants in his studio even after his death. (Many of these posthumous works are attributed to “the workshop of H. Bosch.”) In the film’s most dramatic revelation, a painting in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., long thought to be a workshop canvas, is validated as an authentic Bosch. The museum’s director says it’s like discovering that your child just won the Nobel Prize. 

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Not the Nobel Peace Prize, I wager. Bosch’s paintings, with their cornucopia of ghastly ghouls and crustacean creatures devouring and expelling humans in torment, are especially startling because they seem to have no direct antecedents in the history of art. Since little is known of Bosch’s life, scholars have felt free to concoct all sorts of surmises about his work, but the one that most recurs is this: He was a moralist who delighted in assigning what he viewed as the rightly damned human race to hell. Like most furious moralists, Bosch was a lot stronger portraying perdition than paradise, which gets rather short shrift in his art.

But what often gets overlooked in descriptions of Bosch’s work, appalling as it is, is its exaggerated humor. He painted his goblins and monsters with an extreme intricacy, even delicacy. There’s mirth inside his dark cackle. (This must be why his paintings have been co-opted by everything from rock album covers to “The Simpsons.”) Van Huystee doesn’t seem terribly interested in the art as art, and yet the power of the works comes through anyway, despite the film’s plodding presentation. He is also incurious about the potential scholarly issues his film implicitly raises, such as, if an authentic Bosch painting is essentially indistinguishable from an inauthentic one, is there any real aesthetic difference between the two? (If, in another context, you want to be tickled by this question, check out Orson Welles’s faux 1973 documentary “F for Fake.”)

It’s also unfortunate that the film doesn’t really touch on the loony 500th anniversary goings-on in Bosch’s hometown, which, from reports, was transformed into a fright-night Disneyland. Here’s a snippet from an essay in the August issue of Harper’s Magazine by Nat Segnit: Visitors “are promised a Heaven and Hell cruise ... enhanced with 3-D projections of hellfire, screeching bats, and winged demons.” He goes on: “The city will assume the status of an upmarket theme park based on the bold proposition that insistent and graphic reminders of the eternity of torment awaiting all but a few of us might represent a fun day out for all the family.” 

Which I guess is another way of saying that even the most infernal visions have the potential to be neutered and commodified. But I will never be comfortable with the concept of Bosch as charming prankster. Just one look at the paintings will cure you of that notion. Grade: B- (This movie is not rated.)

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