Hieronymus Bosch: Still weird

Australian Financial Review

Hieronymus Bosch's "Gluttony" – a fragment of "The Ship of Fools". Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, US

Five hundred years ago this August, the Netherlandish painter Hieronymus Bosch died. He never moved far from his home town of 's-Hertogenbosch, or Den Bosch, from which he took his name.

From today, the city’s Noordbrabants Museum will mark the anniversary with a blockbuster exhibition, bringing together roughly 70 of his works.

Half a millennium on, what are we meant to make of Bosch? He was so profoundly weird, in his own time and now. There was never a Bosch school, or not for centuries – he came to be idolised by the Surrealists and was reclaimed in the 60s for his proto-trippy visions.

These revivals gave us the Bosch we think we know, familiar from jigsaw puzzles and posters in student digs. But the paintings compel us to look at them again – and then to keep on looking.

Full of detail, they are fantastically confounding. Over here, a pig in a habit smooches a priest. Over there, a giant man has tree-trunks for arms.

Take the famous altarpiece, The Garden Of Earthly Delights, which is on loan from Madrid’s Museo del Prado. (Other masterpieces in the exhibition include the Haywain Triptych (also from the Prado), the Ship of Fools (from Paris’s Musée du Louvre) and Visions of the Hereafter (from Venice’s Gallerie dell’Accademia).

The triptych is full of birds, including some watchful owls. Rather than bringing wisdom, though, they are thought to represent trouble and darkness, after a saying from Bosch’s day: “The world is going to the owls.”

It’s tempting to see this painting as a remix of familiar themes: the garden of paradise turns to human vice turns to a nightscape of torture and damnation. But Bosch the artist always wins out over the moralist. The scenes depicting hell are among his most enthralling. The details are given lavish attention; even the amorous pig is unexpectedly radiant.

As is often the case with Bosch, we’re not permitted to get too smug. Depravity is not contained to one panel, but breaks out all over.

And this is the basso continuo in all of the artist’s work: no one is ever truly safe from his or her darkest self, or from any number of grotesqueries and torments. Bosch’s home was a well-heeled market town, but it was still susceptible to flooding and disease, and in his teens a disastrous blaze burned down much of it. It is surmised that Bosch himself died of the plague.

The world is always at risk of going to the owls.

If that sounds pessimistic, it’s hard to dislike Bosch. Den Bosch means the forest, and more than once he painted himself as a tree-like being. That’s him with the trunks for arms in Earthly Delights, dishing out some serious side-eye to the viewer, coolly bemused even amidst the fires of hell.