This year, 500 annums after the death of the mysterious Northern Renaissance painter Hieronymus Bosch, the Noordbrabants Museum in the Netherlands is holding “Visions of a Genius,” which bills itself as the largest retrospective of Bosch’s work ever. A documentary just released in the U.S. follows a team of Dutch art historians preparing for the exhibition, as they travel around the globe to negotiate loans of Bosch’s paintings. And, though the premise of watching people move paintings sounds terribly tedious, Pieter van Huystee’s Hieronymus Bosch: Touched by the Devil provides an intriguing mélange of international politics, history, and otherworldly art. It is, to borrow the rank cliché, the furthest thing from watching paint dry.
In Bosch’s paintings there are flying fish demons and endlessly convalescent people. There are tiny monsters emanating from the mouths of other demons, ravenous anthropomorphic frogs, and always owls—lots of owls. Diminutive devils abound, as do fires in the distance and, of course, the stark contrast between heaven and hell, good and evil. In a museum setting, five feet away and separated by glass, it’s a lot to take in. But over the course of 89 luxuriating minutes, van Huystee’s film offers an intimate look at several of Bosch’s most-renowned works.
“I didn’t realize perhaps it was a difficult idea,” van Huystee told The Daily Beast by phone, a few days after the film’s opening at Film Forum in New York City. “It was a decision perhaps not well thought of. But when I saw the paintings, I immediately had the idea that this was a 15th century blockbuster from Hollywood. There are these little details and fragments of bizarre life. I saw them as little scenes—one detail to another little detail.”
The stakes are raised and the examinations intensify when the researchers start buckling down on what exactly constitutes a Bosch. Though the master is said to have had a studio, there are thought to be only about 25 paintings that have been truly touched by his hand. The rest were likely in part completed by apprentices and/or relatives.
To determine—for the exhibition and catalog—which paintings were touched by the master, the team takes a standardized approach to examining all of the paintings. This includes not only high-resolution but also infrared photography, affording the viewer an intimate look at both types of images. They hoped to learn as much as possible from the work by examining it from the inside out, thus getting a glimpse at Bosch’s motivations, even if there’s not much to be gleaned about the artist biographically from the film.
“As you understood from the film, we don’t know anything about him,” van Huyster said. “There is no portrait of him. As a filmmaker, we want to give the artist a face. We want to dive into his mind. And I didn’t want to bring other experts into the film, other than those I was following.”
For dedicated team of Dutch researchers operating on a very limited budget, it was crucial to obtain loan of the paintings. They did so by proposing the trade of restoration and cataloging. This is how they managed to borrow paintings from museums in Paris, Madrid, Venice, and Washington, D.C. The mounting tension with Madrid’s Museo del Prado is heightened by a historical narrative: Bosch lived his entire life in the Dutch province bearing his name, but all these miraculous paintings were made under Spanish rule of the Dutch. Because of this, Bosch’s paintings were taken from the Netherlands and transported to Spain, with The Prado housing the largest collection of his work. Some Spaniards have even come to think of Bosch as a Spanish painter, aka “El Bosco.”
“The Dutch made the mistake, of course,” van Huystee admitted, “when they finalized their research they said, ‘We think two paintings from the Prado are not Bosch.’ The Prado saw the film before it was released. And there they see in the film that those two Spanish paintings were not attributed to Hieronymus Bosch. They were very offended.”
The doc presents a rare look at some of the paintings, particularly the triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights, which closes in on itself like a gatefold LP. It is jaw-dropping work. But is it one painting, three paintings, four paintings, or five? Many questions relating to the categorization of Bosch’s work are raised, several go unanswered.
“You saw their doubts, of course, and their knowing that they don’t know,” van Huystee said. “So sometimes it is looking at looking. Of course, that’s not a very good pitch line. But I think about a criminal series on television: they have the body on the table, they cut the stomach open, they go to the restaurant where the victim ate the night before. It’s something like that.”
Indeed, there’s a scene where we watch one researcher examine a computer screen populated entirely by the ears of people in Bosch paintings. As an audience, we are observing a man observing the master’s minutiae. There is a certain voyeuristic quality to it all—of Bosch, and ourselves.
“He was in the mindset of how you have to discover your own darker side in order to improve yourself,” explained van Huystee. “If you don’t look at yourself, then how can you know to improve yourself and become a better person? You have to take the devil as a serious person. Look at him, confront him, and then outwit. If you do so, you are touched by the devil. Then you can also free yourself and find a secret voice in yourself. Because hell also comes from within.”