Thursday, August 11, 2016
One Helluva Fella: The Horrifically Contemporary World of Hieronymus Bosch
August 11, 2016
Impaled heads and burning bodies: Hieronymus Bosch, the great Dutch painter whose images depicted the horrors and terror of the past, present and future, died 500 years ago. In the era of Abu Ghraib and Islamic State, his work feels as contemporary as ever.
The artist Hieronymus Bosch probably had the most prodigious imagination of his day. He was the great surrealist of the waning Middle Ages. His paintings were both a promise and a threat, intended to convey an idea of what would happen in paradise and, even more so, in hell. He created labyrinths of atrocities and a vocabulary of the bestial. He depicted devils and monsters, but also people being tortured, naked people whose throats were being slit, almost as if they were part of a scene in the latest propaganda video from the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS). And then there are images and motifs that seem comedic in their sheer absurdity.
Bosch, this mysterious painter whose motives were unclear, died 500 years ago, in August 1516. One thing is certain: The Dutchman from the Duchy of Brabant did not spare his audience. He painted what no one had painted before him. And he must have had his own dark humor. In one painting, he depicts a dwarflike being with an upper body that resembles an egg, while the lower body is reminiscent of a lizard. But the gaunt face is that of a human being, with glasses perched on his nose. It is often speculated that this may have been the face of Bosch himself.
He painted this curious being in the corner of a plate, next to Saint Mark the Evangelist foreseeing the End of Time. Did Bosch also perceive himself as a visionary? As someone who wanted to make mankind squirm as it learned of its future? Are his paintings a painted version of gallows humor?