If you look closely at the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch — they’re jammed with so many tiny, tucked-away micro-portraits that you almost have to look closely at them — you’ll see images that, you’d swear, look as if they might have come straight out of a Salvador Dalí dreamscape, or off the cover of a ’70s heavy-metal album, or maybe out of John Carpenter’s “The Thing.” You might, for instance, stop to gawk at the image of a fish swallowing a naked man, whose lower body consists of two frog’s legs in pointed boots; or a head walking on pincer arms; or a sloth-like beast raping a man, with a sword shoved through the animal’s back; or a bloody naked body laying prone on the edge of a gigantic knife; or a bird, with long hanging dog ears, wearing a cap that looks like a tin oil-can…
Bosch’s images are surreal, crazy, violent, sinister, astounding. They can make your eyes pop open in disturbed wonder. Yet the most amazing thing about them may be the simple fact of when they were painted. If Bosch, at times, looks like he could be a contemporary of Dalí or an outré sadomasochistic hell fetishist, what’s extraordinary to contemplate is that his paintings don’t come from the 20th century, or the 19th, or even the 18th. They are 500 years old.
The fascinating new documentary “Hieronymus Bosch: Touched by the Devil” follows the attempt by a team of Dutch art historians to assemble an exhibit, for the Noordbrabants Museum in Bosch’s hometown of Den Bosch, to honor the 500th anniversary of the artist’s death (Bosch lived from 1450-1516). The members of the team, led by the genial and officious Matthjis Ilsink, pay visits to the European museums where most of Bosch’s 20 or so surviving paintings are housed in permanent collections. They survey the work, study it, photograph it with infra-red technology, clean and restore it, and attempt to analyze the complex codes of imagery — the religious allusions, the eroticized violence, the references to heaven and hell — that make Bosch’s work such a perverse tapestry of sin and transcendence. Much of the analysis is illuminating, some of it is a bit arcane. Yet in many ways, it all misses the forest for the trees.
The forest is this: Hieronymus Bosch was an artist who, more than perhaps any other, appeared to have come through a time-warp. He lived during the exact same years as Leonardo da Vinci, and just as Leonardo can be said to be one of the inventors of the modern world, so was Bosch. The “Mona Lisa” (painted by Leonardo near the end of Bosch’s life) is the most famous painting in Western Civilization not because it’s the most beautiful, but because her legendary half-smile — she’s not just smiling, she’s thinking about herself smiling, or maybe smiling and not smiling at the same time — seems to express the dawn of modern psychology (in art, and maybe in life as it was being lived). The “Mona Lisa” isn’t just a painting; it’s a demarcation. And that, if you look closely, is the majesty of Bosch. It’s not just that he was “touched by the devil,” but that his work marked the introduction of the demonic into the everyday.
“Hieronymus Bosch: Touched by the Devil” brings us literally closer to Bosch’s images than one could probably get in almost any museum. As directed by Pieter van Huystee, the film offers a true immersion in his artistry. But it’s also a little slipshod — an off-kilter window into the politics of the art world. It’s like a fascinating magazine feature with some missing pieces.
The first stop for the Dutch team is the Prado in Madrid, which houses Bosch’s greatest painting, “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” a fantastical triptych that the Museum rightly considers to be its rock-star equivalent of the “Mona Lisa.” The Dutch historians come off as ineffectual academics, defeated warriors attempting to get a glimpse of the spoils they lost. Whereas the superstar Prado curators give off the vibe of Mafioso who will cut you off if you even try to mess with their prize exhibit. The history of how a major portion of Bosch’s work came to be owned by the Spanish in the first place is glossed over by the movie. But what’s comical, and maybe a little sad (even though this is a Dutch film), is that the whole orientation of the team from the Netherlands — their fixation on detail, their way of dissecting the passion of Bosch scholarship until it sounds like stamp collecting — makes them seem like a bunch of Bartlebys who lost control over Bosch’s work because they weren’t Bosch enough in their fervor. One feels a little bad for them.
Yet there’s no denying that they’re vital scholars. Much of the movie is about their attempts to confirm, or deny, the authenticity of several Bosch paintings, and the film uses this process to dig into one of the primal mysteries of art: the ways its creation often doesn’t square with our image of its creation. A number of paintings in Bosch’s oeuvre were done by his workshop (meaning that his assistants may have painted them), and at least one of the major works, the pinwheel collage “The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things,” is determined by the team to be the work of a Bosch imitator. The black-and-white drawings underneath the paintings, revealed by infra-red analysis, are like skeleton keys to Bosch’s genius. We can see what he planned, and what he improvised.
To a nearly nutty degree, the film avoids talking about the unholy grandeur of Bosch’s work, even as it tries to illuminate the currents of heaven and hell that defined him. We see his startling images of buildings on fire, with the embers giving off a ghostly glow of death — one canvas, in particular, looks like the bombing of Dresden. And we get a meticulous analysis of an image that’s clearly the entry point to heaven: It’s bathed in a godly light, with insect-like angels on their way. What no one mentions is that this portal to the afterlife is, in fact, a giant cylindrical tube that looks for all the world like a machine. It’s heaven as a science-fiction writer might have imagined it. It looks no less threatening than the alternative.