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Hieronymus Bosch

Hieronymus Bosch

• The First Surrealist


Due to the fact that he had a gift for attracting publicity equal to his gift for art, Salvador Dali became so famous that the layman could be forgiven for associating his name with Surrealism to the point where it is assumed he invented the genre. He didn't, but Hieronymus Bosch did, well over 400 years before Dali was even born.


The word "Surrealism" means "Dreamlike." Dreams unfortunately include nightmares and very often Surrealists tend to veer off in that direction; Bosch (1450 - 1516) certainly did. When one looks at his work, it is essential to try to realise or imagine what it must have been like to live in those times, the fifteenth century, just when the world was coming out of what is ominously known as the Dark Ages. It was the period of transition from medieval Gothic into the era known as the Renaissance.


Even though in this day and age we imagine that violence has reached an all time high, that is not strictly speaking true. An all time consciousness perhaps, through the media, films and television. The danger of its having become so "in your face" as it is now is that people become almost immune to it, so used to its presence that they no longer feel the need to fight against it or even for a better world. In Bosch's day however, in a certain way by virtue of contrast, it was even more in their face than today. I say that based on two facts: first of all, because in those times everything was so relatively quiet, so silent that there was a sort of peace in the air which no longer exists today, where distant radio or traffic sounds exist almost everywhere one goes...even the transport sounds of our getting there! Also we are used to much louder sounds, from jet airplanes whizzing by overhead to very loud rock'n'roll on our various forms of receivers. Therefore, in the earlier times people had a sense of peace that was in such great contrast to violence that the horror of it would have been even more shocking to them than it is to most people today. Shocking to the system, to the very core of the people who, from their relatively peaceful existence were suddenly thrown into scenes of blood and death.

Hieronymus Bosch
 
Bosch - Christ Crowned with Thorns

Christ Crowned with Thorns
Bosch

Secondly, the Church was in a far greater position of power in those days than it is today. Sadly, the only way the early Christians felt they could make people subservient to them and their beliefs was to torture and kill them. Virtually everyone therefore lived in fear of the church, and its various manifestations like the Inquisition. On top of that, the rulers of those times, the kings and queens, had despotic powers which they invariably abused, and so people lived in terror of their wrath also. And so you had the fear of church, hell and damnation if you as much as sneezed, and the royals who would lop off your head at the drop of a hat if you didn't jump to their slightest whim, or the whim of any of their army of bullies; add to that the stench of life in cities where things like plumbing and sewerage hadn't been worked out yet, and you have a vague picture of what it must have been like in those far off times, when Hieronymus Bosch walked the streets of the Low-Lands. As if all that were not enough, Bosch's era was a particularly difficult time as desperate conflict was beginning to exist that divided people dramatically between those who wanted to hang on to traditional values and those who were interested in all the new thoughts and ideas of the day. This chaos existed not only amongst ordinary folk but in the ruling powers of politics and religion. A final nightmare was the never-ending war going on between the Catholics and the Protestants, as a result of which, later in his life, one of Bosch's most important works was destroyed, along with sixty other works, by Protestants, in the great church of Hertogenbosch. It is so hard to believe that a large portion of the human race would adopt a faith - albeit under extreme duress - based on the tenets of a Master who laid down laws about loving one another and definitely not killing, but would then go round killing anyone who happened to have a different faith, and then even set about killing each other - and destroying vast quantities of the greatest art in the process - that this writer finds it quite difficult to write about. It is essential that I do so however, as for better or for worse it is the positive and negative aspects of that very religion that have been the guiding force behind the history of Western Art for the last five or six hundred years. And in Bosch's time it was reaching one of its crisis points, the pot was boiling over. Not an easy time to live, particularly for a super-sensitive artist with unusually highly developed powers of observation.

Death and the Miser

Hieronymus' family name was van Aken. His grandfather, Jan van Aken, was a miniaturist, and his father Anthonius was a painter. By the time Hieronymus was born, it was into a family of artists, artisans and craftsmen who already dominated the arts in their town of Hertogenbosch, a Netherlandish city not far from the (now) Belgian border. And so he was brought up learning all the rudimentary rules of various branches of art that would have included drawing and mixing colours. Hertogenbosch was a busy industrial town, with a number of glass-makers whose work was in high demand. Therefore Bosch saw, as he grew up, the countless weird and wonderful forms made by glass being blown on its journey towards whatever it was intended eventually to become. Also in the glass-makers' workshops he would have seen innumerable strange looking transparent balls and tubes, which were to become so prevalent in his work. Bosch eventually joined a group of artists who were close to these glass-makers and so these images and forms became a constant source of fascination and inspiration to him.


There were an enormous number of ways in which a growing up Bosch would have seen many of the images of bizarre monsters and other-worldly figures that he incorporated into his works, as in the fifteenth century they abounded in so many aspects of every day life. Carvings on choir stalls, gargoyles on the facade of cathedrals, in miniatures and etchings. The genius of Bosch however, was that he lifted all these images out of the "small arts" in which they existed, into the great and major art of painting. Most of the incredible things he painted could have actually be seen by any other artist of Bosch's day, but he was the only one who saw in them a significance enough to create a brilliant art around them. And in doing so, he created the branch (genre) of Art known as Surrealism.


Whether Bosch painted his works as a "warning to sinners" i.e. as publicity for the church as it was then, or to express his personal chagrin over the awfulness and dark comedy of life as he saw it, created by man in contrast to that created by the God who they saw in those days as the all-powerful omnipotent Being, has never been agreed upon by generally accepted experts. The only way anyone could ever really find out would be by actually talking with Bosch, or his Spirit, and I have only ever known one person able to do that. The information he gave me - and I have never doubted the verity of his psychic claims - has convinced me at least that Bosch was simply having fun at everyone's expense. He was painting works hundreds of years ahead of their time, but so cleverly, full of so many convoluted ambiguities that he could fool the church into allowing him liberties beyond those allowed to anyone else, just to arrive at his own sense of visual expression! Anyone less clever and canny than Bosch would have been hauled off as a heretic by the Inquisition and at the very least tortured, but most probably put to a horrible death; fortunately for us all he was positively Irish in his ability to spin yarns, not only in paint.

Death and the Miser
Bosch

Detail from the Temptation of St.Anthony

Detail from the Temptation of St.Anthony
Bosch

Perhaps it would help to understand Bosch's attitude as an artist to remember Bob Dylan's response when he was constantly taken as a protestor, even a leader against the establishment. Dylan insisted that he was just a poet and troubadour, he simply responded artistically to all the things going on around him and the rest was left up to us, the listener. Bosch, I believe, was exactly like that. His artistic as well as human sensibilities were of course horrified by the many forms of inhumanity he saw going on all around him and as an artist he let the expression of that horror simply pour out of himself much as Dylan has the words and melodies flooding over him and all he can do is let them out. It is the sign of genius if you like, the difference between a Bosch or a Dylan and someone who has become even brilliantly proficient at something, technically, but they don't actually invent anything, they don't move Art itself forward in any way, only add to its stockpile.

Another sure aspect of genius is the continuous ripples it causes as surely as those caused by a stone thrown into a pond. The genius is the stone that is thrown, in the case of Bosch it went on having an influence on various artists right up until the present day. I am influenced by him! In fact, Bosch is the one more than any other who influenced me to make the enormous transition from basically a classically inspired painter into the world of Erotic Surrealism I entered with heart and soul in the early 90's. I made the colossal decision to do so - and in a way risk a career that had already spanned some forty years - in a split second too personal to relate here, but in which Bosch played a most significant part, a book of his work lying on the floor catching my eye in that most mystical moment. I literally shouted, "That's it! Of course! I will become an Erotic Surrealist" - and I did. Since the mid-80's I had felt sure my art would take a completely different direction than the one I was going in at that time. I felt absolutely sure that something would happen to guide me into a new direction, and although I had no idea exactly what it would be, I felt sure that I would recognise it the moment it occurred. I had therefore consciously waited for that moment for at least ten years. No wonder I exclaimed so loud when it came...thanks in part to Bosch.

Always fascinated by so-called coincidences, which I don't believe exist, or cosmic involvement which I do believe in, I cannot resist mentioning one or two odd things about Bosch's life without going into a profound biographical study which has already been well covered in numerous excellent books. A few small details which might not even interest anyone else who is writing about Bosch are that he shared one or two of these "coincidental" similarities to Rubens and Rembrandt about whom I have already written - written enough, probably, for you to know already how fascinated I am by so-called coincidences. They each died at 63 by the way, while Bosch died at 66. Still, quite close. But the main similarity was that, whilst still quite young, Bosch achieved the same kind of star status as did Rubens and Rembrandt and, like those two great Masters, he had a very glamorous marriage, to Aleyt van den Meervenne, the daughter of one of the wealthiest and most powerful families in Hertogenbosch, whose personal fortune allowed them to buy a magnificent house in the centre of their town. Both Rubens and Rembrandt, whilst still quite young, also had magnificent homes and studios/workshops right in the most prestigious centres of their cities, Antwerp and Amsterdam respectively.

Detail from St.John in the Wilderness

St. John in the Wilderness
Bosch

Detail from St.John in the Wilderness
 

Bosch's works contain vast numbers of references to the folkloric and proverbial tradition of his day and his environment. It must be realised that there was, in the mid to late fifteenth century, virtually no form of entertainment for the common folk, least of all a cinema or a television set. Bosch's works were so full of what to those people could be called nothing short of entertainment that he was virtually like their local cinema, and each new work from his hand was awaited with baited breath. Then the folks and collectors alike would pore over them for hours being highly amused - or even quite terrified - by the various proverbial warnings they understood these works to contain. References ranged from tales symbolising the fun they could all have to the other tales of what the church promised as retribution if they had it!

Perhaps due to my absence of some thirty years I notice, amongst other things, the language of this country so changed from the London in which I grew up that there are even many new words or phrases to learn, to replace the countless ones that were a standard part of every day speech fifty years ago but that to today's young would be more or less incomprehensible. And so imagine then the difference of about 450 years that exists in the case of Bosch, from his time, when all the folkloric language of his works could be clearly understood by his (mostly local) audience and admirers to our present time, in which we find it impossible to comprehend many of the allusions Bosch makes to things simply beyond our ken.

Bosch sold to the most illustrious patrons of his day, and lived a life in the very pinnacle of Society. Many very wealthy people would commission works which they intended to donate to the church. To these patrons this was the best way to advertise their status (rather like people buying a Rolls Royce now) and wealth in this life whilst at the same time (they believed) buying assurance of salvation in the next. That being a generally held attitude in those times, Bosch was assured of commissions for life, and did indeed receive them.

The lands where Bosch lived were ruled at that time by the dukes of Burgundy. Many troops were billeted in Hertogenbosch, and I love the story that one day, even the wife of the present Duke, who was a Sforza herself before marriage (remember how significant the Sforzas were to Leonardo?) moved in and actually became Bosch's next door neighbour for a while. The social level of his commissions went up even higher. A final anecdote which I like about Bosch is that as soon as he started becoming successful, he was so worldly that he realised his success was going to be far greater than merely local, and so he changed his name from van Aken to Bosch just to make sure that the world would always know where he was from and where he lived. Another trait I have found that always seems to exist strongly embedded in the geniuses I write about and have been influenced by, is their very strong sense of self-identity, in the face of no matter what adversity.

I've always thought that painting, being about communication as it is, can be likened to language. The style you use is the language itself, i.e. English, French, Italian etc. It tells people whether you are a Mannerist, an Impressionist or Pre-Raphaelite etc. Your technique is your accent, that which tells people a little of more specifically where you are coming from. You are a Classical painter but using the so and so technique. There have always been two basic techniques available to artists. Of course each of these can be broken up ad infinitum, but I mean two basic ones. The first and most popular until the beginning of the twentieth century, from which moment all the "rules" changed and so don't apply here, has always been to work in a number of semi-transparent layers of colour known as glazes. The second technique is known as prima volta, or sometimes alla prima, each meaning "first time." This is really a manner of sketching your subject and composition, as you might in pen and ink if you are drawing, but you do it in colour and when you have it all in, instead of considering it "blocked in," as you would if you were using the glazing technique, you consider it finished. Perhaps the texture of the paint isn't as thick or varied but your statement is made, the story you wish to tell is told. The added beauty of this style is a sense of movement and immediacy, as of course the painter's hand can be felt to still be on the move in the paint, as the only way to use this technique is with relative speed. Bosch was one of the first Masters ever to use prima volta; he had such a clear idea of how he wanted his compositions he could simply sketch them onto his panel with such complete fluency that once the panel was covered his painting was finished. Occasionally one can see signs of a change of mind or direction, as using this technique only allows you to cover lightly lines or forms you have put in. Again, it can be likened to language as it is all a question of fluency. Drawing or sketching, because of its immediacy and the impossibility of erasing, is exactly like writing. Leonardo for example was so fluent a draughtsman he literally drew as we might write - and never a letter out of place, he was that fluent! But as his drawings can often be like letters to us which we can learn to read, so Bosch's paintings are like that too, it's just a question of learning his language.

A final word, on a psychic level, for those who, like me, are believers. I understand from my friend who is able to communicate with the Spirits of several Masters, that Bosch told him that he was indeed preoccupied with man's capacity to sin in spite of God, or even in defiance of Him; he was also fascinated by the concept of so-called punishment by eternal damnation as a consequence of that behaviour. While he personally felt that there was a lot more to the real picture than that, he used that concept as a starting point in many of his paintings, simply because he enjoyed the resulting images and because he knew that the basic gist of the works would be understandable to the common folk who were brought up on these doctrines. Even if they never really understood his motives or stories that he told in paint, they would be able to interpret them at least to their own satisfaction - as indeed everyone in his times did, causing him an enormous degree of success and popularity. Bosch was clear, however, on the subject of the difference between his interests and his personal behaviour or indulgences. While he was fascinated by religion and politics, he didn't consider himself either a priest or a politician, merely a minstrel who sang - in paint - about the ideas and concerns of his day. He was equally or even more fascinated by astrology, folklore, both black and white magic, and alchemy. However, he only learnt about these things intellectually and was never even tempted to practice any of the things he learnt were possible. He never indulged in or experimented with hallucinatory drugs as has sometimes been implied; and neither did he belong to any weird and wonderful sects like the Adamites, who purportedly believed in free love, really just using, in Bosch's words, intellectual hogwash as an excuse to indulge in promiscuity. He was always fascinated by watching, he learnt all he knew through his powers of observation, but he was not interested in going further and experiencing the things he learnt about. But he was interested in writing about them all, expressing all he knew, and he did so...in paint, the medium of his genius that he was born with.

Anthony Christian

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