Hieronymus Bosch: Touched By The Devil

Hieronymus Bosch: Touched By The Devil is a film about the act of looking, with the eyes of both artist and spectator. Bringing art to life, director Pieter van Huystee peers intently into Bosch’s paintings as a scientist through a microscope.

Poster for the art documentary Hieronymus Bosch: Touched By The DevilBosch’s paintings, known for their strange details and their tremendous size, become ever richer when the eye moves close. It is therefore no wonder that the curators planning an exhibition at the Noordbrabants Museum in the Netherlands, timed to the 500th anniversary of the artist’s death, would like to inspect his work as closely as possible and with the newest technology.

Rather than construct a traditional biography of the artist, van Huystee charts the mounting of this exhibition. Its drama comes from the fact that the Noordbrabants Museum doesn’t actually own any Bosch paintings, but must borrow them from other institutions. That includes El Prado in Madrid, a museum that considers itself the rightful home of Bosch and is not necessarily willing to let a bunch of Dutch historians fool around with their most prized possessions.

That fooling around, though, is the exciting thing about the Dutch team’s endeavour. Their project isn’t simply to borrow the works, but also to analyze them with an unprecedented closeness. As one of the historians explains, given the nature of Bosch’s work, he is absolutely convinced that he will see new details that he’s never seen before. The Spanish are intrigued, though perhaps a bit wary that new discoveries may throw doubt onto their attribution to Bosch himself.

This is the heart and soul of the film. Rather than using the biographical details of the master to interpret his paintings, van Huystee uses the visual findings of these researchers to pose questions about the nature of Bosch’s life and work. Other details only raise more questions. Some left-handed brushstrokes in one painting suggest that it may have been produced by Bosch’s workshop rather than the master’s own hand. What do we mean by a ‘Bosch,’ anyway, given the collaborative nature of Dutch Renaissance painting?

A detail from Bosch's Garden Of Earthly DelightsIt’s perhaps better to think of Bosch as an inventor. His visual ideas, a boundless array of strange creatures and monumental structures, are his greatest contribution. Van Huystee lets us ponder as many as we can. The paintings, blown up and excerpted on the screen, offer a perspective on Bosch previously unavailable to the vast majority of viewers. Every lick of the fire, every bizarre monster, every haunting owl rises to the occasion, taking full advantage of contemporary photographic technology.

– Daniel Walber, NonFics

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