De bezeten visionair – Vijfhonderd jaar controverse over Jheronimus Bosch (Henk Boom) 2016
[Athenaeum-Polak & Van Gennep, Amsterdam, 2016, 296 pages]
[Spanish translation: Henk Boom, El Bosco al desnudo – 500 años de controversia sobre Jheronimus Bosch. A. Machado Libros, Madrid, 2016, 248 pages]
Henk Boom’s De bezeten visionair (The possessed visionary, published in January 2016) is based on a nice idea: to offer a survey of the interpretations and controversies that have been generated by the art of Bosch during the last five centuries. It has been said more than once in the past: the literature about Bosch, particularly from the last 150 years, is almost as fascinating ànd confusing as the works of the Brabantine master themselves. This is mainly due to the huge differences in quality pertaining to the large and hardly surveyable series of books and articles about Bosch (ranging from ludicrous nonsense to sound art-historical craftmanship and almost unseizable strongholds of erudition) whose hypotheses and insights often contradict each other.
No wonder that to an ‘outsider’, who lacks time (and money) to follow it all closely, Bosch scholars seem to belong to a motley crew whose members only know how to quarrel (a phenomenon by no means limited to the study of Bosch, see for example the things that have already been written about Kafka, that other iconic figure). It stands to reason then, that a non-expert reader may benefit from someone who is familiar with the subject and knows how to separate the wheat from the chaff, particularly in a year that spends a lot of attention to Bosch once more.
A logical question is: has Boom successfully performed this task? Undoubtedly, the quite substantial book (296 pages!) makes nice reading. Boom is an experienced journalist and it shows: he uses the elegant style of a causerie, does not shy away from gossip and small talk, regularly writes down a joke or a witticism and is thus able to catch the attention of the general reader. The book reads like a novel, it takes no more than two evenings to finish it. Moreover, Boom lives in Spain and fluently reads and speaks Spanish. This has its impact on chapters 3 to 5 in which he writes some interesting things about the Spanish king Philip II’s fancy for Bosch, pays a visit to El Escorial and analyses the opinion of seventeenth-century Spanish authors about Bosch. These pages are written in such an enthusiastic way that Boom prompts you to start reading Francisco de Quevedo’s Sueños (Dreams). It is always worth a compliment when an author is able to motivate his reader into further reading.
Elsewhere in his book Boom adds interesting things to the history of Bosch scholarship and proves that he has done some respectable fieldwork. For example, when he is writing about the East-German author Wilhelm Fraenger (who was inspired by communism and thought that Bosch was a member of the heretical Adamite sect) or about the adventures of some Bosch paintings during the Spanish Civil War. The chapters in which he elaborates on the lobbying behind the screens preceding the 2016 exhibitions in ’s-Hertogenbosch and Madrid and on the ambitions of the Bosch Research and Conservation Project have a high journalistic and informative value as well, in spite of (or thanks to?) the fact that Boom sometimes behaves as an inimitable gossipmonger in these pages. Every now and then he also refers to little-known secondary sources regarding Bosch (often dating from periods before the twentieth century and sometimes written by poets/novelists such as Karel Van de Woestijne and Simon Vestdijk). These little gems in the broad mosaic of Bosch reception are not always earth-shaking, but without exception fascinating.
When Boom is dealing with the actual survey of interpretations (particularly those of the last fifty years) almost everybody is mentioned (some more than others), although admittedly an author’s approach is never analysed in deep and the structure of Boom’s text is somewhat messy, which will probably give the non-expert reader a feeling of confusion. Of course, the subject matter is highly complex but that does not alter the fact that Boom is not always a reliable guide through Bosch country. Already in the first chapter he seems to be less fortunate when he divides Bosch scholarship into two main tracks: on the one hand the didactic and moralising approach that focuses on religion and the Bible, on the other hand the iconographical-iconological method that relates Bosch’s symbolism to its cultural-historical context. It is quite remarkable that Boom does not seem to realise that these two methods belong to one and the same Bosch approach. If there is any dichotomy in the interpretations of Bosch at all, it seems far more logical to distinguish a ‘moderate’, cultural-historical approach from a series of ‘alternative’ interpretations (Bosch as an alchemist, a heretic, a Rosicrucian, a drugs addict, a victim of anal obsessions etcetera).
Boom also does his utmost best to present recent Bosch scholars as a troupe of bantams who find a lot of pleasure in arguing with each other and in using footnotes to wipe other writers’ insights off the map. Of course, nobody will claim that everybody always agrees when discussing the art of Bosch but an ‘outsider’ reading Boom can easily be lured into believing that all these so-called Bosch experts don’t really know what they are talking about either. Which then leads to the ridiculous sentence (hopefully intended as blurb) on the back cover: ‘Five hundred years after the death of Jheronimus Bosch we still know nothing about the painter’.
It is an error of reasoning that is not unique in the literature about Bosch. A metaphor to make this clear: somebody records that a wall is described as white, black of green by some, and as red, blue or yellow by others and then concludes that they must all be wrong. Whereas in fact this wall is white. In this case, the correct conclusion is not that everybody is talking nonsense, but that those who describe the wall as white are right and that the others – to remain polite – have made an error. ‘Where one author sees a woodpecker, another sees a great tit,’ Boom cynically reports on page 39. My reaction would be: so what? If Bosch actually painted a great tit, should everybody be ridiculed because some authors are unable to correctly identify a bird? And one step further: is it forbidden to point out to the ‘woodpecker’ authors in a friendly way that Bosch did indeed paint a great tit? But in that case you run the risk of being called arrogant and priggish by Boom.
It is striking that some (definitely not àll!) Bosch authors rebuke others regarding particular things and five minutes later they are guilty of exactly the same things. Not only I am called arrogant (page 189), but also the ’s-Hertogenbosch mayor Rombouts and his assistants and the members of the Bosch Research and Conservation Project (in chapter 8). The least you can say about Boom is that he jots down discourteous things every now and then. Marijnissen (‘the dean of the Flemish Bosch experts’) and Paul Vandenbroeck (‘an often-quoted Flemish Bosch connaisseur’) get away quite well, but Fritz Koreny is ‘the Austrian Bosch guru’, Bernard Vermet is ‘a confused agent provocateur’ and I am ‘the Bosch prophet from Antwerp’. Or is all this intended to be tongue-in-cheek?
Quite comical (and undoubtedly also a little tiny wee arrogant) is the fact that in ten chapters Boom puts himself out to demonstrate that Bosch scholarship is largely a collection of mumbo jumbo and nothing more than some harmless art-historical yelling along the touchline and then, in the last chapters, he does exactly the same as all the other Bosch authors he has been aiming at. In spite of his promise in the preface that ‘in no way (did he) pretend to occupy the seat of the art historian with this book’. In these last chapters Boom presents a new interpretation of the Garden of Delights, partially of his own finding.
According to Boom the right interior panel depicts Purgatory and the central panel represents Earthly Paradise àfter the Fall of Man that – according to medieval views – functioned as some kind of waiting room before Heaven, intended for the souls who had left Purgatory in a purified state. ‘What Bosch meant is obvious,’ it is categorically claimed on page 283. If that is indeed the case, I would be glad to hear where the angels are who belong to the Earthly Paradise functioning as a waiting room (compare the left interior panel of the Bruges Last Judgment triptych or the Earthly Paradise panel in Venice), why there are mermaids and sea knights (zeeridders) in this Earthly Paradise, why we see black people in the central panel and not in the right interior panel, and whether according to medieval persons the allusions to homosexuality in the central panel also agree with ‘souls who have left Purgatory in a purified way’. ‘Everyone is free to interpret Bosch as he or she wants,’ Boom quotes the 2001 Rotterdam Bosch catalogue and ‘so everybody has his own Bosch’. That reasoning is watertight but personally I do believe that you should clearly point out which seat you are occupying. All the more so, when you are writing a book in which you are taking the views of others to task in a very critical way.
Which reminds us of another little snag in De bezeten visionair. By this I do not mean Boom’s occasional little gaffes. For example, that a hopke (little hoopoo, the bird) is said to have meant in Middle Dutch ‘a quick lay, to visit a brothel’ (p. 40) (the truth is that hopken was one of the words for ‘prostitute’). Or that on page 84 Ambrosio de Morales and Felipe de Guevara are negociating with the envoys of Philip II about the purchase of paintings, whereas Felipe had already died at that moment. Or that Henry III of Nassau is once called the uncle, and then the nephew of William the Silent (pp. 72 / 236 / 276, uncle is correct). Or that Laurinda Dixon is stubbornly called Laura throughout the book. Such errors of inaccuracy are made by anyone who is not really familiar with the elaborate secondary literature regarding Bosch and can easily be forgiven, even by hairsplitters.
Far more serious is that Boom sometimes makes people appear in an unfavourable light by having them say things they have never said. A clear example of this on page 65. Together with a Spanish art historian Boom visits the bedroom of Philip II in El Escorial where they conclude that the Tabletop with the Seven Deadly Sins can never have been attached to the ceiling there, as was once suggested by Marijnissen. In this case the truth is that Marijnissen did suggest that the Tabletop was originally meant to decorate a ceiling, but obviously not in the bedroom of Philip II ‘so that the king could admire it from his bed’. Whether or not the Tabletop was once painted by Bosch himself, surely it was never commissioned by Philip II, and definitely not for El Escorial, which was built from 1563 on. In a similar way Boom has me say on page 186 that animals in Bosch’ paintings can have different meanings when they appear in different panels, whereas they have the same meaning within one panel. It stands to reason that here ‘panel’ should be replaced by ‘context’.
Henk Boom’s De bezeten visionair is based on a nice idea, offers the reader a sound and light-footed first impression of Bosch scholarship and occasionally tells new things. It is a charming little book I would not hesitate to advise to any reader, particularly in this year 2016 with all its focus on Bosch. But if that reader wishes for a less superficial and better-structured history of modern and earlier Bosch reception, he will have to wait somewhat longer.
- Eric De Bruyn, “Over Henk Booms De bezeten visionair”, in: Bossche Kringen, vol. 3, no. 4 (July 2016), pp. 59-62 [see the text above].
- Theo van de Zande, “’Den Bosch was te arrogant’ – De Bezeten Visionair is nieuw boek rond strijd om het werk van Jeroen Bosch”, in: Brabants Dagblad, 30 januari 2016, p. 15.
The Spanish translation of this book does not completely agree with the original Dutch text. Some photos were added (i.a. of Wilhelm Fraenger, Miguel Zugaza and Pilar Silva Maroto), some passages were deleted (particularly those dealing with little-known Dutch authors or issues) and others were added. In particular chapters 7 and 8 were adapted: the recent ‘entanglements’ between the BRCP project and the Prado Museum are dealt with at more length but this has no repercussions on the review presented here.
[explicit 4th September 2016]