500 years after the death of Hieronymus Bosch (c.1450-1516), one of the most important medieval artists from the Netherlands, the city where he lived all his life and gave him his name hosted an unprecedented exhibition with the majority of his work coming together from major international museums at Noordbrabants Museum from 13 February to 8 May 2016.
It tops The Art Newspaper’s guide to this year’s best shows and events worldwide, with Bosch’s highlights such as the Prado’s famous Haywain triptych (around 1516), the Louvre’s Ship of Fools (1500-10) and the four Visions of the Hereafter (after 1486) from Venice’s Gallerie dell’Accademia.
“One of the most important exhibitions of our century” The Guardian
A long time fascination with this artist drew me for the first time to the city of Den Bosch for a night at the museum. At the start a short video introduces visitors to what they are going to see:
Accompanying guides in Dutch, English, French, Spanish and Italian are available at the entrance, a good alternative to the sold out audio tour guides and a perfect solution to crowds looking at the paintings at the same time.
“A once-in-a-lifetime show” The Times
Bosch’s imagination for hellish figures is out of the ordinary and it connects with one’s struggle for good and evil, epitomised by the figure of The Wayfarer, painted on the exterior of the triptych The Haywain. He is a human being making his way through life like a pilgrim. The hay carried by the haywain represents money and transience and choosing an existence ruled by avarice leads to hell.
The Drawings of Hieronymous Bosch
The Dutch artist is mostly known for his oil on oak paintings, especially on triptychs, but his drawings are equally important. These were not preparatory sketches for his paintings but he used them as an art form in itself to express his creativity and vision.
His drawings are simply striking, and when I first encountered them they triggered my fascination. Here is one that I enjoyed not only for its technique but also for its metaphoric meaning, a precursor to surrealist paintings by Dali, Magritte or De Chirico. The owl is a recurring element in Bosch’s work.
His influence on other artists starting from Bruegel to Max Ernst to Salvador Dali and Escher, to name just a few, is well documented.
Jheronimus Bosch 500 Foundation
However Bosch’s legacy goes far beyond the artists he influenced, and this was aptly proved by the foundation responsible for the celebrations 500 years after his death. It was set up in 2009 and is behind many initiatives blowing off some dust from the city and its enfant prodige, reaching out to cultured travellers.
The Bosch Research and Conservation Project was carried out at the request of the Bosch 500 and since 2010 it has been studying and documenting 45 paintings and drawings spread across 2 continents, 10 countries, 18 cities, and 20 collections.
The city is at the center of so many other initiatives. It is entirely geared towards this celebratory year: shops, pubs, even bakeries and patisseries hinted at the painter, with things that probably did not exist. It is the result of a creative use of marketing. Some may turn up one’s nose but I think the general public liked the welcoming atmosphere. One hundred meters away from the railway station a Piaggio Ape car transformed into a photobooth provided visitors the most personal of souvenirs: a photo, in the company of Bosch and his city, printed and later uploaded on a public album.
Strolling through the centre of the city brought me to discover a great Sunday chill out place, with a dj playing vinyl and good sandwiches and coffee in a relaxed and vintage atmosphere.
But that was just the start of the path discovering the city and my intention is to visit again for a boat tour around the underground network of fortifications, for which it won in 2010 the European Union Prize for Cultural Heritage/Europa Nostra Award for its exemplary restoration.
This is a great case study of how an exhibition can act as a driver and magnet to the city that came out as a big winner. If you missed the exhibition there are still reasons to go and here is a full programme for the rest of the year:
From Hell to Heaven in the Hometown of Bosch
New York Times, 27 April 2016
Art Gone to Hell: A Boschian Bestiary
New York Times, 4 March 2016
Celebrating the life of Hieronymus Bosch in ’s-Hertogenbosch
The Guardian, 22 February 2016