Paul Vandenbroeck: Jheronimus Bosch. De verlossing van de wereld, Gent / Amsterdam: Ludion 2002, 430 S., zahlr. Ill., ISBN 978-90-5544-362-8, EUR 39,50
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Vandenbroeck and Ludion deserve praise for this new edition of the author's groundbreaking study (1987) of Hieronymus Bosch. The signal strength of that earlier work was the light it shed on social, economic, and political resonances in paintings that are both numbingly familiar and, at the same time, often poorly understood. Building partly on Norbert Elias' notion of the "civilizing process" and partly on Dirk Bax's pioneering iconographical research, Vandenbroeck argued in favor of social and political motivation for images that frequently are described in art-historical isolation. In places, though, the book's massive contextual apparatus and methodological discussions threatened to overshadow the author's chosen subject. Thanks to extensive, at times even merciless, editorial work, Vandenbroeck's argument comes through far more effectively. In some places this results simply from greater economy of expression, while in others it stems from changes in the substance of the argument made as Vandenbroeck worked to bolster the historical foundations of his thesis and to streamline methodological discussion.
The structure of the book remains largely the same. The first section treats Bosch's "system of norms and values" (15) and includes a discussion of Bosch himself, both as an individual and as an artistic persona. The second section examines the relationship between Bosch and vernacular, highly literate culture - folklore, popular myth, and so forth. Gone are the iconographical charts and socio-political family trees from the earlier edition. In their place, Vandenbroeck has added a "thematic overview" - in effect an abbreviated catalog - of Bosch's work: Old Testament subjects, New Testament subjects, saints, "moral-eschatological" images (for example the "Garden of Earthly Delights", the "Haywain", etc.), and secular works.
Vandenbroeck's argument, too, appears largely unchanged: Bosch's paintings provided an elite Netherlandish audience with pictorial counterexamples designed to confirm its identity through "negative self-definition" ("negatieve zelfdefiniëring"). This self-definition is said to conform to an "intellectualization of ethical norms" (20) and a concomitant flowering of a profane iconography circa 1500 (299ff.). It is also said to build upon a broader humanist interest in mapping contemporaneous local culture to enhance the status of the upper-middle class.
One of the more persistent criticisms leveled in 1987 had to do with the "intellectualization of ethical norms". In particular, some readers were concerned by an apparent tendency of Vandenbroeck to over-secularize, or to omit from discussion altogether, certain paintings. The new edition will do little to change their minds. While in places the argument is suppler and broader in its application, and while a few key images do receive greater attention, the basic premise remains that literature, drama, and the visual arts during Bosch's time were marked by a set of increasingly worldly responses to earthly problems. The thesis was and is, in certain respects, appealing, not least because Bosch's work privileges intelligence: depicted sin does indeed seem allied if not identical with idiocy, depicted good behavior is undeniably associated with careful reflection, and the paintings unmistakably demand thoughtful viewing. Such a cerebral bent does not necessarily entail secularization, though, as even a cursory glance at the work of Jan van Eyck makes clear.
As do the paintings, so do Vandenbroeck's primary sources often have much in common with their putatively less worldly forebears. For instance, the status of Geiler von Kaysersberg as an "early humanist" (30) should be tempered by the recognition that his religious activities were of no small importance. Among other things, he translated and advanced the work of Jean Gerson - a project that hardly places him at the vanguard of early modern secularism. Make no mistake, Vandenbroeck rightly senses a shift in the contours of social and political thought ca. 1500, and his command of the primary literature is remarkable. I do think, however, that the new edition of his book still overstates both the pace and the scope of that shift.
Another criticism of the 1987 edition had to do with Bosch's circle of patrons and viewers. Vandenbroeck approaches Bosch as if he were in some sense a prequel to Pieter Bruegel the Elder: wealthy, intelligent, and closely associated with an educated upper-middle class milieu. Yet, the only documented contemporaneous owners of Bosch's work were nobility, such as Hendrik III of Nassau and Philip the Fair of Burgundy, or their associates. Again, one finds little here to counter earlier criticism. Indeed, Vandenbroeck seems to have consolidated his position. Once more, he suggests that Bosch's work either found its way into courtly circles relatively late in the painter's career or was acquired posthumously. In any event, he states, there is "no trace" of such moralizing work as concerns him in contemporaneous noble collections (177-180).
This position seems unnecessary at best, for it relies on an alignment between Bosch and one limited segment of early modern Netherlandish society that is at odds with the biography of the artist offered here. If Bosch was as financially independent (for example 169-171), as educated (181-186), and therefore as independent of patrons as Vandenbroeck argues, we cannot expect his paintings to comprise little more than the residue, conscious or unconscious, of contested social and political norms. Indeed, Vandenbroeck's (admittedly problematic) biographical account is of a painter whose aims and means were more than simply congruent with a larger sixteenth-century interest in quasi-ethnographical approaches to local culture: neither beholden to his putative clientele nor entirely apart from it, Bosch is said to have appealed to common notions in distinctly uncommon ways. In this respect, he is himself a marginal figure, neither entirely part of nor fully apart from any particular social or political circle.
Certainly this matches the character of the artist's work. Bosch's paintings are fundamentally skewed not only with respect to subject matter but also in the sophistication of their representational strategies. They are evidently designed to self-select an audience that was elite not only in its literary and philosophical background but also in its visual skills. But that brings us to perhaps the most fundamental concern: that in attending so extensively to subjects depicted we have yet to arrive at an adequate understanding of the representational strategies Bosch employed.
True, Bosch engages various themes in his work; he also posits a certain tenor in human relations, and perhaps above all else he does so with stunning misanthropy. But, like the writing of Gerson, himself another supremely censorious figure, paintings by Bosch are also deeply playful and certainly never documentary, even in the very sophisticated way that Vandenbroeck treats them. His compositions have long been recognized as requiring careful navigation: presenting us with various choices, aligning us with one or more depicted protagonists, alluding to earlier painted as well as literary and dramatic work, at times even setting forth paradoxical representational schema. Vandenbroeck does account for this when he suggests that wisdom manifests itself in riddles (231). But he tends to favor visualized wisdom of a verbal sort (203, 206), rather than the specifically pictorial values advanced by the painter.
The matter is one of "fantasia", which Vandenbroeck treats exclusively as a matter of artistic invention, and largely through recourse to Italian art theory. Later medieval psychology asserts that invention stems mainly from this mental faculty. Located in the softer tissues at the front of the brain, it is uniquely suited to fashioning new entities out of previous sensory experience. But it is first and foremost a visual faculty, as Leonardo (and almost certainly Bosch) knew full well, so its greatest pictorial application lies not in the ability of painting to represent subjects from other media, but in the ability of painting to configure those subjects in ways specifically unavailable to other media. Similarly, since it deals with images of visible things - that is, percepts once removed from their initial physical manifestation - "fantasia" bears some relation to its nobler counterpart, the faculty of judgment. Consequently, as is painting well, so is seeing well an intellectual skill. This means that both painter and observer approach the image as something of a challenge held in common.
One suspects that this, too, was a governing factor in the complexity of work by Bosch and his better followers. The meaning of any picture as muscularly reflexive as those by Bosch is directly dependent on both the character and the interpretive skill of the beholder. Weak observers will render even the most powerful painting mediocre, while agile viewers will strengthen the work (and themselves).
Consequently, visual difficulty is much more than simply a means for asserting or validating a particular class structure. It is also a means for asserting or validating the primacy of the painter as, in effect, the viewer's hermeneutic rival. Surely this is relevant to Vandenbroeck's case.
None of my criticisms lessen the significance of a book that was rightly met in 1987 with calls for translation. Indeed, the revised edition even more than its predecessor merits such treatment. (Scattered articles and essays in other tongues hardly do the work justice.) Until this comes to pass, we must content ourselves with a substantially improved, though no less provocative, Dutch-language edition.