Saturday, 22 October 2016

Heironomous Bosch: 'El Bosco' at the Museo del Prado

It's the 500th anniversary of Heironomous Bosch so how do you celebrate it? If you're the Prado in Madrid, you put on an exhibition using your own Bosch paintings as the centrepiece and there we have the 'Garden of Earthly Delights' by El Bosco. It's been phenomenally successful, posters all over Madrid, tickets hard to come by and I only saw the exhibition in it's last few days thanks to an extension to the original closing date due to demand. How could I be in Madrid and not see it?

That in itself should've sent a signal - what does it mean if it's that popular? It probably means that it's going to be crowded, perhaps, that it'll be difficult to see some of the paintings and that, possibly, it won't feel terribly comfortable. Yes, that was exactly right.

Timed entry helped, of course, but the crowds inside the exhibition were ridiculous in front of the 'star' paintings that everyone wanted to see (and much less busy in front of others). At times they were six deep in front of the biggies that meant waiting ages to get close enough to stand a chance of seeing any detail. I do think the audio-guides were part of the problem, with people hanging around, not necessarily looking at the paintings, listening to the commentary. Double the size of the crowd and this is something like I found it. It also gives you an idea of the size of the painting.

Think about Bosch and I suspect that most of us conjure up images of tiny, often naked, figures scrambling round a nightmarish landscape like in his 'Garden of Earthly Delights'. Paintings like this often show the perfection of Eden, the temptations of Earth and the pain and horror of hell since we, inevitably, take the wrong path and end up suffering for our sins. It's always worth looking at the detail in Bosch paintings, even the detail of a story we all know so well, such as the adoration of the magi when the foreign kings pay homage to the newborn Christ.

In Bosch's version of the story we see the kings in the three ages of man (young, middle aged and old) in their grand clothes and we have a Virgin and baby out in the open beside the stable. But who are the characters leering from the inside of the barn or crawling on its roof? If you look even closer you can see people dancing in the fields in the distance. What's this all about? It's not in the traditional story of the way the scene is usually painted. That's where Bosch brings his artist's eye and his story-telling to the fore. It's all there for a reason and it's our job to work it out.

Similarly in his 'Ecco Homo' we have a crowd shouting for Christ's punishment while Christ cowers on the ledge as he's pushed forward. Wouldn't you if you had a crowd baying for your blood? And again, look at the detail, look at the cityscape in the distance. Look at the hats and clothes, fantastical but some are remarkably similar to what people wore when this was painted. Are we still baying for blood or are we grateful for the Christ's sacrifice for our sins? Look at those faces and expressions and I suspect it's the former. Bosch is always telling a story that would've been obvious and powerful when these paintings were first unveiled but which we now need to try to piece together.

A painting I was pleased to see was 'Christ Mocked' which is normally in the National Gallery but is on loan to the exhibition. I'm familiar with this painting, with Christ gazing peacefully out at the viewer while he suffers the mockery of the crowd and is about to be crowned with thorns. Christ's face is rather ethereal compared to the more earthly faces around him.

One of the reasons that I like this painting is that there are only five characters in it as opposed to the untold numbers in many of Bosch's other works. It's small and intimate and implies that you are present and watching what's happening. Will you stand up for your Lord or pass on by? That's an age-old question and is current with the present day attacks on immigrants and others and the need for right-thinking people to support their fellow human beings. There is always someone that the majority needs to protect and cherish because they enrich us all. Bosch tells us that through his works.

A painting I wasn't familiar with was another triptych, 'From Paradise to Hell', with multiple scenes. The left panel shows Eve being created from Adam's ribs, meeting the snake and apple and then being expelled from Eden. The central panel shows the multiple ways that mankind can sin and, obviously, we're at all of them! The inevitable result is condemnation to a fiery hell. Just when you think there's ambiguity in Bosch he goes all literal on us again!

This was a great exhibition despite it's uncomfortable popularity. So many Bosch paintings of all sorts brought together in tribute to his great artistry and story-telling at a time when the majority of people couldn't read letters but could read a painting.  I'm so pleased I managed to get into the exhibition and I hope something like it is put on in London one day. The exhibition has now closed but it'll linger in the memory.

Hieronomous Bosch will now always be El Bosco to me.

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