The 2016 ‘Hieronymus Bosch – Visions of genius’ art exhibition in the southern Netherlands attracted around 421,700 visitors, and was a toast to the 500th year since Bosch’s passing. Which is where we come to specialists in their area, like filmmaker David Bickerstaff, and his series of films about iconic artists.
Undistorted by false mythology, one thing that Bosch represents is an alternative to the typical ‘tortured artist’ narrative. We were lucky enough to speak with David about his film, and the new worlds which Bosch created in his works.
Firstly I just wanted to say thank you for making time on a Friday evening, as obviously the weekend comes along, and people often have quite a bit on…
That’s ok, my plan is to relax and have a glass of wine…
Mine as well. Our editor mentioned that you are quite busy with travel at the minute? With the new project?
Yeah… I’m making my new film which is about Michelangelo, so I’ve just come back from filming in Rome and Florence and various places. So yeah, it is quite a busy time, and then of course Bosch is kicking off on the 3rd of November, and there’s a few things that I have to do for that as well. So, it’s been a bit busy, but that’s ok. I’m not complaining.
Well I imagine that that’s always a good thing for you.
Yeah, it is good… Well, obviously we have a series of films, where Phil [Grabsky, producer/director] and I share the directing tasks, so we’re always going from one series to the next, and then planning the next series, or writing the next series, so we do keep ourselves busy in that respect, and then when a season opens of course, we work with press and things like that so, and also, I do other things as well, it’s not just these films, so yes, it’s quite a busy time…
One thing you mentioned which I didn’t realise before, is that your Bosch film is part of a series.
It is yes. There’s four films in the series. There’s, well… Bosch is the first film. And then there’s a film about Claude Monet, based solely on his letters…
Yes, it’s quite an interesting way of looking at Monet actually… And then a film about American Impressionism, which not that many people know about but is quite an amazing group of artists, that mainly existed along the east coast of America. And they used to go to Giverny Normandy, and stay with Monet, and they were highly influenced, but then they made their own versions of impressionism based on what they saw in their own landscape. And then, Michelangelo is actually the fourth film in the series.
It’s part of a thing called ‘Exhibition On Screen’, so it’s a brand that normally releases a series of films, this year we’re doing four, last year we did five actually, which was quite full on… Although, slightly different with this season because we decided to release The Curious World of Hieronymus Bosch in November, where as the other ones will start to be released around February next year. Because it’s basically the end of the 500 year celebration of Bosch’s death—500 years ago he died—and so, there’s a lot of celebrations going on in Den Bosch (southern Netherlands), where he was born, and also: right the way throughout the Netherlands. Of which, the main exhibition which we profiled within the film was a major part of… And that all comes to an end before the end of this year, so we were keen to show the film before the end of the 500 year celebration.
So that’s quite interesting, so the actual release of The Curious World of Hieronymus Bosch coincides with the 500th year of his death?
Yes, one of the reasons that we actually made the film was because Hieronymus Bosch was born in this small town… Called ‘s-Hertogenbosch—the Dutch call it Den Bosch, —and basically, there are no works of Bosch in this town, they don’t own any of his works, but he lived in this town, and he never hardly moved out of it. So he was born to a German family actually, who moved to the town, but the whole family were artists, of which he was the most talented, and, so all of his works, and there’s only very few of them, there’s only about 26 known paintings-
-Yes, I didn’t even realise that, I was… Astounded by that actually.
Yes… He’s everywhere! But actually he’s not, there’s actually only quite a small amount of paintings, and, the museum there, the Noordbrabants Museum, did a very clever thing: they offered—because they had nothing to exchange, they had no Bosch’s to exchange [in order to loan some from other museums and galleries etc.]—so they offered to pay for the conservation of all these major works of Hieronymus Bosch from around the world, in exchange for them loaning these works of art to this small museum, in his original home town. And most of the museums did it. So… It was quite a coup for the museum, and was a great opportunity for us, so we got to have full access to this exhibition, after hours, so we were filming when there weren’t any crowds around, and basically, looking at all of his major works… It was fantastic.
And was that one of the first times that all of his works have been collected in one exhibition?
It was one of the first times, well, there have been other exhibitions where they have had a reasonable number of his works together… But this was the first time that almost all of his works were in one place. There were two pieces of his work which weren’t there, because they never travel from where they are. So there is one of his most famous works The Garden Of Earthly Delights, at the Del Prado Museum, but that never leaves there, but obviously, we still feature it in the film, because you can’t have a Bosch film without talking about it.
I see, so… What was it like to actually be in that exhibition room?
-Yes. Actually, the way they displayed it was very dark. Very theatrical. And of course, paintings are very delicate, so you can’t have very harsh lighting on them anyway… And you know, they’re 500 years old, and you know, almost all of them are painted on panel, and so, they’re not on canvases, they’re on wooden panels, so panel warps, over time, the wood, you know? So it’s quite a coup for this museum to have all of these works transported over, and also, they presented the exhibition, in like I say, quite a theatrical way, and also, they got most of drawings too. And a lot of people don’t realise that, or, have never seen his drawings-
-Yeah, I haven’t. I have only seen his paintings…
Yeah, and they are amazing drawings. For me, I have an artist’s background, and I think that drawings are the closest thing to the artist’s hand, to his writing, to his signature, to the way that he observes the world…
…and they tell a lot about who Hieronymus Bosch really was, they’re very fine, and they’re very small, he repeats motifs a lot, so he’s always studying, he’s always looking; he was a great observer of life, and he was playful and witty with the way he put things together. This really comes across in the drawings, therefore, they are fulfilled when you look at a painting, and you can just see how incredibly masterful he was at craftsmanship and creating reality.
And he’s one of these artists because, there are so few works, and you have to travel to certain museums to see a Bosch, you know, you can’t just go to one museum and see quite a lot of them. It doesn’t work like that. But when you get them all together in one room, or several rooms, you can really start to see, and understand, what he is about. Because there are a lot of copyists of Bosch, and lots of people who were followers of him, even during his day. And they were trying to make paintings that looked like Bosch paintings. Yet you can just tell from the way that he layered the paint, the fineness, the finesse and detail of the line… and when when you’re experienced in how to put together a painting or drawing yourself, or in looking at paintings and drawings, that was the great thing about us with our lenses so close to the paintings, you actually see the nuances there, you can actually see skill, in the way that he put these paintings together. And, in the exhibition they actually had follower’s paintings. Painted by people who were in his workshop, or, who were great fans of his, during his day, or even after he died.
Yes, and you could just see that they weren’t up to scratch!
There was a commentary in the film (Dr. Lelia Packer, Art Historian) about how Bosch often puts more detail into his animals, and the hybrids of man and animal as opposed to his purely human characters.
Yes, well that was an interesting comment actually; an interesting observation. Because, there is no doubt that he was a fantastic observer of nature, and I was actually very keen to look at the fields, and the gardens, and the water, and everything surrounding his home town, because when you go into these places you can see gnarly woods, and little sort of strange birds, and little shells, nut shells, and you think ‘this guy must have wondered around in the forests here just sketching away, drawing, observing’, and he was- I think he just got a huge amount of excitement from recreating these scenes quite accurately.
And when you look at the people (in his works), they are much more ethereal, much more sketchy, you know, much quicker, but it’s quite interesting that she said that… I hadn’t really thought of it like that beforehand. But she was very into the The Garden of Earthly Delights because all the people in there are these sort of milky, white, sort of, ethereal, brushed, types of people, and they all look the same, like all these repetitions of ourselves, because of course, this is an allegory of lust. But the birds are very individual, and the creatures, even the surreal creatures with three heads, or the odd, strange sort of giraffe creatures, they are very real, and very individualistically done. Far different to the human beings, which are quite generic in a way.
And you know, when we interviewed Dr Charles de Mooij (Noordbrabants Museum, Art Director) I asked him about our whole idea about the allegory of lust in this piece, and he said well actually, if you look closely, there’s only about four exposed penises… It’s not like it’s sexy or anything, in that sense, it’s very much a metaphor; it’s not overt in its pornographic terms. It would have been, back in their day… It would have been quite direct as a message in their day with all this nudity, but when you look at it closely, there’s not all that much genitalia. It’s quite interesting in that way…
How did he get away with it? In his period of religious belief?
Well you’ve got to understand that, when he was painting saints, and his beautiful triptychs of them, primarily they were commissions from the church, but when he’s painting things like the Garden of Earthly Delights, and The Haywain, they would have been privately commissioned. They would have been private commissions to wealthy people. Who were looking for a moral message, but were also looking for a bit of theatre, looking for a bit of… You know. These triptychs had their doors closed, and then when people came around, and visited etc., and when the commissioner wanted to show his work there would be this incredible scene inside. And although there was this close to the bone style, and sort of moral commentary on the church and what have you… I doubt they were very much on public view, as in, let’s say say an altar piece, that would be sat on the wall of a church. These sort of works, they would have been in private collections. With private people. So obviously, many people wouldn’t have seen them. So this is why I think he got away with a lot of what he did.
He was very much aware of the fact that in church you would have peasants coming in, looking at his works, trying to figure out the messaging, so he would put elements in there that they would recognise; where there’s ordinary peasant people in there dancing, doing strange things, doing interesting things, looking for, you know, there’s allegories on gluttony, allegories on all sorts of things… On death, pondering death, and there’s lots of things in there, in these triptychs, or these large alter pieces, there’s a lot of messaging that goes on in there, that the peasant, or the average person in medieval times, would recognise. And I think these laden messages are still quite curious now, and this being what makes him interesting as an artist.
It brings to my mind the fact that he often seems to have a lot of sympathy for the characters that he is critiquing without too much spite in a way… What do you think?
I don’t know, I’ve never thought of him in those sort of terms, you know… he’s a highly religious man. Everyone pretty much agrees this. And, a moralistic man. But I think that he is also, someone, who, likes to moves among the ordinary folk, so, he wouldn’t sort of be… Preachery like that, otherwise he would have been a preacher…
But he observes the follies of everyday life, and the only way you can observe the follies of everyday life is to be a part of everyday life. You can’t do it from a lofty position. Even though he married extremely well, he did come from a family of artisans, he lived where there was a vapid market place, there was a lot of stuff going on, so, he needed to be a part of that society, he needed to be, accepted, and so… I think that a lot of those moral tales that he tells within his works also existed very much in the literature of the time.
So it wasn’t just these paintings that he made up from out of the sky, that are his narratives, they’re very much based in literature, in books, in the bible of course, and there’s all sorts of elements from philosophers like Erasmus, and people like that that who were around at the same time, that were very sort of, you know, lots of moral tales being told at the time, proverbs, homilies, being spoken by the odd person, and he picked up on these. And they are very much in his works. They’re curious to us now because they’re not a part of our everyday life, in regard to the way that we work, but in those days he was very contemporary.
I guess in my own mind I find him a bit of an anomaly in that way because he always seems to age so well…
Some of the contributors to the film, like Rachel Campbell-Thompson [Chief Art Critic, The Times], described hypothetical visions of how they saw Bosch in their own mind. They quite literally described him, in terms of how they thought his demeanour might be if they saw him walking across the street.
So for you… In spending time making this film, did you get an idea of how you think he would be, you know, how he would be, if you were around him, in this hypothetical manner?
Well, like I said before… I think his drawings in particular really reveal a lot to us. I pretty much have no idea, and you know, it’s always when you’re making these films, and trying to make a biographical part of the film, and you know… It’s very hard trying to make a biographical part about Bosch, because there is absolutely nothing apart from a few receipts and stuff, that tell us about who Bosch actually was. He didn’t write any letters to anybody, in that sense. He didn’t really do any self-portraits, that we know of, as in, any official ones…
Yet, you see the same sort of face in a lot of his paintings, a man with glasses, sometimes he’s a little creature, sometimes he’s the wayfarer, and he seems to have the same sort of face, and a lot of people have thought that that might be a self portrait of Bosch, because he appears all the time in his paintings.
So, a lot of art historians think that that is him. And there’s very few testaments, like third party testaments about him… He only signed a few of his works. He never dated his works. So the only way we know how old his works are, are because we analyse the panel, as in, the wood of the panel. They actually aged the wood. That’s why when you look at his paintings, you’ll see that it’ll say ‘painted between 1500 and 1510’, they can’t actually get it exact…
The thing about it, because there isn’t that sort of thing…. For me, as a filmmaker, I looked very much towards his mark making, to try and understand, and also filming within his town was very interesting, because it’s very much still a medieval type town. So, his drawings, were very precise, they were very observational. I mean, I always got a sense, you always get a sense, that he was a master of his craft, that he was… I mean I think he was well read, because of all his referencing to books of the day in his works, and in many books, you can see a direct link to some of the imagery he was creating. I think he was… Well for me… I think he was disciplined, learned, creative, imaginative, and very much engaged with the world. And so, I don’t really think like a lot people want to think, that he was crazed or taking hallucinative drugs and things like that, because that’s quite a popular view of him; that he must have been mad to create these paintings. Actually, I think he was very clever and calculating. And I think, you know, he was very good at developing multiple narratives.
Why do you think he seemed to remain very sane and calm with his work almost, compared to other artists who delve into this… Perhaps ‘madness’, for want of a better term?
Well you know what, I think he was very talented from an early age, he had an innate ability from a very early age, so I don’t think he had to struggle too much with his craft, too much, unlike someone like Van Gogh. Van Gogh had to struggle, and work very hard to become the artist that he did. He was terrible at drawing and everything at first. He actually had to teach himself how to be an artist. He actually had to teach himself how to paint. Teach himself how to draw. That’s not the way Bosch was. Bosch was, I get a sense, that he was coming from a family of artists, where he learnt his trade as a very small child.
He would have been around artists all the time. His father was an artist, his grandfather was an artist, his brothers were artists. So you get a sense, now, that an artist in those days wasn’t necessarily someone who just did paintings. If you wanted it, they would have crafted a chair for you, or something like that. So artists had a different role in society in those days. But he was obviously, as I have said, the most talented in the family, to the point where he makes it a statement by calling himself Jheronimous, which is the Latin; his real name is Heiron, and the Latin is Hieronymus; so he calls himself this high and mighty name, and takes on the name of his town: Bosch.
So, he establishes himself, by taking on this name, as, you know, the master painter of this town. And so, he announces things in this sort of way, and it’s all messaging, and so people understand that messaging. He backs it up with skill, and, you know… He actually pulls it off.
And you know… There’s no evidence of him actually even leaving ‘s-Hertogenbosch, and going off travelling. Yet, he got all these commissions from these princes and noblemen, and they all commissioned him to do work. They must have heard of him. They must have known about him and they came to this town; they came to see him; they paid respects to him, and asked him to do paintings.
It’s these angles that you mention, and which are in your film, that so many others miss out. You create a much larger picture of things-
-well people just concentrate very much on what they are seeing in the paintings. And I think it’s a lot more complicated than that. If you want to know more about him that is. I mean you can just relate to these paintings within these narratives, but these are the sort of paintings that make you wonder about the state of the mind of the artist that makes them, and so, that’s a natural position for people to take.
There’s a lot of things that I would like to ask, but I know that I should really bring things to an end…
Ask away if you like.
Ok… Well your film is very insightful. And the thing that pops into my mind from what you mentioned earlier on, was that I wanted to get an idea of, in terms of this series of films: is there a reason that you chose these artists in particular?
Well, in regard to these films, we need to have the collaboration of galleries and exhibiting spaces to think about what would be appealing to a global audience, because we show these films to audiences from all around the world. So that very much informs our choice of the sort of artists that we might profile, or the characters and approach that we take. Generally, they’re centered around an exhibition, but say… Like the Monet one, they’re centered around his letters, so they’re slightly different, compared to how we’ve done things in the past. So, there’s no set rules. Very much what we try to do is to get behind the artist, and get a different type of insight into their work, not just, you know ‘oh Monet, there’s another water lily painting’ but understanding why he’s done so many water lily paintings, and learn a little bit more about the man. As in, what’s going on behind the artwork? Through the techniques, through the observation, which are things that the camera can do really well. And of course, I always think that exhibition spaces can be incredibly theatrical spaces, and I think that that fits very well with the cinematic experience as well.
Yeah, I have heard of how paintings were the cinema of the time, which is fascinating, and you know, this was the closest thing that they had to entertainment via imagery in a way…
Yeah for sure, and anyway, there was lots of other theatrical entertainment and singing and things like that, well, it was all interconnected. And I think today, we seem more disconnected from creative arts, since, you know, you watch something on a small iPad or whatever you watch things on, so you watch the film, and that has a particular experience, but if you saw it in the cinema that would be a completely different experience. And, it would be more of a collective experience. It would be with other people. And I think that that is a similar experience as to being in an exhibition. You see works with other people, and you might comment to a stranger about a piece of work that you are looking at. And sometimes, they can be incredibly cinematic these pictures; they can just draw you in, they actually engage you.
So I think that there’s a natural fit there for us, when we make these arts documentaries, and this connection between the cinema and the exhibition is made.
The final question that I wanted to ask you about is centered around one these original insights that you share in your film; one about the area of polyphony, and the link between the music of Bosch’s day, his progressiveness, and what may have been one of his interests and inspirations.
Yes, that was very interesting actually wasn’t it? Actually, I just found that out that day. I was thinking, you know, when I’m looking at a new film, I always do a bit of research into what would have been the music of the day. What would Bosch have been listening too?
For instance, it just so happened that a vocal ensemble was making an album in the actual cathedral that Bosch would have attended. And, because they come from ‘s-Hertogenbosch, the same village, and the same town… They were doing this a part of the 500th year anniversary, and actually releasing a CD.
So they were around, and were excited to be a part of the film. And he was incredible, the artistic director [Stratton Bull], because he was very knowledgeable about the music of the day, and made some very interesting observations, and the polyphonic one is very interesting.
Vulture Hound magazine thanks David Bickerstaff, and his creative team, for taking the time to speak about his film in-depth.
The Curious World of Hieronymus Bosch is out today at selected cinemas.
Check here for more information about where it is showing.