THE first thing that strikes me when I arrive in a small town in Holland to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the death of the extraordinary 15th century Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch is depressingly counter-cultural: Bosch, I conclude excitedly, is a dead ringer for the 21st century Oscar winner Mark Rylance.
Or should that be the other way round? Bosch was here first, after all.
No matter, my overripe imagination already has me contacting the actor: “Dear Mr Rylance, I wish to write a stage play based on Bosch and want you to tackle the eponymous Hieronymus role . . .” He readily agrees by return of post and insists on immediately advancing me a large sum to bind me to the task as “no other writer is to be trusted with the work” . . .
Wake up there, Mortimer, you’re getting carried away with your surreal fantasy!
The reality is more mundane: when my partner, the writer Kitty Fitzgerald, and I decided to travel to Holland to see the exhibition ‘Visions of Genius’, marking half a millennium since the death of Hieronymus Bosch, we first booked plane, train and hotels.
Only then did we learn that, despite the exhibition occupying centre stage for two months of the year-long celebrations in Bosch’s home town (the impossibly named ‘S-Hertogenbosch, which most folk quite sensibly reduce to Den Bosch), the enormous global interest in the artist meant that not a single ticket remained. Were we travelling to no purpose?
Undaunted, we set off. Den Bosch lies about an hour from Amsterdam by train, a beautiful old town where the locals’ insistence on using pushbikes over cars creates an urban atmosphere of calm and serenity. Nor are these bikes ridden by lycra-covered zealots, helmeted heads bent low as they attempt to push their lightweight racers through the sound barrier. Such an animal would look slightly ridiculous among Den Bosch’s calm sit-up-and-beg bicyclists, taking in all around them as they pedal at moderate speed through the wide, mainly noiseless streets.
The good burghers of Den Bosch love their artistic hero. They burst with pride to show the world everything about their remarkable Hieronymus Bosch whose paintings, half a millennium later, still look as fresh, startling, original and un-dated as they did in the late 1400s. The title ‘Visions of Genius’ is, for once, not hyperbolic.
A painter so far ahead of his time makes you seriously ponder whether some intergalactic cultural intervention might have been involved. Bosch’s imagination took him into areas which might turn 20th century surrealists green with envy (or perhaps some other colour, given they are surrealists!).
In every café, museum, gallery or shop, the citizens of Den Bosch fall over themselves to help. There’s not a trace of the cynical exploitation of tourists that bedevils many more world-weary visitor destinations.
The town seems slightly enchanted, a sense reinforced by the extraordinary gothic and rococo St. John’s Cathedral, built between 1370 and 1529. It rises up to dwarf the buildings that cluster around it, like some benevolent yet awesome totemic presence protecting its citizens from harm.
Adorned with statues, figurines, pointed arches and huge leaded windows, the cathedral is a fantastically overstated edifice that seems in keeping with the sense of unreality created through the Bosch effect.
His extraordinary imagination has, throughout 500 years, seeped into the very fabric of the town so that in this anniversary year strolling through a quiet park and coming across the statue of a giant ear through which slices a sharp knife is soon taken, if not for granted, then as a deal less surprising than would be the same manifestation in, say, Sidcup.
Bizarre statues rise up from the River Dommel and other waterways. In a public space, on a very high chair, a giant semi-human bird wearing cooking pots on its feet and another pot on its head is devouring head-first a human flying from whose naked bottom appear to be more small birds.
This is just one of hundreds, if not thousands of nightmare-like images that populate the artist’s work which, strangely, ran to only thirty paintings, though several of his triptychs are monumental affairs.
His masterpiece triptych, Garden of Earthly Delights, takes us from initial innocence through the Garden of Eden right through to the horrors of hell. The accepted wisdom is that Bosch was emphasising the different consequences of a human being choosing between doing good or doing evil; certainly, such a safe interpretation would keep him in good books with the establishment figures of the town amongst whom he spent his entire life.
My own suspicion is that his imagination was too wild and too expansive to be contained in any one dogma, religious or otherwise, but that such supposed religious compliance allowed him the free reign to create his fantastically monstrous creatures, the like of which had not been seen before and only rarely since. His images disturb and fascinate us. We are not sure what he has created and, I suspect, he was not quite sure either. Bosch’s influence though, can be seen through the centuries; you can even spot him in the odd spaced-out album covers of hallucinogenic 60s bands.
As well as the main two-month long exhibition in the Noordbrabants Museum, Bosch’s spirit is in evidence all year throughout the town. Try the brilliant 3D ‘trip’ through his most famous painting. Or the Bosch lectures, Or the theatre pieces. Or the music programme. Hard to ignore the man, but who would want to? He gives life an alternative dimension and is living proof that if truly original enough, even the most seemingly way-out artists can be accepted by the mainstream.
Oh, and Kitty and I did manage to get exhibition tickets in the end, despite the huge demand and despite many locals being thwarted in their own attempts. I’m sure it was Hieronymus somehow rewarding our efforts.
My letter to Mark Rylance is still waiting to be written but cannot long be delayed. The actor IS Hieronymous Bosch. Take another good look at the portraits above!