It would take a longer piece than I have time to write if I were to list all the absurdities put forward by Waldemar Januszczak in his four-part television series, The Renaissance Unchained, and his review in The Sunday Times of the Hieronymus Bosch exhibition in the artist’s hometown, which heralded it.
Bosch may well have been a contemporary of Leonardo da Vinci but that doesn’t make him a Renaissance artist and not being one doesn’t mean that we cannot recognize his exceptional assets as, in Sir Herbert Reed’s words, ‘essentially a late medieval Gothic artist.’ And Bosch’s type of invention and fantasy is not unique. He just produced it in more profusion. In what I consider Bosch’s best composition, the right hand panel of The Garden of Earthly Delights triptych, a blue devil with a birdlike head who appears to be sitting on a very tall commode, is swallowing a human body and we see below other figures who have gone through the devil’s digestive system falling into presumably, an even deeper layer of hell. Giotto (and for all I know perhaps many others) produced such an image a century before. My grandchildren, aged five and seven, have just returned from a holiday in the Veneto where one of the highlights was a blue devil devouring and excreting unfortunate, still living sinners in the last judgment in the Arena Chapel, Padua. Admittedly, the flight of birds that appear from between the buttocks of the half-devoured victim in The Garden of Earthly Delights panel is definitely an individual Bosch touch.
I mentioned this last piece of invention to a friend who I knew to be a Bosch enthusiast. He was intrigued. He had never noticed it. We are not guided by compositional means towards Bosch’s high points. Instead we have to work hard to find them. This is what separates him from his true Renaissance contemporaries. The current edition of the art magazine, Apollo, has a detail from The Garden of Earthly Delights on its cover. It shows part of a procession with, in the selected section, bits of various animals, a mounted figure and a huge circular fan decorated with a porcupine upon which is perched an egret. Beside it is some sort of globe where another large bird is perched with a smaller breed on top. It is a lot to describe but it reads clearly and is exquisitely painted. Finding the passage in a reproduction of the work, it appears less impressive. What the designer of the cover has done, is not only to have isolated a detail but cut it out completely from the background.
Januszczak’s suggestion that we have all been conned by Vasari’s delineation of a renewed interest in the Classical world in the 14th and 15th centuries which he called the Renaissance, as an Italian chauvinist attempt to discredit Northern artists is absolute nonsense, as is the idea that most art of the modern era would have been impossible without Bosch. What the modern artist might usefully learn from Bosch is that the history of worthwhile art does not always proceed in a straight line. It is possible to produce great art that is out of sync with the current zeitgeist. At a time when today’s visual art is becoming thinner and thinner in content, the logic of the situation may demand some disconnection from the supposedly progressive line.
AT THE QUEEN’S GALLERY
Jan Vermeer is certainly the greatest of the Dutch Little Masters and Pieter de Hooch would be high on the list of runners-up. But although there is a Vermeer and several de Hoochs in the current exhibition of Dutch paintings at the Queen’s Gallery, Edinburgh, it was a work by another painter that I was most thrilled to see.
The little oil on panel measuring 47.3 x 59.7 by Hendrick Pot (1585-1657) is a tiny masterpiece. I have seen a reproduction of this portrait group of Charles I, his queen and baby before and wondered why Pot is not better known. Everything about the work is perfect: the composition, the subdued pinks and gold, the unobtrusive detail. Henrietta Maria sits at one end of a long table supporting the future James II on the table. At the other end stands Charles dressed in black, not as a tall elegant cavalier as portrayed by Van Dyke, but as what he probably was in real life: an exquisite miniature. That the figures could be painted in their finery on such a scale is a marvel.
In the exhibition there is another painting by Pot. It is slightly larger and much less impressive. It is possible that to earn a living Pot had to try all sorts of themes that didn’t best suit his abilities.