Thursday, July 28, 2016

Film Review: New Documentary "Hieronymus Bosch: Touched by the Devil"

Hieronymus Bosch: Touched by the Devil
Directed by Pieter van Huystee
Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, New York, NY
Through August 9, 2016

Hieronymus Bosch: Touched by the Devil

It’s been 500 years since the death of Hieronymus Bosch—one of the most modern of all painters—and Pieter van Huystee’s fascinating documentary, Hieronymus Bosch: Touched by the Devil, is a fine introduction to his art and a fly-on-the-wall peek into tumultuous art-museum machinations as institutions out-do one another to have the most comprehensive Bosch show during his death quincentenary. 
Huystee has unprecedented access to both Bosch’s paintings—several of the known two-dozen or so in existence are shown in ultra close-up (something you don’t see even if you’re one of those annoying museumgoers who stick their noses in the canvas)—and the behind-the-scenes work by archivists from Netherlands’ Noordbrabants Museum in the city of Bosch, hosting an exhibition celebrating its most famous namesake (several other members of the Bosch family also painted, muddying painting attributions). These researchers visit Madrid’s Prado—home to several of Bosch’s greatest works, including the colossal The Garden of Earthly Delights—and other museums in order to analyze Bosch’s paintings and (they hope) pry something for their exhibit.
Although the politics behind museum lending—“you lend me yours, I’ll lend you mine, unless mine is more valuable”—is always intriguing (especially when it’s discovered that another museum is trying to steal the Noordbrabants’ thunder by opening a Bosch exhibit before theirs), the detailed studying of several of the painter’s exuberant but nightmarish panels is the main interest of Touched by the Devil. (The film’s title comes from the many owls in Bosch’s paintings which, in the Middle Ages, were considered symbolic of ill omens.)
After so many centuries and so many parodies, Bosch’s flamboyant paintings may seem like mere clich├ęs, but actually seeing these dramatically and philosophically dense glimpses of hellfire and apocalypses out of the Book of Revelations underlines their continued relevance and modernity. These acid-trip visions of sheer irrationality comprise menageries of creatures that are anything but benevolent: mutant fish and reptiles, conjoined human-animal hybrids and ordinary people whose faces are garishly cartoonish.

When I saw Bosch’s masterpiece Temptation of St. Anthony in Lisbon, I was stunned by its brashly confident combination of exhilaration, fear and excitement. Although that painting isn’t shown, Huystee’s film gets the essentials of Bosch’s art—and its continued reverberations a half-millennium later—right.

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