Saturday, August 3, 2013

Hieronymus Bosch

Hieronymus BoschHieronymus Bosch by Walter S. Gibson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

World Fantasy Award-winning author Zoran Zivkovic once described my short fiction as "the contemporary prose equivalent of the wildly imaginative paintings of Heironymus Bosch." For this, I am flattered, grateful, and, before reading this book, woefully ignorant of the artist to whom I am being compared.

Not that I'm unfamiliar with his paintings. I suppose my first exposure to Bosch's work came indirectly by way of a Black Sabbath album cover (remember albums?), that of The Best of Black Sabbath Vol. 1, back in the early '80s. Now, this must have been a bootleg, because I can't, for the life of me, find it now, even though I bought it at the ostensibly-reputable JC Penney store in Westroads Mall in Omaha, NE. At the time I really didn't care whether or not the band received their deserved royalties, as I was thunderstruck by the cover art, "The Triumph of Death" by Pieter Bruegel. I spent long hours listening to "War Pigs," "NIB," and "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath," while studying this painting. I must have been 12 or 13, and my virgin eyes had never beheld such a thing as this before. Ah, sweet innocent blasphemy in the Spring of youth!

Later, as a result of knowing this Bruegel piece, I was introduced to Bosch, since the two are often compared to each other. In fact, Bosch's "The Garden of Earthly Delights" hangs across the aisle from Bruegel's "The Triumph of Death" at the Prado in Madrid. Truth be told, while I appreciate "The Garden of Earthly Delights," I don't think it is Bosch's best painting. That honor, in my feeble eyes, goes to his "Temptation of St. Anthony," wherein Bosch's surreal, nightmare leanings are carefully honed in a technically-precise, symbolically-rich presentation of, well, the temptation of Saint Anthony.

But this is a book review, no? Yes. Let's get to the book.

No, let's not. Before we go further, I need to point something out. When I was an undergraduate, dutifully earning my BA in Humanities (History Emphasis), I developed a sort of snobbery toward Art History majors. I really felt that most of the Art History majors I knew were not-so-well-versed in anything outside of visual art. I was (and still am) pleased that my education encompassed many, many disciplines. I felt that my knowledge of music, theater, literature, dance, cinema, philosophy, and history all informed my appreciation of the static visual arts. Frankly, my conversations with Art History majors usually ended up with them abruptly ending the conversation with an uncomfortable "oh," at which point I knew I had gone too far afield from strictly visual art, in an attempt to contextualize the art itself. Not to slam all Art History majors, as I'm sure there are some that are well-versed in a variety of . . . stuff, but my experience left me with a snob's-eye-view of the "discipline" of Art History in general.

So when I pick up a book that is clearly in the Art History category, I go in with some hesitation. I'm excited about the subject, of course, but am always fearfully anticipating an involuntary intellectual flinch or two or ten along the way. It's purely a visceral reaction conditioned by my snobbery, no doubt. In this case, it's clearly not about the money - I bought this at a garage sale for a buck. Scratch up one point for my tightwadedness frugality!

Thankfully, the Thames & Hudson World of Art series has done something to alleviate my fears over the years. This volume, with commentary by Walter S. Gibson, does much to bolster my faith in the potential of art history as a discipline. Gibson is quick to note that there is much we do not know about Bosch - in essence we have no record of the man's training, though there are hints within his work that point to a couple of possible schools of art (not formal institutions, mind you, but certain perceived movements in certain artistic circles). For the most part, Gibson is careful to note that while certain conclusions about Bosch and his art might be inferred, there is the danger of thinking we understand far more than we actually do understand. Still, that doesn't stop Gibson, in a couple of places, from "projecting" by stating that Bosch "did not view the world as a stage upon which was enacted the struggle between equally powerful forces of good and evil, for this would have denied the omnipotence of God." Well, this may or may not have been true, but Gibson provides little evidence of this other than the fact that Gibson says that Bosch did not view things in this way. Unless Gibson was some sort of necromancer who raised the artist from the dead and personally interviewed him (how do you cite such an interview, anyway?), there is no way to be so sure of Bosch's views, opinions, etc.

Nevertheless, I'm older now, and at least a little bit more mature than in my undergraduate years. So I'm willing to forgive Gibson for falling back on his training a couple of times. Overall, his analysis was brilliant, well-supported, and cohesive. I learned a lot about Bosch and his world from Gibson's analysis. And, of course, the artwork in the book is beautifully dark and surreal - my favorite kind of art, the kind that makes me giddy like a school-child again. So the adult in me can leave his snobbery behind, making way for the 13-year-old, greasy-haired fanboy at the Mall to smile back across all those years.

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