Friday, September 3, 2010

Hieronymous Bosch: The Problem of Audience

The center panel of  Bosch's Temptation of St. Anthony. Note the burning city in the upper left quadrant and Cubone's ancestor playing a harp at lower left. Also notice how sweetly he draws puppies and mice and owls.
He was a keen observer of the Garden of Earthly Delights.
@andrewkarre I would love to see the paintings as Bosch's contemps saw them.*
(Andrew Karre is the editor of my book, The Freak Observer. It's a weird book. 
Might as well tell the truth about that. It is made of genetics and the Hubble Telescope and butchering chickens
--and Hieronymous Bosch so it was bound to be a weird book.)

 “Well, one thing I can say about Hieronymus Bosch is that this image works. Whatever the hell this thing is, it’s interesting.”

Arno on page 189, The Freak Observer
The figure under discussion is the bird delivering a letter seen at left.

My first thought was of how the light might have been different then. 
I am a very literal person. 
So, I imagined the light diffused through rain like through the lenses of a million upon million Prince Rupert's tears of glass. That would be the light the painter worked with most often, I guess. Although I haven't done due diligence to research the weather in Brabant during Bosch's lifetime. 
But candlelight. 
It think the paintings would have sometimes been opened and read by candlelight, and the flicker  would have made the figures writhe a little. At least it would have appeared so--inside the viewer's eye, inside the viewer's mind. 

That, right there, is the problem of audience. And it is a huge problem.

There really are a million upon million lenses; each viewer, each reader brings his or her own lens. Given this, Bosch is a very interesting case. His work has sustained the interest of viewers for 500 years. At a time when most people lived their entire lives without ever wandering beyond the sound of the local church bell, King Philip II of Spain reached across vast distance to acquire Bosch's paintings. While there have been some who find the work disturbing, even revolting, it has always been clear that Bosch's images work. 

And that's quite something. Across time and despite chasms of cultural difference, Bosch's images work. We may not come to his paintings "knowing" the visual vocabulary that he employed, but we can still read them. 

*I missed that part of the conversation during a Twitterview, but now I have opportunity to think and respond to that longing--I call it a longing--to understand as others do or did. I'm on record here saying that Twitter may be good for many things, but sustained, thoughtful conversation isn't one of them. 
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