The Delights of Hell @ BBC
First Broadcast on: Wednesday, 25 Feb 2004, 20:31-21:29
Recorded on: Wednesday, 3 May 2006, 00:01-00:59
Hieronymus_Bosch.The_Delights_of_Hell.2003.WS.DVBC.XviD-ACP.avi [639.74 Mb]
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Fascinating documentary exploring the life and work of the 15th-century painter whose imaginative depiction of hell and earthly pleasures have made him one of the world's best-loved artists.
BBC Four: What inspired you to make a film about Bosch?
Adrian Maben: We timed the film to coincide with a big retrospective of Bosch's paintings at Rotterdam in 2001. Instead of having to film the paintings in the four corners of the world they all came to us, apart from the big triptychs which couldn't travel.
BBC Four: The film, isn't just about Bosch, it's also about the problems inherent in sending pictures across the world...
AM: Art films generally focus on pictures on a wall, you never see how they get there. I thought it would be interesting if we could follow the paintings from the original museum to Rotterdam. It takes an enormous amount of planning on the part of the curators and is expensive because they have to ensure that paintings don't get damaged on the way. There have to be all kinds of condition reports, because the curators are afraid that they may get their pride and joy back in a harmed state.
BBC Four: Little is known of Bosch's life, but in the programme you look at the possible influence of carnival spirit on his work. Do you think this was one of his main inspirations?
AM: It's difficult to tell. The carnival in Bosch's day was a much more raucous affair, the world really was turned upside down and people were much more violent and sexual. There is a possible reference in The Haywain [see picture gallery] - this was a hay wagon which was hauled through the streets of Amsterdam. It was recorded after Bosch had died, but we might think that other hay wagons were included in carnival processions while he was alive. The painting certainly looks like some kind of carnival float, with everybody pushing and struggling to get handfuls of hay - a symbol of material wealth. Nobody notices that the haywain is being pulled by devils towards the right-hand panel, which shows hell. I think one can say that the spirit of the carnival certainly got into his paintings.
BBC Four: Why do you think Bosch appeals so much to our secular society when his work is so rooted in Christian doctrine?
AM: Bosch moved away from postcard-perfect images by applying rough layers of paint in a style that came to be called impasto. He left the drawings under his paintings visible, and this gives his work a very modern feel. Bosch also invented genre painting: he was the first painter, not just in the Netherlands but also in the world, to actually paint secular stories.
An example is The Conjurer, an extraordinary tale of a conjurer trying to persuade the spectator that he's pulling toads or frogs out of his mouth. Meanwhile there's someone standing behind this spectator, who's stealing his wallet. It's a wonderful little painting, we unfortunately don't have the original, but it's a very good copy. It's a secular painting and has got away from the moralising and religious pose which one normally associates with Bosch. This genre painting became very popular in the Netherlands and the north in general, because it was opposed to the mythological painting of Italy. Here you had scenes from everyday life, it was getting away from the porcelain-like saints, down into the street. I think it was very modern.
BBC Four: The pictures are incredibly imaginative and playful but also quite frightening, did looking in them in such detail ever make you uncomfortable?
AM: It's true that there are nightmarish images from hell but this was part of the medieval mentality. Frightening is maybe not the right word, this was a last explosion of medieval imagery, like a huge firework display, before the Reformation. I think it was absolutely tremendous, but you don't really believe today that you're going to be boiling in a cauldron or impaled on a cross...
BBC Four: I think that probably depends on your perspective...
AM: Maybe you do but I don't. (laughs)
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