I have written this to the point of boredom on the Facebook page for my exhibition of 25 or so artists responding to the legacy of Hieronymus Bosch, “The Garden of Unearthly Delights: Hieronymus Bosch in the 21st Century,” but for some reason it seems not to have been fully understood that Hieronymus Bosch really was part of an incipient cultural and political shift that stretched halfway across Europe, and then halfway across the globe. So it makes sense to post a bit more publicly this summary of the genesis of the exhibition, which is partly about Bosch and partly about the cultural parallels of a time in which the context of culture is on the cusp of truly dramatic change—and what Bosch’s example might have to say about that.
When Bosch is born (assuming 1450 as the most probable date) the Gutenberg Bible is still a couple of years in the future. It will be forty-plus years before anyone knows there is a whole new quarter of the world to be conquered and colonized. Martin Luther, born when Bosch was in his thirties, won’t post his Ninety-Five Theses until the year after Bosch’s death, but in Bosch’s time there is already ample upset over clerical shenanigans and papal manipulation of princes and vice versa. The Low Countries were unified enough to benefit from increasingly global trade (Asia plus the Mediterranean and West African littorals) but they were crawling with wealthy dukes and princes not yet duking it out in wars of religion—an ample market for high-class cultural production, and a sophisticated one. All of these things together soon plunged the world into a cascade of change.
The century after Bosch’s death is an endless succession of “I have good news, and I have bad news,” but the roots of it all are visible in Bosch’s lifetime, and maybe in Bosch’s art.
Which is not to say that Bosch caused anything except a sudden fashion for strange little creatures. But there are forces afoot in his work that explode much more spectacularly, and destructively as well as constructively, in the decades after him, when new developments have released what in Bosch’s time was only potential or pent-up energy.
And as the new work begins to be completed for “The Garden of Unearthly Delights,” I feel the same about the composition of this present show. I don’t pretend to understand everything that is going on in it, but the overall effect is more unsettling than I had anticipated.