‘Hieronymus Bosch, Touched by the Devil’: Film Review

Art historians from the painter’s hometown try to put together a show for the anniversary of his death.

Hieronymus Bosch, whose fantastical visions made The Garden of Earthly Delights one of the world’s most recognized paintings, spent his whole life in the Dutch city of Den Bosch. But none of his 25 or so existing paintings reside there, which makes throwing a world-class party for him something of a challenge. A partial account of the attempt to wrangle paintings from institutions around the world, Pieter van Huystee’s Hieronymus Bosch, Touched by the Devil offers much institutional detail, a healthy bit of art-historical hair-splitting and, happily, ample extreme close-ups of the art itself. Though too inside-baseball for many casual art fans, it should find some takers in its nationwide tour of bookings at art houses and museums.

The first film directed by the prolific producer van Huystee, Touched follows a five-person team from Den Bosch, each man an expert in some corner of the museum world. Together, they’re equipped to address most of the issues arising when one comparatively tiny institution, the Noordbrabants Museum, asks heavy-hitters like Madrid’s Prado to loan out irreplaceable masterworks.

The Bottom Line

A treat for art buffs with a taste for behind-the-scenes detail and scholarly debate.

It turns out that national pride and professional egos aren’t the thorniest things these men must negotiate. Much of their time is spent on the question of whether the works they’re pursuing should even be credited to the master. Quiet but crucial debates are had over “the idea of the Studio” and the tradition of simplifying things by giving a great artist credit for brushstrokes his employees actually painted. Okay, but what if it can be shown that the wood a piece is painted on came from a tree cut down after Bosch’s death? (Wait until you see how, with a razor blade and a lot of patience, that fact is established.)

Imaging experts use infrared photography and a clever “curtain viewer” application to see how the content of these paintings changed as they were finished — which is interesting on its own, but becomes more so as scholars explain how the position of a hand or the shading on a girl’s chin can dramatically change a picture’s meaning. Sometimes, it seems, Bosch took scenes whose meaning was too clear and deliberately pushed them toward ambiguity.

The expertise on display here, and the personal investment of subjects like art historian Matthijs Ilsink, will suffice to keep many viewers intrigued. But for those who like their art books full of big pictures, the director obliges — zooming in on details few would notice in small reproductions of these large works. He sometimes pulls example details from several together to show, say, how many diverse owls Bosch (and his helpers) painted. Owls were thought to be connected to the Devil in Bosch’s day, we’re told. Their abundance in his work is little surprise, then, given the insights he seemed to have into the kind of torments that might await one in Hell.

Venue: Film Forum
Distributor: Kino Lorber

Production company: Pieter van Huystee Film
Director-screenwriter-producer: Pieter van Huystee
Editors: David de Jongh, Michiel Rummens, Chris van Oers, Tim Wijbenga
Music: Paul M. van Brugge

In Dutch, Spanish, Italian and English

Not rated, 88 minutes