Hieronymus Boschs paintings were so weird and creepy many artists thought he was the first surrealist.
When you hear the word “surrealist,” the things that most likely come to mind are, of course, Salvador Dalí and his melting clocks, weird landscapes, hybrids of humans and objects, humanoid animals, alien-like creatures, basically unfiltered weirdness in all its splendor. Also, you’ll probably associate surrealism to the chaotic panorama of the twentieth century because, indeed, the historical context of uncertainty was such that artists would only depict the madness of the world with equally mad paintings. Nonetheless, there was also a mind that inspired their crazy creativity, and no, it wasn’t a contemporary artist or even someone close to their time. It was an obscure painter that lived five centuries back and whose hellish visions in paintings, radically different to the artistic style of his time, established him as a proto-surrealist, if we may call him that.
The Garden of Earthly Delights
You may know him for his famous triptych of The Garden of Earthly Delights, where his depiction of Hell conveys the horrors that people in the Middle Ages believed were found in the realm of the fallen ones and sinners. His name was Jeroen van Aken, but he’s mostly known by his artistic name: Hieronymus Bosch. The allure of his paintings not only lies on the fact that they subvert the artistic standards of his time in really weird images, but also that the artist’s life remains a mystery. As far as we know, he grew up in a family of painters in the region of 's-Hertogenbosch (hence the name “Bosch”), in the Netherlands, and that he inspired other famous Dutch painters that followed his footsteps, like Pieter Brueghel the Elder. Bosch’s paintings were a source of inspiration because his detailed and fantastic scenarios, nuanced by a critical point of view of humanity, have amazed and horrified audiences for centuries.
The Hay Wagon
Having almost no information about the artist’s life and his mindset makes his bizarre visions even more puzzling. For instance, what inspired him to depict Hell in such a horrifying way? Why is there a nightmarish quality to his religious paintings? Some have theorized that Bosch had come up with the surrealist “psychic automatism” before it was a thing. According to art historian Paola Volkova, André Bretón referred to Bosch as an important antecedent of Surrealism because his paintings are visual depictions of the chaotic unconscious, where the emotions, feelings, and fears are all embodied in symbolic images that remit us to the darkest side of the mind. However, according to Charles de Mooji, director of the Noordbrabants Museum in the Netherlands, Bosch wasn’t a surrealist at all, but a “realist” painter, since his strange creatures are actually a mixture of real-life creatures and objects. For example, demons aren't just an automatic image created by the artist letting his mind run free, but rather a blend of animal and human anatomy that creates original and blood-curdling monsters.
The Temptation of St. Anthony
Moreover, if we place ourselves in Bosch’s era and mindset, we will see that perhaps his nightmarish visions weren’t a cathartic depiction of the darkest side of his mind, but rather a faithful account of the medieval approach to religion. This wasn’t the time of chubby baby cherubs, gorgeous Madonnas, and saints with six-packs. Instead, paintings were used with a didactic purpose, to teach religion to people who didn’t know how to read, which was most of the population. One aspect of teaching religion back in the day required talking about the fate of sinners who broke the laws of God. Now, imagine you want to really persuade people to follow the laws. One of the easiest paths (but not the best) to achieve that is through fear, so Hell, the final destination of sinners, demons, and the physical representations of sins had to be depicted as horrifyingly as possible. So, Bosch was basically following the mindset of his time, but we can’t deny he did it in quite an original way, and even with some dark humor. I mean, if you take a close look at the Hell panel of his Garden of Earthly Delights, you’ll find that some of the punishments go from being creepy to being so strange and ironic they’re funny (I’d even say meme-worthy).
The Seven Deadly Sins
The mystery of Bosch’s life only feeds the enthralling and chilling nature of his paintings. Although most likely his works are a reflection of the late Medieval mindset, his unique way of blending techniques of his time to embody the sins of humanity resulted in original works that inspired the weirdest generation of artists in the future, not to mention other artists who have found a muse in the dire beauty of his work. There is no way to prove that, but perhaps, as surrealists believed, he was unconsciously depicting the secrets of the human mind, its evil and its goodness, unaware of the huge step he was giving in the world of art history.
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