The 25 surviving panels by the so-called “Devil’s Painter,” late Medieval artist Hieronymus Bosch, belong to some of the biggest museums in the world — the Louvre in Paris, the Prado in Madrid, the Accademia in Venice, the Metropolitan in New York and the National Gallery of Art in Washington. For seven years, Charles de Mooij, the director of a tiny museum in the Netherlands, has been struggling to secure loans to bring these paintings back to their humble birthplace: the town of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, in the Netherlands, where Bosch was born in 1450, and where he conjured up many apocalyptic visions of devils on ice skates, giant birds in paradise, and men with flutes for noses.
With the help of the Getty Foundation, the Noordbrabants Museum has finally, impressively managed to bring 20 of Bosch’s 25 panels home, as well as 19 of 25 drawings, just in time for the 500th anniversary of the artist’s death. Early next year, the loaned paintings will be shown in Hieronymus Bosch – Visions of Genius, the largest Bosch retrospective ever staged. The blockbuster exhibit will be part of a trippy town-wide anniversary extravaganza called Bosch500, featuring a Bosch Parade, 3D recreations of the artist’s freakish figures dancing through the streets, and a canal tour called “The Boat Trip of Heaven and Hell.”
Convincing these industry giants to lend their masterworks to the Noordbrabants Museum, which had no paintings to offer for loan in return, was a big project with several collaborators, and involved intensive conservation and restoration efforts. First, the city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch agreed to fund a research program about the life and work of its star artist, in order to offer museums new knowledge about each painting in return for their loans. The Getty Foundation got on board with the project, providing $410,000 in grant money, about half of which was used to conserve and restore three key works consisting of several wood panels. The remaining half of the grant money will fund a website featuring detailed, high-resolution images of 40 of Bosch’s paintings and drawings. The findings of the vast research project will be made public in a documentary in November, and later published in two glossy art books in 2016.
The Prado museum declined to loan their most prized Bosch, “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” but offered “The Haywain” instead, which will leave Madrid for the first time in 450 years. Also on view will be “Four Visions of the Hereafter,” restored with the Getty’s help, featuring four freakish panels depicting “Fall of the Damned,” “Hell,” “Earthly Paradise” and “Ascent into Heaven.”
“Bosch is one of the very few painters who — he was indeed more than a painter! — who acquired a magic vision,” Henry Miller wrote in 1957. “He saw through the phenomenal world, rendered it as transparent, and thus revealed its pristine aspect.” The 500th birthday bash of that magic vision is shaping up to be a good one.
Hieronymus Bosch – Visions of Genius will be on view at Noordbrabants Museum (’s-Hertogenbosch, The Netherlands) from February 13 until May 8, 2016.