Friday, October 11, 2013

"The Garden of Earthly Delights"

"The Garden of Earthly Delights," Hieronymous Bosch, triptych on oak panels. Created sometime between 1490 and 1510.

A hi-res version of the above is available on this link to the Prado Museum.

Remember when...
...You were a teenager and you decided to take the Third Class Radiotelegraph Operator's License, which was required by the FCC to turn radio stations on in the mornings and off at night, because you figured this would increase the chances of being hired in broadcasting so you could someday have a job other than being a waitress, so you learned enough math to take the test and - quite incredibly - pass it, and years later you wondered why you ever let the License lapse because it would add a certain panache and possible suggestion of math skills to your current resume, but meanwhile, you had to get to somewhere in inner-city Detroit to take this test, so you got up at three or four o'clock in the achingly bleak cold to be driven there to be at the test on time, and you took the brain-shattering test, one of many such brain-blasting efforts you would make in your lifetime, by the way, only to muse much later that the acidity and quantity of brain-eating tests are probably the reasons you love to write periodic run-on blog sentences even though you know it is not funny to most readers and very wrong in a grammatical sense, not to mention a bad example to other writers, and after the FCC test you decided that, it being around 9:00 a.m. and you were too revved-up to eat anything, you would go and reward yourself by seeing a first-run movie in a big-city theater, so you happily settled into the 8th row center in front of the massive, pre-multiplex cinema movie screen because there was, excitingly, practically nobody else there and, in the dark, freezing, hollow, desolate vastness of the cavernous echoing theater, in a city that was in its own slow slide into despairing, decaying ruin...  you got to see the brand- new movie.... The Exorcist. 

ATTENTION to scary-movie avoiders: you can just skip this. You don't have to watch anything just because it's there.

If you weren't around when this movie first came out, you can't grasp the sensation this movie made on a surprised public. To see a young girl suffering on screen was itself enormously shocking, not to mention all that Hell and demonic possession business.

And by the way, while I'm on the subject of this movie, am I the only one who thought that the little weird orange statue of the creepy bird monster moved around mysteriously in the movie all by itself and nobody noticed or commented on it? Was that a set continuity glitch or was it part of the plot? If you've seen this movie recently let me know what you think, because I'm not watching it again.

To further the line of thought in the above paragraph, the concept that all matter is alive is called Hylozoism.  Tell me you didn't consider this possibility as a child. Now, there's a scary concept to explore! Stop chewing on the end of your pencil, your pencil hates that!

I'm writing all this because I'm trying to set you up psychologically for Heironymous Bosch's "The Garden of Earthly Delights". I first encountered the third panel in an art book in my youth and so for years I thought the whole piece consisted of the single panel, Hell. (This was back when you couldn't get information about anything on the internet and so one would stumble innocently upon something strange and wonder to yourself, what the heck....?) I'm embarrassed to say that it was many years before I figured out there were two other panels to this iconic work.  The first panel depicts Paradise, the center panel represents the Garden of life's pleasures, and the third panel, as I said, is Hell.

Please note that even in Paradise, animals are gleefully eating other animals and tearing them to pieces, so in Bosch's mind, death and eating animals was always part of God's master plan. If I ran the cosmic Zoo, that is not really what I would do, but that's another blog post.

But Hell! That's where Bosch has let his imagination soar, or sink, or however you want to call it.

Detail of right panel, "Hell", of "The Garden of Earthly Delights", taken from this Wikipedia discussion of the painting.  Maybe it's not such a good idea to look at these images too closely right before you go to bed.

One interesting thing about this imagery is that Bosch has kept the scale of the fantastic in proper proportions so that it seems more visually credible. For example, the musical instruments are gigantic in Hell, but they are painted in detailed accuracy and in correct scale with one another.

This is the particular closeup of Hell (again, taken from the Wiki link for the discussion of this painting) that has stayed in my own mind all these years.It may have been that ghastly face that pulled me in,  perhaps that gaze is a magnet that pulls us into the painting, that makes us take a closer look.

There has been lots of analysis by scholars on this haunting painting and of course, modern eyes see this painting very differently than the medieval mind.(If you're interested in medieval theology and Netherlandish art, be sure to read about the subject more fully in online sources, it's interesting.) This work still possesses the power to appeal to our emotions, though, and I'm pretty sure there are an awful lot of people today that don't react to this panel on a purely scholarly level. They are thinking more along the lines of... please God, have mercy, spare me this end.

I don't want to want to delve too deeply about religious belief and the power of fear on this blog, although it's an interesting topic, isn't it? The point that I want to make today is that art can contain the power to shake us up, to make us stop and think about our own lives, to possibly even change our ways. Movies have supplanted the stationary visual image in their power to shape public culture. Where does this leave painting?

I think that painting still has the capacity for being more than a color coordinated decoration for the walls, an object for intellectual examination or an investment that we may someday recoup or leave to our heirs. It can inspire us, or make us quake in fear. There is an intellectual aspect and an aesthetic aspect to artwork but the key is the emotional impact, which resonates differently in each of us.

A great painting is a memorable painting, an tenacious image that gets placed in your brain.  The key to great artwork is that you can revisit it again and again to look and think about it, according to your own personal time frame and desires. It's a synergistic combination of content, technique, and viewer participation and understanding. (By the way, did you know that there is a theological doctrine of synergism? It involves the idea that salvation involves some sort of mutual cooperation between human freedom and the divine. I suppose that's what the concept of "grace" might be about. Perhaps it's as if someone throws you a ladder to salvation but you are the one who climbs up, or not, as you choose. Hmmm.)

A great painting is a silent portal with the thinnest of membranes. It's a portal that you can move in and out of, or not at all, as you wish. You can linger for a moment, for hours, or not at all. Time is yours to control. In this Bosch painting, you are welcomed to get a glimpse of an artist's idea of Hell. The good news is that you don't have to spend eternity there - you can take your eyes away any time you want to. I'll address this concept of imagery and frozen time later on in this blog. I think I need to think this through more fully.

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