Touched by the Devil

The most Python-esque movie on Netflix right now is a documentary about a Dutch painter who’s been dead for 500 years. Hieronymus Bosch: Touched by the Devil is 90 minutes of great TV. Even if it peters out as a film with a single narrative thrust, who doesn’t want to hear Bosch scholars going off script about what they see in his paintings?

I think of Monty Python first, not just because of Bosch’s obvious influence on Terry Gilliam, but because the comic levity in Touched by the Devil (written and directed by Pieter van Huystee) comes from the straight-laced curators poring over the minutest details of a painter with a head full of superstition and hallucinatory ch-cha-cha, reminiscent of John Cleese playing the prim foil to the surrealism unfolding around him.

Bosch detail one

Like a good adventure film, we meet the A team early on: the conservator, the photographer, the dendrologist, the infra-red specialist, et cetera. With the nerdily handsome Matthijs Ilsink as its leader, the Dutch team visits museums trying to make deals to borrow the major works of Bosch for a commemorative show in his hometown, Den Bosch, for the quincentennial of his death in 2016.

But how do you identify a true Bosch? The team has so much digital technology at its disposal, including infra-red photos that show the drawings underneath the paint – apparently Bosch “took notes” like anyone – that they’re able to speculate on which specific assistant helped draw which composition, and which revisions “the master” himself painted.

While a part of me wants to protest that this kind of history lacks poetic imagination, the defenders of a more intuitive approach to art history in Touched by the Devil are the duo from The Prado, who seem like real jerks. “You either have an eye for it or you don’t,” one says about her eye for identification. It seems like a cover for snobbery, or fear of what we might find out, what assumptions we might have to throw away.

Bosch detail two

You have to admit, though, that the jerks from The Prado raise a fair question: Are we really willing to stop seeing “a Bosch” as the work of a singular mind? Is it a modern prejudice, to believe in “a master” making an artistic (or religious) statement? Can we really know what that person, Bosch – Jheronimus van Aken, El Bosco, Jerry from Bosch – was trying to say? It’s something we who love old art have to think about – or maybe, resign ourselves to giving up on.

The conflict Touched by the Devil prepares you for is whether or not The Prado, which has the most Bosches of any museum, agrees to lend them back to the Dutch for the quincentennial show in his small town museum. Spoiler alert: They co-operated, except for the one piece Ilsink and the Dutch really wanted, Bosch’s most complete masterpiece, The Garden of Earthly Delights. Like the British Museum refusing to lend the statuary taken from The Parthenon back to Greece for the 2004 Olympics, some masterpieces just look so perfect right where they are, adored by people who can truly appreciate them.

Writer-director van Huystee is of course Dutch, and his sympathies are clear. You get the sense, partly from his interaction with John Hand, the U.S. National Gallery curator who delivers his historically nuanced opinions about Bosch with a Trumanesque twang, that there’s an affinity between Dutch and American people.

It’s a fitting conclusion when Ilsink, who’s spent much of the film busting curators’ bubbles, figures out with scientific certainty that a painting of Saint Jerome in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City is actually a true Bosch. The pride with which that curator comes to Den Bosch to present the painting resolves the dramatic problem presented by The Prado.

Rarely do I see a feature documentary and wish it were a TV series, but I’d have watched hours more of this.

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