Monday, March 13, 2017

Surreal! Bosch & Venice at Palazzo Ducale and Rita Kernn-Larsen at the Guggenheim


Bosch e Venezia - Photo: Cat Bauer
(Venice, Italy) Bosch has intrigued the world for centuries, with his frightening images of eternal damnation, dreamy fantasies of paradise, and surreal visions of naked humans cavorting on earth. When I first saw Bosch's Visions of the Hereafter downstairs at the Palazzo Ducale many years ago, I was stunned to see he had painted it around 1505-15 -- it looked so contemporary. The Way to Heaven, with angels guiding the good up through a white light, and The Way to Hell, with demons gleefully dragging sinners into a fiery pit stamped a deep impression on my mind.

Jheronimus Bosch
Polittico delle Visioni dell’Aldilà
1505-1515 circa
Last year, in celebration of the 500th anniversary of Bosch's death, the small Noordbrabants Museum in ‘s-Hertogenbosch (or the more pronounceable Den Bosch - "the forest"), the hometown of Jheronimus van Aken, asked museums around the world to loan them their Bosch-works -- none existed in the town in the Netherlands where Bosch was born, and on which he based his nom de plume.  

The Nordbrabants Museum had no paintings to offer in exchange. But they had knowledge, and were actually there, on the Bosch scene. This bold request by the director, Charles de Mooij, prompted major museums like the Accademia in Venice, the Louvre in Paris, the Prado in Madrid, the Met in NY and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, to come together to lift up their smaller sibling, resulting in a Bosch revival. Although 21st Century technology has cast new light on the 16th Century artist, there are still more questions than answers.

Venice is the only city in Italy that has works by Bosch -- The Martyrdom of Saint Uncumber (Wilgefortis, Liberata), a triptych; Three Hermit Saints, also a triptych; and the four panels of Paradise and Hell (Visions of the Afterworld). Just how Bosch's works of art ended up in Venice is one of the focuses of the exhibition now showing at the Doge's Apartments in Palazzo Ducale entitled Bosch e Venezia.

Jheronimus Bosch
Trittico di Santa liberata o Wilgerfortis
1495-1505 circa
After a major campaign of restoration financed by the Bosch Research and Conservation Project and the Getty Foundation of Los Angeles, and a trip up North to Den Bosch for the Noordbrabants' stellar show, the works are now back in Venice, refreshed

One result of the restoration confirmed that it was, indeed, Saint Uncumber who was the subject of a triptych after it was revealed that the female saint definitely had a beard. In Italy, her name is Saint Liberata, which means Liberty, and that is the name I like the best. The teenage aristocrat Wilgefortis, aka Saint Liberata, grew her beard after her pagan father, the King of Portugal, promised her in marriage to a pagan prince. Wilgefortis was Christian, and had taken a vow of chastity, so she prayed to become unattractive. Miraculously, she sprouted a beard and the marriage was called off, which made her father furious, so he had her crucified. Saint Liberata is the saint you pray to if you want relief from tribulations, particularly if you have an abusive spouse and wish to be "disencumbered."
 
Hypnerotomachia Poliphili - Photo: Cat Bauer

During the time of Bosch, the Renaissance in Venice was in full throttle, with the aging Bellini, and the young upstarts Giorgione and Titian as star painters. Aldus Manutius was revolutionizing the publishing industry, and, in 1499, had published the mysterious Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, also known as Poliphilo's Strife of Love in a Dream, complete with erotic illustrations, which is included in the exhibition. The illustration of dreams (or nightmares) had cranked into gear.

To this day, scholars, theologians, and lay people still try to reconcile how the good Christian, Jheronimus Bosch, came to paint such sexually explicit and ghoulish scenes. There is documentary evidence (one written by Bosch's contemporary, the artist, Albrecht Druer) of the fabulous bed of Count Henry III of Nassau-Breda that slept 50. Count Henry owned Bosch's extreme vision, The Garden of Earthly Delights. Count Henry was a buddy of Emperor Maximilian I; he also educated Maximilian's grandson, the future Emperor Charles V. Apparently Count Henry liked to hold banquets, get his guests drunk and toss them into the big bed. Was Bosch involved with a secret cult? Was he working on commission to indulge the fantasies of his wealthy patrons? Or was his work simply the product of his wild imagination?

Jheronimus Bosch
Polittico delle Visioni dell’Aldilà
1505-1515 circa
The second emphasis of the exhibition attempts to explain the reason why Bosch's paintings are in Venice by connecting the works to the Venetian Domenico Grimani, a cardinal and humanist with an extensive collection of art. Grimani purportedly scooped up Bosch's works after his death in 1516. According to the exhibition:

There are three protagonists in the exhibition. The first is, of course, Jheronimus Bosch himself; the second is Domenico Grimani, a formidable prince of the Church, intellectual, collector of books and "artistic" objects of all kinds, and the recipient of three works by Bosch: he was a leading Renaissance figure. And the third protagonist, whose presence is perhaps a little more "indirect," is a fascinating homme d'affaires, printer, dealer in luxury goods, and intellectual in his own way and the friend of artists: the Flemish Daniel van Bomberghen, who we believe was responsible for bringing Bosch's works to the attention of Cardinal Grimani.

The Way to Hell (detail)
Although I am not a scholar, to me, it is not that strange that Bosch's paintings should end up in Venice. During the Renaissance, Venice was a hive for humanists. There was a long-established trade route between Venice and the Northern European merchants. Their headquarters, the Fondaco dei Tedeschi at the foot of the Rialto Bridge had burned in 1505; a more magnificent structure was built in less than three years. The German merchant Jacob Fugger, another important Renaissance figure and arguably the richest man who ever lived, had not only funded Maximilian I, he was the intermediary between the Emperor and Pope Julius II, and one of those responsible for Charles V becoming Emperor. There was a steady flow of goods, information and lots of money between Renaissance Venice and the North.

Although there is no evidence that Bosch was ever in Venice, there is documentation that Durer was; he is included in this exhibition. Someone else who definitely was in Venice during that period was Erasmus of Rotterdam, the Prince of Humanists himself. Erasmus asked Aldus Manutius to publish his Latin translations of Hecuba and Iphigenia in Aulis by Euripides, and personally came to Venice in 1508. Erasmus was also a member of the "New Academy" of Hellenists, founded by Manutius.

On a whim, I did some research, and learned that Erasmus had been educated at one of the houses of the Brethren of the Common Life in 's-Hertogenbosch when he was a teenager in the early-mid 1480s. Was there any connection between Erasmus and Bosch? Or was it just a coincidence that they were in the same town at the same time?


The Church of San Bartolomeo, just moments away from the Fondaco, was the house of worship for the German community in Venice. (I made a short video this morning so you can see just how close they are.) Durer had been commissioned by Jacob Fugger to paint The Feast of the Rosary for the church. Everybody Who Was Anybody in the Renaissance world was at the church when the mathematician and magician Luca Pacioli, a good friend of Leonardo da Vinci, gave his famous lecture on Euclid's elements on August 11, 1508, ten days after the inauguration of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi.

The point is that an artist such as Bosch who pushed the limits would surely have been known in certain circles of Renaissance, an intricate network that extended beyond the Alps. Today, some works of Bosch would probably be banned on Facebook.

I have read many arguments about what Bosch was up to -- no one knows for sure, just like no one knows for sure who wrote the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, and no one knows for sure who designed the Fondaco dei Tedeschi. There are many mysteries about what was going on during the Renaissance in Venice, but one thing is certain: it is riveting stuff!
 

Anonimo seguace di Jheronimus Bosch
Tentazioni di sant’Antonio
metà del xvi secolo
2017 Credit © Archivio fotografico – Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia
The third aspect of the exhibition focuses on other artists who were inspired by Bosch's trippy art; Bosch spawned an entire genre of surreal, nightmarish, fantastic images, which continue to fascinate.

AppTripper
The thing I loved most about Bosch e Venezia is the totally cool Virtual Reality trip into Visions of the Hereafter, courtesy of Apptripper. Strap on your VR glasses and headphones and plunge straight into the painting. Spin down to Hell, then flutter up to Paradise and experience Bosch in another dimension. It's the first time Virtual Reality has been implemented in a museum in Italy. I did it three times.

Bsoch - The Fall - AppTripper

Jheronimus Bosch and Venice runs through June 4, 2017. Go to Palazzo Ducale for more information.

The Apple by Rita Kernn-Larsen (1934)
Kunsten Museum of Modern Art, Aalborg
Meanwhile, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection has inaugurated its new "Project Rooms" (that used to be the café) with Rita Kernn-Larsen, a prominent Danish Surrealist artist that Peggy met in 1937 in Paris, and invited to exhibit at Guggenheim Jeune in London the following year. I really liked the artist, who is little known outside Denmark, and the intimacy the Project Rooms added to her works.

Rita Kernn-Larsen. Surrealistic Paintings runs through June 26, 2017. Go to the Guggenheim for more information.

Ciao from Venezia,
Cat Bauer
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog
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