Hieronymus Bosch and the cinema screen

Filmmaker Phil Grabsky writes about Flemish painter Hieronymus Bosch's long-lasting influence on the artists that came after him, including visionary 20th and 21st Century filmmakers

'The Garden of Earthly Delights' by Hieronymus Bosch - courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

It seems bold in a world where even last year’s ‘new thing’ can seem quickly out of date to suggest that artists today are still under the sway of a somewhat mysterious Dutchman who died exactly 500 years ago. But he was no ordinary artist: he was Hieronymus Bosch. 

If ever there was an artist that demonstrated that we need to appreciate the artists of the past to explain the artists of the present it is Bosch.  He was unique at the time and, even, today, when one looks at his paintings one is shocked by their originality, their imagination and their narratives. In the 20th century, would we have had the surrealists without their having been exposed to Bosch’s works? Salvador Dalí studied his work closely and declared him a primary influence – you can see it in the way Dalí takes the normal and makes it abnormal. That would be a good exhibition: Bosch & Dalí! 

'The Ship of Fools' by Hieronymus Bosch (ca 1500-1510)

If there is one thing EXHIBITION ON SCREEN films show consistently it is that all great artists passionately study the greats that went before them.  And not only painters. Think of film-makers like Terry Gilliam and Guillermo del Toro: to see their wonderful films is to travel into a Bosch landscape. It has even been said that George Lucas claims Bosch as an inspiration for Star Wars. Recently a digital journey has been made simulating a journey through Bosch’s 'Garden of Earthly Delights' but no doubt many video gamers already have used his extraordinary landscapes as inspiration. 

There is a danger with all this too: it is easy sometimes to see Bosch only in terms of his weird and wonderful images, his dark and bloody imaginings.  What is so interesting about our new film THE CURIOUS WORLD OF HIERONYMUS BOSCH is that it shows he was far more than that.  Look at his full body of work not just the most famous pieces; look carefully at the images and metaphors. Try to understand the world he came from and was painting for. Look at his drawings that are spectacular. Look at his paintings of travellers and saints – simpler artworks than Garden of Earthly Delights or The Haywain but absolutely the work of a master artist and, this is key, story-teller. 

For it is the story-telling that I think marks him out as a great influence on the great artists that have followed.  To focus on one painting like the Prado’s 'Garden of Earthly Delights' (with all its gory details) is a mistake – one needs to look at the full and varied body of his work and, in doing so, one sees how he is trying to communicate with the people of his time. That’s what the most significant artists – in whatever genre – desperately try to do today and those that have looked deep into Bosch’s work undoubtedly learnt a great deal from a true master.

[by Phil Grabsky]

Phil Grabsky is an award-winning documentary film-maker. With a film career spanning 25 years, Phil and his company Seventh Art Productions make films for cinema, TV and DVD.

For more events in the Curzon Art series, including new episodes of Exhibition on Screen on Claude MonetAmerican Impressionism, and Michelangelo please check the Curzon website.

Exhibition on Screen: The Curious World of Hieronymus Bosch screens at our cinemas on Thursday 3 and Sunday 6 November. 

Irene Musumeci