Both lawyering and art history can be a slog, each a wash of obsessive detail that’s meaningless without context yet riveting to those in the know. In the new Dutch documentary Hieronymus Bosch: Touched by the Devil, the minutiae often win out. The 2015 film by Pieter van Huystee styles itself an investigation, following a team of Dutch art historians as they cross the globe, visiting museums to examine Bosch’s work for stories, for veracity, for fraud.
Even when the stakes are high, a close-up infrared investigation of a 500-year-old painting can play onscreen as exacting and dull. The high-resolution images of Bosch’s twisted work are gorgeous, but it’s hard not to feel like the doc is a poor substitute for seeing the art in person. Watching distinguished older art historians sit in sterile conference rooms around the world negotiating with the staff of far-flung museums, who are reluctant to lend out their artwork for an exhibition or to have its origins called into question is, frankly, boring, and can inspire serious class envy — which is a shame. Even now, Bosch’s lively, populist work remains resonant.
Huystee’s fault is one of emphasis. Fewer than thirty of Bosch’s canvases survive, yet they’re known and beloved around the world for vivid, fantastical, and disturbing imagery. How would Bosch’s paintings have been received and interpreted at the time of their creation? What does that say about the way our conception of morality and sin today? The most fascinating moments in Hieronymous Bosch come from art historians once they’ve turned to the work of history: creating meaning and context, wrestling with these questions. The film renders this conversation beautifully, and in moments begins to feel urgent in spite of itself.
Hieronymus Bosch: Touched by the Devil
Directed by Pieter van Huystee
Opens July 28, Film Forum