Sunday, June 05, 2016

The Wood of Earthly Delights

Two months since my last post, I'm thoroughly ashamed. What is even more surreal is that we moved house one month ago already! This being a major reason we've been so busy and I haven't been keeping up with the blog. In keeping with my fine tradition of having too much on my plate on top of planning a move, we spent 4 days in Berlin immediately before the move, and I've just come back from a long weekend in Tours. So things have been a-transpiring, even if I haven't had the energy to write about it. But that will be for another day. To ease back into blogging, here's a short (hopefully) post about our trip to Den Bosch (formally, s'Hertogenbosch, but you can see why they came up with a short version) in the Netherlands.

Way back in October last year, I read an article in the Guardian about a major upcoming exhibition on Bosch in Den Bosch, one that would bring together 20 out of Bosch's 25 surviving paintings in order to celebrate the 500th anniversary of his birth in the city from which he took his name. Even if the name doesn't mean anything to you, you've probably seen some of his wacky, surrealist paintings, such as the Garden of Earthly Delights.

Or maybe the Simpsons riff on it
They may not be the 'prettiest' paintings ever, but they're fascinating. You can stare at a Bosch painting for hours and always see something new. And while at the time, presumably the fantastical beasts and monsters of a Bosch were meant to literally put the fear of God into you, today they read more as trippy, Dali-esque curiosities.

Without rehashing the Guardian article entirely, the story of how the curator of a small, provincial museum in the Netherlands managed to get these world-renowned masterpieces assembled is also inspiring. One reason museums may loan pieces is to get a loan back the other way in the future. But the Nordbrabantsmuseum in Den Bosch basically had nothing to give. So, instead, its curator managed to persuade the town and the Getty Foundation to fund a research project into the artist and his works. So we got a major exhibition and to learn more about the paintings, and, judging by what we saw visiting Den Bosch, the town got a major tourist investment in return.

Speaking of the number of tourists, I heard about this back in October 2015, but tickets were not yet on sale, and I thought it would be fine to book when we got back from New Zealand in March. This turned out to be an error of judgement. The exhibition turned out to be so popular that when we looked in mid-March, the exhibition, which ran until early May, was already completely sold out apart from a few slots on weekday evenings. So we ended up having to leave work early one Tuesday evening and drive the two hours to Den Bosch to be there for out 8 pm timeslot, and then drive back to Brussels, arriving home around midnight.

Coincidentally, it happened also to be King's Day when we were there. Everything I've heard about King's (formerly Queen's) Day suggests that it's a huge party. However, the day we were there was freezing cold and pouring with rain (geez, a lot has changed in the intervening six weeks), and while there were plenty of empty Heineken cans littering the streets, the party seemed very much to have died down. But it was still fun to see it a little, without all the huge crowds you presumably get in Amsterdam.

The exhibition itself was really crowded though, which made me a bit of a grumpy Gus. I really don't like having to shuffle along, hemmed in by other people, barely even able to see the works in question. But it was still cool to see. My favourite works were probably the drawings. I know he made the paintings just as much as the drawings, but somehow you feel closer to an artist as a real, live human being by seeing the drawings. Maybe that's just me. I suppose it's the seemingly spontaneous, unstudied nature of a drawing as opposed to the more laboured work of a painting. (I know some drawings may be carefully constructed and some paintings done freely, but that's just the feeling I get.) Sort of more like seeing an author's first draft or manuscript notes rather than the printed book.

Study of beggars and cripples (by a follower of Bosch, but this was my favourite of the drawings)
The town had gotten into the spirit with a sprinkling of sculptures based on creatures from Bosch's paintings. We didn't get to see them all, due to the weather and the limited time we had, but I think they are going to stay there (it seems silly to remove them in any case), so it would be fun to explore the town and find them all if we ever find ourselves there again.

As for the town itself, it was a cute, small market town, very Dutch-looking with the typical tall, narrow buildings with stepped roofs. I don't know what there is to see there when there isn't a "once in a lifetime" exhibition going on, so I imagine everyone concerned is raining blessings and praise down on the visionary museum director. A fun little expedition for us, and a reminder we're lucky to be living here in Europe, where a quick jaunt to a neighbouring country to see an exhibition is entirely feasible!