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Bosch and his path to radiance

What an early copy of the legendary artist’s picture at the Khanenko Museum reveals
17 January, 2017 - 11:16

“The Temptations of Hieronymus Bosch” project centers on one of the earliest copies of the famous Triptych of the Temptation of St. Anthony. The picture, which dates back to the early 16th century, must have been painted at the artist’s studio. Bohdan Khanenko acquired it in Munich at the turn of the 20th century, and it is now part of the Kyiv museum’s collection. There are no other Bosch’s original artworks or copies at Ukrainian museums.

A few years ago the picture was removed for restoration which is still underway. Museum visitors have now a unique opportunity to see the picture under restoration after a long pause. There is a convincing reason why the exhibit should be held – in 2016 the world marked the 500th anniversary of the death of a Northern Renaissance master.

AN INJURED PICTURE

Olena Zhyvkova, the exhibition curator, deputy director for research of the Khanenko Museum, tells the triptych’s restoration history as if it were a detective story. “The Temptation of St. Anthony was ‘sick’ for many years. Two panels were chronically ‘sick’: they showed blisters, there was a constant danger of crumbling, and we regularly battled with this. The old frame also cracked and needed restoring,” Zhyvkova recalls. Finally, the museum management took risk and allowed the picture to be taken off the display for a thorough restoration. The Khanenko Museum joined the Bosch Research and Conservation Project, an international research project that started in 2010 and embraced the museums that keep Bosch’s original pictures or their copies.

The first examinations by the Art-Lab scientific and technical inspection bureau led the museum people into a deadlock. It turned out that the triptych’s two panels were painted on cloth, not on wood. But neither Bosch nor his studio had ever painted on cloth. Is the ‘Kyiv triptych’ a late copy? To clarify the situation, we sent the artwork to the National Research and Restoration Center of Ukraine (NNDRTsU).

It turned out that what confused the experts was the older work of restorers. Moreover, this in fact caused the triptych’s two panels to “fall ill.” “It was a vogue among early-19th-century restorers to transfer the wood-painted pictures onto cloth. It is a very dangerous, difficult, and, as we can see now, mindless process which ruins the layer of paint. This injures the artwork,” says Tetiana Bychko, NNDRTsU deputy director general for restoration. “As our examinations show, all the parts of the triptych were painted by the same master, but their conditions differ greatly. When the picture was being transferred onto cloth, there was an inevitable deformation. The right panel [not transferred onto cloth. – Author] was in an almost ideal condition, while the surface of the other two panels is so much bumpy! I think these faults occurred as a result of transfer. I also know that pictures were lost altogether, following this kind of actions. I must say the situation is ideal in our case, in spite of this process, for the greater part of the author’s painting has remained intact.”

AN INVISIBLE ARTIST

Paradoxically, some researchers are still not sure who created the pictures ascribed to Bosch (incidentally, his real name was Jeroen van Aken). The only proven fact of his life story is that he died on August 9, 1516, in ’s-Hertogenbosch, the Netherlands. Infographics at the Khanenko Museum exhibit can help one learn about some events in Bosch’s life, the particularities of painting in the early 16th century, and interpretation of figures in his pictures. Preparing the exhibit, museum people studied sources in the English, German, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Polish, and Dutch languages because there are in fact no contemporary materials on this subject in Ukrainian or Russian.

“When we began to work with the sources, we were very glad: ‘Hurrah! There’s so much literature. We will examine it and know everything about Bosch!’ But when we began to study it, we were terrified. We saw that there was no unanimity even about whether or not Bosch painted ‘Bosch’s pictures,’” says Anastasia Matselo, head of the Khanenko Museum’s Western European art section. “Some opine that it was really Hieronymus Bosch from ’s-Hertogenbosch, but, according to some other versions, the pictures ascribed to him were created by several people.”

The museum people managed to trace more closely the history of the copy of The Temptation of St. Anthony that found itself in Kyiv. It was only clear at the beginning of research that it was a copy of Hieronymus Bosch’s picture whose original is kept in Lisbon and that Bohdan Khanenko had acquired it in 1911 at the latest. As they examined archives, they came to know that the triptych had been first mentioned as property of “Doctor Gumbald.” Experts presume that it was in reality the psychiatrist Henri Guimbail whose collection was auctioned off in Amsterdam in 1905, while Bohdan Khanenko bought the triptych five years later from the Munich art dealer Julius Boehler.

The Temptation of St. Anthony in the collection of the Museum of Ancient Art in Lisbon is considered to be the original triptych. “Firstly, the Lisbon original is much larger. Secondly, some small details are expressed more carefully there. This applies not so much to key figures as to little men in the composition’s background,” Zhyvkova says. “Bosch’s accuracy in depicting details really impresses – but not in our picture. This is why we are saying this must be a studio work. The studio made replicas which served as models for more and more other replicas. And what indicates the true value of an artwork is its distance from Bosch’s studio.”

NOT-SO-TERRIBLE MONSTERS

Another component of the exhibit is a series of 16th-18th-century engravings from the Khanenko Museum’s collection. They are linked to Bosch’s heritage in terms of images and themes. As a matter of fact, one of the displayed engravings is also about the temptation of St. Anthony. Frans van den Wyngaerde made it in the 17th century on the basis of a picture by David Teniers the Younger.

“We presented the early works of Hieronymus Cock. The exposition also includes engravings based on the works of two geniuses who followed Bosch – Pieter Bruegel the Elder and David Teniers. The infographics show direct citations from Bosch’s works, which occur in these authors’ oeuvres. But, although the citations are direct, Bruegel and Teniers were people of a different era and of different dispositions, and each of them put something of his own into these subjects. And all this broadens the theme of Bosch,” Olena Shostak, head of the Khanenko Museum’s graphics section, explains.

The Temptation of St. Anthony will continue to be restored after the exhibit. The museum people will go on tracing the history of the “Kyiv triptych.” Likewise, the Bosch Research and Conservation Project will not grind to a halt. It will take researchers years to find out who created the pictures ascribed to Bosch, and no one know if they ever find the answer to this question.

“I could not understand for a long time why Bosch’s artworks, which comprise so many horrible things, never look terrible. I feel no fright. I think it is because Bosch himself was not terrified because he saw radiance,” Zhyvkova muses. “Each of us always strives for radiance. Whoever remains staunch and keeps his personality intact on this path is sure to find this radiance. This is what the Triptych of the Temptation of St. Anthony and the entire oeuvre of Bosch is all about.” The figure of this artist looks very blurred in history, but does it really matter if his pictures have been inspiring in people a belief in radiance for many centuries?

“The Temptations of Hieronymus Bosch” project centers on one of the earliest copies of the famous Triptych of the Temptation of St. Anthony. The picture, which dates back to the early 16th century, must have been painted at the artist’s studio. Bohdan Khanenko acquired it in Munich at the turn of the 20th century, and it is now part of the Kyiv museum’s collection. There are no other Bosch’s original artworks or copies at Ukrainian museums.

A few years ago the picture was removed for restoration which is still underway. Museum visitors have now a unique opportunity to see the picture under restoration after a long pause. There is a convincing reason why the exhibit should be held – in 2016 the world marked the 500th anniversary of the death of a Northern Renaissance master.

AN INJURED PICTURE

Olena Zhyvkova, the exhibition curator, deputy director for research of the Khanenko Museum, tells the triptych’s restoration history as if it were a detective story. “The Temptation of St. Anthony was ‘sick’ for many years. Two panels were chronically ‘sick’: they showed blisters, there was a constant danger of crumbling, and we regularly battled with this. The old frame also cracked and needed restoring,” Zhyvkova recalls. Finally, the museum management took risk and allowed the picture to be taken off the display for a thorough restoration. The Khanenko Museum joined the Bosch Research and Conservation Project, an international research project that started in 2010 and embraced the museums that keep Bosch’s original pictures or their copies.

The first examinations by the Art-Lab scientific and technical inspection bureau led the museum people into a deadlock. It turned out that the triptych’s two panels were painted on cloth, not on wood. But neither Bosch nor his studio had ever painted on cloth. Is the ‘Kyiv triptych’ a late copy? To clarify the situation, we sent the artwork to the National Research and Restoration Center of Ukraine (NNDRTsU).

It turned out that what confused the experts was the older work of restorers. Moreover, this in fact caused the triptych’s two panels to “fall ill.” “It was a vogue among early-19th-century restorers to transfer the wood-painted pictures onto cloth. It is a very dangerous, difficult, and, as we can see now, mindless process which ruins the layer of paint. This injures the artwork,” says Tetiana Bychko, NNDRTsU deputy director general for restoration. “As our examinations show, all the parts of the triptych were painted by the same master, but their conditions differ greatly. When the picture was being transferred onto cloth, there was an inevitable deformation. The right panel [not transferred onto cloth. – Author] was in an almost ideal condition, while the surface of the other two panels is so much bumpy! I think these faults occurred as a result of transfer. I also know that pictures were lost altogether, following this kind of actions. I must say the situation is ideal in our case, in spite of this process, for the greater part of the author’s painting has remained intact.”

AN INVISIBLE ARTIST

Paradoxically, some researchers are still not sure who created the pictures ascribed to Bosch (incidentally, his real name was Jeroen van Aken). The only proven fact of his life story is that he died on August 9, 1516, in ’s-Hertogenbosch, the Netherlands. Infographics at the Khanenko Museum exhibit can help one learn about some events in Bosch’s life, the particularities of painting in the early 16th century, and interpretation of figures in his pictures. Preparing the exhibit, museum people studied sources in the English, German, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Polish, and Dutch languages because there are in fact no contemporary materials on this subject in Ukrainian or Russian.

“When we began to work with the sources, we were very glad: ‘Hurrah! There’s so much literature. We will examine it and know everything about Bosch!’ But when we began to study it, we were terrified. We saw that there was no unanimity even about whether or not Bosch painted ‘Bosch’s pictures,’” says Anastasia Matselo, head of the Khanenko Museum’s Western European art section. “Some opine that it was really Hieronymus Bosch from ’s-Hertogenbosch, but, according to some other versions, the pictures ascribed to him were created by several people.”

The museum people managed to trace more closely the history of the copy of The Temptation of St. Anthony that found itself in Kyiv. It was only clear at the beginning of research that it was a copy of Hieronymus Bosch’s picture whose original is kept in Lisbon and that Bohdan Khanenko had acquired it in 1911 at the latest. As they examined archives, they came to know that the triptych had been first mentioned as property of “Doctor Gumbald.” Experts presume that it was in reality the psychiatrist Henri Guimbail whose collection was auctioned off in Amsterdam in 1905, while Bohdan Khanenko bought the triptych five years later from the Munich art dealer Julius Boehler.

The Temptation of St. Anthony in the collection of the Museum of Ancient Art in Lisbon is considered to be the original triptych. “Firstly, the Lisbon original is much larger. Secondly, some small details are expressed more carefully there. This applies not so much to key figures as to little men in the composition’s background,” Zhyvkova says. “Bosch’s accuracy in depicting details really impresses – but not in our picture. This is why we are saying this must be a studio work. The studio made replicas which served as models for more and more other replicas. And what indicates the true value of an artwork is its distance from Bosch’s studio.”

NOT-SO-TERRIBLE MONSTERS

Another component of the exhibit is a series of 16th-18th-century engravings from the Khanenko Museum’s collection. They are linked to Bosch’s heritage in terms of images and themes. As a matter of fact, one of the displayed engravings is also about the temptation of St. Anthony. Frans van den Wyngaerde made it in the 17th century on the basis of a picture by David Teniers the Younger.

“We presented the early works of Hieronymus Cock. The exposition also includes engravings based on the works of two geniuses who followed Bosch – Pieter Bruegel the Elder and David Teniers. The infographics show direct citations from Bosch’s works, which occur in these authors’ oeuvres. But, although the citations are direct, Bruegel and Teniers were people of a different era and of different dispositions, and each of them put something of his own into these subjects. And all this broadens the theme of Bosch,” Olena Shostak, head of the Khanenko Museum’s graphics section, explains.

The Temptation of St. Anthony will continue to be restored after the exhibit. The museum people will go on tracing the history of the “Kyiv triptych.” Likewise, the Bosch Research and Conservation Project will not grind to a halt. It will take researchers years to find out who created the pictures ascribed to Bosch, and no one know if they ever find the answer to this question.

“I could not understand for a long time why Bosch’s artworks, which comprise so many horrible things, never look terrible. I feel no fright. I think it is because Bosch himself was not terrified because he saw radiance,” Zhyvkova muses. “Each of us always strives for radiance. Whoever remains staunch and keeps his personality intact on this path is sure to find this radiance. This is what the Triptych of the Temptation of St. Anthony and the entire oeuvre of Bosch is all about.” The figure of this artist looks very blurred in history, but does it really matter if his pictures have been inspiring in people a belief in radiance for many centuries?

By Maria PROKOPENKO, photos by Mykola TYMCHENKO, The Day
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