In The Waning of the Middle Ages, the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga wrote that in Bosch’s time “a somber melancholy weighed on people’s souls… . It was fashionable to see only suffering and misery, to discover everywhere only signs of decadence and of the near end—in short, to condemn the times or to despise them.” Bosch, an anguished moralist, was painting in 1500, and the semi-millenarian mood may well have given impetus to his apocalyptic vision.

Bosch’s training and travels remain obscure; his pictures cannot be dated; his iconography is baffling; his work filled with disturbing and often inexplicable details. He came from a family of painters who originated in Aachen, in northwest Germany; he took his name from Hertogenbosch, a town in the southern Netherlands where he worked. The two surviving portraits of Bosch look quite different. The better one, a pencil drawing, portrays him wearing a low cap and plain seven-buttoned jacket, with lined face and wrinkled neck, widely spaced eyes, long nose, thin lips, and grim, world-weary expression. He belonged to an orthodox religious brotherhood, the Confraternity of Our Lady, and Larry Silver therefore rejects the theory that he was a member of a heretical sect. Though Bosch’s output was fairly small—forty drawings and three dozen authenticated paintings—his works were large in scale, ambitious in theme, and packed with a swarm of weird creatures.

Bosch’s training and travels remain obscure; his pictures cannot be dated; his iconography is baffling; his work filled with disturbing and often inexplicable details.

Silver’s chapter on fifteenth-century Netherlandish art reveals how different Bosch’s sketchy faces and sticklike figures were from the full-bodied, vividly realistic portrayals by his predecessors Rogier Van der Weyden and Jan van Eyck, as well as those by contemporaries like Hugo van der Goes. Their tranquility and harmony, their sunlit meadows and ministering angels, were completely alien to Bosch. In his art, even the Garden of Eden has slimy monsters crawling out of polluted waters.

Bosch creates a world of temptations, deceptions, and dangers, of folly, depravity, and sin, swiftly followed by a terrifying Last Judgment, the faint hope of Heaven, and the almost inevitable punishment of Hell. His harsh religion offers a frail bulwark against the overwhelming horrors in this world and the dangers of damnation in the next. There’s an intense concentration of human ugliness—beady eyes, hooked or bulbous noses, serious dental defects—in Christ Carrying the Cross and of evil in Ecce Homo, where (Silver writes) blood from the wounds of the nearly naked Christ “not only streams down His body but even leaves a [smeared] red footprint on the platform.” The startlingly modern conflagration in The Last Judgment looks like the firebombing of Dresden or Hiroshima. In the Ascent of the Blessed even salvation is depicted as a gigantic swirling vortex, leading to a brilliant solar light, which propels the blessed into paradise. The usually reverent and celebratory Adoration of the Magi, in Bosch’s version, seethes with treacherous gifts, smuggled evil, active hostility—and the Antichrist himself.

Bosch’s three greatest works—The Haywain, The Temptation of St. Anthony, and The Garden of Earthly Delights—are all triptychs, meant to be read from left to right. All portray Eden in the left panel, earthly sins in the middle, and energetic demons tormenting bewildered sinners in the Hell panel on the right. In The Haywain the overloaded yellow wagon—like a huge sponge that soaks up sin—heads straight for Hell. There, amidst other horrors, a toad savors a woman’s genitals, a reptile slithers over a man’s, and a disemboweled upside-down corpse is hurried into the flames. Bosch provides a striking contrast to Brueghel’s fruitful and restful Harvesters (1565) let alone to Constable’s Hay Wain (1821), which captures the quiet contentment of a sunny English summer.

St. Anthony, describing an imitation of Christ’s passion, features flying toads and fish; strolling fish with bird’s legs and horse’s hoofs; a bird cut open at the back, smoking like a steam engine and carrying human passengers to their doom; men with the hindquarters of a horse; a giant bending over on his knees with a jagged portcullis hanging from his Nacktarsch; and the devil disguised as a naked woman, with a come-hither look, who bathes in a nearby stream. The saint tries to protect himself from this formidable array of repulsive hybrids by absorption in study and prayer.

The ironically named Garden of Earthly Delights is perhaps the most bewildering picture in the history of Western art. It seems to portray the sin of lust. The secular middle panel not only seethes with botanical excrescences and viscous creatures—a noxious mélange of birds, insects, amphibians, and reptiles—but also with scores of naked couples, both supine and erect, and in contorted tantric positions, engaged in joyless, uncongenial congress. In Hell, where the torments ingeniously fit the crimes (Bosch would have been a superb illustrator of Dante), a pig in nun’s habit makes love to a disgusted sinner while another unfortunate defecates his coin collection into a cesspool.

Silver points out that in each of the three thematically unified triptychs a divine or human figure—Christ in The Haywain, St. Anthony in the Temptation, and the Tree Man in the Hell panel of the Garden—gazes straight out of the picture, makes eye contact with the viewer, and “reinforces the warning elements in the picture.” The Tree Man—who resembles Bosch’s portrait—is his most enigmatic and fascinating figure. His rotten, ulcerated, leg-like and knee-jointed trunks, pitched precariously in floating boats, support a huge, cracked-open, torso-like egg. This egg hatches three roasted revelers who continue to drink beneath a glowing inferno.

The Tree Man’s human head, with pale skin and scraggly brown hair, twists around and gazes back at the viewer while supporting a large platter that covers his forehead. On the platter, devils and humans, both dressed and naked, dance eternally around a red, bloated, stomach-shaped bagpipe. The menacing smoke of brimstone emerges from a pipe’s broken bulb. In the original drawing, the Tree Man’s head supports a nailed platter with a giant drinking jug, a tall ladder, and a man grasping a line that passes through the bare branches of a tree and supports “the evil crescent banner of Islam.”

Bosch’s hybrid creatures came not only from close observation of repulsive fauna, but also from biblical passages like Revelation 9:7: “the shapes of the locusts were like unto horses prepared unto battle … and their faces were as the faces of men.” Bosch uses Flemish realism to create surreal worlds. He defies the laws of nature, ignores conventional distinctions between men and animals, and makes freaks and monsters entirely credible. His recurrent images include evil birds of prey and funnels inverted on human heads, fish in the air and birds under water, anal penetration and human copulation with beasts. His demons devise ingenious instruments of torture and relish their sadistic punishments. Devils, for example, “either force-feed human victims or actually cook them on spits, in frypans, or in cauldrons over a fire.”

Silver’s book is awkwardly written (“simply no longer held valid”) and poorly structured. His argument would have been clearer and more effective if he considered the major works in roughly chronological order. But this valuable book reveals his mastery of this difficult material. He includes many comparative illustrations, discusses the religious background, explains the complex symbolism, carefully describes the phantasmagoric paintings, and convincingly shows what they mean.

Bosch profoundly influenced Pieter Brueghel’s Triumph of Death. In this secular version of Bosch’s apocalypse, a skeletal infantry with coffin-shaped shields, led by Death on a scrawny pale horse, dominates a scorched landscape filled with piles of skulls and rotting corpses. In the lower right-hand corner a youthful, well-dressed couple, succumbing to the delights of music, seem oblivious to the holocaust that surrounds them. The lady ignores her fate, but the man glances anxiously back at the strains of the fiddling death’s head who mimes their desperate Liebestod. Brueghel’s masterpiece, combining—like Bosch—the fantastic and the real, reflects the cruelty of Spanish rule in the Netherlands just as Picasso’s Guernica reflects the cruelty of the Nazi bombing of Spain.

Picasso (with Dalí and the Surrealists) had more in common with Bosch than any other modern painter. The Netherlands was ruled by Philip II of Spain, soon after Bosch’s death, from 1556 to 1579. The King bought many pictures by Bosch, and Picasso studied The Haywain and The Garden of Earthly Delights in the Prado. Both Bosch and Picasso portray a surrealistic transformation that puts reason to flight. Both express, in their theater of cruelty, the demons unleashed from the unconscious and the searing pain of the damned. Bosch’s hybrid teratology, his contagion of human and animal species, appears in Picasso’s minotaurs and harpy-women, in his Dreams and Lies of Franco, and in the screaming-mouthed anguish of the equine and human victims in Guernica (both 1937). Dora Maar imitated Picasso’s surrealistic elements in her photographs: the human hand extruding from a seashell, and the spooky fetus of an armadillo, with domed veined head and triangular snout, scaly carapace, limp-jointed forefeet, and sharp, twisted claws.

Dora Maar, neé Markovitch (1907–1997), was born in Paris, the daughter of a French mother and Croatian architect father. The family moved to Buenos Aires in 1910, and she returned to Paris in 1926 to study art and become a professional photographer. She joined the Surrealists, who lived in squares and loved in triangles, and had affairs with some of them.

When she met Picasso in 1935, his personal life was in chaos. He’d broken with his intolerably bourgeois wife, the Russian ballerina Olga Khokhlova, and was involved with Marie-Thérèse Walter, who was about to give birth to his daughter Maya. He consoled himself, like a matador with his tertulia, with a court of admirers who gathered in the morning to watch him shave. He also managed to hold on to both Marie-Thérèse and Dora for most of the war.

The legendary meeting of Dora and Picasso at the Café Deux Magots mixed danger and desire. Dora picked up a knife, spread her fingers on the table and drove the blade between them—sometimes missing her mark and covering her hand with cuts and blood. (Roman Polanski filmed a similar scene in Knife in the Water.) Like Sylvia Plath, who bit Ted Hughes’s cheek to show her feral character and heighten her erotic attraction, Dora drew blood on their first meeting. But the vampiric Picasso would soon draw blood himself.

Dora spoke Spanish, a great bond between them. In his illustrated copy of Buffon’s Histoire Naturelle, Picasso wrote: “Per Dora Maar tan rebufona.” Anne Baldassari notes the conflation of the Catalan bufona (cute) with the French rebuffade (she who rejects). She could also have noted that the Spanish rebufo (muzzle-blast) intensifies the rejection as the playfully self-deprecating Buffon-bouffon (buffoon) undermines it.

In 1935 Picasso, influenced by the French poet Max Jacob, temporarily shifted from painting to derivative and pretentious Surrealistic poetry: “a bedbug of sun eating the fragrance of the dying hour”; “the cuttlebone bites its throne at the lamp.” Baldassari treats these effusions with po-faced seriousness. Gertrude Stein, after listening to Picasso read them for several hours, told him: “Pablo, go home and paint.” Baldassari’s toleration for this stuff—as well as for the strain of the mystical and occult that runs through her book: astrology, alchemy, wizardry, and cryptic talismans—clashes with her admiration for his superb realistic drawings of Dora (naked and clothed, asleep and awake) and her vivid documentary photos.

Baldassari argues that the aesthetic dialogue of Picasso and Dora was “one of the most exacting and genuine exchanges in all modern art,” though for him it was not nearly as stimulating and significant as his encounters with Braque and Matisse. Dora—mistress, model, and muse—certainly played an innovative role by recording in a series of photos the eight distinct stages in the creation of Guernica. Influenced by black and white newspaper photos, Picasso portrayed not violence itself, but the effect of violence. When a Nazi general asked, “Did you do that?,” Picasso famously replied: “No. You did!”

Picasso (with Dalí and the Surrealists) had more in common with Bosch than any other modern painter.

Picasso desired, seduced, abducted, impregnated, maddened, and abandoned his women, and Dora eventually felt captured in the talons of a devouring beast. Picasso both idealized Dora’s Slavic beauty and Latin elegance and portrayed her anguish and torment in his series of Weeping Women. In the best of them (now in Madrid) the modern St. Lucy has her eyes, streaming with tears, turned or torn out of their sockets. Her prehensile fingers and huge canine teeth grip and bite a crumpled handkerchief that cannot absorb her overflowing tears. Her skin is a morbid chartreuse, her shawl a funereal violet. Though she notes these paintings were an intensely personal and violent assault on Dora’s character, Baldassari adds that “her ability to participate in his suffering” enabled Picasso to portray through her his own “inner torments” during the Spanish Civil War. His explanation was, as usual, not terribly illuminating: “For years I’ve painted her in tortured forms, not through sadism, and not with pleasure, either; just obeying a vision that forced itself on me. It was the deep reality, not the superficial one.” Dora, engaged in a hopelessly self-destructive competition, made her own inferior copies of his weeping works.

Picasso, living in Paris during the German occupation and fearing he’d be extradited, applied for French citizenship. The secret service, rejecting his claim, reported that he’d “always upheld radical ideas, evolving toward Communism” (he actually joined the Party in October 1944), had “no legitimate claim to naturalisation,” and “should be considered suspicious from the point of view of the nation.”

Baldassari, describing one of the most crucial moments in her book, unhelpfully notes in passing that in 1945 “Dora was slipping out of Picasso’s life; their relationship had been slowly falling apart since 1943.” The chronology at the very end of the book reveals that in May 1945, after a series of violent outbursts, Dora had a nervous breakdown, was confined for two months in a mental home, and was treated by Jacques Lacan. The vulnerable, tragic Dora, who’d supplanted Marie-Thérèse, was then replaced by Françoise Gilot.

Picasso: Life with Dora Maar is a gorgeous book, enveloped by Dora’s colors: chartreuse endpapers and violet edges. It has 180 plates, about 200 smaller illustrations and twenty-one subtle onionskin inserts of scraps and messages that passed between Dora and Picasso, including a reproduction of his dried blood. Baldassari, director of the Picasso Museum in Paris, is certainly knowledgeable. But apart from the useful emphasis on Dora’s photos, she does not add much to the biographies of Picasso and Dora by James Lord (1993) and Mary Ann Caws (2000), and to the excellent catalogues Picasso and the Weeping Women (1994) and Picasso and the War Years (1998).

Eighty percent of this unevenly structured book concerns the end of the 1930s, and the chapters on the war years seem rather superficial. Baldassari’s style is overheated (“their passion intensified, rising in a crescendo”). She writes with turgid obscurity of Dora’s “experiments with ubiquitous identity,” of painting that “invades our psychic space and colonises our senses,” and of “poly-cardinal parameters [that] provided a vector for redirecting the work’s symbols.” The awkward translation, confusing “Vice” and “Vise,” recklessly deviates from standard English in phrases like “this criminal tentative” and “in the medium term.”

A more radical fault occurs when Baldassari asserts that Max Jacob was interned by the Vichy authorities in the prison camp at Drancy and died in Buchenwald, in Germany. In fact, Jacob, a Jewish-born Catholic convert, was arrested in a monastery and died of pneumonia at Drancy before he could be sent to the gas ovens in Auschwitz, Poland.

Baldassari fails to mention Picasso’s evasion of moral responsibility and inhuman refusal to help his close friend, his disingenuous insistence that “There’s no point in doing anything. Max is an angel. He doesn’t need our help to escape his prison.” Picasso felt Max was doomed. Living precariously in occupied Paris, he did not want to associate himself publicly with a notorious Jewish homosexual with whom he’d once shared a room, even a bed, in their Bateau Lavoir flat. It’s essential to state, in a book on Picasso’s war years, that he finally cared more about his own reputation than about the life of his old comrade.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 25 Number 4, on page 75
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