The art museum is a multitudinous place of discovery in Hieronymus Bosch: Touched by the Devil, a documentary that follows a group of art historians and technicians who seek to restore paintings by the titular Dutch artist and whose entire enterprise is persistently undermined by a nagging question: Are all of the works attributed to the 15th-century painter actually his own? Director Pieter van Huystee posits this as the driving force of a film that gradually becomes consumed by the unknowable, as efforts to evaluate Bosch’s oeuvre using infrared technologies and state-of-the-art restoration tools cannot proffer a definitive answer. For curator Pilar Silva Maroto, the tech obscures a more imperative question about the eye of the onlooker: When she asks what constitutes the technique of a master, it isn’t so much a rhetorical pondering as an assessment of taste and aesthetic perception through an ability to see, a point van Huystee precisely explores with numerous close-ups on portions of various paintings.
Silva Maroto, the head of Flemish, Northern School and Spanish painting for the Prado in Madrid, laments that “some people can’t tell a Velázquez from a Goya” as a means to assert her prowess as an art historian. However, given that her comment comes in direct refutation of a Dutch professor who believes the technologies being used for attribution show details in brushstroke and paint application that the eye can’t see, one can infer her connoisseurship extends to territorial allegiances. In fact, Mathijis Ilsink, a Dutch historian, asserts that Bosch has been appropriated by Spain as one of their own. While in her office, Silva Maroto has a simmering exchange with van Huystee, who remains off screen, in which she assures him that the Prado owns the rights to most of the paintings and that the Kunsthal in Rotterdam owns just two others. By including this exchange and emphasizing artworks as pieces of property, van Huystee highlights how the ownership of art serves as a marker of capital for distinguishing one institution over another.
In a sense, this thread takes Touched By the Devil away from Bosch’s paintings themselves, because the doc is no mere appreciation piece, nor an advertisement for the sanctity or edifying calm of the museum space. Instead, it showcases the mechanism behind the exhibit that places curatorial efforts into fascinating light. Van Huystee also supplements the film’s anchoring debates with instructive bits of historical data, as when a wood expert explains how determining the felling of the tree can date wood pieces used in an original work. Elsewhere, conservator Catherine Metzger marvels at Bosch’s skill, pointing to a creature and exclaiming: “That demon is fabulous.”
Indeed, Bosch’s legacy stems from his reputation as a master of darkness, whose paintings of hell, demonic figures, and elaborate lands of suffering or pleasure, as in The Garden of Earthly Delights, mark his contribution to image-making and stoking the popular imagination of the horrific. Yet, as Metzger elaborates, “he painted demons with affection and love.” Van Huystee treats the art world similarly, as a vicious sort of intellectual space that’s often engaged by its loving participants out of a fundamental need to resolve the potentially irresolvable mysteries of the past.
When the verdict comes down on several Bosch paintings near the film’s conclusion, van Huystee bestows a monk-like solitude to one of the historians as he retreats to a darkened room, with a bright spotlight in tow to take another, closer look at one of the paintings in question. It’s unclear precisely why he’s chosen to revisit the work, whether it’s for closure or comfort, but whatever the reason, as in an engagement with all visual arts, it’s clearly derived from an unceasing obsession to see with absolute clarity.