Kunstsammlung NRW
Visions Alive, Foto: Alissa Krusch / Kunstsammlung

Extreme Close-Up: Digital Projects on the Work of Hieronymus Bosch

His paintings resemble hidden object games that swarm with gruesome yet quirky forms. Far ahead of their time when they were first invented, these forms remain fascinating and equivocal today: on the 500th anniversary year of their ‘creator’s’ birth, they continue to inspire and delight people of all ages. Independent of the major exhibitions on view this year, an impressive number of digital initiatives and projects allow the works of Hieronymus Bosch to be celebrated in highly diverse contexts. High time then to take another close look at this "digital revival."

For #32 by Alissa Krusch.

Throughout 2016, it has been virtually impossible – whether in the cultural pages of magazines and newspapers or online – to avoid reading of the Jubilee exhibitions and initiatives marking the 500 anniversary of the death of the painter Hieronymus Bosch (circa 1450 to 1516), whose works were seen this year in Hamburg and’s-Hertogenbosch, and are currently on view currently in Madrid. Only circa 45 works by this late-medieval master have survived, most of them paintings on wood panel, plus a few drawings. All are extremely fragile, and some cannot travel at all. Moreover, the main exhibition in ’s-Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands – with its spatial limitations – was completely sold out just a few weeks after it opened. For those who were/are unable to visit any of these exhibitions, or would like to discover just what digitalization is capable of, the following websites are recommended:

Research Using Digital Resources: The Bosch Research and Conservation Project

The Bosch Research and Conservation Project (BRCP) approaches the topic from the perspective of conservation-relevant research: beginning in 2010, the team has been publishing their research results on the website http://boschproject.org/. Collaborating on the project since 2013 have been altogether 20 partner museums in Europe and the US.

On the website, visitors are immediately invited to combine three different types of reproduction of Bosch paintings with one another to form interactive views. The upper field of the image shows the painting as it appears to the naked eye – albeit at a higher resolution and with a powerful zoom. The lower area of the image is subdivided, and provides views of the painting produced either by infrared photography or infrared reflectography, depending upon the movements of the mouse.

To begin with, only three paintings were visually accessible online in this way (menu option: Bosch in Venice); recently, the team has added another level under the menu option "BRCP book (new!)": The more than 30 detail images, draw from various paintings, supplement a recently-published research volume – and moreover "in a way that is only possible online."

Interactive Online: an Adventure in the Garden of Earthly Delights

With his multimedia initiative, consisting of film, virtual reality documentation, and an interactive tour, the Dutch filmmaker and producer Pieter van Huystee has chosen an interactive approach. The tour, which is available at https://tuinderlusten-jheronimusbosch.ntr.nl/en#, transport users to a lovingly detailed, professionally programmed panorama of the Garden of Earthly Delights – one of the highpoints of the collection of the Prado in Madrid. When the site is called up, it offers a choice between “freely exploring” or “taking a tour” through 15 highlights that are scattered across the painting. Users who opt for free exploration may also decide to view a nice animation that shows the triptych closing and opening, offering views of either its inner or outer panels, both featuring the same high resolution.

This simulation of the triptych opening and closing is already a good example of how the potentialities of digital technology can go beyond what is possible for a museum visitor who stands before the original. Distributed across the inner panels are dozens of small markers that offer ready access to further content. A simple mouseclick activates the zoom function, expanding the detail automatically while an audio commentary and additional text displays explores the selected area in detail. For those who prefer reading to listening, the text can be called up on the right-hand side to supplement the soundtrack. The navigation function is highly intuitive; a practical detail is the appearance of small checkmarks for content that has already been explored.


Superficial Entertainment: the Virtual Picture Show at “Hieronymus Bosch. Visions Alive“

In February of 2016, the newspaper Die Welt launched an attempt to explain why "Bosch’s oeuvre has always been virtual reality." In the spirit of this idea, the so-called image spectacle “Visions Alive” offers a multimedial visual experience that may appear slightly odd to the classical museum lover. On July 6, the enterprise Artplay Media opened a multimedia exhibition in a Berlin warehouse, which will close on October 30 (the admission charge is €12.50/per adult, for more information: http://boschalive.com/de/main-de).

After passing through an entrance hall, visitors enter the actual "exhibition" – two rooms lined with image screens. Visitors then follow a 35 min. loop, with most people sitting down or lying on the floor to acquire an optimal overview of the whole, composed of individual pictorial elements. The backgrounds of the panorama are derived loosely from pictorial motifs and landscapes, and are to some extent set into motion. There is much activity in the foreground as well: birds fly, fish and figural groups ascend from the water, an owl hoots at us with closes eyes. Accompanied by soft music, it is not difficult to become captivated by the fantasy and creativity of this artist. Entirely absent however it is any art historical context, any commentary, any temporal or spatial localization of the paintings themselves.

What Remains?

From a museum perspective, the "Paragone controversy" that pits original artworks against virtual reproduction has long since been laid to rest in many institutions. Digital technology serves us well when it comes to displaying, visualizing, and interconnecting elements in ways the original simply cannot do. Of course, even in the digital age, no one dismisses the aura of the work, nor that the physical location of the museum will long remain the primary, the most important reference. But digital presentations can provide insight into the artist’s cosmos by rendering the knowledge contained in databanks productive and visible. Moreover, high-resolution images provide closer looks at rarely exhibited or extremely sensitive objects, their rear sides, or even layers that remain hidden beneath their outer surfaces. At the same time, educational offerings exploit digital technology, for example using storytelling or other playful approaches, can awaken a sense of fascination for an artist, eliciting – often for the first time – a desire to travel to see the originals at firsthand.

These functions are fulfilled by the various Bosch projects in highly diverse ways – from ‘hard’ research approaches all the way to superficial entertainment formats. Together, they form an enthralling spectrum of possibilities. And all of this at your home PC – where in at least in two of the three instances (’s-Hertogenbosch and Madrid), users can prepare for an upcoming museum visit by taking advantage of an elaborate website.