Hieronymus Bosch’s Tightrope: Traversing the Outer and Inner Landscape


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Early Morning, October, pond series

Two days ago, the weather changed. A storm was approaching and huge clouds were swirling above me. I was up at the pond painting and, as we all have at one time or another, I looked up to find dancing cloud animals. As I relaxed and looked more closely, I saw the head of a goat with clearly articulated horns and teeth, flared nostrils and a lavish curly white beard. If I squinted my eyes a bit, it appeared all the more vivid and real. The more I stared at it the more elaborate it became. As the goat-cloud moved, tossing a richly embroidered cloak over its massive shoulders, I could see its eye sockets and even eyebrows. It lifted its head and, as cloud animals inevitably do, it vanished.

Looking back down at my painting, I was struck by how differently I had been experiencing details during my meditative observation of the goat-cloud as opposed to my practice of painting at the pond. These past few weeks I’ve been confounded by the intricate detail of my winter scene, which now is increasing in complexity by the day with the emergence of hundreds of tiny buds on the willow branches and thousands of blades of acid-green grass spreading across the violet bank. I have been trying to cope with all this detail by reaching for bigger brushes and squinting to see the big shapes and gestures in spite of all the tiny bits and pieces.

So I found myself that morning one moment looking at a puffy cloud, imagining extravagant details, and the next moment looking at a detailed forest and trying to see the broad forms. Why is it that tiny details overwhelm and confuse my grasp of the character of my scene in Nature (the outer landscape), and on the other hand these details are the very thing that animates and enlivens my imaginary world of cloud animals (the inner landscape)?

The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch, 1480-1505


I often think about the Hieronymus Bosch painting The Garden of Earthly Delights. This is a great example, as are many of his paintings, of the mysterious tightrope walked between Nature without and Nature within. The details in Bosch’s painting at first look very natural but as you look more closely they become more and more imaginary. Are the images of pleasure and terror sourced from a Nature external to the artist or do they flow from the Nature within? And how much real separation is there between this inner and outer “Nature”?

I don’t have a conclusion but I find this fascinating nonetheless. My impulse when creating from within is to embellish but my impulse when depicting what is without is to reduce. My fantastical visions seem to need embellishment to be fully realized but the challenge of painting Nature is to only put in what is absolutely necessary and leave out all the rest, like an arborist pruning trees down to the essential major branches. Empty/fill, inhale/exhale, another dance of two opposing impulses. Somehow the filling and emptying relate to each other, as if I am taking details out of one and pouring them into another, out of my scene into my imagination. I picture all those tiny blades and twigs and sticks that I prune away spilling out of my mind’s eye into the clouds and there transforming into great parades of tapestry-draped goats and horses.


2 thoughts on “Hieronymus Bosch’s Tightrope: Traversing the Outer and Inner Landscape

  1. I find your comments Bakhtinian. His analysis of the grotesque imagery in the literary work of François Rabelais is also deeply applicable to 15th and 16th century artists that explored the grotesque body such as Bosch, Breugel and François Desprez (who was an influence on Dalì, for example his 1565 engravings ‘Les songes drolatiques de Pantagruel’). The natural world is key; the open, hybrid, devouring/devoured nature of the grotesque body leads to disease, death, and decay (marked by carnival mirth instead of sadness) fertilizing the earth and giving rise to the birth of new life in a never-ending cycle that upends the linear thinking of cause-and-effect. We are stardust and compost!


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