Under most circumstances the Tivoli Cinemas would play an art-themed documentary like “Hieronymus Bosch, Touched by the Devil” for one night only. Maybe two at most.
But Pieter van Huystee’s film has a Kansas City connection that makes it of more than routine interest to folks hereabouts. Which is why on Sept. 16 it begins an open-ended run at the Westport art house.
The movie follows a team of art historians and museum types as they prepare for a recent special exhibition of the paintings of the Dutch master Hieronymus Bosch in his hometown of Den Bosch in the Netherlands.
The show celebrated the 500th anniversary of the artist’s death, and featured as many of his paintings as the curators could lay hands on (only about two dozen authenticated Bosch works are recognized).
What makes this of local interest is that in researching Bosch’s output the experts determined that a painting held for the last 70 years by the Nelson-Atkins Gallery of Art, most of that time in storage, was indeed done by the hand of Bosch and not one of his imitators or pupils.
The “discovery” of the Nelson’s “The Temptation of St. Anthony” comes in the last 20 minutes of the documentary.
Up to that time the film focuses on the efforts to locate every Bosch painting in existence … and eliminate from contention some that were done by his imitators.
An expert studies tree rings on the wooden panels on which Bosch painted, isolating those that suggest drought years, and compares those dates to the historical rainfall records. By roughly dating the time of the wood’s harvesting, he can deem inauthentic any “Bosch” done on wood processed after the artist’s death.
Art historians use infra-red technology to reveal images hidden beneath the paint, images that the artist rejected and covered over.
And a good deal of time is devoted to efforts by the Dutch organizers to woo the bigwigs at Madrid’s Prado Museum, repository of the largest single collection of Bosch works. The goal is to obtain Bosch’s masterwork, the triptych “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” for the big show.
Problem is, “Garden” is regarded as one of Spain’s greatest national treasures and the Prado folk are loathe to loan it out. What ensues is a genteel but forceful display of curatorial territoriality.
All of this is mildly interesting to the layman. More problematic, it’s presented in a dry, semi-academic fashion.
Riding to the rescue is Bosch himself. When the camera zooms in to study the paintings in detail, the film comes alive. It lingers lovingly on the grotesque, fantastic creatures that populate the paintings, on the twisted naked forms of damned humans, and on the eerily beautiful nighttime landscapes illuminated by distant fires (images no doubt spawned by the conflagration that all but leveled Bosch’s hometown when he was a boy).
Finally we get to the Nelson-Atkins’ “St. Anthony,” which the Dutch experts noticed in an old museum catalog and decided would be worth a trip to Kansas City to check out.
A side-by-side comparison of “St. Anthony” with established Bosch works reveals so many subtle similarities that the experts conclude the Nelson’s painting is the real deal.
The film ends with the arrival of “The Temptation of St. Anthony” in the Netherlands, where it is unpacked before an appreciative crowd of art specialists. Julian Zugazagoitia, the Nelson’s CEO and director, is on hand for the unpacking and says it’s like having one of your children win the Nobel Prize.
The painting is now undergoing study by the Prado’s experts. When it returns to KC (no date has been set) it will trigger what Zugazagoitia promises will be a big celebration.
(At the Tivoli.)
Read more of Robert W. Butler’s film coverage at butlerscinemascene.com.
‘Hieronymus Bosch, Touched by the Devil’
Not rated. Time: 1:26.