Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Magnus Fiskesjö

Magnus Fiskesjö is an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Cornell University.

His books include China Before China: Johan Gunnar Andersson, Ding Wenjiang, and the Discovery of China's Prehistory (with Chen Xingcan) and The Thanksgiving Turkey Pardon, The Death of Teddy's Bear, and the Sovereign Exception of Guantanamo.

Recently I asked Fiskesjö what he was reading. His reply:
Some time ago, almost by accident, I came across a book at the Brooklyn Museum shop entitled Hieronymus Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights by Hans Belting (Munich and New York: Prestel, 2002).

It is an amazing book. It is by Hans Belting, an outstanding German scholar of art, but I was not yet very familiar with his work at the time. I am not an art historian really, but an anthropologist, and bought the book simply because I knew of Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516) as a tremendously fascinating and also enigmatic painter.

Already as a kid, growing up in Sweden, I remember seeing reproductions in books about Bosch's paintings, including this most famous and strange painting which is the focus of Belting's book, The Garden of Earthly Delights. I remember at a young age marveling at the crowded scenes in these amazing paintings, overflowing with mysterious figures, clearly chock full of significance, but not easy to understand. As a slightly older teenage backpack traveller, I once even saw the original painting, which is a triptych on display in Madrid's Museo del Prado.

When I saw the book on the shelf, I knew that this painting is said to be one of the most difficult to interpret -- what is this staggeringly rich and intriguing "Garden of Earthly Delights", is it Paradise? and how does it relate to Hell, and the other parts of the painting? The painting has four parts, because there is also a painting covering the front of the two doors when the triptych is closed: it shows God at a moment of hesitation, sitting on a small cloud above an Earth that so far has only plants, not animals or people, on the third day of his Creation as imagined in the Bible's story).

And thus I decided to buy the book: To re-live some of the sense of wonder I once had when first faced with this enigmatic painting, and to find out what this unknown author had to say about it. Also, I was spending the day at the Brooklyn Museum with my son, 7 years old at the time, and he was going to get a children's book, so I was going to get one book for myself, as well.

The book is a feast. Even though the font size of the text is a bit too small, and the very rich color reproductions could also have been bigger, the richness of this small book is really striking. It does give full illustrations of the painting, including both the triptych, as well as the front doors. But the mainstay of the book is in Belting's attempt to reinterpret the painting. He presents the results of what is clearly longstanding efforts to think hard about the painting and dig deep into every aspect of it, its creator and his times, his benefactors and patrons, the world he lived in, the things he must have seen and heard.

Belting writes about how Bosch created a new form of art that almost no-one (apart from Pieter Bruegel the Elder) was really able to inherit, despite the attempts of many to copy his fantasy scenes while lacking in that something fundamental that motivated and infused Bosch's near-unique paintings.

Belting emphasized two factors that not many other writers have taken up, or not as fully, even those that go beyond the earlier misguided attempts to interpret especially the middle panel as cleverly masked heresy, or, as a moral warning against hedonism, or in some other such way. On the one hand, Belting suggests the importance of what appears to be a loophole in the Bible allowing for the possibility that Paradise might have continued on Earth (or, in other words, that life on earth might be imagined differently from conventional understandings). On the other hand, Belting highlights the contextual importance of the contemporary discovery of the Americas. Belting suggests that in the window of time before this newly encountered India of the West became better known (and in due course exploited, brutalized, enslaved and colonized) by Europeans, there was a window of opportunity for speculation about the Americas as an alien place on Earth -- and by extension, of alternative worlds. Bosch took up this opportunity, and this is how he imagined the Garden of Earthly Delight, the middle panel. Belting also, through some daring conjectures about the circumstances of the painting, delves into the connections with the political utopianism of the times, such as Thomas More's Utopia.

It is possible that the paradise on earth painting by Hieronymus Bosch is something like an imaginary of what life on earth could be if it was different, even radically different, and that the main point of the painting is to spur this kind of radical rethinking of what is possible. Only that in an era when Church dogma still ruled if not supreme then almost supreme, and heresy might be dangerous, Bosch was forced to deploy the language of Christianity even as he was challenging people to think outside of this dogma?
Learn more about Magnus Fiskesjö at his Cornell faculty webpage.

--Marshal Zeringue