In an age of renewed interest in nonfiction cinema as art, documentary profiles of artists are caught between two mindsets. On the one hand, many filmmakers understand the need to distinguish their work from the handsome, informative coffee table books that accompany museum exhibitions. They use cinema as a tool to encourage new ways of seeing, rather than treating it simply as a means of distribution. Yet some audiences and critics still expect unambitious catalogs. Just this week, the excellent Hieronymus Bosch: Touched by the Devil was criticized by the New York Times for not including 20th century Surrealism as context, at the end of a short review more focused on assessing what isn’t in the film than what is.
Fortunately, all is not lost. I am happy to report that 2016 has already been a fantastic year for documentary profiles of artists. Randall Wright uses reenactment in Hockney (review) to inhabit the lonely experiences that led his subject to a unique style. In Call Her Applebroog, Beth B uses her mother’s art as a tool for understanding her character, treating identity as a puzzle that comes together when seen from different angles. The same approach was taken by Marcie Dale in Eva Hesse (review), the most lucid and moving chronicle of an artist’s life that has been released this year.
July has brought us two more, instantly among the year’s best. Laura Israel’s Don’t Blink — Robert Frank and Pieter van Huystee’s Hieronymus Bosch: Touched by the Devil are films about the act of looking, with the eyes of both artist and spectator. They bring art to life, though with essentially opposite means. Israel presents Frank’s photographs with the speed of his shutter, while van Huystee peers into Bosch’s paintings as a scientist through a microscope.
Israel’s film isn’t just a PowerPoint of photos, of course. She chronicles much of his life, and takes a memorable trip up to the Atlantic Canada landscape where Frank spent much of his later life. But the real triumph here is the way that the film moves through the body of Frank’s work. Don’t Blink isn’t just a catchy title, but also an excellent piece of advice for the audience. Rather than linger on any individual image, Israel and editor Alex Bingham breeze through with breakneck speed.
Some audience members may very well find this irritating. But the impetus is Frank himself, whose own attitude toward audiences was sometimes a gruff. Israel highlights interview footage in which he gets so frustrated with the same old questions that he swears and walks out of the frame. Why would a documentary about Frank indulge in the minutia he found so irritating? Israel’s frenetic use of his photos many not capture the deep essence of any individual image, but it does approach the experience of the photographer and the irreverent speed of his art.
Van Huystee, meanwhile, has made a film about peering intently. Bosch’s paintings, known for their strange details and their tremendous size, become ever richer when the eye moves close. It is therefore no wonder that the curators planning an exhibition at the Noordbrabants Museum in Den Bosch, timed to the 500th anniversary of the artist’s death, would like to inspect his work as closely as possible and with the newest technology.
Rather than construct a traditional biography of the artist, van Huystee charts this exhibition. Its drama comes from the fact that the Noordbrabants Museum doesn’t actually own any Bosch paintings, but must borrow them from other institutions. That includes El Prado in Madrid, a museum that considers itself the rightful home of Bosch and is not necessarily willing to let a bunch of Dutch historians fool around with their most prized possessions.
That fooling around, though, is the most exciting thing about the Dutch endeavor. Many of the works have not been photographed up close in high definition, or with the infrared technology that allows experts to examine the original drawings beneath. Their project isn’t simply to borrow the works, but also to analyze them with an unprecedented closeness. As one of the historians explains, given the nature of Bosch’s work, he is absolutely convinced that he will see new details that he’s never seen before. The Spanish are intrigued, though perhaps a bit wary that new discoveries may throw doubt onto their attribution to Bosch himself.
This is the heart and soul of the film. Rather than using the biographical details of the master to interpret his paintings, as many a book has done, van Huystee uses the visual findings of these researchers to pose questions about the nature of Bosch’s life and work. Some of them are simple and breathtaking, like the discovery of a slightly fuller beard in the underdrawing of the “Triptych of Saint Uncumber” that confirms the identity of the subject. New tears are found on the face of Christ in “Christ Carrying the Cross,” and the structure of St. Anthony’s face is used to confirm that a painting discovered by the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City is a real Bosch.
Other details only raise more questions. The authorship of the “Haywain Triptych” has been questioned because of the presence of left-handed brushstrokes, which suggest that it may have been produced by Bosch’s workshop rather than the master’s own hand. Underdrawing analysis suggests that only a small portion of the painting may have been done with a left hand. Does this mean that it was painted by multiple people? What do we mean by “Bosch,” anyway, given the collaborative nature of Dutch Renaissance painting?
It’s perhaps better to think of Bosch as an inventor, which back in the 15th century held a broader sense than technological discovery. His visual ideas, a boundless array of strange creatures and monumental structures, are his greatest contribution. Van Huystee lets us ponder over as many as we can. The paintings, blown up and excerpted on the screen, offer a perspective on Bosch that was previously unavailable to the vast majority of viewers. Every lick of the fire, every bizarre monster, every haunting owl rises to the occasion, taking full advantage of contemporary photographic technology. The film doesn’t simply relay the images, but shows the process behind them and encourages newly enlightened interpretations of our own.