Bosch the Surrealist

by Larry Solomon, copyright © 2002


Surrealism is defined in a Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, tenth edition, 1995, as "the principles, ideals, or practice of producing fantastic or incongruous imagery or effects in art, literature, film, or theater by means of unnatural juxtapositions and combinations." Additionally, surrealistic is defined as "having a strange dreamlike atmosphere or quality."

Many of Bosch's paintings qualify under these definitions as surrealistic, with their fantastic images and incongruous juxtapositions. Figures 17 and 18 are good examples of this, but Bosch's visionary paintings are full of such images. Thus, he anticipated a major art movement of the twentieth century by over five hundred years. In fact, many of his fantastic images surpass those of modern surrealists in their fantastic properties and unusual juxtapositions. André Breton, in his first manifesto on Surrealism (1924), referred to Bosch as the forerunner of surrealism, an "integral visionary", anticipating "the painters of the unconscious".


Tree-man from Hell panel of Earthly Delights triptych

One can hardly imagine a more surreal image than this one from the Garden of Earthly Delights Hell scene. This "Tree-man" has the face of Bosch himself looking back on the scenes of Hell. His body is a a broken eggshell, reflecting his own (moral) fall.The rotten tree with thorn-like branches piercing his body represent his spiritual death. On his head is a round table with devils dancing sinners around the "lascivious" bagpipe. Thus, Bosch is confessing his own indulgence in sinful activities, such as drunkeness, gambling, and lust. The body of Tree-man contains a gambling scene around a table, while a witch pours more wine from a keg to replenish the gamblers. The soul climbing a ladder is so degenerate, emerging from a black pool (filth), that he is aspiring to reach the level of the gambler-drunkards. The boat-shoes are the only thing that prevents this monster from completely collapsing.