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Why Are We Still Shocked And Fascinated By A Dutch Artist From 500 Years Ago?

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I'm lucky -- I work super-hard to be lucky but, still, I'm lucky. Why? Because I get to see the greatest exhibitions on the planet when everyone else has gone home. There is no better recent example than of being at the utterly remarkable -- and definitely once-in-a-lifetime exhibition -- of the works of Hieronymus Bosch. Not everyone has heard of him, but trust me, he was one of the greatest artists to have ever lived.

It seems bold in a world where even last year's 'new thing' can seem quickly out of date to suggest that artists today are still under the sway of a somewhat mysterious Dutchman who died exactly 500 years ago. But he was no ordinary artist. If ever there was an artist that demonstrated that we need to appreciate the artists of the past to explain the artists of the present it is Bosch. He was unique at the time and, even, today, when one looks at his paintings one is shocked by their originality, their imagination and their narratives.

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Hieronymus Bosch - The Ship of Fools. Photo credit: EXHIBITION ON SCREEN

In the 20th century, would we have had the surrealists without their having been exposed to Bosch's works? Salvador Dalí studied his work closely and declared him a primary influence -- you can see it in the way Dalí takes the normal and makes it abnormal. That would be a good exhibition: Bosch & Dalí. If there is one thing my films show consistently it is that all great artists passionately study the greats that went before them. And not only painters. Think of filmmakers like Terry Gilliam and Guillermo del Toro. To see their wonderful films is to travel into a Bosch landscape. It has even been said that George Lucas claims Bosch as an inspiration for Star Wars as do many other artists in popular culture. Recently a digital journey has been made simulating a journey through Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights but no doubt many video gamers already have used his extraordinary landscapes as inspiration. His works so easily jump off the canvas into mediums unimaginable during his own lifetime -making him perhaps one of the most cinematic artists explored in our films.

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Hieronymus Bosch - Visions of the Hearafter. Photo credit: EXHIBITION ON SCREEN.

There is a danger with all this too: it is easy sometimes to see Bosch only in terms of his weird and wonderful images, his dark and bloody imaginings. What is so interesting about our new film THE CURIOUS WORLD OF HIERONYMUS BOSCH is that it shows he was far more than that. Look at his full body of work not just the most famous pieces; look carefully at the images and metaphors. Try to understand the world he came from and what was painting for. Look at his drawings that are spectacular. Look at his paintings of travellers and saints -- simpler artworks than Garden of Earthly Delights or The Haywain but absolutely the work of a master artist and, this is key, story-teller.

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Hieronymus Bosch - Saint John The Baptist. Photo credit: EXHIBITION ON SCREEN.

For it is the story-telling that I think marks him out as a great influence on the great artists that have followed. To focus on one painting like the Prado's Garden of Earthly Delights (with all its gory details) is a mistake -- one needs to look at the full and varied body of his work and, in doing so, one sees how he is trying to communicate with the people of his time. That's what the most significant artists -- in whatever genre -- desperately try to do and those that have looked deep into Bosch's work have undoubtedly learnt a great deal from a true master. I know I have.

The Curious World of Hieronymus Bosch screens in select theatres across Canada on December 14, 2016. An encore screening will follow on January 8, 2017.

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