Joseph Leo Koerner: Bosch's enmity

Evening lecture

A John Simon Guggenheim Fellow for the year 2006-7, Joseph Leo Koerner is studying the rise of a painting of everyday life in sixteenth-century Europe. His work currently correlates emergent depictions of the familiar - in effect genre painting in its nascency - to conceptions of the radically Other or the enemy. His focus thus far has been on two masters of the Northern tradition. On the one hand, Hieronymus Bosch was the supreme painter of enmity, of a ubiquitous hostility that prevails among people, between humanity and God, and between God and the archenemy, Satan. On the other hand, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, the prototypical ethnographer within the European visual tradition, transforms absolute hostility into cultural difference. The divergence between these two models of enmity cannot be reduced to the distinction between medieval and modern, since it remains alive today in (for example) the tension between religious fundamentalist and secular democratic politics. Master-builders of imagery, Bosch and Bruegel allow us to enter, experience, and explore parallel worlds that still endure. In residence in Florence this year, Koerner hopes to broaden his study of the complex art - enmity - everyday life to include Italian and German examples. The instance of Albrecht Dürer’s first trip to Italy and its effects on his art forms a key new area of research. Some of Koerner’s current work will be presented this spring as the Miller Lecture at Williams College and the Bross Lectures at the University of Chicago and the Art Institute of Chicago. In the next academic year, he will be deliver the Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts in Washington.

A synopsis of his lecture, entitled "Bosch's Enmity," is as follows: "A work of art is — typically—a "friendly" thing. Through it the artist addresses us as intimates and asks us to respond in kind, trusting in good intentions and discerning a deep, benevolent core. But what if an artwork seeks just the opposite: not friendship but enmity? In the paintings and drawings by the mysterious Netherlandish painter Hieronymus Bosch, Joseph Leo Koerner discovers an art shot through with hatred, in which foes—both concrete and phantasmagorical—everywhere abound, and in which the painter, and even we ourselves, become potentially our own worst enemy. One of the great anomalies in the history of art, Bosch illuminates more orthodox works.

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