Friday, August 19, 2016

How Deep Purple and Hieronymus Bosch Unlocked My Imagination

Last week The Reader Weekly here in Duluth published a review by film critic Peter Rainer regarding a documentary titled "Hieronymus Bosch: Touched by the Devil" that has been produced and released to coincide with the 500th anniversary of the Dutch artist's death. The Netherlands has a been a fertile soil for painters. Names like Vermeer, Bruegel, Van Gogh and Rembrandt have all become well-known beyond art circles. Though the Hieronymus Bosch celebrations in the artist's hometown this year may or may not make him a household name, it will undoubtedly introduce him to a few more inquisitive folk whose imaginations will be stirred as mine was nearly 50 years ago when I discovered his portrayal of Hell used as cover art for a Deep Purple album.

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Adolescence for most of us was a challenging time as we grew from children with few responsibilities to young adults aware of the broader world, uncertain about our place in it. Most teens struggle with problems of identity and the complexity of sorting out tangled emotions. How do we find  a proper balance between our desire to fit in, our need for affirmation and our competing longings for self-expression and reckless abandon.

In my case, junior year in high school was an especially difficult, painful time. My best friend had been hit by a car at dusk before the first day of my junior year. Last words: "I'll see you tomorrow."

That fall I retreated to my room and stopped watching TV with the family as had been our evening custom. I did my school work and listened to my music. The inner pain and confusion had no real outlet.

Any explanation here of what happened or how it happened is going to be an oversimplification, but these were the elements. What I remember is this. I purchased an album by Deep Purple which had as its cover art this fantastical painting by Hieronymus Bosch from his famous triptych "The Garden of Earthly Delights." The three panels of the painting portray Paradise with a naked Adam & Eve in the Garden of Eden (left panel), a large square central scene depicting the delirious Garden of Earthly Delights, and the stirring imagery used by Deep Purple that depicts the gruesome horrors of Hell, titled The Last Judgment.

a portion of the painting in graphic detail
I remember studying this painting for hours, its details grotesque and bizarre. I had signed up for my first high school art class that year and with encouragement from Mr. Sebes began to draw my own inner monstrosities. It was liberating.

Decades later, when I recalled these memories, my recollection was that the album was titled Tetragrammaton. My recollection, also, was that this was Deep Purple's third album.

By means of Google I've now discovered that Tetragrammaton was not the name of the album. It was the name of the record company that signed Deep Purple and represented them when they emerged with their first hit record Hush.

There are some further faulty elements in my remembrances. Foremost, the Deep Purple album that I thought had the Bosch art was the one with River Deep Mountain High on it, as well as the song Kentucky Woman. Turns out, that second album was titled The Book of Taliesen. The one with Bosch's portrayal of Hell was simply Deep Purple III. I'd matched everything incorrectly.  This latter, whose songs are completely forgotten to me, made the lasting visual impression that unleashed renewed creative impulses.

Tetragrammaton issued the album in a stark gatefold sleeve, wrapped around with a segmented illustration from Hieronymus Bosch's painting "The Garden of Earthly Delights". The label ran into difficulty over the use of the Museo del Prado-owned painting, which was incorrectly perceived in the US as being anti-religious - featuring "immoral scenes"; and was thus rejected or poorly stocked by many record shops. The original painting is in colour although it appeared on the LP in monochrome due to a printing error for the original layout and the band opted to keep it that way.  (Wikipedia)

The Bosch painting of Hell is a frenzied macabre scene, with humans being tortured and tormented in a wide range of horrific ways. As a teen who had never seen anything like it, this was quite mesmerizing. Where did all these images come from? One scene shows a giant bird seated on a throne devouring a man with his beak while beneath another man is being excreted from its rectum in a gaseous bubble. The sordid scenes are most unpleasant and graphic.

What's interesting to me in retrospect is that my drawings were not induced by hallucinatory drugs, or drinking binges or ingested stimuli from without. At this time in my life I had never touched a drop of alcohol, never inhaled an illegal substance. I was honor society, straight-laced, probably even a square to the cool kids... just a kid trying to sort out who I was, and expressing some of what I was feeling through my art, primitive as it was.

While visiting my family a couple years back I found a folder with a couple dozen drawings from this period in my life. (Here are five of them.) Making the pictures evidently fulfilled an inner need of sorts. I wasn't a sicko, and the subject matter did not remain a lifelong obsession. My skills were unrefined, but my imagination had begun to soar.

Meantime, I'm looking forward to seeing the documentary. What are you looking forward to this weekend?

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