During a recent visit to the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, I saw a curious little painting by Hieronymus Bosch. The majority of the artist’s paintings are peculiar in one way or another, but this one was quite exceptional. The painting was unusual not just because it was double-sided and boasted two images, one on each side of the panel. The work had originally been part of an altarpiece and its removal from its original context without a doubt enhanced its strange aura. The anterior side of the panel bore a depiction of Christ carrying the cross. Christ stands amidst a mass of strange-looking figures, entirely surrounded by the crowd, yet existentially isolated. This painting is one of Bosch’s characteristic portrayals of our depraved earthly existence.
But the truly remarkable depiction was to be found on the posterior side of the panel. Inscribed within a circle set against a bright red background, we see a little boy carrying a long stick at the end of which hangs a kind of windmill. The child is naked and is supported by a simple walking frame. His gaze is directed right at us and he appears as kind of personification of innocence. The contrast with the degenerated chaos on the other side of the painting could not be more extreme.
Even Viktor Rosdahl’s paintingStuyvesant/Cooper Village has images on both sides. We see two different depictions of grandiose cityscapes, where Rosdahl’s typical aerial swirls spread out ominously above the buildings on the ground. The paintings evoke visions of a kind of urban hell where all human life has been pushed to the margins. There is a kind of penetrating graphic frenzy and an explosive visual language evident here that I recognize from Lars Hillersberg’s early black and white city images.
A counterweight to these apocalyptic scenes is to be found in Rosdahl’s smaller format paintings. Employing an almost impressionistic sensitivity, he paints the trees’ nervous web of branches against a dusk-blue background. As with Bosch, Rosdahl’s intimate depictions of children appear to be condensed impressions from everyday life. They form themselves into spaces in which we can catch our breath, like sudden glimmers of solace. At the same time, Rosdahl keeps any sense of the idyllic at arms length. These children are probably asleep, but why then do I interpret them as lying dead? The foreboding atmosphere that reigns among the architectural forms seems to also have permeated these depictions of human bodies. In the work Nattkvarter - Selma , the girl’s long hair covers her face and places her in a position of eternal rest. The painting’s portrayal opens up through the actual layers of plastic sheeting that form a horizontal oval space around the girl. These slashed and shredded layers locate the reality of the image closer to our own. For a moment, the boundary between the two seems to have dissolved.
Text by Magnus Bons