In recent years, Dr. Martens has done a very good job of becoming fashionable again—be it through '90s nostalgia, the 20th anniversary of Nirvana's Nevermind (there must be some correlation), or the company's various new designs.The latest, a new boot and satchel, takes its inspiration from the three panels of Hieronymus Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights—one of the most famous triptychs in art history.
Bosch, it should be said, was a proto-Surrealist. Even Andre Breton gave a tip of his hat to Bosch's graphic, dreamlike paintings. William S. Burroughs' entire catalogue is Boschian in the extreme. Elsewhere, J. G. Ballard probably pulled Boschian imagery for his novel Unlimited Dream Company, while Terry Gilliam found inspiration in Bosch's visionary, fantastical absurdism.
There is also something sci-fi heavy about Bosch and his Garden. Post-apocalyptic and prophetic, to be exact. Mutation, metamorphosis, over-population, unreal landscapes and objects are all themes that appear in his work. Not to mention, Earth and its biological systems, damaged by homosapiens, collapsing under the weight of technological civilization is a regular trope. The Garden looks more like an ecological flash-forward or time travel than a Biblical impression. Something like Samuel R. Delaney's Dhalgren, with the mysterious city Belonna's wasted, dark and surreal urban landscape, and her citizens trapped within.
So, when Dr. Martens uses the Garden's three panels as visual material for some boots and satchels, it strips Bosch of all his power. Not to mention, the company doesn't have to pay anyone to use the image. At over 500 years old, the painting is well into the public domain.
Sure, it looks cool, and that's enough for Dr. Martens to sell a few more products. The art and commerce thing is all fine and dandy, but art really wasn't commerce in Bosch's day. So wouldn't it be far better to use the work of an artist who was all commerce, like Warhol. But Dr. Martens would have to pay for that image usage, wouldn't they?
Is Dr. Martens' use of Bosch a bit of harmless visual sampling, similar to the literary and cinematic sampling above? Maybe so, but they didn't do anything particularly interesting with Bosch's Garden imagery. The company slapped it on a boot and satchel and called it a day. If this brings more people into Bosch's genius anti-worlds, then maybe I could dig it. But, in the real world, I wouldn't count on it. But, again, Earth's degradation due to human culture was Bosch's M.O after all, right?