Holbein – real, unreal, super real

[This was originally posted on Treacle Down, my London blog]

Finally made it to Tate Britain’s ‘Holbein In England’ exhibition, which I’ve been desperate to go to since the end of the Summer! It was brilliant, but because pretty much everyone is on holiday at the moment, absolutely packed.

This meant it was difficult to get up close to the drawings, but
sidling through the masses to get to the front was absolutely worth it;
Holbein’s preparatory sketches were the highlight of the show.
Beautiful and luminous, they manage the strange trick of revealing
their workings as drawings, while also seeming incredibly natural and
realistic, to the point that his later portraits have such inscriptions
as: ‘Add but the voice and you would wonder if his father or the
painter created him’. So you can look at a drawing, and see how Holbein
used pink paper to provide ready-made flesh tones, the way he used
chalks for shading of skin, particularly around the cheek and lips, and
the ink lines that he deployed to capture the eyes in incredible
detail, including tear ducts and eye-lashes – but what you will also
see is a face so real and human that he or she seems to occupy the same
space as you are in. This strange effect reminded me of Shakespeare (he
and Holbein were only a generation apart, with Holbein dying in the
1540s, and Shakespeare hitting his stride in the 1590s); Shakespeare’s
plays are full of reference to the illusions of drama and the stage
(and to the power of illusions and images throughout life), and yet by
acknowledging the limits of reality and ‘real life’, they seem only to
represent this world more truthfully.

The Holbein exhibition finishes on the 7th of January; however, the
National Gallery has his amazing painting, the Ambassadors in its
permanent collection. If you’ve not seen it, go as soon an possible. It
does not disappoint. John North’s ‘The Ambassador’s Secret’ is well
worth a read for background on Holbein, his times, and the painting.
And if you want to see what I mean about Holbein’s sketches, have a
look at the Tate’s site, here.

[Image: From the Tate site,
Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/8–1543) George Nevill, 3rd Baron Bergavenny (about 1532–5)]

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