From November 2011
Last Tuesday, La Belle Femme and I went to the Tate to see the absolutely wonderful Holbein show.
This being midweek, the place was jam-packed with Saga Louts and I should guess that we were the youngest people there by about 25 years, save for the well-behaved school party there. However, since the older people were generally smaller than me, it wasn’t too much of a problem to see over them.
I’ve always liked Holbein. He seems just one of those people, somehow – don’t ask me to explain why – with whom you would have liked to be friendly. There’s a marvellous sense of humanity, to my mind, that shines off his work. But I was not prepared for the sheer wonderfulness of his drawings, especially when seen in series. They are astounding, lifelike: warm, human, sly, funny, honest, open, closed, weary, suspicious, blank, sad, cheerful. All human life really is there and, as I often find the case, it is in the drawings rather than the paintings that you really get the genius of a painter.
The other thing is the artistry, the deftness and sureness of touch. Astonishing technique, yet lightly applied and never getting in the way of the essential truth of the portrait itself. You know when you look at a Durer how you are always conscious that Durer has painted it and it is tecnhically a tour de force – count the brushstrokes in the rabbit’s fur, and so on? But somehow there is always something a little hollow at the heart of it? Not with Holbein. The artistry and technique absolutely do not get in the way of the picture, and this to me is Art at its height.
Take this girl, for example (there should be a picture here). According to the catalogue: “The sitter may be the daughter of Lord Zouch, who begged to run away because she was ill-treated by her stepmother and became Lady-in- Waiting to Jane Seymour, or she may be Anne Gainsford, Lady-in-Waiting to Anne Boleyn who married George Zouche of Codnor; in that case the inscription would indicate a ‘Mistress Zouch’.”
Holbein used the full frontal view for the portraits Henry VIII required of his potential brides in order to make sure no defect escaped him, and possibly this portrait too might have been intended as a marriage portrait. You can know so much about her just from the picture: young, pretty, conscious of it, determined (look at the eyes, the slightly tight mouth, the set of the shoulders), a little headstrong. It tells you more than a thousand photos would (which is plainly just what Henry wanted).
I do urge you to go and see the exhibition. It is quite the best I’ve seen for a long time and, for once, really one of those “once-in-a-lifetime” shows.