Thursday, January 11, 2007


Holbein at Tate Britain. Pile-up of the usual Tudor worthies – the Cheneys and Precotts, Bushes and Blairs of their day.

And crowded before them in a crushing last-day scrum, last-minute Londoners and visitors from across the world. Credit to the Tate’s staff who kept the whole thing running efficiently.

My preference is for the Italian renaissance artists – somehow they seem to pull all elements of painting together into a (self-consciously) stylish whole; the Northerns seem to have a weirdly ‘detail-up’ approach in which a painting becomes an aggregate of individual elements which don't cohere in a satisfying way. It’s a different way of seeing, and it certainly can be impressive in the hands of talents like Van Eyck or Holbein (to name just two); and certainly the Italians themselves were blown away by the oil technique; but I don’t appreciate the Northern lack of stylistic fluency. This lack was ultimately remedied by Rubens (extensively schooled in Italian art), and thereafter the somewhat additive Northern manner dies out.

Holbein loves the human face and captures completely convincingly unposed and fleeting expressions – without being able to work from photographs, so really very impressive indeed. His preference for the human subject is proven by the drawings, in all of which the faces are the parts most developed. The luxurious paraphernalia of dress and jewellery is developed in the finished paintings, not the drawings.

No comments: