Early life in the frame

Hans Holbein
July 10, 1998

Hans Holbein's career in England has been celebrated throughout the 1990s with exhibitions, academic conferences, television series and publications marking the quincentennial anniversaries of both the artist himself and his English master, Henry VIII. As a result of his association with the Tudors, Holbein is one of the best recognised painters in the history of British art. Yet relatively little is known in this country of Holbein's early work in Germany and Switzerland before he made his fortune as the king's painter in the 1530s. The full range of his skills was rarely tested in England, and hence his woodcuts, religious paintings and decorative works are not nearly as well known as are his portraits of Henry VIII and members of the royal court. This is what is so welcome about this book: here is a well-illustrated, English-language study that deals for the most part with Holbein's artistic output before his English sojourn.

This dynamic book is divided into chapters exploring those issues the authors have identified as defining elements in Holbein's oeuvre: artistic competition and self-definition; figure and movement, invention and narration; monumental decorative works; religious works; the making of Erasmian art; Italian and northern art; the portrait, time and death; and Holbein's fame. Again, this is welcome as issue-based studies are rare in the Holbein literature, catalogues raisonnes and biographies having largely dominated the field up to now. These are exciting topics worthy of analysis given that hitherto most Holbein studies have described the progress of his career rather than explored the ideas that informed his art. By concentrating on these defining elements, we are invited to consider what Holbein might have seen, where he may have travelled, how he fashioned himself as an artist and what his religious leanings may have been. Here are valuable areas of investigation that have the potential to advance our understanding beyond the strictly biographical reconstruction, which is necessarily based on frustratingly slight evidence.

That said, Oskar Batschmann and Pascal Griener's book should not be mistaken for a comprehensive study of Holbein's work. The authors declare in their preface that this work is neither a biography nor a catalogue, a qualification that leaves them free to operate selectively in terms of the issues and works of art chosen for sustained analysis. And, happily, they have made very interesting choices. The chapters devoted to Holbein's religious paintings and decorative cycles are especially rich with inventive at times over-inventive, suggestions about visual sources and symbolic references. A number of important paintings are treated in great detail, often challenging the orthodoxies of scholarship to good effect. For this reason especially, this is not a book for those seeking an introduction to the subject, in that the authors presuppose that their readers are equipped to identify where their analysis departs from the existing literature on the subject. They pursue new directions and pose questions that will undoubtedly stimulate debate among Holbein scholars, but their discourse, as presented here, is certainly too specialised for a general readership.

As challenging as the thematic structural principles are, however, the book never fully realises its potential in illuminating the issues it identifies. This is particularly evident in the fact that Batschmann and Griener offer no statement of method; they never make clear, for example, their reasons for focusing so heavily on Holbein's early works, and one is left wondering why in fact the paintings of the English period receive such slight treatment. It is not that the English works are excluded, but they are rarely given sustained attention. Another recurrent problem in the text is the often tenuous nature of the links made between Holbein's paintings and the visual sources the authors suggest he deployed as models. This is especially true when they offer an analysis of the presumed sources, some of which are very obscure, for works such as the drawing of a Female Figure in Motion Next to a Broken Column or the altarpiece known as the Solothurn Madonna. In examples such as these there is a tendency to over-elaborate the causes, models and sources of Holbein's paintings and prints. The text itself lacks analytic direction; abrupt transitions within chapters inhibit the cumulative development of ideas and prevent the formulation of critical overviews. The absence of conclusions in each section or chapter highlights these problems.

But these shortcomings do not diminish the contribution made by Batschmann and Griener. By identifying and concentrating on important themes, especially as they relate to the early years of Holbein's career, the authors remind their readers that this artist was more than a portrait painter of the highest ability; he was also an inventive woodcut designer and painter of altarpieces and monumental civic works. To this extent the authors successfully interweave Holbein's versatility, his artistic creativity and the recognition he was afforded by contemporaries. Moreover, in posing a number of new and thought-provoking questions, this work will surely do much to enliven an important field of study.

Tatiana C. String is lecturer in the history of art, University of Bristol.

Hans Holbein

Author - Oskar Batschmann and Pascal Griener
ISBN - 0 948 462 96 5
Publisher - Reaktion
Price - £40.00
Pages - 255

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