Category Archives: Tate Britain

Van Dyck and Britain – Tate Britain – Spring 2009

The crucial painting in Tate Britain’s excellent Van Dyck and Britain show isn’t a Van Dyck after all. Robert Peake’s Henry, Prince of Wales and Sir John Harington in the Hunting Field stands proud but confused in the very first room. The absurd boy in a hunter’s body, the pistachio green clothes, the misshapen limbs, the angular style, the cadaver of the stag hanging awkwardly at the bottom of the canvas, the miniature crests swinging on twigs: Peake’s magnificent yet deeply flawed British school painting represents everything Van Dyck’s majestic style would eliminate over the course of the seventeenth century.

For the connoisseur and the art historian this is a brilliant exhibition. It shows how British art became European. How the stiff Dutch and oblique British painters of the sixteenth century gave way to the flowing, regal style of the seventeenth. How we got from the Cholmondeley Sisters to Kneller, Lely and beyond.

But it’s more than just transformation in the history of art. Van Dyck developed not just a pictorial manner, but a whole visual concept of nobility and royalty emanated from his workshop. The portraits of Charles I would become a touchstone for depicting kings and queens, or indeed for imbuing any sitter with a sense of majesty. And because Van Dyck has been so influential, because we are so used to a certain type of regal portrait, it is Peake’s painting that leaps out (here compared against Van Dyck’s painting of the future Charles II)

Robert Peake, Henry, Prince of Wales and Sir John Harington in the Hunting Field, 1603, Metropolitan Museum, New York

Young Charles II
Anthony Van Dyck, Future Charles II as Prince of Wales, c.1637-8, Private Collection

And just as Van Dyck canceled out a whole aesthetic, removing not just the painted stiffness, but he clarified what a painting is, a recording of the visualised world which suspended disbelief.

So in Peake’s canvas, there still remain the artificial elements which would leave a viewer to question its visual authenticity. The studded colouration on the saddle, giving the canvas a tactile presence, the two crests dangling from the trees or the text at the bottom left or etched on the trees. Such devices were relics of a mode of visual communication which thought not of painting as simply representing the visual world but providing a more heterogeneous mode of communication, which documented abstract values in more concrete fashion.

In Van Dyck’s oeuvre just about any device which distracts the illusion of verisimilitude is eliminated; the Fleming has such belief in the rhetoric of his style that he is not need to bolster the message of majesty with other symbols and icons. The paintings speaks for itself. And once Van Dyck had made this transformation Britain, or perhaps more correctly England, could no longer be insulated from southern as well as lowland Europe.

How did he do this?

Anthony Van Dyck,Lord John Stuart and his Brother, Lord Bernard Stuart, c.1638, National Gallery London

Van Dyck creates sitters that are effortlessly relaxed. The splendid clothes (probably done by assistants as well as Van Dyck) show an absolute mastery of the textures of silk and satin – close-ups of trousers and skirts form their own abstract symphonies.

Detail of Stuart brothers painting above

Each item is unsullied and loudly declares that their wearers need not work nor labour.

William Killigrew, 1638, Tate Britain

Emotions are calm and restrained, showing the sitter’s absolute control of any internal sentiment and often stand in contrast to the more tempestuous weather in the background (for example the portrait of William Killigrew) And while there are dark greens and browns in the background, the lead characters are illuminated by a clean, pure light.

Details of noses

And with the poses themselves, the way the sitters organise themselves within the space around them, that each characters asserts his regal bearing. Van Dyck’s characters are often (although not always) haughty in their attitude, carrying their arrogance before them. The gaze of the viewer is disdained. Sitters either look askance, bearing acknowledging a spectator’s presence, or simply look through the viewer. This is no level playing field; the spectator is clearly in the presence of superiors The phrase ‘looking down your nose’ seems a perfect fit for Van Dyck’s sitters. The fingers too are worth noting, long graceful digits that add to a sitter’s elegance.

Details of fingers

Yet all the while that Van Dyck was concocting the new regal approach, the English political scene was fermenting – the Civil War would explode in the year of Van Dyck’s death. Does the exhibition blindly ignore all the fault lines cracking open in English society, the gaping ideological differences which would result in twenty years of trauma? Well, in a sense yes. There is little or no mention of politics in the labels, and there is no contextual visual documentation to place Van Dyck in the society in which he worked. We learn nothing about this history. But at the same time, Van Dyck gave the contemporary curator very little to work with. Van Dyck’s visual world, entirely focused on the world of the cavaliers rather than the roundheads, offers no indication of the friction and strife that would follow. Is that really a surprise? Patrons did not commission paintings that reflected doubt. I suppose the political interpretation is in the very absence of politics in Van Dyck’s oeuvre, showing a mindset that was desperately trying to close itself off and develop in splendid isolation. The great antagonisms of the Civil War were everything Van Dyck’s leisured, majestic world was not.


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Francis Bacon – Tate Britain – Autumn 2008

It’s possible to pontificate lots on Francis Bacon (and I shall probably try here), but there is a raw, burning intensity in Bacon’s best work that forces an immediate and rapid response. One can walk through this exhibition in twenty minutes and get just as strong as a reaction from the paintings as you could from an hour and a half of measured academic study. Indeed maybe even the charred, dark faces, the contorted flesh, the monstrous teeth are at their most dramatic when seen for the first time – innocent eyes exposed to twenty minutes of compressed horror.

Francis Bacon, Triptych, 1973, Private Collection

Nevertheless my brain went through some strange mental processes when visiting the Tate’s Bacon blockbuster, and I began thinking of the impressionists.

Like Bacon, the impressionists were creating artifacts that could be easily assimilated by the viewer in a short space of time. For Monet, Sisley and the like, the bright palette and the unambiguous emotional unity give the viewer an immediate visual impact, as do the dimensions of the landscapes; rarely panoramic in scope but based on dimensions the human eye can immediately absorb. Of course, the gentleness of many impressionist works is the polar opposite to Bacon’s emotional register. But the similarity is not in the content, but the way in which the image can be immediately apprehended by the viewer – unlike say work by Velazquez, David or Picasso.

Bacon also shares the impressionists’ lack of interest in telling stories. There is no need for the viewer to decipher expressions and gestures to understand what the painting and its characters are about. This, too, enhances the immediacy. Bacon’s poor sitters are ripped out of their context, their life reduced to flesh, blood, violent unbalanced copulation. Critics (and Bacon himself) have alighted on the cinematic nature of his paintings and certainly the emotional punch has similarities to the effect of the silver screen. But cinema, whilst being dramatic, still demands a narrative around which its characters are wrapped; Bacon does not offer his paintings this context – the genre he develops is very much his own.

The exhibition booklet reminds you that Bacon is a portraitist, and the effect is somewhat jolting – when one thinks of an English portraitist one things of coiffured hair at a Regency club, or an aristocrat surveying his estate with proprietorial pomp. Yet it is useful to bear in mind, for it emphasises how Bacon, like many grandees of twentieth-century art, carves out a space which floats between the inherited traditions of representation (in this case the tradition of the portrait) and the modernist urge towards abstraction. Paint as a tool for representation merges into painting as an end in itself. This gives Bacon’s paintings not only aesthetic weight but also emotional impact.

His portraits struggle to asset their physical appearance. As soon as they make themselves apparent on the canvas they began to become deformed under the weight of being represented on a flattened plane of paint. Extraneous detail in background is eliminated, locking the sitter in the immediate foreground. Thin yellow bars that frequently act as cages jut awkwardly into non-existent space, framing and trapping the sitter. Like Richter’s anonymised portraits, as soon as the character is represented they become lost in the painted surface, the thickened oils scraped along the surface, almost erasing their features.

Francis Bacon, Study after Velazquez, 1950

The series of Innocent X portraits are the most striking examples. The 1950 Study After Velazquez, painted exactly 350 years after the Spaniard’s stunning papal portrait, shows the pope trapped behind flat grills of paint, his screaming face evaporating into the gloomy darkness; his very identity being wiped out. As the shutters descend downwards on the canvas, they develop into large waves of kinetic energy, as if representing the lifeforce being dragged out of the unfortunate Innocent. Interestingly, these waves also reveal themselves to be folds of a curtain – once can see the curved bar with the rings holding the folds in place. With this motif, a new horror for the sitter is implied – that the curtain can be pulled shut, and the sitter will disappear into the darkness, out of sight, out of mind. It is motif that reoccurs within the exhibition.

Amongst all this pain, there is pleasure too, violent, sensuous pleasure. Bacon takes an arrogant pleasure in these bodies, creating tactile, sculptural forms with large chunks of flesh that one wants to meld and push. Equally the painted surface itself is pleasure, stained solemn backgrounds (the rich colouration of which would not disgrace Rothko’s palette), then tougher scratches, and then the thicker blobs of impasto that construct the bruised faces, only to find themselves flattened out so as to emphasise their entrapment within the frame of the canvas.

Nevertheless it is the immediate visceral horror that predominates – the echoes of the slaughterhouse, the grim torture chamber – the horrific immediacy of it all. And it can’t help but create a certain image of Bacon in your mind – the tortured post-Romantic artist, obsessed with sex, flesh and death, a visionary world documented in layers of paint, with each canvas a failed exorcism of the demons haunting his living hours.

But this exhibition has another angle of interest. Besides the paintings themselves, the Tate also includes the Bacon archive, the massive jumble of papers, documents and images torn or ripped out from newspapers, journals or whatever source Bacon came across. It provides a fascinating and vital gloss to Bacon’s work.

Often these are the rooms the visitor skips through – irrelevant social details in tiny print that require a different mental approach to assimilating the images on view. But here the Bacon archive is stuck almost in the centre of the exhibition, and the mass of material provides a much richer perspective on Bacon the artist; not as an artist that responded solely to his own lone, tortured view of the universe, but one who responded to the wider world around him, soaking up its images, it own ways of seeing. With this, Bacon comes across as a much more calculating, analytic artist, and also one with a broader range of sympathies and concerns.

Francis Bacon, Pope I – Study after Pope Innocent X by Velazquez, 1951

Parts of the archive provide tiny visual clues – the vaulting in a photograph of some Vatican dignitaries was used as the ghostly outline of a church in the 1951 Pope I – Study after Pope Innocent X by Velazquez. Other parts reveal broader thematic preoccupations. Bacon, for instance, often alighted on laboratory images of animals in caged captivity, or scientific studies of human forms walking or growing over time. This gave him an immense range of source material for the captured and caged sitters in his portraits. Again, some of this is about details – in one or two of Bacon’s paintings there are ghostly echoes of the measuring tape and slide rules that appear in the scientific images. But it also illustrates the obvious resonance for Bacon between scientific and artistic modes of control.

One can see why Bacon had such interest in this genre of documentary images, for it provided him with a pool of visual and intellectual ideas which he could adapt, expand and incorporate. But the curatorial decision to exhibit such work also provides a different emotional context to Bacon’s oeuvre; seeing the Bacon paintings not as only his projections of the artist’s own emotional state, but as desperate stabs at empathy with his sitters, reflecting a world that objectivises under a scientific gaze.

This should not distract from Bacon the painter – what the curators have assembled here is a magnificent roll call of his work – and such paintings still speak with their garbled eloquence whether the contextual evidence is present or not. But we should also be thankful to Tate for exhibiting the Bacon archive; it does a tremendous job in breaking down the Hollywood reflex of thinking of the artists as a tortured genius instinctively responding to the manic visions in his head, and replacing it with a much more human, complex person.

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Filed under Francis Bacon, Modernist Art, Tate Britain

Turner Prize 2005, Tate Modern

I’ve wondered for a few years whether the Turner Prize has run its course. Most of its success in the 1990s was based on cunning, calculated and highly successful attempts to goad traditionalists and tabloids with provocative conceptual art; art that was ready made to prick the sensibilities of those who swore in the skill of the craftsman. Let the shouters whip up a storm, sly curators reckoned, and then let the gallery bask in the publicity and subsequent rush of inquisitive visitors. The actual art may have been of variable quality, but there was plenty of legitimate excitement surrounding the event that allowed the flag of contemporary art to be one of the most visible on the cultural landscape.

But this process couldn’t last forever. The clamour and the success of the Turner Prize (and the more general absorption of contemporary art into the cultural mainstream) has abated the fury of the traditionalists, with the result that there is no longer the frisson of excitement surrounding the prize. With less hoo-ha about the “is this art?” question, there is more time for the more pertinent “is this good art?” question. Seen in this light, the Turner Prize’s once-fluttering flag begins to droop more than a little.

The suite of works by Simon Starling, the first nominee, was of no visual interest – a shed, an electric bicycle, a set of five identical prints of a quarry. I later learned from the Tate website that the process behind the creation of his works was supposed to inject them with meaning. The shed, for example, had been dismantled and “turned it into a boat; loaded with the remains of the shed … paddled down the Rhine to a museum in Basel, dismantled and re-made into a shed.” But for the visitor in the Tate, hardly a trace of this process was obvious from the artwork and the whole thing seemed rather pointless. Knowledge of the process that creates a work can be interesting when they enhance the more immediate aspects of an artwork. Yukinori Yanagi’s Pacific, where ants dug into the coloured sand representing a network of flags, is an excellent example of this. But when the process becomes the entire raison d’etre of the work (and also when the process is one of breathtaking mundanity) then I move quickly onwards.

Installation view of Simon Startling's work at Tate Britain

Installation view of Simon Startling’s work at Tate Britain.

Jim Lambie’s set of painted birds was intriguing yet mystifying. The two-foot tall plastic sculptures, coated with household paints, had an immediate visual appeal, as did the shiny diagonal stripes covering the floor. As with Starling (an appropriate name in the context), Lambie raised Duchampian issues relating to the discovery and aesthetic use of banal, everyday objects. But beyond this, I couldn’t quite see what Lambie was getting out of it. There was a mixture of messages at work, as Lambie seemed to revel in high art being swamped by more popular artforms. Jeff Koons tipping paint over Frank Stella perhaps. But how it all tied together I could not quite fathom. Is it really just about the visual potency of the shiny stripes laid on the floor, the black blots on the wall and the pools of seeming coagulated paint? Or is there a larger unifying theme that Lambie wishes to entice us with. From the symbols paraded, I really couldn’t tell.

Installation view of Jim Lambie's work at Tate Britain

Installation view of Jim Lambie’s work at Tate Britain.

In deploying four video screens of varying sizes around a darkened room (If I Had You),
Darren Almond perhaps had an effective means of creating a worthwhile piece of art, but the execution was sentimental, almost kitsch. The subject of two of the four screens was pleasingly elliptic. A neon outline of a Moulin Rouge-type windmill was projected onto one, and a suitable scraping noise could be heard as the mill followed its clockwork path. The other screen, placed at foot-level, showed an everyday garden fountain spouting its water in a never-ending loop. It was interesting to see the glamorous symbol of the Parisian nightclub and a cheap item purchased from B+Q united via the notion of circularity.

But the other two screens were pretty cheesy – slow-motions shots of an old woman, perhaps a deceased grandmother, looked like nothing more than a clichéd Hollywood-style rumination on old age and death. And pseudo-grainy shots of the dancing feet of two ballroom dancers was a too simplistic way of evoking times gone past. Ally this to the worst aspect of the room, a cloying sound track of a nostalgic piano tinkling away and the piece really seemed like some kind of excessive multimedia weeping. It may have been an accessible piece of work, but it conjured up a horrifying future where next-door neighbours lovingly parade, instead of tedious photo albums, never-ending multimedia collections.

Gillian Carnegie’s black paintings of trees and foliage, such asBlack Square, were the highlights of the show, indicating an artistic sensibility that should please both traditionalists and moderns. These large monochrome paintings, built up with heavy dollops of impasto and strategic use of the palette knife, illustrated intimate knowledge of painting as a representational tool and as a means of abstraction, a factor that immediately recalls someone like Frank Auerbach. But in concentrating on trees and nature rather than the city, and yet denying the possibility of any other kind of colour, Carnegie showed herself as to operating at a tangent to Auberach’s urban grittiness.

Her other paintings, of backsides, dancing men in lederhosen and other portraits of trees, were not so impressive. The rather simplistic tree paintings looked like lesser versions of the nature paintings done by Mondrian during his journey towards De Stijl. But one could sense a set of ideas emerging that could bear fruit in the future. In short, Carnegie was the most promising of a pretty poor bunch.

I finish with a coda. Downstairs, past the queues for the Toulouse-Lautrec exhibition, sat a work from one (or rather two) of the previous year’s Turner Prize nominees, Langlands and Bell. We went to see this just after the current exhibition; its content clearly highlighted the deficiencies of the current crop of Turner contenders. It shows a video of the trial, in Afghanistan, of Zardad’s Dog, a Taliban-sponsored bodyguard who had allegedly bitten his victims before killing them. Immediately gripping, with little stylistic decoration or attempt to inject an artistic sensibility, the video manages to engage viewers by, in contrast to the hermetic worlds conjured up by the Turner Prize nominees, providing a seemingly more obvious path to narrative understanding, yet without ever becoming didactic or lapsing into pure documentary.

The video has no subtitles, and there are only brief explanatory panels shown between episodes of the court case. This does not matter. The familiar props of a trial – a courtroom, the oaths, the witnesses, the questions – provide a meaningful context. Then universal traits such as facial expressions, body language and tone of voices provide a further sense of narrative to the trial. So we see the sullen defiance of the accused; the nervous, darting eyes of the court guard, clutching his outsize rifle; the phalanx of journalists pressing tape recorders into speakers’ faces. A vivid family of characters is presented.

However, it’s important to note that one never manages to grasp a complete understand of what is happening. The lack of subtitles block definitive understanding, and so while the familiar settings and gestures provide a frame of reference, the viewer is left to interpret the artwork and inject her own meaning. This seems an approach that has not only artistic merit but speaks volumes about broader cultural issues. How does the western world understand and interact with the Islam world? Can the western world do anything more than observe Muslim life? Langlands and Bell’s simple video encapsulates a range of issues of immense cultural and political importance. It is given further potency by the fact that later news reports that the trial was not conducted in a fair fashion. Is the observer of the video neutral, or weighted down by prejudices that might also have provoked the judge? Like many good artworks, the narrative seems immediately obvious but it begins to become fuzzy once you get close. There is an easy way in, but not easy way out.

Zardad’s Dog is a short piece, maybe around twelve minutes long. And yet still there is plenty in the piece with which the viewer can engage, at both a poetic and a political level. It was this immediate sense of engagement that was almost entirely lacking in the Turner Prize upstairs.

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Filed under Contemporary Art, Tate Britain, Turner Prize

Holbein in Britain, Tate Britain

Hans Holbein was the supreme geographer of the sixteenth-century face. The procession of Tudor aristocrats on show at Tate Britain demonstrates how precisely the Augsburg artist mapped the contours of diplomat, courtier, princess or king. His pen, chalk and brush capture fragile countenances, furrowed lines, healthy jowls, forbidding eyes, producing portraits of a brooding intensity.

The luminous paintings are good; but it is the drawings that steal the show, carrying with them their own marvellous gravity and yet executed with a breathtaking lightness of touch. The same formula is used for nearly all the drawings. Sharp but well-defined lines mark head, eyes and nose; a few curt marks delineate other facial features. And then the almost intangible application of smudges of black chalk defines the contours of each individual face. Despite (or maybe because of?) this economy of touch Holbein is able to record a panoply of distinct personalities, giving each sitter an individual stamp. He may use the same tools over and over again but he employs them with a precision that allows him to capture the infinite variety of human appearance.

Of the sitters, there is very little artfulness about their poses. There is no attempt to place them in a higher drama. Lips are sealed; limbs are tucked in; eyes are looking somewhere and nowhere in the distance. There is rarely sense of action or reaction – these are portraits in a very forensic sense of the word. On first witnessing the exhibition, many of the sitters’ emotions appear to be drawn from a shared well of experience. Prince, poet and merchant all appear calm and dignified yet forbidding and haughty. At times it seems as if their vitality has been repressed. And yet with repeated viewing, and I think it is this is what makes Holbein’s art so great, characteristics materialise in each sitter, making themselves known in the most subtle ways.

Hans Holbein, Sir Thomas More, 1526-7, Queen's Collection

Hans Holbein, Sir Thomas More, 1526-7, Queen’s Collection

Tiny deviations in how Holbein records the face produce these extraordinarily fertile results. The humble eyebrow is a rich example. Thomas More’s eyebrows are hunched over his eyes, a pair of eyes that are deeply set yet never withdrawn; they have a clear, determined focus. The eyebrows slope downwards towards a central, invisible point around the bridge of the nose. A couple of creases also feature, possibly extra strands of eyebrow, similarly emphasising this same spot. The concentration on this area, allied to More’s strong, pointed nose, gilds the sitter with a clear sense of single-minded resolution. The casual viewer may not observe this precise calibration of features but it is such artistic dexterity that helps Holbein to convey the impression of a man driven by determination and a sense of righteous direction – a fact any viewer will witness.

Detail from Hans Holbein, Sir Thomas More, 1526-7, Queen's Collection

Detail from Hans Holbein, Sir Thomas More, 1526-7, Queen’s Collection

Detail from Hans Holbein, Sir Richard Southwell, 1536, Queen's Collection.

Detail from Hans Holbein, Sir Richard Southwell, 1536, Queen’s Collection.

Now compare this to how other eyebrows are depicted in Holbein’s art, and one will see how the manipulation of such a mundane feature, interacting with the other features of the face, played such a valuable role in relaying a sense of character. Unlike Thomas More’s close-set eyebrows, Sir Richard Southwell’s eyebrows arch upwards; they indicate mild surprise at the words of a non-existent interlocutor. See also how this visual pattern of the arch is repeated elsewhere in the face. In the pursed lips arching upwards, the rising cut of his fringe, the curved peak of his hat; all trace the same ascent and descent that help define Southwell’s character.

But there’s more to the matter than this. Southwell’s look has a severity to it as well. In actual fact his quizzical aspect is somewhat rhetorical, as if he has little time for the imagined other that questions his authority or knowledge.

Hans Holbein, Sir Richard Southwell, 1536, Queen's Collection. Right hand views

Hans Holbein, Sir Richard Southwell, 1536, Queen's Collection. Left hand view

Hans Holbein, Sir Richard Southwell, 1536, Queen’s Collection. Left and right hand views

How does Holbein achieve this effect? Look at the left-hand side of Southwell’s face. The size and the arch of the eyebrow are rather exaggerated, thus emphasising the quizzical look. The line of the lips is neutral. Taken all together, the face is more neutral, perhaps more innocent. Then take a look at the right-hand side. Here, the mien is much more different. The eyebrow is still rising but is sharp and more pointed. The lip curls downwards in deep disapproval. The expression on the right is much different, much more combative from that on the left. Holbein, like his other great Renaissance contemporaries (Bellini, or Leonardo for example) conveys the complexity of human character not by depicting a single emotion, but by a much more emotionally complex palette, suggestive not of one static emotion but a more fluid, dynamic character.

One could continue elsewhere; the polished eyebrows of the urbane John Colet or the quivering features of Bishop John Fishers, brow undulating in controlled panic. And the eyebrows are just an example. One could trace similar expressive richness in haircuts, chins, ears or eyes. Holbein’s portraits use the most subtle means to tell us about the sitters. And it is the fact that we do not immediately notice this is happening that makes them such valuable works of art. The viewer sees a portrait, a likeness, and not the fiction, the creation; not the way in which the artwork has been manipulated and a particular character evoked. Holbein smuggles in all the psychological traits he wishes to, without ever having to sacrifice physical likeness. Holbein is art’s silent assassin.

The sole religious painting in the exhibition is informative. A rather mediocre rendition of Noli Me Tangere, it clarifies the fact that Holbein was not a painter in the broad, romanticised sense of the word. He was not an instinctive painter. While there is an obvious abundance of natural skill, one gets from the exhibition a stronger sense that it had been an awful lot of training and practice that had established and perfected his talent. (And for this reason it would have been interesting to witness the exhibition on Holbein’s earlier work in Basel). This exhibition seems to indicate that a sudden switch to a different genre of painting would not have been something he would have appreciated; it may also have been that following the predetermined scenario of a religious narrative stymied his creative expression.

And yet he did nurture his talent in so many other areas. He was a portraitist, draughtsman, designer and a diplomatic businessman too – developing contacts with goldsmiths and merchants as well as courtiers and kings. The exhibition does an excellent job of highlighting Holbein’s fluid position within the flourishing English artistic environment (an environment certainly flourishing more than I appreciated), and how he was very much both its commander (in his ability to secure the most important commissions) and its servant (in that his work was always directed to the concerns of his patrons.) A whole range of related work is on show – cartoons, designs for swords, salt-clocks.

But it is the portrait drawings that remain in the head and the heart – deep, meaningful artistic communication via the elegant economy of his chalk, pen and ink.


Filed under Holbein, Renaissance, Tate Britain