His­tor­i­cal fig­ures live in the mo­ment at UK ex­hi­bi­tion

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - CULTURE - By ALAS­TAIR SOOKE

Time can be such a cu­ri­ous, slip­pery thing. John God­salve worked at the court of Henry VIII. A pro­tégé of the king’s chief min­is­ter, Thomas Cromwell, he en­joyed a suc­cess­ful ca­reer, cul­mi­nat­ing with a knight­hood at Ed­ward VI’s corona­tion in 1547. He also had the good for­tune to sit for a like­ness by Hans Hol­bein the Younger.

Here it is, at the start of The En­counter, a new ex­hi­bi­tion of 48 Re­nais­sance and Baroque Old Master draw­ings at the Na­tional Por­trait Gallery. And, my good­ness, it is as­tound­ing.

Wear­ing a fur-lined gown and a high-sta­tus black bon­net, God­salve stares straight at us. It seems as if his eyes have swiv­elled in our di­rec­tion only a split-sec­ond ear­lier. At a stroke, once we have con­nected with God­salve’s gaze, the nearly 500 years since Hol­bein made this draw­ing dis­solve into noth­ing. Poof ! The gulf of half a mil­len­nium is gone.

What strange alchemy — or black magic — was ca­pa­ble of such a feat? Cer­tainly, it wasn’t God­salve’s ap­point­ment to Henry VIII’s im­prob­a­bly named Of­fice of the Com­mon Me­ter of Pre­cious Tis­sues that se­cured him im­mor­tal­ity, or even his sub­se­quent knight­hood. It was Hol­bein’s art. Still, how did he do it?

Cer­tain qual­i­ties of the por­trait pro­vide some an­swers, per­haps. Above all, of course, the sheer bril­liance of Hol­bein’s line could mimic the con­tours of God­salve’s face per­fectly. The art­ful pres­ence of nat­u­ral­is­tic de­tails, such as the patchy stub­ble, aug­ment the im­pres­sion that Hol­bein was of­fer­ing up re­al­ity, rather than its im­i­ta­tion. And the trick of God­salve’s eyes, which turn away from the axis of his face, sum­mon an at­mos­phere of spon­tane­ity and a sense of ur­gency.

Else­where, there are seven more por­traits by Hol­bein — all on loan, like God­salve’s, from the Royal Col­lec­tion. An­no­tated to record de­tails of the sit­ters’ gar­ments, they are stud­ies for fin­ished oil paint­ings. Of­ten, the fab­ric is ren­dered swiftly, with just a few vig­or­ous strokes of ink or chalk. In the­ory, one could ar­gue, this should weaken the im­pres­sion of re­al­ity, since these sum­mar­ily sketched cos­tumes do not “look” like real clothes. Yet the op­po­site is the case. The pro­vi­sional qual­ity of the mark-mak­ing im­bues the whole with a gen­eral air of an­i­ma­tion. It also off­sets the more sub­tle and re­fined exe- cu­tion of the face, fo­cus­ing at­ten­tion on the most im­por­tant part.

Mean­while, Hol­bein’s ob­ser­va­tion ex­tends be­yond the realm of ap­pear­ances, into the elu­sive, nu­anced sphere of psy­chol­ogy. A pretty but ten­ta­tive 20-year-old, per­haps a lady-in-wait­ing, looks hes­i­tantly to one side. Next to her, an icily at­trac­tive peer pro­vides a much more as­sertive pres­ence: a pro­toCruella de Vil with a death-ray stare. A bearded man in a black cap looks cau­tious and pompous; a younger gen­tle­man, with dev­as­tat­ing blue eyes, is all ruth­less am­bi­tion.

I have dwelled for so long upon these draw­ings, de­spite their fa­mil­iar­ity, be­cause they amount to a sig­nif­i­cant pro­por­tion of the ex­hi­bi­tion, which show­cases rarely seen hold­ings from 11 dif­fer­ent col­lec­tions. Aside from The Queen, the prin­ci­pal lenders are the Bri­tish Mu­seum and trustees of Chatsworth. More­over, Hol­bein’s God­salve kicks off the show be­cause it is em­blem­atic of the art­work that the cu­ra­tors wish to high­light: draw­ings char­ac­terised by a strik­ing sense of im­me­di­acy, em­a­nat­ing the fris­son of an “en­counter” be­tween artist and sit­ter.

Given the some­what amor­phous na­ture of the con­cept be­hind the ex­hi­bi­tion — this is not a show de­voted to a sin­gle master, coun­try, or even pe­riod — its shape is, ad­mit­tedly, a lit­tle loose. Af­ter God­salve, a short sec­tion il­lu­mi­nates how Re­nais­sance and Baroque artists learned the craft of draw­ing, of­ten work­ing from pat­tern or model books with stock mo­tifs on vel­lum. I would have dis­pensed with this — it makes for an un­spec­tac­u­lar, al­beit in­for­ma­tive, start — although it does al­low the cu­ra­tors to in­clude a spell­bind­ing sheet of fig­ures swiftly stud­ied from life by Rem­brandt.

Aside from an en­gag­ing wall of draw­ings of chil­dren, the stand­out group­ing in the next sec­tion highlights the Car­racci cousins, who founded an acad­emy of art in Bologna in the early 1580s. An­ni­bale was renowned as a por­traitist — and two works dis­played side by side, each dif­fer­ent from the other, demon­strate why. The first, a vir­tu­osic study in penand-ink. The sec­ond, ren­dered in red chalk, doc­u­ments a young man with a spinal de­for­mity, gaz­ing up­wards.

In many ways, this af­flicted man could have ap­peared at the start of the ex­hi­bi­tion, in­stead of God­salve. This is be­cause, with the ob­vi­ous ex­cep­tion of the Hol­bein draw­ings, as well as one or two oth­ers, many of the draw­ings fea­ture “or­di­nary” peo­ple. Floren­tine artist Carlo Dolci sketches his shoe­maker. The ear­li­est work in the show, by Pisanello, is of an anony­mous “gar­zone” (stu­dio apprentice) pos­ing as a hanged man. In the fi­nal room, a mid­dleaged man with curly hair and a well­worn, wrin­kled face wears none of the trap­pings of the elite.

The last work, hung by it­self be­fore the exit, pro­vides a su­perb fi­nale: a 17 th-cen­tury chalk draw­ing, at­trib­uted to Flem­ish Baroque artist Ja­cob Jor­daens, of an old woman wear­ing an elab­o­rate ruff, her left cheek rest­ing on a fist. Per­haps she’s the artist’s mother-in-law. We can’t be cer­tain. In a sense, though, it doesn’t mat­ter. The in­ten­sity of her pres­ence, her ex­pres­sion scrunched with im­pa­tience, im­bues with char­ac­ter. This draw­ing is al­most 400 years old, yet it feels as fresh as yes­ter­day.

Un­til Oct 22; npg.org.uk/en­counter


Fresh face: Hans Hol­bein the Younger’s like­ness of Sir John God­salve.

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