Reading Images (Access. October 2006)

Reading Images, Realism.

For this essay, I have chosen to look at Hans Holbein’s portrait of Anne of Cleves, and Jenny Saville’s Passage.

Anne of Cleves by Hans Holbein

In 1539, Holbein was artist to the court of Henry VIII of England, and had been despatched to Duren, in the Duchy of Cleves, by his royal master in order to capture the likeness of Anne, Henry’s prospective bride. While Henry found his bride-to-be acceptable from Holbein’s rendering, this was no love match: the king’s chancellor, Thomas Cromwell, had arranged the union. Anne was sister to William, the Duke of Cleves, who was leader of the Protestants of western Germany, and Protestant England needed allies against a predicted invasion by the combined forces of Catholic France and the Holy Roman Empire.

Jenny Saville’s picture was painted in 2004. Neil Manson writing on artnet.com says: “One suspects that Saatchi perceives himself as a kind of magus, someone whose primary motive is control. It seems quite possible that his pleasure comes from the manipulation of taste, the general public and art community.” While one could say Saville made the picture for herself, one could also say she is painting for an audience influenced by Charles Saatchi, who famously paid her to produce work for him between August 1992 and January 1994, and featured her in the controversial Sensation exhibition. Saville has always been interested in the body and the ways it can be manipulated. Passage has a precedent in her 1999 work, Matrix, which showed a transsexual in transition from female-to-male. Particularly important in the context of this painting is the fact that surgical and medical techniques have advanced to the point that human beings can consciously change their gender status at the physical level.

Holbein’s picture (65 x 48 cm) shows a young woman of the period, dressed in her finery, with her hands clasped in front of her. She is shown from about the waist up. Her expression is curiously bland, giving no indication of her character. The eye on the right side of the face seems to be slightly larger than the other, but her face is otherwise symmetrical. Her skin is almost the same colour as the pale material at her wrists and on her chest. Her red dress and jewellery –her rings, her necklaces, the pearls embroidered on to her sleeves and headgear- are minutely detailed, in contrast to her face; in fact, the face seems somehow less realistic than the rest of the portrait, particularly the folds of cloth on the left side of the picture, and the dimpled hands. The background is a uniform dark colour, against which the reds and gold of Anne’s dress and her pale skin stand out; the left hand side of the painting is in deeper shadow than the rest. There are no obvious brush strokes.

Passage (336 x 290 cm) depicts a reclining transsexual, male-to-female, with a generally feminine appearance, but male genitalia. She is sat, leaning back, with her legs open and abdomen inclined over to her right; her penis hangs down on to her right thigh. Her right breast points away from the body. Neither hands nor feet are visible; the former hidden behind the body, the latter outside the frame. Her face is rather boyish with a unisex hairstyle and frank dark eyes. Most of the picture has been painted in cold colours, the figure appearing pale against a simple background of blues. There are stark white highlights on her right breast and stomach. Points of warmth, where reds, browns and pinks have been used, are the genitalia, the nipples, and the throat. The lips are full and purplish. The brushwork in this painting is obvious, although the overall effect is realistic; dribbles of paint are visible on the thighs, and raised textured areas where the paint is thicker.

Passage by Jenny Saville

The portrait of Anne of Cleves was made the way it was for several reasons, the first being that there was no way of knowing what a person truly looked like during the 1500s except by actually seeing them, or viewing a accurate portrait: one of Holbein’s duties as court artist was to provide likenesses of prospective brides for the king. As the portrait was primarily an accurate image, rather than a work of art, visible brush strokes would detract from this. This is also why there is no background detail, and why the pose is so simple and formal. The pose was also simple, because Holbein would not have worked exclusively with Anne sitting for him, probably doing most of the work from preliminary drawings. He might also have been able to paint Anne’s clothes and jewels when she was not wearing them, which could explain why they are so detailed in comparison to her face. As Henry was much pleased by the portrait but found Anne herself to be “a fat Flanders mare”, we know that the portrait is not an accurate likeness. Holbein was in an impossible position: he could not insult his hosts nor incur Henry’s wrath by jeopardising the alliance. This leads one to speculate that the great detail and realism in the rest of the painting might have been something of a diversionary tactic, given the simplicity of the face.

Passage is very much meant to be a painting, a work of art. That said, an actual model was used, although as Jenny Saville says “thirty or forty years ago this body couldn’t have existed”. As a piece of realistic art, this picture could only exist from a certain point in history; before then it would always have been fantastical. The scale on which Saville works (considerably larger than life) almost turns the subject into a landscape, which may explain the green ‘hillsides’ of the subject’s left shoulder, breast and thigh. While there are two natural focal points in the painting (the genitals and the face), the brush strokes make pathways through the landscape of the body, so that the viewer cannot avoid coming back to the individual features that make the whole; the painting is confrontational and seems to be constructed so that it will confront those trying to avoid the areas they find uncomfortable. Another reason for the highly visible brushstrokes is that, working on such a large scale, the artist must make large and unsubtle movements to achieve the subtle.

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