Between the work of Holbein and Ron Mueck, many different styles have been used to define the "real" in art. Now we seem to want a reality that dwarfs usby Ben Lewis / September 24, 2006 / Leave a comment
I wish to announce a “realism” alert. Over the next few months, art critics and curators are likely to make widespread and irresponsible use of this abstract noun in an effort to describe the achievements of two artists separated by five centuries.
One of these is the sculptor Ron Mueck, a former model-maker linked to the Britart of the 1990s, who has a new exhibition running in Edinburgh’s National Galleries of Scotland; the other is Hans Holbein, the 16th-century German artist who painted English courtiers. He is the subject of a blockbuster show, “Holbein in England,” at Tate Britain in London, opening at the end of September.
Holbein brought a particularly dour version of the new realism of the northern Renaissance to England. The overwhelming majority of his surviving works are meticulous portraits of the court of Henry VIII. You can’t see the flourish of the painter’s brush in his images of the English governmental elite, as you can in his contemporary, Titian. Nor do his pictures contain the melodrama of his fellow German, Dürer. Instead there’s a highly contemporary repetitiveness to the pose and lighting in his pictures that makes me think of the Dusseldorf school of photographers of the 1980s and 1990s. You have to imagine that in the 16th century there was only one photographer, the first ever, in all England—Holbein. His realism still looks realistic today, but it was a marvel in its own time. Portraits were a new genre of painting in the Renaissance—part of a new vision of a reality populated by important individuals. But Holbein’s realism was not simply a snapshot of what someone looked like. His portraits also contain the finest representation of his subjects’ velvet and ermine clothes, of animals, books and scientific instruments, as well as memento mori. Holbein both celebrated the existence of the individual and acknowledged that this existence was finite. That was 16th-century British realism.
Ron Mueck is best known for his hyperrealist sculpture Dead Dad, which caused a stir when it was exhibited at Saatchi’s “Sensation” show in 1997. The work is an exact waxwork-like representation of his father, slightly shrunken in size, lying dead. It carries an uncanny echo of Holbein’s gruesome painting of Dead Christ, an unusual image of Jesus lying in his sepulchre with a deadly pallor on his skin and his mouth wide open, which hangs in Basel. But between Holbein…