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There is amazing verisimilitude in Hans Holbein’s tiny painting of Erasmus of Rotterdam, which goes on display in London this week as part of Tate Britain’s Holbein in England exhibition. The fur is furrier than the way any other artist paints fur. There is a great sense of compressed energy packed into a small space.

It has such presence because the flat background, which is a strong blue colour, pushes the image forward to make it much more confrontational. Holbein has painted both the front and the back of the head (most artists of this period just painted the front), which means it occupies more space and is more lifelike. You know from his sophisticated drawing what is going on underneath the face – from the way the skin is stretched over the teeth or the chin wraps around the bones. Look at the eye socket and how the eye is located – you almost expect it to turn around and stare at you.

What makes the picture especially human is that Holbein has not been particularly flattering. Compare it with, say, paintings by Lucas Cranach, where all the characters could have come from central casting – everybody looks the same. Holbein’s portraits are always very specific personalities.

Yet I am not that interested in the biographical aspect of these pictures, or in the artist’s friendship with Erasmus. I am a kind of dyed-in-the-wool formalist when I look at a painting. I am more interested in the paint handling, the drawing, the composition.

Painting is such an incredible act, one that transcends the physical reality of what is being portrayed. When a painter looks at another painter’s work, even across the centuries, it is like when a magician performs in front of an audience of other magicians. The question arises – do they see the illusion or do they see the device that made the illusion? A painter confronted with someone else’s painting is simultaneously aware of the image that was built and how it was built.

For me, the magic is in seeing how the apparition appeared within the rectangle, what the pictorial syntax is, what the mark-
making methods are, and what the touch is. Holbein has an amazing touch – it is almost invisible in something this small. It is as if it has been blown on to the painting by a gust of wind.

There are no individual brushstrokes that signify one hair. So how did Holbein get his image to look like fur if the marks are not symbolic, if the mark does not stand for fur? By painting the situation rather than the symbols of fur.

What does that mean? When light falls on something made up of lots of little stuff, it becomes very soft. It hits some of those hairs and falls between the others, casting a shadow. Think of the difference between a telephone pole casting a shadow on a street and then on grass. The shadow on the street has a hard edge, but the minute it hits the grass, the edge becomes soft. You do not have to paint every blade of grass to get someone to understand that they are looking at grass – you paint the situation of grass. It lights differently and shadows fall differently. That is what Holbein has managed to do here.

Compare this with, say, a painting of an apple tree by Grandma Moses. She will make the trunk and then the branches, and she will hang the apples on it. If you count the apples in the painting, that is how many are on the tree. In reality, some of the apples would be behind others, while some would be hidden by branches, but a naive or folk artist tends to paint symbolically – each mark stands for something.

The American artist Andrew Wyeth is, in many ways, like a naive painter. You can, for instance, count the blades of grass that Christina is crawling on as she gazes up the hill in “Christina’s World” (1948). If you study more sophisticated paint-handling, you won’t have one mark equalling one thing.

Look at how Holbein has painted the velvet of the man’s collar. Velvet has lots of little hairs that stick up, and each casts a shadow. Seen together, it makes a soft surface, which breaks in a certain way when folded (silk, on the other hand, folds on a sharp edge).

We are very sophisticated in reading these things. The paint-handling and pictorial syntax is so much of what our experience of the painting is about. Think about the parallels in literature. Hemingway’s distinctive
economic use of words can make a simple story of a bullfight riveting because of the way they slam together and trip off your tongue.

The enduring allure of “Erasmus” can also be attributed to the fact that it is in such good condition. Holbein mixed a lot of oil and varnish into the paint. If you look at the picture from below, you can see that part of the physicality of the piece is that it is glazed with a very liquid medium – unlike Botticelli’s application of paint, which is so dry that when you view his canvases you feel as if you need a glass of water. “Erasmus”, by contrast, is so rich that it is as if we are watching over Holbein’s shoulder while he’s creating it. For me, this makes his painting a totally contemporary experience, because it is a record of the decisions he made and is in virtually the same condition as it was when he produced it.

As well as Holbein’s use of paint, his composition is incredible. Everything in the picture is sliding under the shapes of the fur collar, leading your eye up the collar to the big mass that is Erasmus’s head. It almost looks like a lily opening up; like a painting by Georgia O’Keeffe – the gap between the collar could be a gully with water rushing through it, the head a dark mountain range. To me, that abstract flat reading is very important to this painting – it comes out at you; some of the shapes resemble something else, and then you settle into the picture for what it really is.

A version of this piece appears in the current issue of TATE ETC.
‘Holbein in England’, sponsored by British Land, is at Tate Britain, London SW1, from Sept 28 to Jan 7.

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