A new book about German artist Hans Holbein the Younger, best known for portraits of the Tudors, including King Henry VIII and his third wife Jane Seymour, focuses on another side of him: his drawings etched in wood that mocked those in power or those intent on getting it. Author, Ulink Rublack, a history prof at the University of Cambridge, doesn’t say it, but from what she does say, this column sees a parallel between Holbein’s satires drawn between 1524 and 1526, when the Reformation movement was driving political change and "Saturday Night Live’s" spoofs of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump when change in the American electorate raised an angry head.
Harbinger of 'Saturday Night Live'
Like "SNL," Holbein took a lot of irreverent chances by ribbing those who are supposed to help people and don’t. And he used established symbols left over from the Middle Ages like the “danse macabre” of skeleton as death doing in popes and kings. For entertainment, he added his winks and nods at the political climate of his time, which included making fun of the pope and the Catholic clergy, as in describe a nun flirting with her lover. Apparently such work lost him patrons for portraits in his hometown, so Holbein moved to England; although his dwindling business wasn’t only due to his cutting woodcuts. To hear the first Earl of Oxford, Robert Walpole tell it, the artist’s increasingly ill-tempered wife also played a part in his move. Even so, he didn’t seem to be able to limit his spoofing ways to the woodcuts. They also showed up in his portrait painting. In one example, he added a rendering of a fly on the sitter’s forehead. At first the sitter was struck with the beauty of the portrait until he attempted to brush the fly off and couldn’t. This story of Holbein’s jokes spread and in some ways were, for a time, made more of an impression than did his straight-faced portrait painting.
What’s more, Holbein seemed to bring out lampooning even among the more serious. Consider the tale told by French #Art critic Roger de Piles of humanist Erasmus who, after finishing writing his “Moreai Encomium” (Praise of Folly) and sent it to Holbein. The Latin title is a pun on the surname of Sir Thomas Moore, who was opposed to the Reformation. Holbein was so pleased with Erasmus’ descriptions of folly that he sketched figures as illustrations in the margins and sent it back to Erasmus. The writer, in turn, wrote Holbein’s name under his mock illustration of a fat Dutchman as an amorous lover and re-sent the book to Holbein. Still keeping the lampooning going, the artist drew a likeness of Erasmus as a musty groper who busied himself scraping up old manuscripts and antiquities and wrote under it “Adagia,” the title of Erasmus’ collection of Greek and Latin proverbs. Clearly, Holbein would have fit right in with "Saturday Night Live’s" sketch comedies -- most especially with the burlesques of the 2016 presidential election debates. #2016 Election