Excrept from a Book – Text and drawings from István Orosz

Whether into hell or heaven,

as ambassador

now enter –

as a hasty harbinger,

whose only mission is to bow,

forgetting all the massacre.

And, as he did, just act in stead

of him who sent you as your master,

then retrace your steps – the faster


Be thou of the world or faith,

never scrutinize thy fate,

or the message it may harbor.

One day, as you muse before

a painting so peculiar

that it makes you merrier,

your gaze will fix a sight unseen –

an object that has never been,

yet is there inevitably

as your death or destiny:

vanitas, or vanity.

Are they going to reprimand me, I wonder?

I am standing before this great painting, leaning close as I can over the low cordon, my face all but touching the paint. I am reminded of how Dostoevsky was also afraid of being reprimanded. And that it was also a painting by Holbein that Fyodor Mikhaylovich was beholding. It was 12 August 1867, a muggy summer afternoon at the Basel Gallery. He mounted a chair so as to take a closer look at The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb, then just stared at it transfixed for fifteen or twenty minutes. “I was worried he would be punished, for everything here carries a punishment”, Dostoevsky’s wife recalls in her memoirs. And indeed, as we travel, in vain we strain to leave behind at home the anxieties and inferiority complexes that stay with us East Europeans. It would be a futile attempt, even after edging closer to a century and a half. The Ambassadors of our heritage will follow on our heels like shadows, try as we may to flee from them by horse-carriage or airplane. Nobody reprimands me. For the time being.

They must be aware, these Sikh museum attendants in their wrapped turbans, that this is how this painting must be viewed, or at least that this is one of the ways in which it must be viewed. Or they are simply accustomed to observing visitors from all walks of life stand at an oblique angle and lean forward to stare the skull “in the eye”, with a familiarity that borders on indecency. Some will lie prostrate on the floor and blink upwards. All make gestures and arguments, eager to convince each other of what they believe is the correct viewing position to adopt. All this on account of that strange, elongated oval shape in the lower third of the painting, which will turn into a skull if you are clever enough to find the proper perspective.

The painting – a life-size portrait of two men – is The Ambassadors, by the German painter Hans Holbein the Younger, and that mysterious skull, which becomes visible only for the chosen few who know how to look for it and look at it, harbours the secret missive of the ambassadors. At least, this is how milling tourists and onlookers would have it.

Of course, your first encounter with the painting will be head-on, as usual. As you move down the length of the National Gallery toward the Sainsbury Wing and turn left in an ambulatory, you will catch a glimpse of The Ambassadors in the distance, at the far end of a string of halls perpendicular to the main axis, in the company of other Reformation-era paintings by Cranach, Altdorfer, Baldung, and three more works by Holbein himself. This is Room 4.

Let me evoke for you how I first came face to face with the painting, with the two gentlemen it portrays, and – do I need to say it? – with the hidden representation within. What was my first reaction? Did I like it? Did I fall in love? Did I understand it? Did I at all intuit its message? It is certainly not the kind of painting that will readily reveal all of its secrets at first sight. It forceses you to take your time making its acquaintance. You must come back to it over and over again. It begs to be studied.

In 1890, the National Gallery made a purchase of three paintings from the collection of the Earl of Radnor, in the total amount of 55,000 pounds sterling, using funds donated by munificent friends of the museum. The Ambassadors was the most costly of the three acquisitions, at 30,000 pounds. Although the painting had resided at Longford Castle as the property of the Radnors since 1808, it had not been unknown to art connoisseurs in London, and books on Holbein had certainly treated it. Then, in 1873, it came to be exhibited in the Burlington House of the Royal Academy. When the National Gallery showcased the new acquisition in September 1890, in the Umbria Room where the so-called Longford Paintings were temporarily quartered, it immediatedly stirred widespread speculation as to the identity of the two men portrayed and, inevitably, as to the meaning and significance of the object in the foreground, variously perceived as a marine beast, a French baguette, a gnarled male member, or a weird geological formation. In short, this was the beginning of a genuine scholarly inquiry and the first critical publications concerning the painting, which were not always flattering.

One commentator went as far as to call The Ambassadors “a damned ugly picture” – and had the nerve to put this in writing. To make things worse, his words probably did not go unheeded, for this critic was none other than Aubrey Beardsley, himself the most highly regarded graphic artist in all of England at the time, not to mention a famous – and infamous – illustrator of books. I, as a graphic artist by trade myself, will make an attempt to approach The Ambassadors with the gaze and spirit of my then young colleague. Beardsley was all of 19 years old – albeit an accomplished and recognized artist already – when he lashed out at The Ambassadors. Was it that Holbein’s composition, with its classical proportions, seemed a world apart from the lightness of touch and decorative mindset of the art nouveau, the mainstream style of the day? Or was it that it fell short of the ideal identified and celebrated in 15th-century Tuscan painting by the Pre-Raphaelites, who dictated all things of fashion in London? Or was Beardsley simply motivated by some kind of professional jealousy? Did this enfant terrible of salons around the great city really need to make such deprecating pronouncements to cater to his own ego and image? Luckily, I need not pronounce a judgment in the matter myself, for barely a month later, in September 1891, Beardsley turned around and said, “I am beginning to feel somewhat ashamed of what I said about Holbein’s Ambassadors. I have seen it several times since.”

I have seen this painting many times myself, in the original and in reproductions.

What I am about to say is rooted in genuine appreciation. In fact, I might venture to call it a masterpiece, had this label not been so widely overused in the past century. And, of course, I just have a deep affection for it. I have spent so much time with it that I simply would be unable to feel otherwise. All this admiration notwithstanding, I would like to start by taking inventory of its potential shortcomings. Let us see, then, the arguments one might adduce in an attempt to prove that The Ambassadors is an inferior painting.

Admittedly, the frontal positioning and the static composition smack of artifice.

The two figures strike a pose as if they were in a photo shoot, waiting for a signal from the unimaginative photographer before they are allowed to stir and take a deep breath after the long exposure. Each occupying a space outside the other’s personal aura, they adopt a disciplined, almost suspiciously aloof stance, as if to show that they have nothing in particular to do with each other. Naturally, this aloofness becomes amplified in relation to the spectator. Scrutinizing their indifferent, distant gaze, it is not difficult to realize that we, the museum visitors, are the last thing they need to have around. The theatrical organization of the composition is only sharpened by the backdrop, the drapery curtain. It is as if The Ambassadors had been conceived in repudiation of the aesthetic permeating the paintings of the era that pushed against traditional boundaries to let some fresh air into the exhibition halls through their use of novel perspectives. Although the drawn curtain does hint at some ineffable, enigmatic meaning, it renders the composition rather tedious. The various objects shored up on the shelf are reminiscent of a museum warehouse or the cluttered science lab of a grammar school. There can hardly be any doubt as to the purpose of their specific assortment: all these tools of science and art are intended to highlight the intellect of the two protagonists. Obviously, we are dealing with a painting on commission and a client motivated by a compulsive need to prove something, to use Holbein’s painting as a vehicle for telling posterity that he was not just anyone. In all fairness, though, it must be admitted that other portraits from the same period were seldom immune to this kind of ostentation. Indeed, it is rare that a character is capable of radiating power without the aid of a pose, an air, or other artifice. When left to his own devices, Holbein himself would create such a painting on occasion, as one would expect from one of the greatest portrait painters in the history of art. A case in point is his Christina of Denmark, housed in the same room as The Ambassadors, the natural intensity of which elicited insinuations that the painter’s hand had been guided by a passion deeper than the mere desire to fashion a verisimilitude of reality.

According to an old adage, nothing is more tedious than perfection. I hold Holbein’s painting to be an uncircumventable monument of universal cultural history not so much despite its flaws as because of them. I enjoy spending time with this painting. If I have succeeded in listing its shortcomings, I might manage to enumerate its virtues. Most apparent is the sheer grandeur and serenity of the composition. The two figures, the rich collection of objects and the environment are presented as a simple, unified whole. The pure harmony of the arrangement and representation aid perception, the viewer’s gaze remains at ease, can scan the surface of the painting at will. Relationships of subordination and superiority remain unambiguous. There are no stylistically discrete or out-of-proportion details that would interfere with the process of reception. The effects of illumination, the lights and shadows lend coherence to the subject while articulating it. The principal outlines are clearly visible even from a distance. As you move closer, the details unfold in harmony with the whole. The two figures facing you may seem inert but they seem to follow an underlying orbit of motion. The poise of the bodies, the subtle yet marked shifting of the upper torsos away from the lower ones, the position of the limbs, and the geometric rendition of the contrast between rest and energy invest their characters with dignity and the painting with intensity.

Sizing up the proportions of the composition, I keep attempting to construct the anamorphic distortion of the skull hidden in the lower third of the painting, I work hard to unlock its secret. Sometimes I urge myself on by saying I am close to deciphering the message Holbein encrypted five hundred years ago. Other times I cannot help but admit, with a measure of shame, that I have been on the wrong track, or else have discovered something that had been known for a long time to art historians far better qualified than I am. I sit in front of the painting on the bench that had been polished to a rich sheen by so many pants and skirts over the years. Or I stand around facing the two men, move in closer, retrace my steps, then turn on my heels to see what they see. Well, they do not need to bother much with the other paintings in Room 4: the distant gaze of the two men flies past them penetrating the long space created by the string of the museum’s halls as one opens into the next. The perspective frames no fewer than six doors, and when visitors are few, you can see as far as the seventh room.

Apart from being the largest, The Ambassadors is at once the most complex and most challenging painting in all of Holbein’s surviving oeuvre. Indeed, as far as we know, it has no peer among those works of his that have been destroyed or are only known from hearsay or copies. In what follows, I will not propose to offer a rigorous scholarly analysis. Defining my form of inquiry as an interpretive essay in the original sense of the word as “attempt”, would be a more apt description. Better yet, I will simply call this “notes” – notes penned by an artist who, like Holbein, often works on commission, and has more than once tried his hand at the technique of optical distortion known as anamorphic representation, which only dominates the lower third of this painting but retunes its entire message. Perhaps not any less pertinently, yours truly has had occasion to live in an oppressive dictatorship not unlike the one that surrounded the German painter in the court of Henry VIII in London. I am therefore going to approach the painting from several vantage points, including the technical, the thematic, the political and, risking accusations of excessive intimacy, even the deeply personal. I will make an honest effort to respect the primacy of fact, but I will not shirk from conjecture, intuition, or hypothesis. I do not pretend to understand Holbein better than he understood himself, but I have come to believe that a work of art somehow incorporates all the ideas and observations that time has shored up and deposited upon it since its creation. It is certainly the job of scholars to purge the work of such intellectual flotsam. However, the person who considers Holbein’s work as not just an old painting but as a living organism that exerts a direct influence on the spectator is at liberty to argue that The Ambassadors is more than an oak tablet measuring 207 by 209.5 centimetres that hangs in the National Gallery: it is all the things that have ever been written, thought, and felt about it. I am aware well in advance that my arguments will not all necessarily proceed in the same direction. They may corroborate, weaken or, as the case may be, even cancel out one another. If you the Reader feel free to cherry-pick from my assumptions those that best suit your own predilections, approving some and rejecting others, you will act very much in keeping with the leitmotif of this book. For the single most important attribute of anamorphism is that it is always up to the viewer to find the appropriate and salutary perspective.

So here I am, in Room 4 of the National Gallery, scrutinizing the painting from all possible angles, unable to tear my gaze away from the amorphous object down below. I am trying to lock in the right perspective and distance which afford the most precise view of the skull. I am looking at it from above and from the right, as the Baedekers suggest one should, but I also crouch down on the other side and peer at it from a lower left direction, as I do with the reproduction back at home, to make sure that the skull materializes to my vision either way. Which one is the real angle? A third one, perhaps? The museum attendants have grown used to my presence, as I return every day or every other day. They no longer take notice. I no longer have to strain to see the skull in the anamorphic construct. In fact, sometimes I can see it even if I do not adopt a slanting perspective. It gains a life of its own and pushes to the forefront, like an epigraph to a book. Now, an epigraph is obviously a quotation that alludes to the spirit of the written work. Is it possible that the anamorph, like the epigraph, can be used as some sort of key to the mystery? If it is, the anamorph must be understood as an instruction on how to view the entire painting: differently, for nothing here is really what it seems to be. The code has been handed to you. All the secrets are here before your eyes. If you cannot see them, you have only yourself to blame.

While I am searching for the right perspective by comparing the various angles, I must be paying attention to myself as well. To put it differently, I might say I must focus on where my own position is located relative to the painting and its space; I must keep an eye on how it responds to my own specific movements and shifts of position. If I were to identify the single distinctive feature that most radically sets The Ambassadors apart from the other paintings of the day, as well as from other works by Holbein himself, I would certainly point to this very special effect of reciprocity whereby the painting seems to address the viewer. Before The Ambassadors, and for a long time afterwards, the usual procedure of viewing a painting consisted of the viewer stopping in front of it and contemplating it. Of course, artists unconsciously – and sometimes wittingly – always wished their work could change something within the viewer, enabling him to contemplate himself through contemplating the painting. It goes without saying that this change is barely perceptible for the outsider, and the tools for gauging it are absent or at least intangible. However, the visitor stopping in front of The Ambassadors – or, to be more precise, entering the space of The Ambassadors – and searching for the ideal viewing angle will be forced to define and redefine, from one moment to the next, the continually shifting system of relationships between him and the painting. In so doing, the subject engages in the act of what one might rightfully term self-reflection. The geometric interpretation of this notion may be more literally apparent but cannot be divorced from introspection, in the spiritual sense. Indeed, the feeling of triumph upon having found the right angle – the recognition that you have accomplished the task assigned to you by the painter – may be so intense as to make indulgences of co-authorship momentarily forgivable. Leading the viewer to address his own identity by forcing him to revise his viewing habits and become aware of his position in space is a strategy more characteristic of modern, even postmodern, art. The transactions between paintings and their viewers that conclude in introspection tend to rely on visual paradox, illusionistic metamorphosis, and optical sleight-of-hand. Anamorphosis is a very special tool in this arsenal. In writing about The Ambassadors, it is certainly in order to deal with this technique, no matter how briefly, which was a novel solution in Holbein’s time and must be regarded as an odd offshoot of perspectivist representation. By the same token, we must address the message conveyed by the anamorphosis, understood as an emblem intended to signify the unity of art and science. I know that, were I to be writing a proper treatise of art history, I should be well-advised to steer clear of using words like conjecture, hypothesis, and preconception. In my defence, I always make it a point to turn around these “discoveries”, which I have arrived at through speculation, and attempt to demonstrate precisely the opposite using new conjectures, hypotheses, and preconceptions as my starting point. In this way, my Reader is at liberty to adopt the attitude of the co-author, vested with the discretion to embrace or reject each of my theories as he sees fit from his own point of view. The co-author in search of his own perspective: this is indeed the operating concept that unites the underlying principle of this piece of writing and the central motif of the painting – as long as we see anamorphosis as the central motif, of course.

The portrait is of two gentlemen, life-size and clad from head to toe. We are faced by a courtier wearing characteristic secular clothes and a dark-robed figure who appears to be a priest or a scientist. The two distinguished men look rather different. For the latter-day viewer, each seems to have trodden a radically different road of life, as if they represented the two poles of terrestrial existence. The one on the left, who embodies the lay world, is truly a man of the Renaissance, with a rosy cheek and a relaxed, open gesture of his arms. The one on the right – the man of faith and intellect – has a darker, more ashen complexion, and the way he grabs and holds his puritanical robe in front of him suggests introversion. The former turns toward us in the asymmetrical contrapposto familiar from Italian paintings, while the more frontal position of the other recalls the static compositions more typical of Northern countries. The former rests his right hand on the richly ornamented sheath of his dagger; the latter on a Bible. The two objects are inscribed with the respective age of their owners: 29 and 25. For about a century now, we have known more or less for sure who they are. The man on the left is the aristocrat Jean de Dinteville, seigneur of Polisy, bailli of Troyes, and French ambassador to the court of Henry Tudor in London. To the right stands his friend, Georges de Selve, who fulfilled certain diplomatic missions himself, and had been appointed bishop of Lavaur by Francis I shortly before the painting was completed.

I am trying to make a drawing of these two men. These two boys. By their age at the time they could be my own sons. And I could be their great-great grandchild multiplied by five. I prop my book of reproductions against the lamp stand on my drawing desk and make a sketch outline in pencil. Then I go at it with ink, a ballpoint pen, chalk, a thin brush, and a quill. I shut the book and strive to evoke from memory their faces and gestures. I know their names. I know their interests, their lives, their families – even their passions and flaws. I can hear them make indifferent utterances with narcissistic sluggishness, relishing their French tongue and even their own masculine affectation of this most feminine of all languages. They use the formal conjugation. They vous each other. They discuss a chess puzzle. One of them corresponds with Rilke. The other rides a horse to Auxerre to see the rookie Hungarian recruit in a football game against Troyes (he happens to sponsor the team). They are snobbish, supercilious, contemplative, ardent, prone to failure, dreamy, torn, vain, sensuous, bragging – and lonely. They are lovable. I stare at them, and they stare at me, across the distance of five hundred years. I try to catch their glimpse. I hardly know anything about them. I cannot figure out what they are thinking. And the thought that they, at least, are privy to my own thoughts is no consolation. Come to think of it, they might not even care, one way or another. I draw another copy, closer up, this time from memory. Good lord. Their stare is the same as the one that once searched for the gaze of Holbein all those years ago.

And that, for now, is sufficient.

Translation by Péter Balikó Lengyel

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