Wednesday, 25 November 2009
Art and Power
All official art contains an element of propaganda. Let me give you a specific example. If I mention the name of the English king Henry VIII does this conjure up a specific image in your mind? Yes? Well, if it does, I think I can probably guarantee that it is the same confident and bull-like presentation that most people have: a man of boundless arrogance and limitless self-regard. This is the image that has made its way into popular culture, and possibly makes Henry one of the most recognised monarchs in all of history. In my estimation this puts Hans Holbein in the first rank of 'propaganda' painters. His paintings are not about people: they are about power.
It was Thomas Cromwell, the great Machiavellian, who first detected Holbeins's potential as the 'official' artist of the Reformed party in England, commissioning him to create anti-papal illustrations for books and pamphlets. In 1536 Holbein reached the very top of his profession, when he was appointed as the King's Painter. All images for public consumption were now his responsibility, and he depicted the Tudors very much in the fashion desired by the king, including the huge mural he painted in the palace of Whitehall. But of course being the painter of the rich and powerful also had dangers. Flattery and magnification became second nature to Holbein, who even did his best with the unprepossessing Anne of Cleves, Henry's mail-order bride. The gap between the 'ideal' and the reality was to lead to the fall of Cromwell, and the partial reversal of the English Reformation. Such is the power of art!