I've written before about my enjoyment of political cartoons and the countercultural social commentary they offer in the muddle of suspect politics and the injustice of our institutions. I was intrigued to read about a new book about the images created by Hans Holbein, a 16tth century painter who is best know for his painting of the rich and famous, such as Henry VIII.
The author argues that the woodcuts of The Dance of Death. The author argues that they were the precursors of Charlie Hebdo and others who critique societal norms. The Guardian review offers
Holbein’s series of grisly images, created between 1524 and 1526 and showing the folly of greed and pride, are part of a tradition dating back to the medieval idea of the “danse macabre”, which showed death, in the form of a skeleton, acting as the great leveller to kings and emperors. But in a new Penguin Classics edition collecting the woodcuts, Ulinka Rublack, professor of early modern history at the University of Cambridge, argues that Holbein’s version of the story is more than just another religiously-themed moral tale, and is actually a political statement.
Using contemporary sources including local government records from the period, Rublack found that the young artist known for his later portraits of the Tudors was then struggling to survive financially, and part of a group of subversive artists who were being drawn into the movement for political change in Reformation Europe.
She points to images from The Dance of Death such as one of a pope shown surrounded by little demons, which she said was a “very risky” thing to have done. “For me it is a clear reference to Lutheran criticism which claimed the pope was the antichrist. It is taking up the language used by the Lutherans, which was a dangerous thing to do,” she said.
Holbein produced the work while he was living in the Swiss city of Basle. The Reformation would not arrive there until 1529, but Rublack argues that there was already pressure for reform, and that Holbein, living among artists, would not have been immune to its influence.
“One can only imagine an atmosphere of creative fun and irreverence, which thrived on jokes against monks, priests, the local bishop and popes,” she writes in the new Penguin Classics edition, out this month.
The pope is below, and a duke who is ignoring the plight of a poor mother and child is at the top of the blog.
I'm not impressed by Charlie Hebdo, but we need to remember that bloggers and cartoonists who skewer the establishment are still persecuted, imprisoned and sometimes killed. The same has been true for those from religious communities who push the status quo. There have been several priests murdered in Mexico and Central America in recent months for challenging the "powers that be."
Any thoughts about this? Is it important to have some people who use the pen (figuratively speaking) or the paintbrush to challenge privilege and injustice?