Hans Holbein. The Ambassadors
Oil on oak panel, 1533.
National Gallery, London.
This is some of what we know of the painting. That the year was 1533, that it was spring, that it was England, and that it was cold. That Jean de Dinteville, a French ambassador to Henry VIII's court, commissioned the painting, and that work on it was begun during the visit of de Dinteville's "intimate friend" ("ami intime"), Georges de Selves, a bishop and himself sometimes ambassador to the papal court in Rome; that after de Selves's departure, de Dinteville described himself in a letter to his brother as "the most melancholy, weary, and wearisome of ambassadors" ("le plus mélancholique, fasché et fascheux ambassadeur"). That de Dinteville commissioned the artist Hans Holbein to paint the picture during an embassy prompted by the divorce of Henry VIII from Catherine of Aragon, and subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn, an embassy prolonged by the announcement of the new queen's pregnancy. That the slashing shape in the bottom of the painting corrects to a perceptible image if you look at it from a disorienting point of view. That the instruments on the table chart time and space according to the sun and stars; that the lute has a broken string; that the books represent actual publications of the 1520s; that the floor replicates the mosaics of Westminster Abbey, and that there is a small silver crucifix in the upper left corner.
The painting is full of information. For art historian Keith Moxey, the painting's crisp and relentless verisimilitude make the painting emblematic of what he calls the "mimetic impulse" thriving in the transition between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. This compulsion to imitate, this fascination with a seemingly "naturalized" (possible, recognizable, continuous) representation of reality has long had a champion in perspective as the key mathematical tool needed to snap the picture plane into coherence and correspondence with our own. The painting's scale (6'9" by 6'10") and the placement of its persons and objects in its mathematically lucid perspective (including the shifts necessary for the anamorphic image to resolve into something recognizable to human perception) compel our fascination to know, to decipher, and otherwise figure out and, through our interpretation, master the seemingly naturalized, viable reality so carefully and possibly laid out before us.
And so scholars have plotted and calculated and charted and corresponded with the painting. Jurgis Baltrusaitis's book on Anamorphic Art devotes an entire chapter to Holbein's Ambassadors and works out the measurements of the shifts in scale and perspective provoked by the pull of the anamorphic perspective; Elly Dekker and Kristen Lippincott have calculated the precise places and times projected by both the terrestrial and celestial globes, the pillar dial, the universal equinoctial dial, the horary quadrant, the polyhedral dial, and the torquetum; the restoration team of the National Gallery, led by Martin Wyld, was able to cite the specific edition of the Lutheran hymnal open on the bottom ledge, as well as the page that the Merchants' Arithmetic book is open to; having assembled clues indicating the picture was painted on Good Friday, April 11, 1533, John David North argues for a correspondence between Holbein and none other than Geoffrey Chaucer, whose Parsons' Tale Prologue provides the astronomical information needed for North to find the date of April 16, that of the Good Friday of 1400, the year of Chaucer's death.
The painting's information has the potential to fix it into a "right" interpretation. But the painting resists with a series of assertions that don't "make sense": the gnomons on the instruments all point to different spaces and times, breaking up the possibility of spatial and temporal coherence; some shadows project right, while others project left; the painted skull's slash causes it to hover between representational depth and representational surface in one bold mathematical stroke; de Dinteville asks his brother to keep George de Selves's visit a secret, all the while that Holbein's preparatory drawings are becoming the monumental painting we see today. And so we come to a standstill when it comes to what we know of the painting. It is replete with information, but information that folds back on itself to produce a wildly varying scale of interpretation, from portraiture to alchemy, from the rise of humanism to the Fall of Man. And so, the more you know about the painting, the less you know where to look within it for meaning; the less you 're sure what the painting is about, the more you approach Jacques Lacan's claim, in his discussion of anamorphosis and The Ambassadors, that "painting… is first of all something that is organized around emptiness" (136). In creating a "window" onto another world, perspective empties out and negates the material support of the painting (its frame, its paint) in favor of a spatial depth that is continuous with and projected to be controlled by the human imagination (this is how Erwin Panofsky, in Perspective as Symbolic Form can simultaneously discuss the "rise" of humanism, perspective, and landscape painting; this is how we might start to think of the role of mimetic visual representation in our continuing ecological crisis; beware the mimesis of the nature documentary). Anamorphic perspective (in its disturbance of the depth of linear perspective) reveals this depth to be constructed, to be empty, a human fantasy of continuity and control, willfully ignorant of the life and agency of the representational realm. For Jean-François Lyotard, the anamorphosis of The Ambassadors exists as nothing less than an "ontological act," a coming-into-being of the skull, as the viewer moves to the point of perception, an explosion of representation, and a chance for the catastrophe of death (as both human and beyond-human) to "speak" and act.
In its undoings of the expectations of constructed naturalism, I see The Ambassadors in conversation with The Ballad of Holland Island House by Lynn Tomlinson. In the shifts of scales and perspectives, the multiplicity of non-human points of view, and the revelations of and revels in realms that exist beyond human presence, these two assemblages of images ask us to think with them beyond human perception, into what I will call the "anamorphic reach," a representational mode that pulls the human towards the non-human, towards those objects and entities whose agency is occluded by the rationalized fantasy of perspective. From the opening "bird's eye view" shot of The Ballad of Holland Island House to its closing images depicting the house refracted through water, Lynn's images, and method of pulling images into being through clay, manipulates perspective and challenges perception. The anamorphic reach of The Ballad of Holland Island House, like that of Holbein's Ambassadors, displaces human perception, and questions human mastery and knowledge.
What does this painting know?
Wendy Wheeler ends her marvelous essay, "Natural Play, Natural Metaphor, Natural Stories," with a question that Holland Island House and the Ambassadors have been waiting for us to ask: "What does this painting know?" If we are to follow the anamorphic reach of these images, we must try to give up interpretive control from the human point of view. Wheeler continues, "This assumption, that the work is like an organism that knows something – no matter how potentially alien the knowing belonging to this way of life – is the productive question, the question that might bear fruit, because it recognizes that the work has a life of its own, that minds and knowledges are not confined to humans, and that we can (and perhaps should) get into conversation and relationship with all the life and mindedness we encounter around and about us, whatever form it takes." (from Material Ecocriticisms; ed. Serenella Iovino and Serpil Oppermann. Indiana University Press, 2014: 78).And so, we will strive for mingled epistemologies: there is what we know of the painting, and there is what the painting knows (and perhaps even knows of us). Knowledge can here in other settings than the disembodied, rationalized Cartesian mind, and I would like to reach for three: it can be impressed, witnessed, and contained in materials; it can be tracked and followed, letting the painting take the lead, as perspective; and, most speculatively, the "life and mindedness" of the painting can be projected in the melancholy that surrounds it.
The materials of The Ambassadors announced themselves to the restoration team of the National Gallery in London from 1993 to 1996. Under X-rays and cleaning solvents, the painting became another kind of object: ten planks of oak covered in a mid-grey priming adorned with patterns of linseed oil mixed with pigments and small traces of gold. Dendrochronological analysis of the wood locates it to the Baltic-Polish region and asserts 1524 as its earliest felling date. The knowledge of human agency (whether it was Holbein or de Dinteville or someone else entirely who insisted on importing the oak) is lost, but the knowledge of the tree, its travails and travels across land and water to reach England, is apparent. The Baltic oak was a sought-after hardwood, strong and enduring; equally telling of the luxury of the painting it would become, and of an emerging ecological catastrophe. The extensive deforestations of England, analyzed in relation to artistic production in Vin Nardizzi's book Wooden Os; Shakespeare's Theatres and England's Trees, had already begun, and this Baltic cousin of the English oak had come to stand in for its kindred. Felled in 1524 for a 1533 painting, the oak was young in the guise of wood and plank, but old as a tree. Its knowledge is of multiple states of being: seed, tree, wood, plank, panel, painting – each producing molecular changes, some revealing that the painting existed in a flooded room at one time, all shifting the structure and function of the lignin that had carried water from its roots to its leaves, and now seasons into its strength. It shares a kinship of endurance with the oak from which Holland Island House was built in the early-to-mid-19th century, when the nearby Chesapeake Forest flourished with oak and maple trees. Oak regeneration efforts today led by the organization Forestry for the Bay speak to the continuing mingled narrative of human and arboreal ecologies, the ebb and flow of human exploitation and sylvan resurgence.
The wood of the painting knows (it re-members) its own ecological crisis of being felled. Every work of art is a re-membered ecological crisis. It also knows the variant scales of the ecological precariousness of England and the individual desire of its patron for a luxury hardwood. Its materials witness extended histories and ephemeral moments both. It is as well versed in molecules as it is in mimesis. In a mingled materiality lost to measure, the painting bears the molecular traces of de Dinteville in the melancholic sighs he expelled near the painting, as he gazed upon the countenance of his departed friend and contemplated the months of his exile, drawn-out by Anne Boleyn's pregnancy. The air around the painting, as its linseed oil took its days to dry into the wood, may have been disturbed by the fluttering wings of the mosquito carrying the parasite that would infect de Dinteville with a tertian fever, whose torments de Dinteville would detail in the May 1533 letter to his brother that disclosed de Selve's visit. The molecules of sighs and the air disturbed by mosquito wings are not the stuff of history from a human point of view: they cannot be measured or proven, plotted or fixed within a linear perspective; they are, instead, the stuff of anamorphic reach.
From a literal, figurative, allegorical, and moral point of view, the anamorphic skull of The Ambassadors is a catastrophe. A "strophe" was originally the structural division of a poem, as denoted primarily by the right to left movement of ancient Greek choruses on the stage. Simplified through use, it means to turn. The Greek suffix "cata- takes us downward, or against, it makes the turn a downturn. The anamorphic skull positions us to look downwards if we are to see it as an image, if we are to recognize, even briefly, its mimetic mastery. I invite you now to participate in the perspectival displacement that the skull provokes. You will need to shift your approach from the usual perpendicular one with which we approach almost all of our images, to a lateral one. At this point, I recommend pulling your piece of paper taut, with your right hand towards your body and your left hand out before you – you need a flat surface that won't buckle (those of you who prefer to do this on your smart phones will have the solidity, you'll have to cope with the glare on your screen). You can now seek the point at which the two-dimensional anamorphic slash resolves into a mimetically three-dimensional skull. It helps to close your right eye, to shutter your human perception of three dimensions and flatten your perception to that of the painting's two dimensions. Once you "have" it (and go ahead and enjoy the cognitive thrill of seeing the image resolve), you can move vertically up and down the plane and see the skull distort downward as you move up and upwards as you move down; if you move horizontally, you will see the skull experience much less change. This is because, in anamorphic perspective, the axes of vision are independent of each other, whereas they remain in proportion in linear perspective.
Holbein performed his anamorphic perspective after Leon Battista Alberti (in 1435) and Albrecht Dürer (in the 1520s) had theorized linear perspective, but well before Jean-François Niceron, and other early modern mathematicians had theorized anamorphic perspective in the 1640s. The anamorphic perspective of The Ambassadors is simple compared to the extrapolations along multiple planes in works such as this one by Niceron in which faces of Turkish men coalesce into a portrait of Ferdinand II, Grand Duke of Tuscany, when seen through a glass cylinder prism (lost from the Museo Gallileo in Florence after a 1966 flood).
But I prize the relative simplicity of Holbein's anamorphic perspective because it demonstrates how quickly our perception can be disoriented and unsettled, and how symbiotic we become with the painting in our efforts to reorient ourselves. The painting draws us near with its anamorphic perspective; it knows our desire to perceive, and displaces us from our usual point of mastery perpendicular to its representation plane, to a lateral point of physical and, given time and contemplation, emotional intimacy. The catastrophe of death is disorienting, and we might be tempted to wrench ourselves away, back to perpendicular mastery and away from the perils of anamorphic perspective. But if we linger, if we stay disoriented and marginal, in transition between two and three dimensions, moving between the outsized scale of the anamorphic skull, and the proportional scale of the corrected image, we might start to ask about the anamorphic skull's point of view, about what the painting would look like if the skull was the originating point of perspective. This is at once a tremendous mathematical challenge (lines would have to be redrawn and pulled), an epistemological one (objects and persons would be unrecognizable to themselves from the point of view of death), and perhaps even an ontological one (how do the dead, the inanimate, perceive and experience the living? How, building on the work of Ian Bogost in Alien Phenomenology and W.J.T. Mitchell's What Do Pictures Want?, might we visually theorize them doing so?).
Towards the end of The Ballad of Holland Island House, Lynn Tomlinson takes us to the vanishing point of human perception, as the house and the graves become the only occupants of the island. The dead and the inanimate take the perspectival vanishing point with them as they plunge into the depth of the image, and the thickness of its clay. In this still from earlier in the film, the house's perception frames the scene, accompanied by the words, "I watched as they worked on the water." The scene that is murky to the human eye is clear and recognizable to the house. Lynn has not anthropomorphized the house's gaze here; rather, in this image, we have the rare opportunity to see a work of art perceiving another work art. The scene of the fishermen that the house is watching is pulled from an 1885 painting by Winslow Homer entitled The Herring Net now at the Art Institute of Chicago. What does it mean for one work of art to know another? The anamorphic reach of The Ballad of Holland Island House to The Herring Net is practiced in the visual forms that Lynn refashions and retools, the curve of the boat, the cascade of wriggling fish. A work of art knows another through the practice and repetition of its forms. The life of forms is present in the anamorphic reach.
Scholars have long heralded the correspondences of The Ambassadors with Albrecht Dürer's 1514 engraving, Melancolia I, noting the presence of measuring tools, musical instruments, and mathematical calculations to be made, but only in terms of influence. We can think, instead, of the life of forms practiced and repeated, polyhedrons and spheres drawn again, numerals and manipulated perspectives amplified, brooding and melancholy revisited.
I am pulled to take melancholy seriously not only by de Dinteville's self-identification as "the most melancholic ambassador," but also by experiencing the pull of anamorphic perspective as a temporal one: the painting knows melancholy through time. De Dinteville was not just being rhetorical: melancholy, already in his age, was perceived as a veritable epidemic, a disease to be analyzed and understood, as Robert Burton would seek to do in 1621 in his monumental Anatomy of Melancholy. The "Author's Abstract of Melancholy" at the beginning of this volume interweaves the multiple ways that time can pass (fleetingly, slowly, in joy, in sorrow, in Paradise). The painting knows melancholy because it has been a persistent witness to time and in time – and in this once again joins Holland Island House. The Ambassadors' coming into being itself could be characterized as de Dinteville and de Selves "killing time," waiting for Anne Boleyn's pregnancy to come to term, which it would do only in September of 1533. Eight years later, in 1541, the painting would come to know de Dinteville mourning de Selve's death; it would now contain and project both memory and melancholy. His family having weathered a sodomy scandal and a treason accusation, Jean de Dinteville himself would die in 1555 at his home in Polisy, France, where The Ambassadors had also taken up residence, never having been married and with no direct heir, initiating the painting's long trajectory from this Burgundian region to the de Cessac property in the south of France in 1653, to Paris in 1787, to England in 1792, to the castle of the Earl of Radnor in 1808, and finally to the National Gallery in 1890, a steady series of lawsuits and ownership struggles trailing in its temporal and spatial wake.
Multiple scales of melancholy exist in the passage of time witnessed by the painting, and our time together draws short, so I will end with the painting's melancholic knowledge of catastrophe ranging across a tremendously variable scale. Upon the terrestrial globe, which is turned here for our legibility but requires human viewers to disorient their gaze to read, a line stretches thinly across the Atlantic Ocean, up the west coast of Africa and down the east coast of what is now known as South America. Identified as "Linea Divisionis Castellanoru et Portugallen," this fine line demarcates the division of New World territories between Spain and Portugal as decreed in the Treaty of Tordesillas of 1494, and sanctioned by Pope Julius II in 1506. This first cut of the ocean, this first etching upon the globe presages unprecedented scales of conquest and crisis, it signals the transition to the New World, and it persists as silent witness on an intimate scale of the soon-to-come ecological catastrophe of empire, and the continuing ecological crisis of globalization. In the pristine and exact line of the Treasty of Tordesillas, I find the melancholy of mimesis: the resolute and precise representation of reality coupled with the desire of erasure, of representing a different world.
The Ambassadors and The Ballad of Holland Island House each know melancholy as objects that exist in time: from its wall in the National Gallery, The Ambassadors continues to reside in perpetual witness; in the digital realm, The Ballad of Holland Island House perpetually flows through forms. Simultaneously, they project the melancholy of their represented objects in multiple temporal directions and on a wild variation of scale (the past, present and future of de Dinteville and de Selves as well as the fantasy and empire of a New World; the future that awaits the Holland Island House, increasingly difficult for humans to perceive, as the sea continues to rise above it). In these intermingled ontologies and epistemologies, we can ask what the work of art and any other environment we can perceive knows. The answers will be anamorphic and elusive, fluctuating in and out of coherence. And while there is a profound melancholy in the vastness that lies beyond human perception, the desire to understand and shift and change thrives in the anamorphic reach that continuously pulls us beyond ourselves.