Monthly Archives: March 2013

Hans Holbein

Hans Holbein

Painter, Engraver
(1497 – 1543)

Hans HolbeinThe younger Hans Holbein was the son of a prominent Augsburg artist who was a contem porary of Albrecht Dürer. The son trained initially with his father, but left around 1515 to become an apprentice in the studio of Hans Herbster, a Basel artist. Here he developed his skills as a book illustrator and also became closely associated with the town’s circle of humanists. One of the lifelong friends he made at Basel was Desiderius Erasmus, who charged Holbein with illustrating his famous satire The Praise of Folly. The accomplished illustrations that Holbein created for this best-selling intellectual farce brought the artist to the attention of Johannes Froben, a Basel printer and then one of the most important publishers of humanist texts in Europe. In 1516, Holbein became a designer in Froben’s shop. During this period in Basel Holbein also painted panel paintings, which are evidence of his father’s influence on his style. His manner was at the same time more monumental and balanced. In this early stage of his career Holbein also painted his Dead Christ, a work that displays the same sharp clarity and realism the artist developed later in his portraits.


The Reformation gathered support in Basel during the early 1520s, and as in many other towns in Switzerland, supporters of the new movement aimed to curb the uses of religious art. Eventually, these new sensibilities resulted in violent attacks upon statues and altarpieces. During these early years of the Reformation the new movement caused a decline in many artists’ fortunes. The Reformers found distasteful the elaborate altarpiece paintings that had been frequently commissioned in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and a falloff in the production of new works of this kind soon became evident in the 1520s. This situation restricted the possibilities for a young artist like Hans Holbein, and while he remained in Basel he began to turn to portraiture to support himself. During 1523 and 1524 he painted several portraits of his friend Erasmus.

The local market, however, failed to provide sufficient support, and so in 1524, he traveled to France, where he painted works for John, the Duke of Berry. A brief return to Basel in 1526 produced two works on mythological themes, but the climate in the city had now grown increasingly intolerant of painters. Again Holbein left Basel, this time for the Netherlands, and eventually England. On this journey he carried letters of introduction from Basel’s prominent citizens, including one from his friend Erasmus. While he stopped in Antwerp for a time, he soon moved on to England, where he presented his letter from Erasmus to the English humanist Sir Thomas More, a close friend of Erasmus. More commissioned the artist to paint a portrait of his family, and from this panel Holbein also painted his famous portrait of More during 1527. Soon the artist was at work producing a number of portraits of prominent English men and women, and he returned to Basel in 1529, enriched by his stay in England. At home he purchased two houses in the city, and set up his shop once again.

Second Sojourn in England

Basel’s artistic climate, though, had not improved in the intervening years, and so in 1532, Holbein returned to England for a second time. Basel’s town council had attempted to keep Holbein in Switzerland by offering the artist a pension, but since there was little work in the city and the town’s atmosphere was disturbed by Reformation controversy, he set off. He never returned, although his wife stayed behind, the beneficiary of a Basel municipal pension. In England, Holbein found a more congenial atmosphere, soon painting his famous portrait The Ambassadors, a painting of two French royal emissaries at work in London at the time. The work shows the ambassadors with all of the attributes of the humanistically trained intellectual. A lute, globe, and other items scattered on the table behind the men demonstrate their breadth of learning. One unusual feature of the painting is an elongated and distorted skull that appears in the foreground before the men, a manneristic detail in an otherwise extremely realistic work. Read the rest of this entry

Frantz Fanon

Frantz Fanon

(1925 – 1961)

frantz_fanonA political essayist from the Caribbean, Frantz Fanon is chiefly remembered for Les damne´s de la terre (The Wretched of the Earth, 1961), a collection of prose denouncing colonialism and racism in the third world. Although his proposal of using violence to obtain political liberation met with heavy criticism, Fanon has been praised as a direct and learned critic of racial, economic, and political injustice in the former colonies of Europe.

Frantz Fanon was born in 1925 to a middle-class family in Fort-de-France, Martinique, a French colony in the West Indies. One of eight children, Fanon was a sensitive but difficult child who often got into fights with his peers. At school he learned to speak French, sing patriotic French songs, and read French literature and history. Like other Martinicans, he regarded himself as a Frenchman and grew up hearing that the ‘‘negroes’’ in Africa were ‘‘savages.’’ Starting in 1940, France was occupied by the German Nazis during World War II, and the French Vichy government collaborated with the Nazis. Martinique thus came under Vichy command, and the sudden presence of Vichy French sailors blockaded in Fort-de-France, Martinique by Allied forces caused racial tensions to flare.

These experiences began to change Fanon’s vision of Europeans and of race relations. He attended the Lyce´e Schoelcher in 1941, studying under Aime´ Ce´saire, the great poet of Ne´gritude, the Francophone celebration of the power and dignity of black African culture, and he quickly embraced Ce´saire’s philosophy. Over the next year, Fanon spent much of his time campaigning to get Ce´saire elected as a member of the French National Assembly. French general Charles de Gaulle led the Free France movement, urging his countrymen to resist the Nazi occupation. In 1943, inspired by de Gaulle, Fanon joined the French army, where he encountered blatant racism. Disillusioned by his growing awareness of what it means to be black in a white world, Fanon returned to Martinique in 1946.

Black Skins, White Masks

Peau noire, masque blancsIn May 1951, Fanon debuted as a published writer when ‘‘L’expe´rience ve´cue du noir’’ (‘‘The Lived Experience of the Black’’), a chapter from Fanon’s book Peau noire, masque blancs (Black Skins, White Masks, 1952), appeared in the journal Esprit. The book is an essay collection, heavily influenced by the works of Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, and Jean-Paul Sartre, that examines black life in a white-dominated world. It is one of the founding texts in postcolonial studies and arguably Fanon’s most influential work. Criticizing attempts by blacks to hide their blackness under a ‘‘white mask,’’ Fanon seeks to expose what he views as the delusionary influence of white culture its inability to define black identity as anything other than the negative image of European values and ideals. Read the rest of this entry