Interactive art doesn’t have to be 21st Century

Yesterday I joined one of the National Gallery’s tours.  The excellent Steven Barrett, one of the National Gallery’s lecturers, took us on a whistlestop tour of the gallery & showed us 5 significant paintings.  The one I’m going to focus on for the purpose of this blog is Holbein’s “The Ambassadors” painted in 1533 and depicting two French dignataries visiting the court of King Henry VIII.  My reason for choosing it is that the painting is one of the earliest examples of interactivity in art and because of that I find it incredibly interesting.

Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors, National Gallery London

Placed in the bottom centre of the painting is a strangely distorted surreal looking object which is an anamorphic skull.  The artist has used perspective to carefully distort it so that you can only see it as a skull when you view it from the right hand side of the painting with your eyes about 1.5m from the floor – from that perspective the skull pops into view & the rest of the picture disappears.

We think Jean de Dinteville (he on the left in the furs) hung the painting on his staircase back in France and the skull would jump out to people descending the staircase when they reached that crucial point and give them a shock – reminding them of their own mortality.

So – this is an early example of interactivity in art.  The way the artist has created this piece requires the viewer to do something & shift position to a different stance in order to fully experience the painting, to see worldliness disappear & the memento mori spring out.

Interesting eh?  I like also the contrast between the forensic detail of the rest of the painting and the distortion of the skull at the bottom.  Don’t miss the strangely angled crucifix in the top left corner.

Loads more written about this painting online including a couple of the National Gallery’s videos on youtube that explain the geekiness behind how the artist did the distortion accurately with the instruments he had available to him at the time.  The National Gallery is free to visit and a wonderful national resource.  I’m sure many of you pass it all the time, rushing to & from other places.  You really should take 15 minutes out & go and look at something beautiful or thought provoking.

For those that are interested, the other 4 paintings we saw were:

Paolo Uccello “Battle of San Romano” – an early attempt to create an illusion of 3D space

Carlo Crivelli “The Annunciation with Saint Emidius” – another early example of improved perspective in Medieval art

Joseph Wright “An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump”

Vincent’s “Sunflowers” – beautiful now but so controversial when it was painted.

I enjoyed the complete immersion in the hour long tour and listened to every word that Steven said.  It was possible to do this despite the crowds on a busy Saturday.  Thoroughly recommend it.

One comment

  1. I enjoyed reading this, Mary. The idea of Jean de Dinteville’s visitors being in danger of falling down stairs as they were startled by the skull popping out at them did make smile.
    This painting has been one of my favourites since I was a child. I’ve been a great Holbein fan from the first time I saw his work. His portrait of Christina of Denmark (also at the National Gallery) is one of the most unusual and memorable amongst portraits of women.
    In ‘The Ambassadors,’ the sheer brilliance of Holbein’s draughtsmanship exhibited in the spheres, and also the circles and ellipses mostly shown in perspective, still amazes me (though it has taken years to take my eyes off the skull and the handsome men and their furs to focus on the objects).
    Thanks for sharing.


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