2011. május 27., péntek


István Orosz: The Ambassador and the Pharaoh (A követ és a fáraó). Published in Hungary by Typotex Ltd., 2011.
This book was written about, or rather on the pretext of two pictures. One of them was painted by Holbein, but somebody, sometime forged his name under the other one. Once in the past they were hanging in the same hall, in the customer’s castle, who was Jean de Dienteville, a French ambassador from the 16th century. Now, they are separated by an ocean.
Scholarly analysis, attempts on interpretation, literary fiction and a contemporary artist’s written and drawn notes – these constitute this book. The author, István Orosz just like Holbein, often worked on assignment. He tried several times the special portrayal techniques of paintings and the optical illusion called anamorphosis, and perhaps it is not of minor importance that he had the opportunity of living in a totalitarian dictatorship similar to that which had surrounded the German painter and the French ambassador in the royal court of Henry VIII.
The reader should select according to his/her pleasure from among the several and sometimes conflicting threads, select or reject explanations, we could add in good style, indeed as the most important criterion of the anamorphosis is that appropiate viewpoint and a redeeming visual angle must be found out by the viewer.
Here are some sentences from the beginning and some from the end of the book:

So here I am in the National Gallery, in Room 4, looking at the great painting and of course that shapeless form at the bottom of the picture from all directions. I am trying to find the right perspective, the angle and distance that together present the most precise view of the skull. Besides studying it from up and right, as the guidebooks recommend, I crouch to look at it from left and from below, I am checking to see – just like I did with the reproduction at home - whether I can see the skull from that direction as well. Which is the right one? Could it be a third perspective? The guards have become used to me, thay have probably noticed that I come back every day or every other day; they completely ignore me. Now I find it easy to see the skull hidden in anamorphosis, what is more, I see it even when I am not looking at the painting from the side. It becomes independent, hurries to the front like the motto at the beginning of a book. The motto in books is a quotation referring to the spirit and worldview of the book, maybe in this case, it should also be used like a key. The anamorphosis might be an instruction for looking at the entire painting: it should be viewed differently, nothing is what it seems to be. We have the code. All secrets are here to see, so if we fail to notice them, we are to blame. While I am looking for the right angle of view and comparing the different perspectives, I naturally have to pay attention to myself, in other words, I am concentrating on where I am in relation to the painting, on how the picture reacts to my different gestures and changes of place. If I was looking for what made The Ambassadors so radically different from other paintings of the era and what precisely differentiates it so fundamentally from the other works in Holbein's oeuvre, I would have to point precisely to the strange effect by which the picture itself talks to the viewer. Before and for a long time after this painting, the usual way of looking at pictures was that the viewer stood in front of it and started thinking about it. Subconsciously and sometimes even consciously, of course, artists aimed at achieving some change in the viewer by their work of art, they wanted to make the viewer think abut themselves, not only about the picture. Of course, this change is hardly visible for the outside viewer and he has no tangible tools for this examination. However, when the visitor stopping in front of the Ambassadors or - to put it more precisely – stepping into their aura is looking for the right position, the ideal viewpoint and is forced to define the ever-changing relation system of the painting and himself moment by moment, is nevertheless doing something that we may rightly call self-examination.
I am trying to make a drawing of the two men. The boys. They are young enough to be
my sons. And I could be their fifth great-great grandson. I put the reproduction on the table, lean it against the lamp and make a sketch of the picture with a pencil. Then I use ink, a biro, a crayon, a thin brush and a pen dipped in ink. I close the book and try to remember their faces, their gesture. I know their names and profession, I know what they were interested in and what they did not care for, I know their biographies, families, passions and faults. I hear them say dispassionate things with a narcistic slowness, enjoying conversing in French. They use the most feminine language in a manly way. They address each other in the polite form. They discuss a chess riddle. One of them is exchanging letters with Rilke, the other one rides to Auxerre to see the new Hungarian player at the preparation match against Troyes (he is one of the sponsors of the team). They are haughty, meditating, clever, enthusistic, failed, dreaming, brooding, vain, sensual, stoical, boasting, lonely snobs. They are easy to love. We are looking at each other five hundred years later. I am looking in their eyes, trying to catch their look. I hardly know anything about them and I cannot figure out what they are thinking of. I am not comforted by the fact that at least they know my thoughts. They might not care much anyway. I draw them again, from closer and closer, this time from memory. Oh my God, their eyes are the same eyes that were trying to catch Holbein's sight.
And this is more than enough.