Abirpothi

India’s only daily art newspaper

This could be a bit disturbing: Hans Holbein\’s portrayal of mortality through a macabre visual puzzle

Adversity is also a mother of art. The Pothi team brings to you some of the macabre and some solace in the form a beautiful farewell song.

At first look, The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger seems like a regular painting of its time. But look at little closer, and the subtle macabre of the work painted in 1533 comes to the fore. This is a painting that has the superb skill of the Tudor period, but it also uses the anamorphic perspective developed during the Early Renaissance.

When you look at the bottom of the painting, you see “something” that does not appear to be anything crucial. However, it’s a distorted skull and one has to approach the painting from high or the right side to see it. It is one of the most frightening visual puzzles.

While the skull is evidently intended as a vanitas or memento mori, it is unclear why Holbein gave it such prominence in this painting. However, the symbolism is unmistakable and could be depicting the three levels: the heavens as portrayed by the astrolabe and other objects on the upper shelf, the living world as evidenced by books and a musical instrument on the lower shelf, and death signified by the skull.

Across art history, artists have used the skull as a reminder of mortality. In these pandemic times, mortality seems to be the clearest truth.

The picture that lived the reality of a man who sold his soul

Imagine this: you have traded your soul for eternal youth, so your body never ages. On the other hand, the portrait you commissioned of yourself keeps progressively growing older and turning into something that not only looks like decay but also progresses into a state of deep moral vacuity.

Painted by Ivan Albright, this portrait is for the Oscar-winning movie adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s 1891 novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. As we have mentioned already, the main character, Dorian Gray, commissions a portrait of himself as an attractive young man and later trades his soul for an ever-youthful appearance. As the still-handsome Gray leads an increasingly dissolute and evil life, his painted representation rots and decays, revealing the extent of his moral corruption.

This horrific image engages and sends a chill down the spine at the same time. The shocking transformation could be seen as a reminder for our times as well – you have to think about others and be together, instead of only focusing on what is going on in your life with scant regard for the social upheaval around you. It is important to be on the right side of history, or history won’t treat you well.

A farewell song that will stay with you forever

There is so much mourning all around that it is simply heartbreaking. In such times, any art that helps us grieve is something that we must have around us. Like this song by Dennis Wilson (of the Beach Boys fame).

Farewell My Friend was released as the tenth track for his 1977 solo album Pacific Ocean Blue. While the song never made it to the charts, it slowly became some sort of an underground song to deal with loss.

The song was written as a tribute to Otto Hinsche, the father of Billy Hinsche and the father-in-law of Dennis Wilson’s brother Carl, who was married to Annie Hinsche. He wrote this tribute to Otto Hinsche, as he had died in Dennis\’s arms. Dennis described the song as “sort of a happy farewell”.

The song was played at Wilson’s funeral in January 1984.

Listen to it here:

Lyrics:

Farewell my friend

My beautiful friend

Farewell

You take the high road

And I\’ll take the low road

And we\’ll meet again

Farewell my friend

I love you

In a funny way

You take the high road

I\’ll take the low road

And we will meet again

Farewell my friend

Oh I want to see you again

Oh farewell

Farewell

Oh I want to see you again

Farewell

Oh I\’m on the mountain again

Oh farewell

Oh I want to see you again

Oh my friend

Oh that\’s when I\’ll see you again

Farewell

Oh I want to see you again

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