Tatiana String's Art and Communication in the Reign of Henry VIII
Art and Communication in the Reign of Henry VIII Tatiana String (Ashgate, 2008)
Although primarily aimed at the academic art historian market --a £50 price tag for a small-format book with no colour illustrations makes this fairly obvious— this study should appeal to the general reader who is interested in how the visual art of the Henricean age communicated with its spectators. An insightful and well-researched examination of an often-overlooked period of English art history, the book is particularly fascinating for its attempt to unravel the methodology of communication through art, instead of the more usual approach of deciphering the embedded messages themselves.
As String observes in the introduction, "the reactions of individuals and groups to an image are, with a very few exceptions, impossible to reconstruct." Visual art, like music, works upon the human mind in mysterious ways. In the absence of language, we look for familiar signs to help us interpret the image that an artist creates. Within contemporary art—Banksy being a good example— the references and visual clues are often easily understood because they come from familiar social and/or political contexts. The further back in time we go, the less straightforward these references become. One need only look at a Punch cartoon of the mid-nineteenth century to realise how much information we sometimes need to begin making sense of a visual image which, when it was made, would have been easily understood by its intended audience.
Michael Baxandall explored this fully in his ground-breaking book Patterns of Intention, and String acknowledges his contribution when she uses his term 'period eye' in her analysis of the iconic Whitehall Holbein mural of Henry VIII, a picture so obviously loaded with Henricean symbolism that it almost deserves a book of its own. String's dissection of this mural is particularly good, and it is worth dwelling on as an example of her use of such images to explore the how of communication, rather than the what. Henry VIII's reign is popularly associated with religious upheaval, divorce, and remarriage, the old rhyme 'divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived' seeming to encapsulate the drama of the time. However, the contemporary reality was far more complex. Henry's passage from Renaissance prince to obese oligarch is well documented, but the Whitehall mural occupies a special place within the history of both English art and Henricean propaganda. With considerable expertise, String examines how the picture communicates ideas about kingship, power, and image itself. While String explores all the themes relating to the mural in some detail, she pays particular attention to the portrayal of Henry's masculinity, articulating what is obvious to the viewer of this work but has rarely been discussed: the significance of Henry's large and profusely decorated codpiece. Henry stands gazing directly out of the picture plane, with his arms akimbo and his feet firmly planted on the floor-covering, the elaborate codpiece centred on his body like the middle of an X. String observes of this symbol, "Put bluntly, the huge codpiece invites the viewer to imagine the dimensions of its contents." Within the context of how the portrait was designed and executed by Holbein to communicate ideas about both Henry himself and kingship in general, it is possible to interpret this single image in a variety of ways. String argues that "Beyond the dynastic imperative.....one can discern other contexts in which images of thrusting potency could be effective metaphors for Henry's achievements and self-fashioning...[such as] the king's triumphs over both his father Henry VII and the pope." The discussion of this element in the picture is both serious art history and amusing intellectual investigation, perhaps even the highlight of what can be, at times, a difficult book for the general reader. However, it is a study which has much to offer the non-expert and it is perhaps disappointing that the price will put off many ordinary readers from purchasing it. For the art historian interested in how works of art fashion communication, and in particular how this was achieved in Henricean England, this study is a well written and superbly researched piece of work.--Paul Flux