Holbein's 500th birthday receives international recognition

It is marked by three celebrations in his native Basel and an exhibition at London's National Gallery on his renowned “Ambassadors”


Basel, where the artist worked until 1526, is leading the way with a trio of exhibitions on drawings, prints and paintings at the Kunstmuseum.

“Old Master drawings of the German Renaissance from Berlin and Basel” will include some of Holbein’s finest works, alongside examples by Dürer and Grünewald. With 180 drawings, it will be at Basel’s Kupferstichkabinett (14 May-24 August) and is expected to be shown in Berlin when the new print room opens there in the summer of 1998. Basel is also exhibiting “The prints of Hans Holbein the Younger,” with all 340 works in the city’s collection (14 May-7 September).

The most intriguing show will focus on what is arguably the earliest surviving European genre painting on panel, Holbein’s picture for a schoolmaster. It was painted in 1516 as a sign to hang from a pole in front of the house of Oswald Geisshüsler (known as Myconius). The “advertisement” was originally double-sided, with one side showing the schoolmaster instructing two boys at a desk (by Hans Holbein) and, on the reverse, a scene of him and his wife teaching younger children (by his brother Ambrosius).

In 1662 the schoolmaster’s sign was presented by Basilius Amerbach, the collector, to the city and in the eighteenth century it was split into two panels for display purposes. The pictures are now being cleaned and conserved for the exhibition at the Kunstmuseum, which runs from 26 June to 7 September. Basel’s other Holbein paintings are currently on display and next year the museum hopes to publish a booklet on underdrawings discovered with x-rays and infra-red reflectography.

A colloquium on Holbein is to be held 26-28 June, organised by the Öffentliche Kunstsammlung Basel and the Swiss Association of Art Historians (for information, fax +41 61 271 0536).

In London, the National Gallery’s next “Making and meaning” exhibition will be on Holbein’s “Ambassadors,” from 5 November to 1 February 1998. The show will explore the significance of the astronomical and musical instruments in the picture and examine the findings of the recent controversial cleaning. Also included will be other works by Holbein, such as the “Portrait of Henry VIII and the Barber-Surgeons” (Worshipful Company of Barbers), as well as drawings from the Royal Library, Basel, Berlin, Dresden and Paris.

Finally, to mark Holbein year, Swiss scholars Oskar Bätschmann and Pascal Griener are publishing a monograph, Hans Holbein (£40, late June, Reaktion Books). A paperback edition has just been released of Derek Wilson’s recent biography, Hans Holbein: portrait of an unknown man (Orion, £12.99).

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Three celebrations in his native Basel'