Hans Holbein the Elder: The Grey Passion in its Time opened at the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart
on 27 November as part of the Große Landesausstellung Baden-Wurttemberg is the first exhibition devoted to the artist in 45 years. At the heart of the exhibition is Holbeins Grey Passion, a series of twelve panels painted between 1494 and 1500. The artists magnum opus is presented in the context of other treatments of the subject, both in painting and in print, by Holbeins precursors and contemporaries, among them Jan van Eyck, Hans Memling, Martin Schongauer, Albrecht Dürer, Hans Baldung Grien and Matthias Grünewald.
The Staatsgalerie was able to acquire the Grey Passion in 2003 thanks to the success of a large-scale fundraising campaign. In a joint effort the government of Baden Wurttemberg, the Kulturstiftung der Länder (Cultural Foundation of the Federal States), the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and Media, the Friends of the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, the Landesbank Baden-Wurttemberg, Daimler AG, Robert Bosch GmbH and numerous public and private donors raised 13 million to secure the paintings for the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart.
A fascinating part of the exhibition is the presentation of the painstaking restoration of the Grey Passion. Begun in 2008 and subsidised to the tune of 400,000 by a special fund in the Baden Wurttemberg budget, it is the largest conservation and restoration project undertaken by the Staatsgalerie to date. A long-term documentary film produced by the Steinbeis Transfer Centre at the Stuttgart Media University traces the restoration work and offers an exclusive insight into the conservation studio of the Staatsgalerie. The camera follows the team of restorers as they carry out a wide range of tasks, from the microscopic analysis of paint layers to the careful assessment of damage and losses. Cutting-edge technology (for example OSIRIS, a high-resolution digital camera for infrared photography and reflectography) and the detailed examination of materials and painting techniques have yielded groundbreaking insights into the work of Hans Holbein the Elder.
Semi-grisaille: The Passion in an unusual colour scheme
Visitors to the exhibition will discover one of the most outstanding Passion cycles of early German art. The twelve panels originally adorned the back and front of the wings of an altarpiece devoted to the Passion of Christ. Opened, they would have framed a central shrine, now lost, probably a carved multi-figure composition of the Crucifixion. The original location of the altarpiece remains unidentified.
Of particular note are the emotional intensity and compositional unity Hans Holbein the Elder brought to the story of the Passion of Christ. His unruffled compositions and idealised depiction of Christ anticipate conventions that were to flourish in the Renaissance. Confident in his abilities as an artist, Holbein turned his back on long-established traditions and steered clear of the often graphic descriptions of the suffering of Christ that pervaded the work of his forebears.
Special attention is devoted to the execution of the panels in semi-grisaille alluded to in the name of the cycle which is extremely rare in European altar painting. Drawing on the grisaille style of Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden, Holbein developed a unique and extraordinarily subtle monochrome palette in which colour is limited to flesh tints and a few intensely luminous touches highlighting blood, rings, torches and the crown of thorns. The haunting poignancy of the events depicted is eloquently conveyed by the artists sophisticated use of shades of grey, ochre and green.
Size of the exhibition
The exhibition consists of approximately 45 panel paintings (some of them painted on both sides) and altarpieces, 94 works on paper as well as some sculptures and stained glass.
The Staatsgalerie has been able to secure loans for the exhibition from leading international museums, among them the Kunstmuseum Basel, the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, the British Museum in London, the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen in Munich, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Musée du Louvre in Paris and the Kunsthistorische Museum in Vienna.
The international significance of the exhibition Hans Holbein the Elder: The Grey Passion in its Time is underlined by a sensational loan from the Albertina in Vienna: The Staatsgalerie Stuttgart will receive eight priceless drawings from Albrecht Dürers Green Passion, a series of drawings so valuable that loans are granted every 25 years only. Because works on paper are extremely sensitive to light and in order to minimise exposure, only four drawings can be shown at any one time; the second set of four drawings will go on show half way through the exhibition.