In the section titled “INSTRUCTIONS ON HOW TO UNDERSTAND THREE FAMOUS PAINTINGS” from Julio Cortázar’s Cornopios and Famas, Cortázar is obviously mocking Hans Holbein’s Portrait of Henry VII of England. He writes that the figure’s “maxim is this: ‘there is no third dimension, the earth is flat and man drags his belly on the earth. Hallelujah!’ It might be the Devil who is saying these words, and maybe you believe them because they are spoken to you by a king.”
Though I appreciate Cortázar’s obvious subversion of the hypocritical and lusty king’s authority, as an art historian, I can’t help myself. Given an explanation so clearly in opposition to the intended meaning of a work, I find myself jumping to my computer to research the piece in order to adequately compare this “interpretation” with the common scholarly one.
I find this urge in and of itself a mark of a techno-native person and something Cortázar, who published the book in 1962, could not have anticipated. I am no longer left to cull memories of art history lectures and long nights spent memorizing details and dates, or even to have to pull out an old copy of Janson’s History of Art — which coincidentally was published in the same year as Cornopios and Famas — to refresh my memory about the salient points of the work. No, in the twenty-first century immediacy is key. I can now access a vast amount of information (both accurate and not) about the painting with a few taps of my keyboard.
In doing so, I create something of a literary paradox. By stopping to do research, I take myself out of Cortázar’s literary environment, challenging his authority as an author, but I also give myself a better base from which to dive back into and generate an intelligent internal dialogue with his work.
So, before I get too meta about the modern reading experience, won’t you please, watch this video from Smart History and art history geek out with me for a moment.
Dr. Beth Harris, Dr. Steven Zucker (who are definitely art history geeing out in this video) discuss Hans Holbein the Younger, Portrait of Henry VIII, 1540, oil on panel (Palazzo Barberini, Rome), in this fascinating video.