Thomas Kilpper

The Ring: Hans Holbein


Not on display

Thomas Kilpper born 1956
Woodcut on fabric
Presented by Friends of the Tate Gallery 2000


This is one of a series of unique prints generated from a site-specific work created in an office block on Blackfriars Road, in the London borough of Southwark. Orbit House was abandoned and scheduled for demolition when Kilpper gained access to the building in 1999. He carved a giant woodcut into the mahogany parquet covering the tenth floor, comprising an area of approximately 400 square metres. The woodcut depicted a boxing ring surrounded by an audience of some eighty characters whose names were cut around the edge of the image. The artist derived the portraits from photographs and etchings which he made into slides and projected onto the floor before carving the relief with chisels and a chainsaw. He then made a succession of prints, constituting individual portraits, on a range of new and found materials. He used old curtains left in the building, often sewing several pieces together to make one large, rectangular support. Paper sources include advertising hoarding paper and sheets of purple ultra violet polythene film which Kilpper discovered screening windows in some rooms of the building. The herringbone texture of the parquet features strongly on all the uncut areas of the prints which were executed in black ink using a specially-made giant, cement-filled roller. During the exhibition of the work, the prints were suspended on washing lines above the carved floor. Daylight from the surrounding windows filtered through their semi-translucent supports. Visitors would walk on the carved parquet while looking at the prints. A huge banner was printed from the entire surface (The Ring, collection the artist) and hung on the outside of the building for the duration of the installation. Tate owns twenty-one prints, twenty made on fabric (Tate P78537-P78556) and one on paper (Tate P78557). The Ring: Fight On (Tate T07671) is a section of the parquet flooring preserved before the building’s demolition in late 2000.

The subjects of the woodcut are characters and events in some way related to the location and to the artist. Kilpper selected Orbit House because of the fascinating history of the building and its site and their connections with his own personal history and motivations. His installation created a web of serendipitous interconnecting personal and political narratives. Orbit House was commissioned in the 1960s to house the secret printing office for the Ministry of Defence. At the same time, the British Library’s Oriental Collections Department shared the building to store part of its collection, including the oldest wood-printed book The Diamond Sutra (868 AD) discovered in a cave in western China by the explorer Sir Marc Aurel Stein (1862-1943) in 1907. Kilpper was born and educated in Germany and came to England in 1999 after being awarded a grant by a state foundation four young artists in Germany. His father was born in China, where his grandfather, a missionary, was kidnapped and held prisoner for several months during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. The Diamond Sutra, which contains a drawing of a symbolic fist as well as the Buddha bearing the reverse swastika sign, is one of the cultural objects many modern Chinese feel were robbed from their country by Western explorers in the nineteenth century.

This print depicts the renaissance artist Hans Holbein (1497-1543) who, like Kilpper, was born in Germany and worked in England. In the early 1520s, Holbein designed many woodcuts to title pages and book illustrations, including illustrations to the recent German translation of the Bible. His most famous print portfolio is a series of forty-one scenes illustrating the medaeval allegory, The Dance of Death, published in 1538 (Lyons). Kilpper alludes to this in the print The Ring: The Dance of Death (Tate P78554) which is a copy of the earliest representation of a printing office (a French woodcut, c.1500) which, by coincidence, depicts the dance of death. Holbein became official court painter to Henry VIII of England (1491-1547) in the 1530s and is principally known for his portraits executed during this time. One of the most famous of these, The Ambassadors, 1533 (National Gallery, London) is a double portrait of the French ambassadors to the Royal court featuring an anamorphic image of a skull in the foreground. Kilpper distorted Holbein’s face in his portrait to refer to this. The support for this print was made from eight sections of fabric varying in width and weight. Colours include blue beige, yellow and white.

Further reading:
Thomas Kilpper: The Ring, exhibition catalogue, Orbit House, London 2000, pp.14-15
Thomas Kilpper: The Ring, exhibition brochure, South London Gallery Projects 2000
Sue Hubbard, ‘An Eye for the Bigger Picture’, Independent: The Tuesday Review, 21 March 2000

Elizabeth Manchester
September 2003

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