Raqib Shaw was born in Calcutta in 1974 but spent much of his youth in Kashmir, where he was indelibly influenced by the distinctive medley of Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, and Christian cultures. In 2001 he enrolled at the Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London, where he now resides. In 2006 the Tate invited Shaw to create works in response to the exhibition "Holbein in England," and until this summer Hans Holbein the Younger (ca. 1497–1543) has ruled Shaw’s imaginative world in which creatures both natural and fantastic romp amid architectural settings based on Holbein’s designs for jewelry, stained glass, and book illustrations. Shaw also reinterpreted some of Holbein’s portraits of English sitters, retaining their late medieval costumes but replacing their bodies with monsters.
"Raqib Shaw at the Met," the artist's first solo exhibition in a New York museum, marks a turning point from his Holbein-inspired works to his new Absence of God series. In Shaw's words, Holbein has passed the baton to Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720–1778). The panel Absence of God IV . . . The Blind Butterfly Catcher (2008) shows Tudor buildings giving way to a setting suggested by Piranesi's etchings of the abandoned vestiges of classical constructions.
Shaw's distinctive enamel-like surfaces are created by using porcupine quills to apply metallic industrial paints. The jeweled colors intensify the hothouse atmosphere populated by the flowers, insects, birds, animals, and monsters of Shaw's imaginary universe. Although the delightful colors and patterns evoke the Persian carpets, jewelry, and shawls that his family traded in India and Kashmir, the imagery derives from his extensive familiarity with Western painting, from Hieronymus Bosch (ca. 1460–1516) to Francis Bacon (1909–1992). Like both of these artists, Shaw reveals the violence and sex that lurk beneath much human behavior.
Although Hans Holbein the Younger (ca. 1497–1543) is celebrated today for the extraordinary portraits he produced as court painter to Henry VIII of England, he first gained notice for his work as a designer of frontispieces and book illustrations for notable figures of the Reformation, such as Erasmus and Sir Thomas More, as well as for stained-glass designs and even frescoed murals made in his native Switzerland with his father, Hans Holbein the Elder, and his brother Ambrosius. This decorative work is distinguished by strong architectural frames, reflecting the renewed interest in classical antiquity, overrun with mischievous putti or adult figures that intrigue and delight the viewer.
Holbein's fame throughout Europe was further spread by his set of forty-one miniature wood engravings, The Dance of Death (ca. 1526, published 1538). In these macabre vignettes, Holbein shows that no human being, no matter how exalted, can escape the grip of death. Holbein mocked the vanity of mortals, but the ever-present plague lent urgency to his message. The violence of Holbein's vision retains its ability to shock—a reminder that sensationalist imagery is not unique to our times.