Monday 13 July 2009

Spirituality - the heartbeat of art? (1)

What follows is the text of Jonathan Evens' presentation in responding to the question 'Spirituality - the heartbeat of Art?' at the Art & Spirituality networking evening held at St Andrews Leytonstone:

"Sooner or later, if you love art, you will come across a strange fact: there is almost no modern religious art in museums or in books of art history. It is a state of affairs that is at once obvious and odd, known to everyone and yet hardly whispered about ... a certain kind of academic art historical writing treats religion as an interloper, something that just has no place in serious scholarship ... Straightforward talk about religion is rare in art departments and art schools, and wholly absent from art journals unless the work in question is transgressive. Sincere, exploratory religious and spiritual work goes unremarked. Students who make works that are infused with spiritual or religious meanings must normally be content with analysis of their works' formal properties, technique, or mode of presentation. Working artists concerned with themes of spirituality (again, excepting work that is critical or ironic about religion) normally will not attract the attention of people who write for art magazines ... An observer of the art world might well come to the conclusion that religious practice and religious ideas are not relevant to the art world unless they are treated with scepticism."

So writes James Elkins at the beginning of a book entitled On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art. On that basis the answer to tonight’s question would seem to be a resounding “no”. And yet, as Elkins also notes, these attitudes are odd, because there is a tremendous amount of religious art created.

Timothy Potts suggests in Beyond Belief: Modern art and the Religious Imagination, that “the pervasiveness of broadly religious and spiritual themes in twentieth-century Western art may at first seem to stand in contradiction to the secularization of so many aspects of life and culture during our times.”

“The religious underpinnings of so much Western art before [the twentieth] century – from its subject matter to its sources of patronage and its devotional purposes – are obvious and uncontentious,” he continues, but with the art of the twentieth century the religious dimension becomes “altogether more subtle, often more abstract and inevitably more personal.” Spirituality, while continuing to be pervasive, becomes less obvious and the perception grows that it is “not relevant to the art world.”

My answer to tonight’s question therefore is to point to the pervasiveness of religious and spiritual themes in twentieth century and contemporary Western art and in the remainder of my time that is what I aim to do by giving a whistlestop and inevitably partial tour of these religious themes and some of those artists that have used them.

The catalytic encounter of Émile Bernard and Paul Gauguin in Brittany in 1888 resulted in Post Impressionist paintings exploring the Catholic soul of Breton peasants. Bernard and Gauguin shared their new style with Paul Sérusier who, together with fellow art students including Maurice Denis, formed the Nabis.

Denis became one of the most significant artists in the French Catholic Revival, being prominent in the Nabis, as a Symbolist, and, through his Studios of Sacred Art, contributing to a revival of French Sacred Art. Denis’ influence was felt among Symbolists and Sacred Artists in Belgium, Italy, Russia and Switzerland, in particular.

A second circle of influence within the French Catholic Revival gathered around the philosopher Jacques Maritain. His book Art and Scholasticism was influential and he organised study circles for artists and others including the Expressionist Georges Rouault, the Surrealist Jean Cocteau, the Futurist Gino Severini, the Dadaist Otto van Rees and abstract art promoter Michel Seupher. His writings were also significant for the community of artists which formed around the sculptor Eric Gill at Ditchling, which included the artist and poet David Jones. Jones further developed Maritain’s ideas of images as signs in his paintings, poetry and critical writings.

A third circle of influence gathered around cubist pioneer Albert Gleizes, including Mainie Jellett and Evie Hone (who played significant roles in the development of Modern Art in Ireland) and Australian potter Anne Danger. Like Eric Gill at Ditchling, Gleizes formed a Catholic arts colony to further his ideas which embraced both painting and society seeking to identify natural rhythms for both.

A final circle of influence developed around the Dominican Friars, Marie-Alain Couturier and Pie Régamey, who insisted that the Roman Catholic Church call for the great artists and architects of their day to design and decorate its churches. The involvement of artists such as Marc Chagall, Férnand Leger, Le Corbusier, and Henri Matisse in churches such as Assy, Ronchamp and Vence was proof of the effectiveness of their approach and ministry. A similar approach was taken in the UK by George Bell and Walter Hussey which saw artists such as Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland, John Piper, Hans Feibusch and Cecil Collins decorating churches.

Expressionist artists such as Emil Nolde, Christian Rohlfs and Albert Servaes painted biblical scenes with an emotional intensity that was often more than the institutional churches at the time could accept. Georges Rouault added to this expressionist intensity with a compassionate Christian critique of contemporary society. Italian Divisionism and Futurism also included a strong strand of sacred art through artists such as Gaetano Previati, Gerardo Dottori, and Fillia.

Wassily Kandinsky created abstract art by abstracting from apocalyptic biblical images and felt that abstraction was the best means available to artists for depicting an unseen realm. Kasimir Malevich was not only influenced by the tradition of Russian icon painting but also by the underlying principle of icons – the presence of an Absolute in the world – to develop the Suprematist aim of self-transcendence.

Daniel Siedell writes that “for these and many other avant-garde painters well into the twentieth century, including Russian immigrants John Graham and Mark Rothko, modern painting functioned like an icon, creating a deeply spiritual, contemplative relationship between the object and viewer.” The influence also went the other way too, as Abstract Expressionist William Congdon converted to Roman Catholicism and used this style to create deeply expressive crucifixions.

Iconographer, Aidan Hart, notes that a revival of traditional iconography occurred in the twentieth century; led in Greece by Photius Kontoglou, in Russia by Maria Sakalova and Archimandrite Zenon, and in Europe by Leonid Ouspensky and Fr. Gregory Kroug. More surprisingly, a Lutheran tradition of iconography has also developed in Scandanavia led by Erland Forsberg.

Evangelicalism found artistic expression through the folk art of the American South with artists such as Howard Finster and Sister Gertrude Morgan gaining significant reputations. Such artists have often been both naive and visionary in their style, an approach that also characterised the work of New Zealand artist Colin MacCahon and British artist, Albert Herbert.

Other significant visionary artists using Christian themes and imagery have included Stanley Spencer, F.N. Souza, Betty Swanwick, Norman Adams, Roger Wagner and Mark Cazalet.

In response to the growth of Christian Art on the Asian continent, the Asian Christian Art Association was founded in 1978 to encourage the visual arts in Asian churches. Australia encouraged contemporary religious art through the establishment of the Blake Prize in1951. From that date until the present, its judges have chosen as prize winners artists and works which reflect the movement in Modern Art from the figurative to the abstract. Wojciech Wlodarczyk notes that one special aspect of Polish Art in the 1980s was its links with the Roman Catholic Church. Martial law forced the entire artistic community to boycott official exhibition spaces and instead places of worship hosted exhibitions. This period was marked by a profound interest in the whole question of the sacrum in art and was characterised by the work of Jerzy Nowosielski with its thoughts on the nature of religious art.

Finally, on this whistle-stop tour, there has been extensive use of Christian imagery by BritArt artists such as Damien Hirst, Chris Ofili, Mark Wallinger, and Sam Taylor-Wood. In their work, Christian iconography and narrative is often used as a frame for the artist’s critique of contemporary life including politics and culture.

As was argued at the beginning of this talk, issues of religion have been largely overlooked in the social and cultural history of twentieth-century art. As curator and author Daniel Siedell has argued, we need "an alternative history and theory of the development of modern art, revealing that Christianity has always been present with modern art, nourishing as well as haunting it, and that modern art cannot be understood without understanding its religious and spiritual components and aspirations."

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