Richard Harries: The image of Christ in modern art
Published by Ashgate
This is a useful survey of twentieth-century artists using traditional Christian iconography. In a century dominated by abstraction and humanism, artists such as Stanley Spencer and Cecil Collins were for a long time marginalised and regarded as eccentric. When more mainstream avant-garde artists, such as Henry Moore and John Piper, took commissions from the church, it was regarded as a sign of enlightenment on the part of the Christian community.
However, the advent of post-modernism has allowed a recognition of the continuing stream of Christian imagery in avant-garde and non-academic art, and Harries covers a broad range. As the author admits, the book is predominantly a survey of British artists, and becomes a little disjointed when non-British artists are suddenly brought into the frame. For instance, the discussion starts with the German Expressionists for no very compelling reason. If, as the author asserts, the major change in western art came at the Enlightenment, then a full treatment of this subject should surely take in Delacroix’s Christ on the cross – a powerful Romantic take on the theme – and the many religious works of the Post-Impressionists.
Harries’ treatment of his subjects is patchy. When he gives himself space, as he does with Chagall, Spencer, David Jones, Graham Sutherland, and Roger Wagner, he writes with insight and some sense of his own convictions. For many other artists, he does little more than list biographical details and routine, factual descriptions of works, many of them not illustrated. The author says that readers can find the unillustrated works online. Whilst this is true, it is not the way we read books, constantly breaking off from the text to Google an image. Even a minimal, black-and-white reproduction would be a great help as one is reading.
The book deals with a number of artists who are not themselves Christians, ranging from Chagall, who was Jewish, to Epstein and Moore whose religion is described as ‘primal’, Cecil Collins who mixed mystic Christianity with elements of Sufism, and others who claimed no faith at all. The question naturally arises as to whether someone who is not a Christian can bring out truth in Christian imagery. Harries, to me, seems to duck the question, settling for a different, perfectly valid criterion of whether the artist handles the subject-matter with integrity according to their own worldview.
However, I did yearn for some more critical engagement with some of the uses of our Lord’s crucifixion. Just as an artist would have difficulty painting a subject they have never seen, they are unlikely to be able to offer much insight into beliefs they do not share. Not surprisingly, therefore, most artists discussed here use the crucifixion as an emblem of human suffering, and offer little or no insight into what Christ achieved through his crucifixion. As Paul says, if Christ did nothing on the cross but suffer, then we are still dead in our sins. Only really with Roger Wagner, the last artist discussed in the text, do we see the theme of redemption powerfully linked to the cross.
The author suggests from time to time that artists use Christian imagery to reflect back the views of their culture. These images are therefore a rich source for exploring the worldviews of our culture, and offering constructive critique. But sadly this is not territory that this book ventures into. Epstein says that he uses the image of the crucifixion to accuse the world of its beastliness. But is it not worth some discussion that the crucifixion also condemns us? Craigie Aitchison says that he repeatedly paints the crucifixion because it is ‘the most horrific story I have ever heard ... they are ganging up on one person’. Do we simply accept this without seeking to unpack it? Barnett Newman gives titles with religious resonance to some of his abstract images, but does that make the image offer up insight into the designated theme? I would have welcomed some insight into how this worked.
It is a shame that the author makes no reference to the powerful stream of reflection on the arts over the past half-century within the Reformed evangelical tradition. There is not a single reference to Rookmaaker, Wolterstorff, Seerveld, Dyrness (who wrote a Christian critique of Rouault, whom Harries discusses at length), Walford, Birtwistle, Brand and Chaplin, all of whom have written powerfully in this area. This absence, I think, is connected to a degree of naivety in the text about what constitutes spirituality and religion. Harries describes one artist as ‘by nature religious’, as if the rest of us are not. The statement that all art is intrinsically religious is presented as if it were a fresh insight, and the author seems to apologise if the idea of all art being sacramental seems ‘too heavy’. A simple reading of Rookmaaker et al. would show that this is the very nature of the fine arts.
Whilst the book itself is very attractively produced, the author – and the reader – have been let down by the publishers, who have seriously failed in their duties of editing and proof-reading. The text is littered with errors that an editor should pick up, from the misspelling of Rouault and Hirst to the feminisation of David Jones, who is described as Gill’s protégée, and a reference to postmodernism when the author clearly means Post-Impressionism. In the eight pages devoted to Chagall I counted at least 50 typos. Whilst the occasional typo may do no more than offer pleasure to pedants like me, this kind of rate disrupts one’s reading and, unfairly to the author, undermines one’s confidence in the text.
However, the book is worth its price for the last two chapters, where the author’s enthusiasm and breadth of knowledge shine through. He brings to prominence a range of contemporary artists who deserve wider recognition, although not, bizarrely, Mark Wallinger, whose Ecce Homo for the Fourth Plinth was one of the most powerful uses of Christian imagery in our age. Overall, he demonstrates an encouragingly vibrant contemporary scene for art using overtly Christian imagery.
This review was first published in Third Way, March 2014