St Gabriel's Symposium
Take a stroll through just about any gallery dealing with the work of living, western, artists, and you’ll be most unlikely to discover anything that would want to describe itself as ‘religious’.
There’s a profound contemporary prejudice against such art, perhaps a mistrust of the motives of those making it. Some artists may use religious imagery and symbol, but generally they do it in subversive ways, as a critique of religious institutions, even of people’s claim to religious experience. I’m thinking here of Andreas Serrano’s notorious piece called ‘Piss Christ’, where a tacky plastic crucifix has been submerged in urine.
Or there’s Francis Bacon’s ‘Figures at the Base of the Crucifixion’. Although painted nearly 60 years ago, so not strictly contemporary, it clearly shows Bacon’s belief that the crucifixion was just another meaningless human outrage, staring in the face of the recently exposed Holocaust. But for me it is also a profound existential reading of the human condition, and of our ability to crucify what is good.
But even if the culture is against historical forms of religion, and in particular institutional forms, there is a hunger abroad for ways to engage with something beyond the concrete and conscious. At its broadest, there’s a desire for transcendence, for spiritual experience
Just look at the attendance figures for ‘Seeing Salvation’, the National Gallery’s most successful show for decades. An incredible 84,000 of the 350,000 visitors came through their doors for the first time. And they were, of course, coming to see artwork specifically dealing with the life and person of Christ.
Neil MacGregor, Director at the National Gallery, remarked further on this phenomenon recently. He said that when he was first appointed, he noticed how many visitors came to the Gallery in search of the opportunity to pray or meditate, before some of its’ great cultural icons. Honthorst’s Christ before the High Priest drew particularly high numbers. At its heart, this image offers the universal symbol of light as revelation and purity, here bringing light to bear on the face of Christ, God incarnate in the world, revealing the encounter between good and evil, as represented by those seeking to put him to death.
This type of Christian religious art draws on a specific language, that of a clear narrative taken from Christian scripture. It remains valid for our time, as well as being a ‘child of its own time’ (Kandinsky), because we can still see it through the eyes of history. We take our place at the end of a long line of other viewers, who’ve all responded and claimed it for themselves as an image that seeks to draw us beyond ourselves. However, in recent decades in the West, we have reached a point where such traditional religious visual language no longer has currency amongst artists. Our own culture, and those who represent it, needs a fresh vision of what it is possible to say ‘from faith for faith’.
Traditional forms of religious art haven’t been dispensed with entirely. We have artists such as Dinah Roe Kendall, whose work contemporises Gospel scenes as dynamic, approachable and living narrative. Mark Cazalet and Roger Wagner’s work also draw on biblical stories.
Other artists freely exploring Christian themes in their work include Nicholas Mynheer, Elizabeth Grey-King, Rupert Loydell, Paul Hobbs and Jean Lamb. But in general, western artists are deconstructing the narrative of religious art, dealing instead with what they would prefer to describe as ‘spiritual’ work.
Postmodernism validates an increasingly wide range of artistic mediums, from painting and sculpture through to performance art, video and installation work. Pressure of time means that I have to limit my discussion to two-dimensional art, since that’s the format with which I am most familiar.
MY INTENTION AS AN ARTIST
Despite all the difficulties we’ve outlined above, art’s ability to communicate faith is what we’re here to explore this evening. I’ve chosen to do this by explaining my own process, as an artist whose intention and desire is to communicate faith. Much attention is paid to large-scale public pieces of work, but I believe that art designed and made for smaller spaces has just as significant a role in people’s lives, sanctifying their domestic environment. Why can’t an Englishman’s home be his temple?
For the past five years, my work has been on an intimate scale (more chamber music than symphony). I attend closely to the surface, in a way that almost incorporates me directly into the picture. I use soft pastel, a medium that releases its colour as soon as it is touched – in other words, it’s very messy! But that means I can work with the colour on my fingers, blending and sculpting forms directly onto, and into, the surface of the handmade paper that I use.
At a literal level, the surface is simply a few millimetres’ depth of paper and pigment. But the process of finalising those marks and textures goes far beyond simply looking. It’s a place where ideas and arguments are resolved.
In a piece like ‘Chalice’, for example, I was dealing with a very simple basic image, but aiming to say something about God’s outrageous generosity, through the light and energy pouring out from the heart of the cup. To do this, I used a method of composition called the Golden Section. In this way, elements placed within the picture incorporate an integral harmony. The essentially mathematical proportions of the composition, however, needed to be offset by a freedom in the use of colour, which was applied with gestural marks, flowing into each other to create a kind of glow within the picture.
The colours themselves draw on tradition to symbolise the three natures of God:
gold for the eternal realm, and God the Father;
red for the sacrificial heart of the Son;
and green for the creative Spirit.
My intention is always to find a depth and a reality in the final work that’s not merely an illusion but embodies a real presence. Completing a painting is an organic process where I realise in the final work something I can only see through actually doing it. On the way, I draw as deeply and freely as I can on imagination, memory and experience, though how any artwork captures something essential and real must ultimately remain a mystery.
I often listen to music when I’m working. I choose it to reflect the overall sense of the subject I’m dealing with. A good example might be Howells’ Hymnus Paradisi. I played this whilst working on ‘Consolation of Tears’, which I’ll be referring to in a little more detail shortly. Howells described this piece as being ‘called into being’ at a time of overwhelming grief following the death of his only son. Strangely, after I had completed and named ‘Consolation’, I discovered that Howells has used exactly the same word to describe how he felt in composing this piece.
Listening to music also helps in the process of trying to lose myself in the work. When inspiration is flowing well, it’s as if the image develops by itself in front of me. Perhaps a writer would say something similar of a character in a novel, in which he or she takes on a life of their own, and almost dictates the path that the story must take.
The picture is telling me something - I’m engaged in the work as its first viewer. As a mother, I hope you’ll excuse this analogy, but it does feel like watching a new life emerge. My job is partly to nurture its evolution, whilst trying to remain sufficiently detached to avoid taking over.
Prayer is also an integral part of the process. It’s a foundation stone at the start of a piece of work, providing the inspiration and the vision. Prayer is also where I turn when things get stuck. It’s the way in, the way through, and the destination.
My husband’s a priest, and I was very struck some years ago when he described his desire to become ‘transparent’ when in a sacramental role, such as celebrating the Eucharist. This transparency opens up a space in which the people are in communion with God. A ‘successful’ piece of work in my own terms would achieve the same quality of transparency. Once I feel the work is complete - as with any piece of art - it’s handed over to others. What happens in their response is another part of the mystery.
I’ve attempted to explain something of the dialogue between the artist and her work. Now the dialogue is continued in an entirely new context.
HOW ART CAN BE RECEIVED
Many people find the language of art ‘another country’. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, or a bar to communication: by looking at someone else’s vision of the world, our own beliefs are engaged and challenged. Ideas that are comfortable and familiar may find themselves at odds with what is being offered in the art. This very challenge opens up a relationship between us as viewers and the art we look at. It gives us the opportunity to examine ourselves in the light of something outside of ourselves.
There’s mistrust in many people towards contemporary art. Strangely, of course, there always has been. Impressionist paintings were considered so radical and offensive when they were first exhibited that they had to be hung beyond the reach of sharpened umbrellas brought into the Salons by outraged Parisians in an attempt to destroy them. Now, Impressionism has become probably the most favoured and acceptable art movement of the past 150 years.
Now, I wouldn’t claim that my work is radical or challenging in those ways that could be described as ‘cutting edge’. And yet, I have seen how certain pieces of my own have succeeded in communicating something significant in others.
I’d like to tell you about Margaret, a woman I first met at the private view of one of my exhibitions. The piece I’ve already mentioned, ‘Consolation of Tears’, was on show for the first time. Margaret was invited to the private view by a mutual friend. She’d lived in Rwanda for over thirty years, where she’d worked as an educator. When the genocide began in 1994, she was trapped in her home for four days, but saw and heard the horror of what was going on around her. Many of her close friends and colleagues were murdered, countless others fled the country, separated from family and friends. A lucky accident enabled Margaret to be evacuated by the UN, bringing her by a circuitous route back to the UK.
She’s spoken eloquently about her sense of personal loss, bewilderment and shock at the time. She continues to feel unable to comprehend why some for whom she prayed were delivered, whilst others were murdered.
At the private view, she found herself drawn to ‘Consolation of Tears’, which she’s kindly loaned for this evening. She immediately responded to the work which, in her own words, ‘helped to bring back colour and to renew hope in darkness and uncertainty’. She saw in the image, she says, ‘Christ’s crown of thorns and his suffering, identifying with me, and with thousands of others in their loss of identity’.
It wasn’t actually my intention to represent a crown of thorns. That’s an element of the Christian story that Margaret brought to the picture and projected onto it.
I don’t mind this. In fact, I welcome it. At a deeper level, though, something of my original vision had communicated through the picture. I‘d intended to paint a vision of hope in, and beyond, suffering.
So perhaps, when Margaret talks about seeing ‘Christ’s crown of thorns and his suffering’ she herself is using a metaphor to express this vision of transcendent hope coming out of real loss. As she herself says, ‘Although the thorns are there, there is a calm centre of hope, peace and completion, reaffirming that I am whole in Christ.’
I hope to have outlined some of the problems that contemporary art struggles with in a post-modern society, as it seeks to tackle themes of spirituality and faith.
I’ve spoken about the ways in which I aim to produce an image, how a piece of paper which in one sense is only a surface, can nevertheless carry a depth of meaning. I have touched briefly on how an abstract image can convey a definite intent.
All this happens through a conversation with the artist and the work, then between the work and the viewer, within a process that is ultimately held by God. The process that I see happening in communicating faith through contemporary art is not dogmatic, institutional, or necessarily narrative in form, but transpersonal, creative, and open to multiple interpretations.
In this rich and continuing conversation, God works with human creativity, to draw us beyond ourselves, into the shared understandings and visions of faith.
This is an unendingly fruitful journey, and one which, as an artist, I find constantly challenging and refreshing.