Vous êtes sur la page 1sur 270

Cultural Interactions:

Studies in the Relationship between the Arts

Rina Arya (ed.)

This essay collection exploring the relationship between spirituality and art
is the result of a conference that took place in December 2010 at Liverpool
Cathedral. During this two-day event, artists, clergy and academics from
different disciplines including theology and art history came together to
discuss the relationship between spirituality and art. One of the objectives
of both the conference and this collection was to clarify what is meant by
spiritual art or, indeed, what it means to describe an artwork as being spiritual.

Contemplations of the Spiritual in Art

The essays expand on this issue by addressing the following questions: what is
the relationship between spirituality and art in the context of the art gallery,
religious institutions and the academy and at personal and social levels?
How and why does art convey spirituality and, conversely, why and how is
spirituality made manifest in works of art? Many of the contributors examine
the spiritual aspects of particular artworks, artists or artistic traditions, and
ask what we mean by the spiritual in art. The volume articulates the inter
disciplinary nature of the subject and explores pressing concerns of the
contemporary age.

Rina Arya is Reader in Visual Communication at the University of Wolver

hampton. Her primary area of research is art theory. She has published
articles on Francis Bacon, Georges Bataille, and art and theology. She
is the author of Francis Bacon: Painting in a Godless World (2012) and Chila
Contemplations of the Spiritual in Art
Kumari Burman: Shakti, Sexuality and Bindi Girls (2012) and the editor of Francis
Bacon: Critical and Theoretical Perspectives (2012). She is currently working on a
monograph titled Abjection and Representation, which is forthcoming in 2014.
Rina Arya (ed.)

ISBN 978-3-0343-0750-5

www.peterlang.com Peter Lang

Cultural Interactions:
Studies in the Relationship between the Arts

Rina Arya (ed.)

This essay collection exploring the relationship between spirituality and art
is the result of a conference that took place in December 2010 at Liverpool
Cathedral. During this two-day event, artists, clergy and academics from
different disciplines including theology and art history came together to
discuss the relationship between spirituality and art. One of the objectives
of both the conference and this collection was to clarify what is meant by
spiritual art or, indeed, what it means to describe an artwork as being spiritual.

Contemplations of the Spiritual in Art

The essays expand on this issue by addressing the following questions: what is
the relationship between spirituality and art in the context of the art gallery,
religious institutions and the academy and at personal and social levels?
How and why does art convey spirituality and, conversely, why and how is
spirituality made manifest in works of art? Many of the contributors examine
the spiritual aspects of particular artworks, artists or artistic traditions, and
ask what we mean by the spiritual in art. The volume articulates the inter
disciplinary nature of the subject and explores pressing concerns of the
contemporary age.

Rina Arya is Reader in Visual Communication at the University of Wolver

hampton. Her primary area of research is art theory. She has published
articles on Francis Bacon, Georges Bataille, and art and theology. She
is the author of Francis Bacon: Painting in a Godless World (2012) and Chila
Contemplations of the Spiritual in Art
Kumari Burman: Shakti, Sexuality and Bindi Girls (2012) and the editor of Francis
Bacon: Critical and Theoretical Perspectives (2012). She is currently working on a
monograph titled Abjection and Representation, which is forthcoming in 2014.
Rina Arya (ed.)

www.peterlang.com Peter Lang

Contemplations of the Spiritual in Art
Cultural Interactions
Studies in the Relationship between the Arts

Edited by J.B. Bullen

Volume 26

Oxford Bern Berlin Bruxelles Frankfurt am Main New York Wien
Rina Arya (ed.)

Contemplations of the Spiritual in Art

Oxford Bern Berlin Bruxelles Frankfurt am Main New York Wien
Bibliographic information published by Die Deutsche Nationalbibliothek.
Die Deutsche Nationalbibliothek lists this publication in the Deutsche
Nationalbibliografie; detailed bibliographic data is available on the
Internet at http://dnb.d-nb.de.

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

Library of Congress Control Number: 2012955773

ISSN 1662-0364
ISBN 978-3-0343-0750-5 (print)
ISBN 978-3-0353-0444-2 (eBook)

Cover Image: Antony Gormley, Places To Be, 1985. Lead, plaster,

fibreglass, air. Walking: 190 x 56 x 95 cm. Looking: 191 x 63 x 45 cm.
Standing: 185 x 190 x 35 cm. Photograph by Antony Gormley
Antony Gormley.

Peter Lang AG, International Academic Publishers, Bern 2013

Hochfeldstrasse 32, CH-3012 Bern, Switzerland
info@peterlang.com, www.peterlang.com, www.peterlang.net

All rights reserved.

All parts of this publication are protected by copyright.
Any utilisation outside the strict limits of the copyright law, without the
permission of the publisher, is forbidden and liable to prosecution.
This applies in particular to reproductions, translations, microfilming, and
storage and processing in electronic retrieval systems.

Printed in Germany

List of Figures vii

Acknowledgements ix

Rina Arya
Introduction 1

Matthew Rowe
The Spiritual and the Aesthetic 11

Franco Cirulli
Friedrich Schlegel: On Painting and Transcendence 33

Nicholas Buxton
Creating the Sacred: Artist as Priest, Priest as Artist 49

Peter M. Doll
Immanence, Transcendence and Liturgical Space in a
Changing Church 69

Michael Evans
Out of Nothing: Painting and Spirituality 77

David Parker
Outsider Art and Alchemy 97

Dino Alfier
Necessarily Selfless Action: An Enactment of Simone Weils
Notion of Attention as a Practice of Detachment through
Observational Drawing 113

Ayla Lepine
Installation as Encounter: Ernesto Neto, Do-Ho Suh and
Kathleen Herbert 131

Judith LeGrove
Fragile Visions: Reading and Re-Reading the Work of
Geoffrey Clarke 151

Maxine Walker
Painting the Question: Barnett Newmans Stations of the Cross 173

Rina Arya
Painting in a Godless World:
Contemplating the Spiritual in Francis Bacon 195

Harry Lesser
Spirituality and Modernism 217

David Jasper
The Spiritual in Contemporary Art 231

Notes on Contributors 247

Index 251

Michael Evans, Out of Nothing: Painting and Spirituality

Figure 1. Michael Evans, Studio, 2009 84
Acrylic on canvas, 228.6 137.2 cm
Figure 2. Michael Evans, Composite No.2, 2006 89
Digital Image (size variable)
Figure 3. Michael Evans, Untitled, painting No.11,
Abstract Unconscious series, 2008 90
Oil and acrylic on canvas, 76.2 50.8 cm

Dino Alfier, Necessarily Selfless Action

Figure 1. Dino Alfier, Portrait of HRS, 2008 122
Coloured felt-tip pens on paper, 29.7 20.1 cm
Figure 2. Dino Alfier, Portrait of HRS, 2008 122
Coloured felt-tip pens on paper, 29.7 20.1 cm
Figure 3. Dino Alfier, Portrait of HRS, 2009 122
Coloured felt-tip pens on paper, 29.7 20.1 cm

Ayla Lepine, Installation as Encounter

Figure 1. Do-Ho Suh, Seoul Home/LA Home/New York Home/
Baltimore Home/London Home/Seattle Home, 1999 14o
Silk, 378.5 609.6 609.6 cm
Serpentine Gallery, London, 2002. Photograph:
Stephen White. Reproduced with kind permission of
Serpentine Gallery
Figure 2. Kathleen Herbert, still from De Magnete, 2009 145
16mm film, Firstsite, Colchester
Photograph: Kathleen Herbert. Reproduced with
kind permission of Danielle Arnaud contemporary art,
viii Figures

Judith LeGrove, Fragile Visions

Figure 1. Geoffrey Clarke, Man, 1951 160
Forged iron and stone, 18.5 cm
Photo: Pangolin London / Steve Russell, Property of
the Ingram Collection
Figure 2. Geoffrey Clarke, Square World I, 1959 164
Open-cast aluminium, 180 76 11.5 cm
Photo: James Austin
Figure 3. Geoffrey Clarke, [Untitled], 1959 167
Mosaic for the Chadwick Laboratory, University of
Photo: Henk Snoek / RIBA Photographs Collection

Maxine Walker, Painting the Question

Figure 1. Barnett Newman, Fifth Station, 1962 174
Oil on canvas, 198.7 153 cm
Collection of Robert and Jane Meyerhoff 1986.65.5
2012 Barnett Newman Foundation / Artists Rights
Society (ARS), New York
Figure 2. Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, The Road to Calvary,
after 1749 174
Oil on canvas, 49 86 cm
Foto Reali Archive (National Gallery of Art,
Department of Image Collections)

David Jasper, The Spiritual in Contemporary Art

Figure 1. Stanley Spencer, The Resurrection, Cookham, 19247 240
Oil on canvas, 274.3 548.6 cm
Tate, London 2012

I would like to express my gratitude to the following people who have

greatly helped in the production of this book. Firstly, the contributors for
their scholarship and interest in the project; it wouldnt have been possible
without them. Thanks also to Laurel Plapp for her enthusiasm and support
throughout the process; Mary Critchley for her diligence and attention to
detail; Amanda Kay for her scrupulous proofreading and Angela Airey for
her meticulousness and helpfulness in compiling the index. Special thanks
to Angela Swan for her unwavering support. Last, but by no means least,
Lin Holland and Jane Poulton, whose artwork during their residency at
Liverpool Cathedral (20078) made this conference possible in the first
place. It was through engagement with their work that I decided that it
would be apposite to have a conference on the theme of spirituality and
contemporary art. This book is dedicated to them.
Rina Arya


This book contains a series of thirteen papers that explore the relationship
between spirituality and contemporary art, and was the result of a fruitful
conference on the topic that took place in December 2010 at Liverpool
Cathedral. During this two-day event, artists, clergy, academics from
different disciplines, including theology and art history, and others came
together to discuss the relationship between spirituality and contemporary
art. Some responses were specifically about what was defined as the spiritual
aspects of an artists work, whilst others explored the various challenges of
thinking about the interrelationships that exist between spirituality and
everyday culture, with a focus on contemporary art. In summary outline,
the papers concerned the following themes: how and why does art convey
spirituality, and conversely, why and how is spirituality made manifest in
works of art? Some of these debates were couched in expressly theological
terms, while others were voiced outside of those spaces.
One of the objectives of the conference was to sharpen the focus on
what is meant by spiritual art, or indeed, what it means to describe an art-
work as being spiritual. Spirituality is a term that is widely employed in
discussions of contemporary art but without fleshing out what this means.
The term spirituality often refers to that which is beyond the material, the
conceptual and the rational. It is an umbrella term that refers to a series of
certain outlooks on life. It accommodates feelings that may involve meta-
physical beliefs, or that may be something that is present in ones life but
is undefined, often because it is difficult to articulate. The elasticity of the
term contributes to its convenience of use but also to its somewhat vague
and nebulous nature.
Spirituality refers to the deepest values and meanings by which people
seek to live. It is often used to refer to the path of the human spirit. Many
2 Rina Arya

people, especially in the modern world, conceive of their spirituality in

individualistic and subjective terms. It is about their engagement with the
things that matter most to them. Some people would describe themselves
as being spiritual but not religious, in the sense ofbelonging to a particular
religion. This leads to a tendency to polarize spirituality and religion, which
is an inaccurate way of thinking about the relationship between them. It
is indeed possible to be spiritual without being religious but spirituality is
also part of religious experience. In fact most major religions encompass
spirituality as part of their beliefs and practices, with mysticism, monasti-
cism and asceticism being three components of spirituality. Spirituality can
be regarded as a component of religion but it also has resonance outside
the parameters of religion.
In the climate of twentieth-century secularism (or post-secularism,
depending on your point of view), particularly in the West, spirituality
is a concept that crops up in the attitudes and approaches people take in
their lives. Alister McGrath (2004, p.189) argues for the renewed vigour
of recent proliferations of spirituality: the cultural perception ofthe death
of God has given way to a renewed interest in spirituality. This involves
considering central questions about the meaning of life, such as the reason
for suffering, mortality, and the role of evil. And it does not necessarily
preclude religious beliefs but includes them in its expansion. In other words,
a person who has no religious beliefs may be spiritual but their spiritual-
ity is of a different kind to that of a follower of a particular religion, who
invariably expresses their spirituality through the framework of their faith.
Tomoko Masuzawa (1998, p.71) describes how, in modern Western
European societies, spirituality has been dislocated from religious institu-
tions and becomes expressed through a variety of cultural venues. One of
these cultural venues is art: spirituality is expressed through the artwork,
or the artwork gives rise to a feeling of the spiritual. The dialogue between
spirituality and contemporary art is of mutual significance art is able to
operate as spiritual texts, and spirituality is able to find expression in art
(which can be described as revelatory of ultimate reality). The experience
of the artwork can be a spiritual one, if the viewer is receptive to spiritual-
ity. The spiritual experience can be provoked or invoked somehow by the
formal aspects of the work specifically, certain exhibition conditions
Introduction 3

combined with the specific features of the forms, such as the surfaces of
the canvas, for example. The medium and other features of presentation
are also significant in the dissemination of ideas about the artwork. Mark
Rothkos life-size paint-loaded canvases evoke a very different visceral
response to the slick video screens of Bill Violas installations, and this in
turn can have an effect on our spiritual responses towards the art.
In the context of this volume, spirituality is discussed in reference
to particular religious traditions and is also conceived of more broadly to
articulate personal beliefs or attitudes about life. The purpose ofthis volume
is to explore (without limiting) the application of the term spirituality
to contemporary art from a multidisciplinary perspective. This volume is
not comprehensive in its treatment of any single spiritual traditions rela-
tionship to the visual, nor is it specifically historical in its methodology. It
works on the premise that the spiritual in all religions (and indeed outside
of religions) has common features, is cross-cultural, and that these features
are rudimentary and primal to human existence.

What follows are summaries of each of the contributors papers that give
an overview of the lines of enquiry.
Matthew Rowe examines from the standpoint of analytical philosophy
the questions of whether, and if so, how, the spiritual is manifested in visual
art and whether there are any conditions that need to be met for a persons
experience of an artwork to be spiritual. The paper considers what the source
of the ascription of the term spiritual to an artwork might be, as well as
possible indicators and prohibitors of the spiritual in art, in order to suggest
some basic conditions for the spiritual in art and its experience. He makes
a distinction between a spiritual artwork and a spiritual experience of an
artwork and considers the possibility of a specifically stand-alone spiritual
experience of an artwork. One argument is that the term spiritual can be
applied to artworks as an aesthetic and value-conferring term and that
this aesthetic sense of the spiritual in art can potentially be recognized by
all audiences, whereas the stand-alone spiritual experience of an artwork
is reserved for those experiencing subjects that hold a metaphysics that
includes aspects of the religious/supernatural. The paper concludes that
4 Rina Arya

many kinds of visual artworks could possibly be aesthetically spiritual or

provide stand-alone spiritual experiences.
Franco Cirulli considers Friedrich Schlegels pioneering work in the
aesthetics of religious painting. He asks: can religious art, once it has been
moved in the museum from its original cultic or devotional setting, still be
a powerful vehicle of religious meaning? In particular, can it do so as fine
art? Cirulli shows how Schlegel believes that it can, precisely as fine art:
beauty can have epiphanic powers. But his thought on the matter under-
went significant critical development. From 1802 to 1803, he thought that
properly spiritualized the ancient aesthetics of sculptural grace could
help a painting gesture allegorically toward transcendence. In 1804, he
underwent an important aesthetic conversion: in Cologne, he saw Lochners
Madonna (in the Magi Triptych), whose sweet beauty was at once some-
what hieratic and enigmatic. In Lochner and other German Primitives,
Schlegel discovered an indigenous beauty unschooled in the classics. As a
result, the artist was more open to the mystery of Gods presence in nature,
and less preoccupied with humanizing nature through the imposition of
harmonious form. Schlegel came to appreciate this as an expression of a
theo-humanism that does not collapse the distance between God and man.
Nicholas Buxton explores various analogies between priest and artist
in order to assess whether there is any similarity in their respective voca-
tions. It is sometimes suggested that art has become the religion of modern
life, and its practitioners a kind of surrogate priesthood. Is there any cor-
responding way in which religion can be considered an artistic activity, and
its sacred functionaries be seen as artists? Artists and priests are mediators
of human meaning; both use stories and images to point to a truth beyond
the medium. As discourses of human meaning, art and religion are vehicles
for the articulation of memory and hope, identity and purpose. But whilst
it is not uncommon to characterize the artist as a priest or shaman, and
art as a spiritual activity, it is perhaps more unusual to depict the priest as
an artist though this is no less fruitful a metaphor. Just as the artist strives
to mediate the deepest truths of human experience, so the priest too is a
mediator, who links the human and divine realms, whether as curator of
sacred space, as conductor of public liturgy, or by representing God to the
people and the people to their God.
Introduction 5

Peter M. Doll examines the aesthetics of worship in relation to mod-

ernism and postmodernism. The culture of modernity is a culture of imma-
nence, of what we can encounter and know, here and now, by our senses.
That which is transcendent is beyond our senses, distant, remote and there-
fore of little interest to materialist modernity. By definition modernity in
art and architecture has also eschewed any relationship with history or
tradition. The culture of postmodernity is more relaxed about drawing
on tradition and seeking transcendence than is modernity, but it is no less
individualistic. Art has become a popular vehicle for the expression of the
atomistic spiritual yearning of our time, and contemporary museums are
secular cathedrals.
In a liturgical context, postmodernity has encouraged a critique of
modernist assumptions about worship. Contemporary Christians are
rediscovering a range of traditional spiritual tools and arts including
pilgrimage, labyrinths and icons which encourage an encounter with the
transcendent. Developments in Biblical and liturgical scholarship urge a
recovery of the Eucharist as sacrifice as well as meal. Such developments
prompt a reassessment of both traditional and contemporary liturgical
spaces in order that todays worship may do justice to Gods presence as
both immanent and transcendent.
Michael Evans explores the possibilities for a dialogue between abstract
painting and spirituality in the contemporary era. He gives an overview of
the problematic terrain between painting and spirituality in modernism and
investigates avenues for emerging connections between religious traditions,
such as negative theology and recent developments in apophatic thought
within postmodernism. The experiences of contemporary painters, such as
Ian McKeever and Gerhard Richter, concerning the notion that painting
seeks to go beyond naturalistic representation into a form of apophasis is
used to support his argument.
Evans then moves on to analyse his own work as a painter discussing
his use of image deconvolution software, which enables the movement from
empty process-based paintings to a return to the use of the handmade mark
and a renewed possibility for the generation of form within his work via
the use of digital technology. The use of this technology has enabled him
to create paintings that articulate a depth of experience commensurable to
6 Rina Arya

the work of late modernist painters. Through the combination of abstract

painting and scientific technology, Evans open a number of issues around
authorship, process, imagination and meaning, which enable the further
exploration of spirituality and art.
David Parkers paper discusses the connections between the art of
alchemy and the art of the Outsider artists. Outsider artists and artists who
engage in alchemy are on the fringes of society and are drawn to the spir-
itual in their respective forms of expression. The psychology of Carl Jung
is used to frame the discussion in order to reveal psychological similarities
between the imagery, processes and practices of alchemy and that of the
Outsider artist. Fundamental to this exercise is the desire to articulate the
psychological value of different modes of perceiving the world in relation
to both cultural factors, and to explore Jungs unique contribution to our
understanding of art and culture within the modern era.
Dino Alfiers paper is an artists enquiry into the spiritual. Alfier draws
on Simone Weils methods of spiritual progress. The notion of attention
plays a pivotal role in Weils reflections on the possibility of and methods
for spiritual progress. For Weil, the attentive agent perceives reality as an
all-embracing web of necessary connections, which includes human actions,
so that, Weil writes, any action which has really occurred can be reduced
to a play of necessities, without any residual part of the self (Weil, 1994,
p.331). According to Weil, this attentive reflection on necessity is a pro-
paedeutic to a spiritual practice of detachment. Alfier then applies Weilian
ideas to his art practice in a series of observational drawings. His aim was
to invite an interpretation of the drawings as indices of an intention to
develop an attitude of detachment, which he negotiated in relation to the
constraints placed on his agency. Alfier discusses the affinity between the
Weilian and Stoic positions on necessity and spiritual exercises, with a
view to suggesting that, both in Weil and Stoicism, spiritual exercises can
be interpreted in ethical, rather than metaphysical, terms.
Ayla Lepine explores specific works by three artists, Ernesto Neto,
Do-Ho Suh and Kathleen Herbert. Each of these artists work in different
media but they have in common their preoccupation to engage with
bodies in ways that demand multi-sensorial encounter. Neto uses spices
and herbs suspended in nylon and wooden structures to transform gallery
Introduction 7

and architectural spaces into unique interactive experiences. Encouraging

visitors to use multiple senses, Netos sites provide opportunities to embody
an artwork and take part in a spiritual encounter beyond the boundaries
of conventional religion. Suhs soft sculptures have frequently invoked
memory and problematized nostalgia in order to draw audiences into a
complex web of histories. Suh and Netos distinctive installations create
worlds within worlds, playing with concepts of the sacred and notions
of community. Many of Kathleen Herberts recent films are rooted in
British places and spaces, from forests to cathedrals. They weave histories
together to complicate and interlace multiple layers of place and time. In
each of these artists practices, memory and the senses are carefully deployed
and engaged so that the familiar may be made strange. In Installation as
Encounter, affect theory and theology are marshalled to explore work by
these three artists in relation to one another and to the sacred.
Judith LeGrove addresses the spiritual aspects of the work of sculptor,
etcher and stained-glass artist Geoffrey Clarke who has, throughout his
career, sought to express his belief in terms of an abstract, often mystical,
symbolism. Clarke continues to view humankind as inhabiting a land-
scape shaped by a supreme guiding force, where choice (between good
or evil, the material or spiritual) may be encouraged by the contempla-
tion of symbols, ideally effecting a union between inner spirituality and
that without. As a consequence, spiritual symbolism permeates Clarkes
work, whether independent or commissioned, whether for galleries, the
Church or non-ecclesiastical environments. Through case studies, this paper
analyses shifting responses to Clarkes spiritual symbolism, addressing in
particular the manner in which it functions with or against the grain of
its intended context.
Maxine Walker analyses the spiritual aspects of Barnett Newmans
Stations of the Cross, which have been described as univalent given their
modernist simplified values. Jon Groom sees in Newmans paintings a mani-
festation that addresses both the human condition and the spirituality
of mankind (Morgan, n.d.). In this view, the tension between the surface
and the text in Newmans Lema Sabachthani creates a multivalence that
evokes memory and emotion. Newman acknowledges that the Aramaic
subtitle Lema Sabachthani describes his feelings each of the fourteen
8 Rina Arya

stations represent a stage in his own life. How Newman treats space in the
fourteen paintings and between the stations creates a sense of presence, and,
when interpreted both univalently and multivalently, aspects of spirituality
may emerge. Walker suggests that a deconstructive reading of Newmans
paintings on the moments before the Crucifixion performs a critique of
presence. That is to say, the distance between the object (Stations) in front
of which the contemplative viewer stands is deconstructed so that the walk
down the Via Dolorosa is not moving from one discrete sign to another,
but the total cry itself. The experience is not presence but one of absence,
the acoustic image remains unheard. The trace of the sound remains, the
zip remains; the closure is opened.
Rina Arya examines the special case that Francis Bacon represents in
the relationship between spirituality and contemporary art. She starts by
discussing why Bacons position in the history of western art is idiosyncratic.
There are a number of artists who draw on religious symbols and images
in their work for non-religious purposes. With Bacon it is the recurrence
of use, longevity and fervour of application that means that we should not
ignore his motivations for using religious symbols (his atheism notwith-
standing). The remainder of the paper documents and analyses his use of
the crucifixion throughout his career in order to determine the different
interpretations that can explain his fixation with that symbol. We learn that
whilst he was not a religious artist, his work presents interesting and sub-
versive ideas on religion. Fundamentally, his expression of life was spiritual,
in that he was concerned with ultimate reality in his articulation of the
corporeal body. The paradox is that he was dependent on a tradition that
he set out to reject, and in employing the crucifixion (and other Christian
symbols) he ends up rehabilitating the truth of the Passion of the Christ.
Harry Lesser argues that modernism, though anti-spiritual in its ideol-
ogy, in fact has made the expression of spirituality in the visual arts more
possible, by freeing artists from any obligation to naturalism. That natu-
ralism and the representation of spirituality are very much in tension is
argued with reference to both Christian and Jewish traditions, with exam-
ples from both Christian and Jewish painters. In the Christian tradition
the reason has been, presumably, that the spiritual and the physical have
been seen as not only different but antagonistic, with physical desires
Introduction 9

and concerns threatening spiritual and moral concerns. In Jewish tradi-

tion the issue has been more complex. The tradition forbids any kind of
physical representation of God, as does Islam. Since, according to Scripture
(Genesis 1), humans are in the image of God, and this was taken to refer
to human intelligence, which is expressed in the face, this included any
representation of the human face in three dimensions. Lesser concludes
that full advantage should be taken of the freedom from naturalism, the
use of dream imagery and imaginative imagery, and the fact that artists
have now a greater opportunity to represent movement.
Finally, David Jaspers paper visits four places in which the encounter
between modern and contemporary art and the spiritual may be found and
discusses the spiritual in the work of European and American artists and
architects largely from within the Christian tradition and liturgy. First, the
spiritual and history, with a consideration of the work of Anselm Kiefer
and Paul Celan; second, the spiritual and place, discussing the sacred archi-
tecture of Le Corbusier; third, the spiritual and community, reflecting on
the art of Stanley Spencer and the 1984 fire in York Minster; and finally,
the spiritual and the liturgical, with a reflection on the Rothko Chapel in
Houston, Texas. The paper concludes with a brief reference to the essay of
Wassily Kandinsky Concerning the Spiritual in Art. As Kandinsky argues,
the spiritual in art is heard universally and yet to each in his own language
and tradition.


McGrath, A. (2004). The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the
Modern World. London: Rider.
Masuzawa, T. (1998). Culture, in M.C. Taylor (ed.). Critical Terms for Religious Terms
for Religious Studies. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, pp.7093.
Morgan, R.C. n.d., To Unknow What We Know: The Paintings of Jon Groom,
<http://www.jon-groom.com/essays/robert-c-morgan/> accessed 12 August 2011.
Weil, S. (1994). uvres compltes, Tome 6: Cahiers, Vol. 1 1933Septembre 1941.
A. Degrces, P. Kaplan, F. De Lussy, and M. Narcy (eds). Paris: Gallimard.
Matthew Rowe

The Spiritual and the Aesthetic

Part 1


I recently had a conversation with a friend, who is a practising Christian,

about her visit to a Dan Flavin exhibition. She described the artworks she
saw there as deeply spiritual and described the whole experience as spir-
itual for her too. I knew what she meant when she said that Flavins works
were deeply spiritual, and I understood how she could say that these art-
works, which, for the most part, have a material basis of arrangements of
fluorescent light tubes, had given her spiritual experiences. It seemed to be
an entirely natural and reasonable reaction to Flavins work.
I reflected that I too find it natural to say that some artworks are them-
selves spiritual and that my appreciation and experience of them contains
aspects which I think relate to spirituality. However, I do not practise any
faith and do not hold a metaphysics that goes beyond the material world to
involve any overtly spiritual element.1 So, the fact that I think I understood
what my friend meant by her experiences of the Flavin artworks and rec-
ognized the feature(s) of artworks that she referred to when she said they

1 For the purposes of this essay, spiritual is to be understood as meaning pertain-

ing to the spirit, with the spirit not having a necessarily religious connotation, let
alone any specific religious belief, but including also the parts of a person that are,
or are thought to be, separate from the purely corporeal body that which gives the
breath of life to a body. Also, a spiritual metaphysics stands for any belief system
that includes commitment to at least one supernatural entity.
12 Matthew Rowe

were spiritual raised some interesting questions: What am I talking about,

when I say that an artwork is spiritual? Am I only talking metaphorically
or figuratively when I use the term? How is it that my friend and I, with
our different metaphysics of the world, can agree about which artworks
we call spiritual and will point to the same features of the same artworks
when doing so, so we agree which features of these artworks prompt us
to call them spiritual? How do we each know and appreciate what the
other is talking about when they use spiritual in relation to artworks?
More generally, what is the basis of the spiritual in art given the possibility
of agreement in ascriptions to individual artworks from people holding
different or incompatible metaphysics? How is agreement possible? And
what is it about? Its these questions that I will try to address, with varying
degrees of directness, in this paper.
To begin I need to make some distinctions to mark off the territory
that I want to discuss. I need to distinguish between a spiritual artwork and
a spiritual experience of an artwork. These ideas are distinct and one does
not necessarily imply the other: a graceful artwork is not the same thing
as, nor does it imply, a graceful experience of an artwork.
Here, I will be discussing spiritual artworks and how it is that an
artwork can be called spiritual. What I will not be talking about is what
spiritual experiences are like or how they might be triggered. So, Im not
looking at the characteristics of a spiritual experience although I do
know what I think my friend means by spiritual experience but to talk
about that would be to talk about the nature of a spiritual experience per
se and thats not what this paper is about, its about spiritual art. Im not
seeking to describe the varieties or characteristics of a spiritual experience
and whether these change or rely upon a belief on a spiritual metaphys-
ics, or whether I can really know what my friend means without sharing
her belief in a spiritual metaphysics, or the same spiritual metaphysics, or
whether we share only a common linguistic description of a feeling but
not a common feeling. This is the scope of what I am and what I am not
talking about when discussing the spiritual in art.
The Spiritual and the Aesthetic 13

The Metaphysical or the Aesthetic?

What my friend meant by her spiritual experience was that the artworks
of Flavin had, for her, triggered an insight into her wider belief system that
included an element of metaphysical spirituality and had given her some
access to that belief system. That is something that I cannot have because
I lack the appropriate beliefs in a metaphysical spirituality. Yet, I still think
that some artworks are spiritual. What this means is that if I am to attrib-
ute spirituality to artworks, these attributions will not imply a belief in
a spirituality that forms no part of my metaphysics my attributions of
spirituality to artworks must come from within my metaphysics. However,
this is true for everyone, no matter what their metaphysics; it is simply the
case that our respective metaphysical belief systems are different.
So what do I think of when I do use and apply the idea of the spiritual
to artworks? The artworks to which I would apply this idea range across
art forms and centuries, from prayer incantations to abstract paintings.
So, it would be unfortunate if my lack of metaphysical beliefs in anything
supernatural meant that I could only apply the term figuratively or meta-
phorically to artworks.
When I am describing certain artworks as spiritual, it does not feel
as if I am using the term figuratively or metaphorically. Rather, it seems a
straightforwardly natural, if not plain accurate, term to apply to these art-
works, to describe some feature they possess. These are somewhat similar
to the descriptions mathematicians give when seeing a complex problem
resolve into a more profound simplicity, where this resolution reveals con-
nections that were not apparent in the framing of the original question. I
think of works where my definitions or characterizations of the spiritual
more generally beyond the corporeal or worldly, or beyond the con-
ceptual, or even beyond the rational or irrational or beyond the cogni-
tive might aptly apply. Also, spiritual artworks seem to have a spiritual
relationship to their own world or represent that world in such a way as
to make us reflect on our own spirituality, whatever that might be. Such
works suggest for me critical phrases such as an unfolding resistance to
a complete explanation or a concern with form and order that reaches
beyond the properties of the work itself ; or are artworks which suggest a
14 Matthew Rowe

stillness and self-contained totality of meaning that cannot be adequately

captured by clearly defined terms.
So, while it may be that the characterization ofthe spiritual to artworks
is somewhat metaphorical, since it does not suggest that artworks partake
of a spiritual reality, its application to them is not metaphorical, since I am
suggesting that they have features which suggest ideas of the spiritual to me.
So, where should I go to get a positive characterization of the spiritual
in art within my metaphysics? The obvious answer is aesthetics. Indeed, the
characterizations of the spiritual Ive provided above have considerable
overlap with canonical accounts of aesthetic concepts such as the sublime
or the aweful the limitlessness, the indefinability and the supernatural
power and effect, but the ideas are all clearly different. It is in the nature
of aesthetic concepts that they are more easily experienced than explained.
Yet, if I were to characterize it in terms of these other concepts, I would
say that the spiritual is similar in that it goes beyond the corporeal and
the explainable but lacks the concomitant sense of self-annihilation in the
face of an opposing world that is often implicit in accounts of the sublime
or the aweful. Rather than annihilate the self, it would seem to align the
self with a perception of the deep truths of the world and thus dissolve the
distinction between the self and the world. Consequently, the spiritual also
lacks the reclamation of order by the rational self included in a specifically
Kantian notion of the sublime.2
So, my claim is that when I talk of the spiritual I am treating the
spiritual in art as one component of my wider aesthetic appreciation of
artworks. I ascribe spirituality to artworks as an aesthetic and value-giving
concept. In this respect spiritual is working much as sublime or even
beautiful might work as an aesthetic term that I can ascribe to an art-
work on account of its properties and which generally (but not universally),
operates as a term of critical praise.
So, my first conclusion is that spiritual is, or can be, an aesthetic
term and that I am using it in this sense when I judge that an artwork is

2 Kant outlines his theory of the sublime in Sections 239 of Critique of the Power of
Judgement (1790).
The Spiritual and the Aesthetic 15

spiritual. This is how I apply the concept from within my metaphysics. My

subsequent claim therefore is that one does not need to have a spiritual
metaphysics to say that an artwork is spiritual. This is because spiritual
is, or at least can be, an aesthetic term and can be said of artworks because
of the properties they possess. So, when I think of the spiritual in art, Im
approaching the spiritual in an aesthetic context.
This conclusion prompts consideration of another of my earlier ques-
tions, since this now seems a puzzle: how is it that despite our different
metaphysics my friend and I recognize and agree with each others ascrip-
tions of spiritual to artworks? Moreover, when we do this we talk about
the same properties and about the same artworks. So, we agree despite our
different metaphysics. My argument is that if there is no agreement, or
inconsistency between the metaphysics of two people that agree about an
artwork being spiritual, this indicates that what they are talking about is
a property or properties of the artwork. They are talking about the works
rather than the world.
It would appear therefore that my friend and I, when were talking
about artworks being spiritual, are talking about the same thing we are
talking about the artwork and the basis of its properties. We are not talk-
ing about the world the metaphysics is what we each add on to our talk
about the artwork. So my friend links this judgement to a spiritual meta-
physics. Of course, she does not do this in any consequential way, it is all
part of the same act of judging. I, on the other hand, do not add anything
metaphysically spiritual on to my judgement so I am left with the aesthetic
sense of spiritual that is spiritual as an aesthetic term.
This brings in my next claim: that this aesthetic sense of the spiritual
is what is common to all our ascriptions of spiritual to artworks and that
this is what is necessary for an judgement that an artwork is spiritual
that it possesses a property or properties that allow us to ascribe to it an
aesthetic sense of spiritual whatever our metaphysics.3 In fact we dont

3 The aesthetic is defined as meaning a property of an artwork that relies on a sensory

experience of an object as an artwork, which is not reducible to its physical proper-
ties and which permits the use of value terms.
16 Matthew Rowe

need a metaphysic to attribute the spiritual to artworks. We just need an

idea of the spiritual and how that might be applied to artworks, given the
history of art that we actually enjoy.
So my argument is that spiritual in art is an art-defined term in that
how and when it is appropriately applied, understood and felt is derived
from the appreciation of artworks and art history i.e. its application
comes from the artwork having spiritually appropriate properties given
our knowledge of art. It does not derive from a metaphysical system.
Of course it is possible for us to say of that the same artwork is spiritual
for different reasons and prompted by a different property, but in that case
we could disagree about the artwork, it is an aesthetic disagreement, not
a spiritual disagreement (we are not disagreeing about spirituality, we are
disagreeing about the properties of the artwork and/or the appropriateness
of the ascription of the term to the artwork). In these cases I think I know
the properties of an artwork that allows you to attribute the spiritual to it,
but we disagree on its particular application.
This model needs finessing. Allowances might have to be made for
other causes of our agreement, other than the properties of artworks them-
selves. These might not just be the basis of our ascriptions but might also
be the cause of our ascriptions. For instance, it could be that some basic
norms of a culture are shared, and it is this that explains our agreements,
despite our incompatible metaphysical commitments. However, this rival
cultural model would not explain that we can agree norms cross-culturally
or that we can agree when we extend our consideration beyond artworks
that are visually figurative or descriptively didactic, where judgement might
be less prone to specific cultural prompting. Nor does it explain agreement
with private iconographies that might be a prompt for a personal spiritual
Moreover, what can happen is that people with a spiritual world view
can have a spiritual experience of the world triggered by the artwork. This
is what happened to my friend with Dan Flavin. However, in such cases,
the artwork is acting much as the madeleine cake does at the beginning of
The Spiritual and the Aesthetic 17

Prousts Swanns Way.4 Additionally, some artefacts are made to be carriers

of spiritual meaning, but this is a term that applies to a persons spiritual
commitments and can be applied appropriately to a range of artefacts, not
just artworks. It is not the basis upon which the artwork itself is spiritual,
rather it is acting as a prompt to a spiritual experience. Spirituality may be
present, or absent, anywhere if you have the right metaphysics. For instance,
Dan Flavin trained to be a priest and bought a church in which to show
his own works but denied any spiritual element to his work.
My friend might possibly even say that her judgement that this artwork
is spiritual is caused by that metaphysics too so that there is an explicit
or implicit metaphysically spiritual element to her aesthetics so that she
would characterize her aesthetic experiences as containing elements of the
spiritual. Similarly, it is possible for her to judge that an artwork is spiritual
but yet not have a spiritual experience this may happen for instance if
she is considering an artwork from within a spiritual or religious tradi-
tion which is separate or incompatible with her own. Some features of
artworks, such as subject matter and context may make it more likely that
a work prompts or provides the opportunity for a spiritual experience in
those with the appropriate metaphysics. Examples of such features will be
specific to different spiritual or religious metaphysics and traditions, and
the same feature may have different emphases within different cultures.
They will also vary according to particular circumstances, including the
individual involved and their personal beliefs and tastes. Also, a spiritual
experience of an artwork might be caused by some other reason, as in the
trigger cases. When we talk of this, however, we are talking about these
peoples experiences of the world, we are not talking about the works. That
a spiritual experience is caused by an artwork does not necessarily mean
that the artwork is spiritual in the aesthetic sense.
Similarly, the spiritual is not a necessary part of any aesthetic judge-
ment: my experience of many artworks may not contain elements of the
spiritual and many artworks may not cause me to attribute spiritual to
them and that is true for my religious friend too: we can both judge

4 See Proust, 1922, p.51.

18 Matthew Rowe

artworks to be beautiful or graceful of clumsy, etc., without judging them

also spiritual, and can both experience artworks in which the main, or a
significant part, of our aesthetic experience could be spiritual.
This separation of a necessary connection between spiritual artwork
and spiritual experience would not be possible if she were adopting what
would amount to a functional test for an artwork to be spiritual that it
provided her with a spiritual experience. This would relativize the prop-
erty of the artwork to its judger, since if it did not so move me (or indeed
always so move her) then it would not be a spiritual artwork. For these
reasons then I think that the view that an artwork is spiritual if it provides
a spiritual experience must be discounted as arguing from a sufficient effect
in a person to a necessary cause in an object.
So, to sum up this section, for all these reasons, spiritual is a term that
can be used as an aesthetic term and it is this use that we recognize when
we say of art or an artwork that is spiritual. This understanding bridges
metaphysical divides and does not imply any specific or general metaphysi-
cal beliefs on behalf of the judger, nor does it imply anything about the
existence or nature of any spiritual experience they may or may not have.
I now want to consider what the indicators might be for the spiritual
in art and whether there are any kinds of artworks or kinds of properties of
artworks that might guarantee that an artwork is spiritual or which might
prevent an artwork from being spiritual.

Part II

Since we recognize both (a) the commonplace idea that some artworks are
spiritual and (b) what we mean when we talk about a spiritual artwork,
we can extrapolate examples from artworks to draw up a list of properties
that could be candidates for indicators, if not guarantors of the spiritual.
Artworks have both manifest properties and non-manifest, relational
properties. Broadly speaking the manifest properties are those available to
The Spiritual and the Aesthetic 19

the senses i.e. subject matter, colours, size, etc., and the non-manifest,
relational properties are those that concern its manner of production
i.e. who made it, when was it made, its place in art history, etc. There is
no prima facie reason why the idea that an artwork is spiritual could not
come from either of these sources. However, this does rather complicate
matters if we are talking about spiritual as an aesthetic term, since these
non-manifest properties may rely on our knowledge about the artwork,
rather than our experience of an artwork. So, for instance, knowing that
an artist intended an artwork to be, or not be, spiritual, or that an artwork
was the result of a spiritual crisis, could be part of the set of reasons upon
which we might ascribe spirituality to an artwork.

Sources of the Spiritual in Art

There follows a list and brief description of the categories of manifest and
non-manifest properties that could indicate that an artwork is spiritual.
These categories relate to the tentative descriptions of the spiritual as an
aesthetic term provided above in Part I. This list is clearly not exhaustive,
but is illustrative, and the categories overlap with each other and in most
actual cases will be multiply present in any artwork, across any form or
within any genre within an art form.

(a) Subject Matter

That is, whether an artwork has an explicitly spiritual or religious subject

matter. This would include descriptions of historical figures or events, or
of religious or metaphysical subjects or concepts. Examples from Western
visual art would include all the paintings of the Piet, the Holy Family,
the Ascension, etc., or, within literature, texts which narrate stories with
explicit religious content.
20 Matthew Rowe

(b) Figurative Depiction

That is, depicting or describing the human figure in such a way as to suggest
an overtly spiritual aspect, or which suggest an association with spiritual
properties and attributes as opposed to physical, worldly ones, such as,
within the visual arts, painting the Holy Family as if to reveal their divine
aspect rather than their human one.

(c) Style

That is, the way in which an artwork represents its content: for instance, a
landscape in which the application of paint is treated in a similar manner
for the landscape and figures, to suggest human existence situated as in
harmony within a much greater system, or a delicacy which suggests that
a material reality is suffused with a deeper non-corporeal reality.

(d) Complexity

That is, when the formal and/or representational properties of an artwork

are such that they express or suggest a certain level of complexity and resist-
ance to complete understanding and capture. This may occur in terms of
the representational content of the artwork, such as when a portrait of a
particular human provides an insight into the general human condition.

(e) Formal Properties

That is, where the properties are arranged in some way to suggest either
the complexity in (d) or some kind of harmony, balance or some other
property associated with the spiritual. This may have been the source of
the attribution made by my friend when she spoke of Dan Flavin.

(f ) Symbolic Form or Meaning

That is, where artworks contain, either overtly or somehow encoded, sym-
bolic forms, or allegorical meanings that are explicitly or implicitly spiritual
The Spiritual and the Aesthetic 21

or religious, such as sacred geometry or religious symbolism either in terms

of the objects represented or the manner of presenting that content.

(g) Materials

That is, where the actual material basis of an artwork has a spiritual or
religious aspect. Examples would include reliquaries, thrones or other
religious ceremonial artefacts.

Turning now to the categories of non-manifest relational properties (again

sourced from the tentative characterization given in Part I, and with the
caveat that they will overlap and be multiply present in any example), those
that might be indicators of the spiritual include:

(h) Intended Function

That is, when an artwork is intended to function as an aid to devotion

or to forward some explicitly spiritual purpose. This may include, much
pre-Renaissance Western visual art, Byzantine icons, Gregorian chants,
personal hymnals and Books of Hours. This category is obviously closely
associated to the manifest subject matter category, but, as abstract visual
works demonstrate, where the connections with symbolic form or formal
properties may predominate, this connection is not necessary.

(i) Authorial Intent

That is, when an artwork is intended by its author to be an aid to devotion

or to forward some explicitly spiritual purpose. Obviously, this is close to
the intended function category, but is different and distinguishable, since
there may be no specific spiritual purpose an artwork is meant to fulfil
other than to be a spiritual artwork, i.e. this is about personal expression.
22 Matthew Rowe

(j) Contextual Setting

That is, an artwork is, or may be spiritual if it placed in a setting that is

conducive to spiritual contemplation, such as a place of worship. This is,
as it were, the institutional theory5 of spirituality in art that an artwork
is spiritual by virtue of being situated in an explicitly spiritual context.

This list shows indicators of the spiritual, properties that make it likely that
an artwork might be spiritual. I need to consider whether these categories
are, individually or collectively, necessary or sufficient to make an artwork
spiritual, to discover whether there are any guarantors for the spiritual in
art. My conclusion will be that each of these features alone can make an
artwork spiritual but that none of them individually can give that guarantee
that an artwork is spiritual.
This is because for each of these categories it is possible to find some
artwork that actually exists that possess those properties but which is not a
spiritual artwork (it might for instance be ironic). If this is disputed then
the weaker claim that it is possible to imagine and/or describe an artwork
that possesses these properties but which is not spiritual can suffice.6
Conversely, it is possible to conceptualize an artwork that did not
possess any of these appropriate properties and yet was spiritual. This is
both because the list is explicitly not exhaustive and also because as art has
expanded and evolved into new media and new forms, spiritual art has con-
tinually and consistently continued to be made for instance, in 1900 no
one would have thought that Flavins fluorescent tubes could be spiritual
artworks. So, in terms of materials and manifest properties it appears that
there is always the potential for surprising new sources of the spiritual in
art. Consequently we cannot rule out any art form or genre within any art
form which, purely by virtue of the properties or characteristics of that form

5 See Dickie, 1984 for the institutional theory of art.

6 For example, imagine a very earthy painting of a very earthy pope, or an architectural
drawing of a tyrants prison entirely composed using principles of sacred geometry.
The Spiritual and the Aesthetic 23

or genre,7 could guarantee or prohibit an artwork from being spiritual.

There will always be an artist who will succeed in making spiritual art using
whatever materials in whatever genre of whatever art form.8 Therefore, the
categories listed above cannot be individually or collectively necessary for
an artwork to be spiritual.
Secondly, I claim that there is a quality threshold that needs to be met
for the spiritual in art as with beauty, the spiritual is something that has
to be achieved, it is not automatically possessed. Some works may aim to
be spiritual but fail to meet that aim because they are badly executed. If
so, then the mere occurrence of any of these categories of property alone
cannot be sufficient to make an artwork spiritual. Nor, because of this qual-
ity threshold, are the properties in concert sufficient either a painting
may be intended to function as an aid to metaphysically spiritual reflec-
tion or devotion, be intended by its maker to do just that, may be in an
overtly religious setting, depicting an overtly religious subject matter, in
an appropriate style and using spiritually symbolic forms, and attempt to
use formal visual and spatial properties to meet its intended function, but
may fail to do so because it is too inept.
Moreover, I contend that it is possible for an artwork to have all these
properties in conjunction and yet not be spiritual, even if the quality thresh-
old is met for one or more of its properties. This is because an artwork may
possess in addition other qualities that may act as a similar override and so
nullify the spiritual force of any or all of these properties. Examples of this
are open to argument, as they are culturally and historically contingent, but
it may be that the cultural or historical associations of an artwork may be
such that it becomes practically impossible to judge it as a spiritual artwork

7 For an analysis of the impact of form and genre on aesthetic properties see Walton,
8 This is a conclusion shared with Kandinsky (1911) but via a very different route.
Kandinsky believed that all forms of art were capable of attaining the spiritual in art
and in saying so was making the spiritual an aesthetic property. His view, however, is
almost exclusively formal concerning the relationship between colour and shapes,
with symbolic overtones about the meanings of colours and their relationships with
each other.
24 Matthew Rowe

even though, when considered in the abstract, or as a description, it may

possess some, if not all of the indicators of the spiritual in art. There exists
a painting/poster issued in 1936 by the Nazi state of Hitler dressed as a
grail knight which seems an example of this kind to me. It is competently
made and contains religious and spiritual iconography, but these are so
overwhelmed and compromised, if not outright debased, by the historical
fact of their use in this depiction that virtually any aesthetic property the
painting possesses is overridden.9
These arguments are also routes to another demonstration that we are
discussing the aesthetic sense of the spiritual. Both the quality threshold
and the cultural association arguments are versions of the same argument
that non-aesthetic potential sources of the spiritual cannot override restric-
tions imposed by the aesthetic sense ofthe spiritual. No matter its spiritual
promptings or pretensions, an artworks aesthetic faults can prevent it
from being a spiritual artwork. They can however, remain prompts for a
metaphysical spiritual experience or reflection and be carriers of spiritual
meaning in analogous ways to how other similarly aesthetically restricted
artworks might be carriers of sentimental or historical import.
That said, some genres and forms may be more amenable to produce
examples of spiritual art than others. The same is true for how any of the
categories of indicators of the spiritual, both manifest and non-manifest,
are combined in different individual artworks, as there are so many vari-
ables attending to each example that will weigh on the question.
What has emerged is an analysis in which the question of whether a
particular artwork is spiritual is dependent upon its particular properties
and the particular judgements we make about that artwork. Whether and
how these judgements can be generalized is another question, again beyond
the scope of this paper.10 In conclusion, therefore, there is not any property,
or set of properties, that artworks can possess, that, when considered in

9 Judkins (2011, p.234) notes a similar phenomena: Wagners Ride of the Valkyries
barely survived Apocalypse Now without indelible association.
10 See Sibley (2001) for arguments that echo the positions set out here in respect of
aesthetic judgements.
The Spiritual and the Aesthetic 25

isolation of a particular embodiment in an artwork, can be guarantors of

that work being spiritual. It remains now to discuss whether there can be
any kinds of artworks or kinds of properties of artworks which are prohibi-
tors of the spiritual in art.
One way to approach this task is to look for artworks which have
properties that are the opposite, or which contradict, the properties that
are indicators for the spiritual in art. Such a list could include: an avow-
edly worldly or wholly corporeal subject matter; a work that was immoral,
course, cruel or pornographic; visual properties that suggest confusion,
panic, chaos, disorder, fragmentation and other such qualities, or a work
that sought to undermine, or which was completely indifferent to, any kind
of belief in any spiritual reality or experience. This could provide a list of
individual artworks that could not be spiritual but would not supply any
general limits on the spiritual in art.
Yet, most artworks that have these properties have them in combina-
tion with spiritual-indicating properties: For example, consider Derek
Jarmans Sebastiane (1976) which displays a mix of the potentially spiritual
and the potentially prohibiting properties sometimes in the same scene
and which I would praise as spiritual. Moreover, the same arguments
that were made for properties as potential guarantors of the spiritual can
be raised here: each of these features can be present in an artwork that is
spiritual and could even contribute to that work being spiritual. For instance,
William Burroughs and Charles Bukovskis works often represent forays
into aspects of human physical and psychological degradation. For all these
kinds of works an argument could be raised that the exposure to that human
degradation provides a route to the spiritual, which the artwork reaches
through its artistic quality, whether the author likes it or not.
Also, there is a long tradition of artworks, such as Hogarths Modern
Moral Subjects (16971732) or Gilrays satirical political cartoons which
focus on the supposed baseness of human appetites and actions and which
highlight social corruption and the supposed perfidy and corruption of
those with earthly power. Although these artworks may show kinds of
human degradation they are different to the Burroughs and Bukovski type
examples. These are satires and not descriptions of their subjects. To say
of a Hogarth or of a Gilray that it is spiritual may in fact be to indicate a
26 Matthew Rowe

fault in the artwork that it is not robust enough and/or holds back on
its representation of its subjects.
Certainly these works, if they are successful, cannot be said to be spir-
itual. It indicates that the savagery of the satirical attack has been blunted
by a reluctance to go at its target in a full throttled way. Spiritual, in this
context, would be used almost as a synonym for enervated, anodyne or
There is a sense in which this use of spiritual as a negative aesthetic
term, is somewhat metaphorical, and probably is a term of critical deri-
sion, akin to that when conceptual, or avowedly anti-aesthetic art is called
beautiful; where an aesthetic term that the genre of artwork on offer is
supposed to disown, remains embodied within that artwork. However,
it is clear that spiritual as an aesthetic term can also have a negative value
and indicate an aesthetic defect in a work.
It remains the case, however, that they can be described as spiritual.
The aesthetic term still applies to them, albeit in a different way to the
majority of other artworks described as spiritual it would not be said in
praise, thats all. So, these types of artworks that present a debased view of
human existence, or which attempt a joyful celebration of earthly pleasures,
cannot be beyond the scope of the spiritual in art. Spiritual as an aesthetic
term applies to them too, but it does so with negative force, to indicate
an aesthetic fault in the artwork. Of course, the counter-example artwork
response applies here too. Even if we push these examples to extremes to
consider things such as pornographic artworks there is always the pos-
sibility of an artwork, and a good artwork at that, turning out to be both
extreme in its presentation of the debased and potentially, at least spiritual.
Take for instance De Sades 120 Days of Sodom (1785) and Pasolinis (1975)
film of that book.

Limits on Spirituality in Art

So are there any potential limits to the spiritual in art? Well, I think there
are two strands of artistic production that may provide our limits: one
has always been there, the other has emerged from modernism onwards.
The Spiritual and the Aesthetic 27

There are some artists and artworks that seem to celebrate human exist-
ence without any hint of anything further, where their gaze is purely on
the glory of earthly pleasures. This is echoed within popular culture in a
strand of purely commercial, purely catchy pop songs. These are works in
high and mass art which celebrate the brashness, triviality and artificiality
of contemporary life or the joys of consumerism, pornography and popular
marketing iconography and that could be said to deny any interpretative
depth to the represented content beyond the fact of representation.11
For these examples and kinds of artwork the spiritual seems to be
absent from their concerns and so judging them to be such would appear
to be bizarre to the extent that it would reflect on the critic and their
incapacity for aesthetic judgement, rather than on the artwork, and so be
dismissed as lacking any critical weight or validity. These might be works
where to seek to apply the spiritual would be a mistake as they are outside
of the reach of the aesthetic term.
However, these are existing artworks which are in fact not spiritual;
the work they do as artworks completely ignores this potential source of
aesthetic evaluation. They are none the worse because of this. All the values
they have otherwise remain intact. And, as was remarked above, many of
our aesthetic judgements need not, and do not, involve the spiritual.12 They
provide a practical limit to the spiritual in art from within the body of the
history of artistic practice.
On a wider point, the lack of the possibility of the spiritual may be
an indicator that a form of expression may be inherently lacking in artistic
worth. It may indicate an inability rather than an unwillingness to engage
with topics of a certain complexity, such as reflection on the human condi-
tion, which may be prompters of the spiritual in art. For Pop Art I would
say that these were examples of a deliberate unwillingness to engage with

11 Visual artists who do this might include Warhol, Lichtenstein, Koons or Murakami.
They are all examples of Pop Art, where the movement was expressly about, and
sought to comment upon, consumer culture.
12 On a different point I would say that this does not apply to Pop Art, which, as is
evinced by its flourishing and enduring as an art historical movement, retains fecun-
dity for artistic production.
28 Matthew Rowe

a suitable complexity. For some artworks for instance the Warhol silk-
screens of celebrities their deliberate eschewing of the spiritual or any
form of complexity or depth was a contributor to their artistic worth within
a form (visual art, or painting even) that previously standardly valued such
depth or complexity.
The second strand of artistic production that may provide a limit on
the spiritual in art is potentially more serious because it concerns artworks
that are perhaps unable to be spiritual conceptually as well as practically.
These are all artworks which explicitly seek to deny the possibility of their
aesthetic appreciation tout court: they do this through either

(i) resisting being any kind of sensory appreciable object; or

(ii) denying the possibility of anything but a purely cognitive response
to them; or
(iii) being deliberately ugly, or otherwise somehow unworthy of aes-
thetic attention.13

There certainly is a small subset of artworks that fit this bill artworks
where, in Binkleys (1977, p.269) words: When you look at the artwork
you learn nothing of artistic consequence which you dont already know
from the description. These are works for which the aesthetic as a whole
may be said to be irrelevant.
Indeed, for some of these works, they cannot be experienced since they
are a concept, or a proposition, or an invitation to a future action, now
reprinted as sentences in books or pamphlets. Some conceptual artworks
appear not to be material objects, but rather specifications of conditions
or propositions, works such as Henry Flynts 1961 piece, Concept Art: Work
such that no one knows what is going on; or Stanley Brauwns All the Shoe-
shops in Amsterdam. Others are artworks that require a cognitive response,
such as Art & Languages Art Language a book of theoretical essays about
the possibility and nature of art.

13 In terms of art historical movements, these options possibly might be filled by

Conceptual Art (i) & (ii), or Dada or Arte Povera (iii).
The Spiritual and the Aesthetic 29

However, even for works within these art historical traditions it is

possible that the concept may be spiritual or tend towards interpretations
that stress the spiritual based upon a sensory examination of the docu-
mentation or the material associated with the conceptual work. It may
lead us to consider the work qua concept as spiritual, or in the realm of
anti-aesthetic artworks, with the work of Joseph Beuys, which is deeply
and explicitly spiritual.14 Similarly, Kosuths Art as Idea as Idea might be
spiritual mysterious about the concept of art and its indefinability and
shows a yearning for capturing the uncapturable. So, the spiritual is not
an aesthetic concept that is beyond the reach of conceptual art, although
conceptual art may have a propensity, through its presumed demateriali-
zation of material objects, to render the spiritual irrelevant to it, with the
result that to apply spiritual as an aesthetic term in either its positive or
negative aspect, is less common.
So, in these three categories of artworks the purposefully trivial, the
purely cognitive and the anti-aesthetic we get candidates for a range of
artworks that either are not or which cannot be spiritual. They could, in
theory at least, be beyond the reach of spiritual as an aesthetic concept even
if they were in a church, about a spiritual topic and made for the purpose
of religious devotion.
The answer lies in how the spiritual functions as an aesthetic term.
Spiritual as an aesthetic term can sometimes be positive, and sometimes
negative, and the fact that properties that might prevent an artwork being
spiritual, can elsewhere be present and even contribute to an artwork being
spiritual. Similarly, the spiritual as an aesthetic term cannot be bound or
predicted by theory, nor attributed to a work without directly experiencing
that work. That is, the spiritual cannot be theorized, so that if we had a
description of all the properties of a work, we would be able to judge that
the artwork must be spiritual. Just as the beautiful in description may be
gaudy in experience, so the spiritual in description may, in fact, be bathetic.15

14 This might apply to Art & Languages works involving columns or designated spaces
of air and some of Yoko Onos works as well.
15 See Sibley (2001).
30 Matthew Rowe

If so, then we do have a condition for works that cannot be spiritual

it is those that cannot be experienced or that cannot have sensory-based
aesthetic terms applied to them. These works truly might be beyond the spir-
itual but they are beyond the pale of other aesthetic terms too. Indeed they
disavow the perceptually aesthetic as a whole but they do, nevertheless,
share many other artistically valuable properties with aesthetically rich art.

Part III


In this essay, I have tried to argue firstly that there is an aesthetic, and
not a metaphysical basis to our judgements that artwork are spiritual and
secondly, that any positive tick box type account of the spiritual in art
based on a list of possessed manifest or non-manifest properties is neces-
sarily inadequate. The spiritual in art does not work this way. Spiritual and
non-spiritual artworks can therefore be found across all ranges of historical
and contemporary practice, excluding some of that very small category of
potentially non-aesthetic artworks.
Also, it falls out of this analysis that whether or not an artwork is
spiritual relies upon us making experience-based judgements about par-
ticular artworks, considered on their own terms. Also that it is illegitimate
to make generalizations from any one artwork to any other artwork that
shares the same property, that because one is spiritual, the other will be
too, and vice versa.
As such, the spiritual functions just as many other aesthetic terms
when applied to contemporary art, art of the past, or to non-art objects
where the answer to questions about whether an artwork has a particu-
lar aesthetic property is always dependent because making a judgement
from experience is the only method to answer such questions. The answer
depends upon what strikes you in your experience of that artwork. This
The Spiritual and the Aesthetic 31

is how my religious friend and I can have a shared understanding and

appreciation of artworks that we judge to be spiritual; and how artists,
believers and non-believers alike, can produce spiritual or non-spiritual
artworks. The difference between us might be the explanation we pro-
vide about the cause of this spirituality and indeed its effects on us. The
religious person lets herself be filled by a spiritual reality, whereas for the
non-religious person, spiritual art gives him the chance to explore who
he is, to give himself up, fill himself up with possibilities but not with a
supernatural reality. This is the difference. He is grounded in this material
world and letting himself open up to unknown bits of the world, or what
it is to be himself. Spiritual art gives an insight into the mystery of him
rather than the mystery of Him.
Art, because it is about its content and because it is interpretable and
deliberately open to interpretation, and because of its way of alluding
and suggesting rather than demonstrating knowledge,16 is where I and
those with a religious sensibility might meet with mutually understandable
descriptions of the properties of artworks. Since art allows us a meeting
place provides the place of exchange because of its interpretability, its
representational content it therefore gives us a place to share the personal
without committing to any one metaphysical reality. It communicates
where language would not by providing the clearing space for a transla-
tion between otherwise incompatible metaphysical systems, whilst yet
permitting a personal metaphysics to flourish. So, when we go to look for
the spiritual in art we have to go to look to the works themselves, for it is
there and only there, that we will we find it. And it whatever it is will
find us.17

16 Young (2001, pp.689) sets out an idea of illustrative demonstration, which is the
way that most artworks give knowledge they show us things that we recognize are
somehow right. This is contrasted with semantic demonstration which is giving
knowledge through an argument.
17 I am grateful to the editor, and to the participants at the Contemplations of the
Spiritual in Art conference held at Liverpool Anglican Cathedral in December 2010
for their comments on an earlier draft of this paper.
32 Matthew Rowe


Binkley, T. (1977). Piece: Contra Aesthetics, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism,
35, 26577.
Dickie, G. (1984). The Art Circle. New York: Haven Publications.
Judkins, J. (2011). Review: why Music Moves us by Jeanette Bicknell, British Journal
of Aesthetics, 51, 2324.
Kandinsky, W. (1977). Concerning the Spiritual in Art. Trans. M.T.H. Sadler. New
York: Dover [1911].
Kant, I. (2000). Critique of the Power of Judgement. Trans. P. Guyer & E. Matthews,
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press [1790].
Nietzsche, F. (1993). The Birth ofTragedy. Trans. S. Whiteside. London: Penguin [1872].
Proust, M. (1922). Swanns Way. Trans. C.K.S. Moncrief and T. Kilmartin. New
York: Modern Library [1913].
Sade, Marquis de. (1966). 120 Days of Sodom. Trans. A. Wainhouse and R. Seaver.
New York: Grove Press [1785].
Sibley, F. (2001). General Criteria and Reasons in Aesthetics, in J. Benson, B. Redfern,
J.B. Cox (eds). Approach to Aesthetics: Collected Papers of Philosophical Aesthetics.
Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Walton, K. (1970). Categories of Art, Philosophical Review, 79, 33467.
Young, J. (2001). Art and Knowledge. London: Routledge.
Franco Cirulli

Friedrich Schlegel: On Painting and Transcendence

We cannot know his legendary head

with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise

the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark centre where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced

beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beasts fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,

burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

Rilke, Archaic Torso of Apollo, 1989, p.61

Introduction: Rilkes Archaic Torso of Apollo

I think that this poem by Rainer Maria Rilke is a powerful introduction

to the figurative theo-humanism of Friedrich Schlegel. First, because its
engagement of the artworks aesthetic properties is not a leisurely, pleas-
ant bourgeois diversion. It suggests that the beauty and/or sublimity of
divinized human corporeality in ancient Greek Sculpture can grip the
spectator viscerally, forcing a re-evalutation of his or her own existence
34 Franco Cirulli

and suggesting that once outside the precincts of the museum praxis
must follow epiphany: you must change your life.
If Rilkes message ended here, however, his poem would hardly be
worthy of our attention it would justify Derridas equation of Western
aesthetics with anthropo-theologism. By looking at the beautiful God with
a human body, the spectator can feel exalted: she is a member of humanity,
the tip of the Great Chain of Being, the only place where Nature and God
intersect. Here the initial experience of inadequacy (you must change your
life) would then be handsomely offset by the feeling of belonging to an
exclusive club: thank God I am not an animal! In the end, the experience
of classical beauty is an experience of myself as plenary subject, that is, for a
scattering of moments, I take the perfection of the statue as a metaphor of
my own perfection: I feel ecstatically complete, with nothing left to desire.
But Rilke disturbs any such easy certainty. For one, is this really Apollo,
or Dionysus in disguise? Are we gazing at the benevolent God of order,
or at an archaic deity radiating the splendid, terrifying energy of a raw
Nature? The smile that Rilke descries on the torso is not that of benevo-
lence, but the delight of irrational libidinal energy (the smile run to the
dark center where procreation flared). Apollos stony body glisten[s] like a
wild beasts fur, and it is also (in a quasi-hallucinatory experience) from
all the borders of itself burst forth like a star: two emphatic rejections of
order and harmony.
This does not mean that Rilke reduces this encounter to a frighten-
ing peek into the long-forgotten abyss. There are rich ambiguities. Abysses
gape in ominous silence, but the torso addresses Rilke with an intimate you.
Granted, much depends on how we read the ensuing words: you must change
your life. Is this sybilline command a ruthless imperative, or an affectionate
summons? Rilkes visual experience of the torso seems to dramatize this
dilemma. The torso is as much about light as it is about darkness, nor is its
light just the aura of the terrifying. The internal sheen of the chest radiat-
ing outwardly seems threatening, but also gift-like. The torso evokes eyes
that are not only of assistance in the rapacious business of seduction, but
have themselves the seductive aspect of young apples. According to an old
adage, beauty puzzles us with a seeming fusion of the intimately familiar
with the genuinely new. It appears as a fragment of a long-forgotten past,
Friedrich Schlegel: On Painting and Transcendence 35

but also like a tessera that can transfigure the equally uncertain mosaic of
our future. In this respect, Rilkes encounter with an ancient sculptural
fragment is deeply revealing. It invites us to think whether beauty as such
is essentially fragmentary in meaning, even when (unlike a corroded torso)
it seems complete visually.
And yet, the poem that began with a collective profession of ignorance
(We cannot know) ends with a first-person summons (You must change your
life), an intimate connection between artwork and self. The very writing of
the poem shows us that Apollo has succeeded in casting a transformatory
spell: for one, Rilke is no longer the passive spectator. In the search for
greater clarity, the poet engages in a series of transfigurative acts. Notice
how Rilke brings the statue closer to the spectator through an explicitly
pictorial transfiguration: the conversion of marble into light, the sfumato
diaphanousness of the chest that allows that light to pour out, the transpar-
ent fall of the shoulders. Traditionally, it is to paintings that one ascribes
the unsettling capacity to look back at us. Rilkes torso becomes covered
with a thousand eyes isnt this a breach of the traditional fourth-wall of
sculpture, behind which the beautiful statue rested in a solipsistic sweet
reverie? Finally, notice how poetry becomes yet another, more comprehen-
sive layer: it is within and through the lines of his poem that Rilke carries
out his pictorial transfiguration of the sculptural artefact. In this way, Rilke
is telling us that the figurative beauty is not the passive recipient of our
transfiguring look it transforms us in return, inflecting our speech with
beauty. But not, again, the unproblematic beauty of a self-assured human-
ism. Rilkes Archaic Torso of Apollo leaves it open that beauty may be as
Rilke wrote in his First Duino Elegy the beginning of terror.

Friedrich Schlegel at the Louvre

During his stay in Paris between 1802 and 1804, the perpetually penniless
Friedrich Schlegel was an assiduous guest at the Louvre, where he had a
chance to witness the extraordinary artistic riches generated by Napoleons
36 Franco Cirulli

systematic policy of military plunder. No doubt also out of financial con-

siderations, he decided to write (for the benefit ofhis fellow Germans who
could not travel to Paris) extensively about the Old Masters concentrated
within the walls of the museum. In an important way, many of these works
were fragmentary torsos that had been prised loose from their original set-
tings (churches, private collections, museums like Florences Uffizi). Once
in the museum, these works became specimens of fine art. Especially in
the case of sacred art, painting was no longer something to pray to, meet
under, celebrate in front of it had become something new something
to be just looked at. For Schlegel, this forcible deracination allowed him to
gauge whatever epiphanic or revelatory potential was bound up with the
distinctively aesthetic properties of a painting. Could it be that the museum
was not the graveyard of pictorial meaning? Could it be that precisely
because of its aesthetic excellence a painting could speak powerfully
about the meaning and possibilities of human existence? About our rela-
tionship to the sacred?
These are the questions that Schlegel pursued in the Louvre but also
in museums and private collections in Cologne and Brussels in analyses
which stand out for their literary brilliance.1 Casting a retrospective glance
on many of these close readings of religious artworks, Schlegel ventured
a generalization: painting is uniquely suited to capture the divine (das
Gttliches) in Nature (1959, p.78), through a variety of stylistic/repre-
sentational dimensions: in the transfigured expression of single figures,
or in the beautiful secret of a lovely divine meaning (Bedeutung) in the
composition of the whole (1959, p.74). Whether or not painting as such
reaches its highest excellence in this type ofGottensdienst (as Schlegel firmly
believed) is to say the least a controversial claim we need not engage
right now. In this paper, I would like to consider Schlegels theory in the
context of specifically religious painting. If he is right, the museum need
not be the graveyard of religious meaning: even within the museal precinct,

1 For Hans Eichner, Schlegel never wrote more beautifully than he did in the best
pages of his Descriptions of Paintings (KA IV, XXII).
Friedrich Schlegel: On Painting and Transcendence 37

the artwork through its interplay between form, representative content,

and aesthetic properties may function as a privileged site of epiphany.
Even the specific nature of this epiphany emerges from the specificity
of the pictorial medium. As Schlegel sees it, painting (and not music, sculp-
ture or poetry) is the artistic vehicle supremely suited to present the divine
in Nature. To assess his claim, let us begin by unpacking the epiphanic
kernel: just what does Schlegel mean by divine? It designates the neces-
sarily circuitous and obscure way in which God must manifest himself to
creatures like us. Following Kant, Schlegel claims that though we crave
infinity we can only be conscious of a specific (and hence finite) content.
This entails that God (the infinite par excellence) can never be the object of
a direct experience. On the other hand, in the encounter with an artwork,
we may feel Gods presence: through its infinite semantic saturation, the
artwork resists our attempts at an exhaustive interpretation. Through this
unceasing resistance, we feel that the artwork hints at an infinite, invisible
ground. This epiphanic cognitive check is precisely what Schlegel calls the
experience of the divine (1963, p.377, n. 686).
Now we can see how ambitious Schlegels view of painting is: its task
is not the presentation of the divine per se, but of the divine in nature. In
so doing, Schlegel betrays what we could call a theo-humanist pictorial
theory, in which a canvas can evoke the feeling of a God reconciled with
our human nature. It is also a deeply paradoxical task: if the divine is that
which eo ipso exceeds any sensuous object, how can it be shown in natural
Through a double movement reconciliation is both made visible and
deferred. As Schlegel sees it, there are several ways in which painting can
stage that double movement: in the transfigured expression of single fig-
ures, or in the beautiful secret of a lovely divine meaning (Bedeutung) in
the composition of the whole (1963, p.74). Here Schlegel is referring us
to devices that manage at once to rivet our perception with unusual force
and evoke the feeling of an invisible infinity although the first device
concerns the saturation of individual figures, the second refers us to the
saturation of the whole pictures. The two means are by no means exclusive
they are often in synergy. Let us see that relation exemplified in Schlegels
engagement of Correggios Deposition:
38 Franco Cirulli

Several painters reproach this work, because all the crying figures around Christ are
all decidedly ugly, or at least with an ugly attitude (even if their form, abstracted
from such ugliness, is by no means ignoble). Such a screamingly loud pain, erupt-
ing from the deepest core of being with a truth that grips and unsettles, cannot but
deform those it possesses. But what other pain would be here more appropriate to
its subject? The painter took away the beauty from the crying ones, which he could
have very well have done, had he not (with his deep instinct) poured all the beauty
all over the corpse of the Savior. I have led several persons before this painting, who
after being initially repulsed by it all had to admit that the body of the Savior is
unspeakably beautiful, and that it could not be any more beautiful. And yet [they
had to admit that] it is a corpse, a corpse in every lineament but still ensouled by
beauty and painful nostalgia (Wehmut), a living picture of the loveliest death. How
truer this is [than to represent] Christs cadaver in a disgusting and repelling way,
and by way of compensation to prop next to it a Magdalene with a vain beauty
and equally vain tears. (Schlegel, 1959, pp.278)

Correggios Christ presents us with a literal version of individual transfigura-

tion: a luminous diaphanization of the body (the transparency of transfigu-
ration) which involves a divine epiphany in and of the body (the figura of
transfiguration). Granted, we cannot speak here of a transfigured expression,
since the face has a disturbing corpse-like blankness. Rather, it is the classical
beauty of Christs body that is luminously saturated. Schlegels deliberately
oxymoronic lines (a living picture of the loveliest death) are intended to
alert us to the revelatory ambiguity of this white light. The shininess of
Jesus corpse seems to betray the passivity of a body whose skin, taughtened
by the onset of rigor mortis, appears to shine with stony indifference. But
is this the source of the bodys internal luminosity in the body itself, or in
something beyond the pictorial frame? This is an decisive ambiguity: in
the first case, even in a lifeless state, the human body appears instinct with
a divine dignity. But it is also true that the bodys almost vanishing borders
could suggest a non-corporeal, transcendent ground of transfiguration.
Equally important is the the overall aesthetic composition: as Schlegel
puts it, it is as if Christs body had absorbed all the available beauty, leaving
only disfiguration on the grieving faces. Schlegel is silent about the allusive
import ofthis, remarking only that this solution is far more appropriate than
the customary one, where a beautiful Magdalene pines over the ugly cadaver
of Christ. This is because beauty has a dimension of self-sufficiency, and is
Friedrich Schlegel: On Painting and Transcendence 39

therefore ultimately incompatible with the expression of loss. Possibly, the

ugliness of the bereavers could signal the vanitas of earthly attachments a
message reinforced by Christs dead beauty. The disfiguration of the women
could also signify the importance of their loss the infinity of this loss is
hinted at by the unspeakable beauty of the corpse.
Does Schlegels reading of Correggios Deposition have a more than
antiquarian interest? I suggest it does. For one, it challenges the current
view that the museum is the graveyard of religious art as such. Nicholas
Wolterstorff an important spokesman for the museum-as-graveyard
view notices that religious paintings were not made just to be looked
at they were made as instruments of liturgy (aiding prayer, helping the
imaginative exercise of commemoration) (Wolterstorff, 1980, p.116). Once
inside the museum, they become passive visual objects, whose aesthetic
excellence becomes a source of a refined, intellectual enjoyment. If any
sacred meaning survives in this context so Wolterstorff argues it is
in the idolatrous worship of artworks, which become surrogate gods,
taking the place of God the Creator (Wolterstorff, 1980, p.50). Now,
Wolterstorff is right to remind us that the Old Masters religious art is not
simply there to be gazed at its often palpable, heartfelt piety should be a
warning against facile voyeurism.2 But he may be profoundly wrong when
he suggests that looking eo ipso negates the religious content of sacred art,
which could only be liberated in their original liturgical use. Could it be
that great religious figurative art precisely as art can have some reli-
gious epiphanic impact upon a spectator, i.e. someone whose engagement
with the artwork is eminently visual? Schlegels readings of Correggios
Deposition seem to suggest so.

2 Though we cannot recover the wholeness of our predecessors, what we can do is

shed our parochialism. We can remove the blinkers which have led us to see only the
arts as they operate in our institution of high art. And though we cannot recover an
art of the tribe as a whole which has profundity and imagination, what we can do
is repent ourselves of our elitism, dropping the assumption, so deeply ingrained in
us by our institution of high art, that perceptual contemplation, and in particular
aesthetic contemplation rewarding to the intellectual, is per se the noblest use to
which a work of art can be put (Wolterstorff, 1980, p.198).
40 Franco Cirulli

But Schlegels figurative theo-aesthetics may be of profound contem-

porary relevance in another way as well. Some post-structuralist writers
such as Norman Bryson have criticized a great deal of Renaissance art
precisely through its idealization of the human body as a toy for the
voyeuristic pleasure of the Male Gaze. In these paintings, the beautified
body is denied its power as an effective centre of agency, and reduced into
a passive object of consumption. By concentrating these artworks and
explicitly inviting us to an ocular banquet, the museum is transformed
into a brothel:

Compensating this impoverishment of the body, the tradition rewards it with all
the pleasures of seduction, for the body of the Gaze is nothing other than a sexual
mask: the galleries of the West constantly display the Gaze of pleasure, as an archive
that is there to be cruised. (Bryson, 1983, p.164)

Any feeling of redeeming eternity we may get from looking at these artworks
is itself the satisfaction of a predatory look. By inviting sexual investment,
these beautiful bodies from a distant past give the spectator in the con-
centrated now of imagined sexual enjoyment the feeling of an extraor-
dinarily heightened self-presence. But such victory over time requires the
sexual consumption of the beautiful corporeality one has imaginatively
However, Norman Bryson continues that the dubious nature of this
art lies not only in its tacit exploitation of the human body. The predatory
visuality inscribed in such art turns against following a Hegelian master-
slave dialectic against the viewer himself. This becomes particularly clear
whenever the representation of the body is at once beautiful and realistic. If
the body seems to be (thanks to the self-effacing brushwork of the Master)
compellingly there, the artwork as a culturally complex piece of labour
requiring the spectators careful analysis falls to the wayside. The libidinal
investment prompted by the bodys beauty completes my own unwitting
reification: I am turned into an it by the unthinking sexual consumption
of the represented object.
In my view, however, Schlegels approach has the merit of pre-empting
even this sort of objection, by hinging upon a very different model of
Friedrich Schlegel: On Painting and Transcendence 41

vision. This vision seeks to imaginatively animate the artwork, but not
for the sake of tapping into the libidinal current the still warm traces
of machistic and feminine allure inscribed in the canvas (Bryson, 1983,
p.164). Instead, the spectators sympathetic Belebung of the artwork seeks
to raise from an it to a Thou and by helping the artwork to its free-
dom, the spectator as well gains some sort of emancipation. This is how
Wilhelm Henrich Wackenroder (an author whose influence on Schlegel
was considerable) put the matter in 1797:

[Paintings] are not hanging there, so that our eye can see them; rather, so that one
can penetrate them (in sie hineingehe) with a sympathetic heart, and live and breathe
in them. A precious painting is not a paragraph of a textbook that I can discard as a
useless husk after having easily extracted the meaning of the words. Rather, by excep-
tional artworks the pleasure continues always, without interruption. We believe to
penetrate in them ever more deeply, and yet they stimulate our senses always afresh,
nor do we see any limit to the enjoyment of our soul. An eternal life-oil (Ein ewiges
brennendes Lebenshl) burns in them, which never extinguishes itself before our
eyes. (Wackenroder, 1991, p.108)

Consider how Schlegels experience of Andrea del Sartos Carit exemplifies

Wackenroders quasi-sacral IThou relationship to the artwork:

The main value of the painting consists besides the nave cheerfulness and serenity
of the beautiful expression eminently in the colors: so light, tender, airy, and clear
are this blue and red, and the complexion of the naked infant in between. And yet
despite this, not at all garish: so tenderly softened, so truly interfused, that one sees
it with tender allure, it as if through Loves serene, open eye. I never saw a picture
from this master in this manner, and of such gracefulness. (1959, p.82)

Schlegel begins by noticing the respective purity of the great masses of red
and blue offered by Marys garments. This is the radical unalloyed nature of
primary colours: red and blue are absolutely irreducible to each other. The
suggestion of chromatic purity is further underscored by the particularly
crisp (though by no means harsh) lines of the drapery. And yet, Schlegel
notices that these solid masses of mutually irreducible colours seem remark-
ably interfused. The ground of chromatic unity, however, is not itself vis-
ible. So what explains this beautiful harmony of colours? Schlegel gives us
42 Franco Cirulli

an important clue: the Carit gives us a picture of the world seen through
loves open eye. For Schlegel, love is the self s foundational yearning for
infinity, which is awakened by the encounter with other finite beings: love
divines that despite its discrete appearance each finite being is (just
like the self ), a fragment of an Ur-Ich, the archetypal divine unity (1972,
p.351). For Schlegel, the perception of beauty is nothing else than Liebes
spiritual intuition of an invisible kinship between self and other (as two
fragments of the same divine Ur-Ich) (1972, p.355). That is how Del Sartos
Carit objectifies love: it gives us chromatic masses that in the face of
their vivid mutual distinction seem to hang together remarkably well.
The invisibility of the ground of chromatic unity is also crucial: love is the
capacity to recognize the transcendent bond under the carapace of empiri-
cal difference (1972, p.351).
Against Wolterstorff, Schlegel is suggesting that figurative beauty can
intimate the divine. Against art historians like Bryson, he is hinting that
the encounter with figurative beauty can be the very opposite of a dehu-
manizing experience. If we put both elements together, we could say that
Friedrich Schlegel espouses an aesthetic figurative theo-humanism: the idea
that figurative art precisely qua fine art can work as a reconciliatory
site between man and God.
As we have seen, Schlegel construes figurative beauty as a possible vehi-
cle to the divine. For those of us with theological interests, is this a viable
option? We are all familiar with Adornos point: after the atrocities of the
Holocaust, the idea of an art that celebrates mans unique connection to
God has seemed to be self-indulgently nave, if not offensive. Paul Tillich,
a seminal figure in his cross-pollination of theology and aesthetics, shared
this view. Genuine religious art is disruptive: it registers as Tillich claimed
in 1965 experience of the absent God, i.e. it should epiphanically reveal
the current crisis of the sacred the result of Gods deliberate withdrawal, to
show us the bankruptcy of our own spirituality (Manning, 2009, 164). This
explains Tillichs dismissal of naturalized idealism, i.e. figurative art that
helping itself to classicizing forms of beauty suggests a mendaciously
harmonious relationship between man and God, even if in the shape of
a hopeful anticipation. It is precisely through their beautiful, harmoni-
ous humanity that Raphaels Madonnas are bereft of a genuine religious
Friedrich Schlegel: On Painting and Transcendence 43

content (Tillich, 1990, p.276). A preference for art like Raphaels betrays
bad faith, an unwillingness to see and face our real situation (Tillich, 1990,
p.277). It is because of its capacity to disrupt an illusory sense of ease that
De Chiricos Melancholy and Mystery of the Street is far more religious than
Raphaels Madonnas (Tillich, 1990, p.276).
Tillichs theological dismissal of Raphaels religious art is particularly
relevant for us, as it stands in glaring contrast with Schlegels celebration
of Raphael, as the epitome of an art that reconciles man with God through
beauty. I cannot do full justice to Tillichs important point in this context.
But as I see it it may be vitiated by its own mauvaise foi. Let me explain.
In his Sickness unto death, Soren Kierkegaard notices that to lament before
God ones irrecoverably bad sinfulness is to proudly imply that divine Grace
is powerless vis--vis oneself:

It is an effort to give stability and interest to sin as a power by deciding once and for
all that one will refuse to hear anything about repentance and grace [the sinners]
selfish self culminates in ambition. He has now in fact become the king, and yet,
in despairing over his sin and of the reality of repentance, of grace, he has also lost
himself. (Kierkegaard, 1980, p.110)

Now, as Friedrich Schlegel noticed, Raphaels Madonnas can strike us as

incomparable examples of grace (Anmut). In the Jardinire, for instance,
Schlegel notices:
The Madonna sitting in the most serene clear landscape in the company of two chil-
dren, above a beautiful, truly celestial blue the whole like a heaven of innocence and
charm on earth. Total lovability and light childlike joy, but everywhere a thoroughly
individual nature, no abstract traits, no ideal. This grace (Anmut), this beauty of clear
colors, this tender blossoming of carnation are indescribable here the Madonna
is, like ones beloved, painted completely and exclusively with an earthly lovability
(ganz nur in irdischer Lieblichkeit). (Schlegel, 1959, p.52)

Here the aesthetic property of grace moves us deeply, because it suggests

an unreserved kenosis of the divine into the most humble and ephemeral
elements of reality. Why shouldnt the grace of the Jardinire not be an
example of what Tillich approvingly calls the artworks visible disruptive-
ness of reality? The utter gratuitousness of this sudden, tender invasion of
44 Franco Cirulli

human space and time by the divine: isnt this a disruption of the ordinary?
To say that genuine religious content belongs only to artworks exposing
our well-deserved Gottverlassenheit; to deny that the Jardinires graceful
kenosis could be relevant for us, today: this could be a demonic humanism
wearing the mask of honest anti-humanism.

Schlegels Doubt: Primitive or Classicizing Theo-Aesthetics?

From Schlegels perspective, there was no doubt that figurative beauty had
theophanic potential. The question, rather, was this: was the nave beauty
of primitives like Beato Angelico more religiously compelling? Or was
it the case that at its best the classically inflected religious painting
of Raphael and Correggio could speak most powerfully about God? By
celebrating both, Schlegels Descriptions of Painting seems to suggest that
there is no real tension until, that is, 1804. In that year Schlegel ventures
out of Paris, and in the cathedral of Cologne undergoes what we could call
an aesthetic equivalent of St Pauls conversion on the way to Damascus.
The hieratic beauty of the Magi Altarpiece by Stephan Lochner moved
him deeply, so that he declared this to be the most complete, beautiful
religious painting ever wrought by human hands. How does this force us
to re-evaluate his previous paeans to Raphaels Jardiniere, or to Correggios
Deposition? Schlegel does not really offer concrete help here.
Hegel even more than Schlegel, an unabashed fan of the Italian
Renaissance is perhaps of more assistance here. He does indicate poten-
tially fatal difficulties in reconciling pagan aesthetics with Christianity.
At one level, the beauty of their figures symbolizes the innate (not God-
given) serenity of individuals leading harmonious lives: here beautiful
form proclaims innocence, cheerfulness, virginity, natural grace of dispo-
sition, nobility, imagination, and a richly loving soul (Hegel, 1975, p.873).
However, this intrinsic kalokagathia is also illuminated by a self-effacing
love for God: a more profound piety which soulfully animates the originally
Friedrich Schlegel: On Painting and Transcendence 45

more decided assurance and complete acceptance of (earthly) well-being

innately stabler and more complete existence in this [worldly] sphere of
well-being (Hegel, 1975, p.111). And so, the balance is tipped in the direc-
tion of transcendence: through a gentle aura of bittersweet melancholia,
these beautiful saints let us know that they have implicitly already left this
world in which they seem to thrive so well. This is how Hegel describes the
thick temporality of a beauty at once classical and Christian:

the great italian painters seem to give us portraits; [but] the pictures they pro-
duce in the most exact portrayal of reality and character are pictures of another sun,
another spring; they are roses blossoming at the same time in heaven. So in beauty
itself their concern is not with beauty of form alone, not with that sensuous unity of
the soul with its body which is effused over the sensuous corporeal forms, but instead
with this trait of love and reconciliation in each figure, form, and individuality of
character. It is the butterfly, the Psyche, which in the sunlight of its heaven hovers
even over withered flowers. (1975, p.875)

Let us measure this against Giovanni Bellinis Sacra Conversazione (Venice,

Accademia). Bellinis Mary is clearly much more idealized than the
Jardiniere, in a mixture of beauty (the gentle curvature of the face is made
even more tender by a deliberately misty, somewhat indefinite contour) and
sublimity (the firm linearity of the brows and nose). While the Magdalene
too repeats Marys modulation of tender and severe beauty, John presents
his comparatively more angular profile, as to emphasize his dignity. The
almost metallic crispness of their garments adds a further sculptural feel to
the ensemble. Equally noteworthy is their quasi-sculptural stillness apart
from their adoring stance these figures are not seemingly doing anything
else. Angels and saints, Hegel tells us, are perfect and complete in them-
selves, and therefore they need not to arouse our interest through a specific
action (1975, p.852). Is the plastic beauty of Magdalene inviting us to repeat
Hegels judgement of Correggios classically beautiful Magdalene: She is
the repentant sinner, yet we see in her that sin is not the serious thing for
her, but that from the start she was noble and cannot have been capable of
bad passions and actions. So her profound but reserved withdrawal into
herself is but a return to herself and this is no momentary situation but
her whole nature (Hegel, 1975, p.868).
46 Franco Cirulli

If we are inclined to answer affirmatively, Bellinis Sacra Conversazione

may alert us to a problematic tension between classicizing beauty and
Christian theology. It is undeniable, on the one hand, that the deep mel-
ancholy of Bellinis trio is not the vague note of self-mourning of sculpted
Greek Gods, who seem trapped in their beautiful visual coherence (a trait
of mourning present in the cold necessity impressed on these figures
(Hegel, 1975, p.817). Clearly, Mary Magdalene and John the Baptist, like
the Virgin, grieve in advance for the future death of the beloved Child a
message that Bellini reinforces by the exceptional paleness of Jesus. But is
this sadness more of a personal virtue, or a reflection of a love that depends
on Gods inexplicable grace? If Hegel is right, the plastic beauty of High
Renaissance saints betrays a nature that is intrinsically good and sympa-
thetic. If this good nature is what earns the Bellini trio the divine grace of
wordly detachment, then doesnt this amount to a sort of Pelagianism, in
which Gods grace is not an extraordinary gift, but a matter of natural desert?
To avoid this impasse, a different type of classicism was needed, one in
which humanistic meaning coexisted with a mysterious, arcane element a
human beauty that does not tempt us to feel that mankind is the measure
of all things. Even before his 1804 discovery of the German Primitives,
Schlegel was more than Hegel attuned to this dimension: the grace of
Raphaels Jardinire is read as a divine gift, not a sign of natural goodness.
Nevertheless, this grace precisely through its complete saturation of
the landscape and human corporeality could encourage a slide into an
unproblematic deification of the human. In the 1798 dialogue The Paintings
(by August Schlegel), the character of Louise had noticed that the ideal
beauty of Raphaels Sistine Madonna could convert one to Catholicism
or to Paganism. I suspect that Friedrich Schlegels 1804 discovery of the
Gothic, unclassical Madonna of Stephan Lochner was also the discovery
of a beauty that kept an important gap between God and man. This Virgin
was the product of a German Raphael, one that preserved an element of
hieratic rigidity:

Just as Raphael, the painter of loveliness, is unique among the Italians, so is this
painter unique among the Germans. The mother of God enthroned in the middle,
cloaked in an ermin, must remind anyone who sees her of Raphaels Madonna in
Friedrich Schlegel: On Painting and Transcendence 47

Dresden: the majestic grandeur of her slightly greater-then-life figure, the wholly
otherworldy ideal beauty of her face. Yet, the tilt of the head and the eye is closer
to the old Idea [] human hands cannot make anything more complete than this
painting. (Schlegel, 1959, p.140)

Sensuous beauty becomes complete by its vicinity to the old idea but
which idea? Schlegel gives us an all-important hint in the 1821 preface to
his Cologne travelogue:
In the West, we see the dawn of ancient art with the statues of Aegina. In the same
way, with Giotto in Italy and with the forerunners of van Eyck in Germany, there
was a new dawn for Christian painting. (Schlegel, 1959, p.115, note)

The enigmatic smile of the archaic Greek style is then the important pre-
cursor to Lochners Madonna. As we saw, Rilke decided to seek God in
the disturbing, risky encounter with the archaic Torso, waving off the
more licked contours of Greek high classicism. In 1821, Friedrich Schlegel
made retrospective sense of his aesthetic conversion by an appeal to the
same sculptural style: the Lochner Madonna spoke to him because just
as the Archaic Greek deities it smiled a promesse de bonheur which did
not collapse the sacred into the profane.


Bryson, N. (1983). Vision and Painting. The Logic of the Gaze. New Haven: Yale
University Press.
Hegel, G.W.F. (1975). Lectures on Fine Art, Vol. II. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kierkegaard, S. (1980). The Sickness Unto Death. Trans. E. and E. Hong. Princeton:
Princeton University Press.
Manning, R. (2009). Tillichs Theology of Art, in R. Manning (ed.). The Cambridge
Companion to Paul Tillich. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Rilke, R.M. (1989). The Selected Poetry of R.M. Rilke. Trans. S. Mitchell. New York:
Vintage Books.
48 Franco Cirulli

Schlegel, F. (1959). Gemldebeschreibungen in Friedrich Schlegel, Kritische Werkausgabe,

Band IV, hrsg. Hans Eichner; Mnchen: Verlag Ferdinand Schning.
Schlegel, F. (1963). Philosophische Lehrjahre I. 17961806 in Friedrich Schlegel, Kritische
Werkausgabe Band XVIII, hrsg. Hans Eichner; Mnchen: Verlag Ferdinand
Schlegel, F. (1972). Philosophische Lehrjahre II. 17961806 in Friedrich Schlegel,
Kritische Werkausgabe Band XIX, hrsg. Hans Eichner; Mnchen: Verlag
Ferdinand Schning.
Tillich, P. (1990). Existential Aspects of Modern Art, in P. Tillich, Writings in the
Philosophy of Culture, Vol. II, ed. Michael Palmer. Berlin: De Gruyter.
Wackenroder, W.H. (1991). Smtliche Werke und Briefe, Band I. hrsg. Silvio Vietta.
Heidelberg: Carl Winter Verlag.
Wolterstorff, N. (1980). Art in Action. Toward a Christian Aesthetics. Grand Rapids,
MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
Nicholas Buxton

Creating the Sacred: Artist as Priest, Priest as Artist

In the beginning there was nothing. A blank canvas. Then out of nowhere
the voice of God spoke into the void and said: Let there be light (Genesis
1.3). And there was. Thus the world was brought into existence, determined,
not merely described, by words. By the word of the Lord the heavens were
made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth, says the Psalmist, for
he spoke and it came to be (Psalm 33.6, 9). With life-giving breath and
creative word, God calls the world into being out of chaos: he orders real-
ity makes what is the way it is with words. Words that form sentences,
sentences that become a story. Our story.
The original myth, the myth of our origin, is an account not so much
of how the physical universe came to be, but of how the brute fact of
human existence can be read as a meaningful and meaning-giving story.
With language one of the defining characteristics of our rational human
nature, the image of God within us according to the traditional view of
Christian theology the divine intelligence makes meaningful that which
would otherwise be meaningless. Language creates the world as we know
it from, and in response to, a reality that in itself is both everything and
nothing in particular an infinite possibility, the formless void (Genesis
1.2). Moreover, in what could well be the original version of the argument
from design, the creation reveals its creator: The heavens declare the glory
of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands (Psalm 19.1). Indeed,
God is not only the first artist, but also the first art critic. After each act of
creation, God regards his handiwork and pronounces an aesthetic judge-
ment: God saw all that he had made, and it was very good (Genesis 1.31).
These opening reflections show how closely and deeply the notions
of creativity and spirituality are related and embedded in our psyche. For
generations we have believed ourselves to be made in the image of a creator
50 Nicholas Buxton

God. It is no wonder then that human artistic activity is so often conceived

as an essentially spiritual endeavour. By creating art for arts sake, we imi-
tate the divine creator who brought the world into being for its own sake.
As Peter Conrad puts it: God once spoke the world into being. Now
we must keep it alive by talking or by continuing to write, to sing, to
paint, to mould clay, or to thrust buildings into the sky (Conrad, 2007,
p.371). Art is often seen as an end in itself. It has no utilitarian purpose,
no point as such, and yet at the same time it points to, reflects, mediates
and articulates something fundamental to or about human experience. In
this sense too, therefore, it has an intrinsically spiritual characteristic. Art,
like religion, is one of the principal means by which human beings come to
self-understanding in relation to the world in which they find themselves.
This familiar analogy between divine and human creativity has spawned
a range of further reflections on the relationship between art and religion.
Thus, it is often said that modern and contemporary art functions as a
kind of surrogate or secular religion for atheists, and that the contempo-
rary art museum has become the cathedral of modern culture. As Sarah
Thornton observes, for many in the art world, concept driven art is a kind
of existential channel through which they bring meaning into their lives
(Thornton, 2008, p.xiv). She also quotes a major art collector who says:
Im an atheist, but I believe in art. I go to galleries like my mother went
to church. It helps me understand the way I live (Thornton, 2008, p.93).
Reflecting on this trend, Terry Smith writes:

The desire to take certain kinds of contemporary art as the core elements of a con-
temporary religion cannot be dismissed as an idiosyncrasy. It is a commonplace in
the discourse surrounding culture that art, along with sport, has taken the place of
organised religion in modern societies. (Smith, 2009, p.200)

Interestingly, as art becomes more widely regarded as a spiritual endeav-

our, so there is a corresponding shift towards seeing religion as a merely
cultural practice in spite of its own claims to universal and absolute
truth. Therefore, if art is considered to be a form of religion and religion a
form of art, and if the institutions of the art world have become places of
spiritual encounter, while churches are given a new lease of life as cultural
Creating the Sacred: Artist as Priest, Priest as Artist 51

venues, is there a further parallel to be drawn between the practitioners

and functionaries of art and religion? Is there, in other words, any sense in
which we can think of artists as priests and priests as artists?
Casting the artist in the sacral role of priest is not as novel an idea as
it may initially sound. Leading figures of the Romantic movement of the
eighteenth and nineteenth centuries viewed nature as an ultimately spiritual
reality, and proclaimed art as a form of religion with the artist as a new
high priest. At the same time, the priest was seen as an artist, making vis-
ible an invisible spiritual reality (Wilkinson, 2004, pp.435). In the early
nineteenth century, the influential French social theorist, Henri de Saint-
Simon believed that the writers, artists and composers of the avant-garde
would become a new priesthood (Siedell, 2008, p.44); and Keats is said to
have described the poet as a priest, one who enjoys the joys and suffering
with and on behalf of others and who understands the reality and truth of
the things of spirit (Mayne, 1995, p.9). A similar notion was expressed by
Susan Sontag in 1969, when she declared art to be an inherently spiritual
activity. Indeed, in a post-Christian society, she argues, it is the only authen-
tic spiritual activity left to us. The artist struggles to mediate the deepest
truths of human experience an essentially religious enterprise which
makes the artist a kind of priest, or shaman, who journeys to the edges of
sanity and presses against the limits of reason (Sontag, 2009, pp.445).
In this, the artists role is to fascinate and shock not simply in order to
offend our sensibilities for the sake of it but in order to jolt us out of
our existential complacency, to awaken us from our daydream of a life, and
to challenge our assumptions about who we are and what really matters.
After all, art is often defined as something that moves us to an experience
that transcends the ordinary. Therein lies its implicitly spiritual character.
With these tantalizing suggestions as a starting point, we will now
explore some of the ways in which a comparison may be made of the artist
as priest and the priest as artist. To give one obvious example, both roles
can be described as vocations in the fullest sense of the word: something
a person is, not just something they do. Being an artist, in common with
being a priest, has an ontological dimension such that work and life become
one. Andr Malraux observes that from the Romantic period onwards, art
became less of a craft and more of a cult: Velzquez and Leonardo who
52 Nicholas Buxton

painted only when commissioned were very different from Czanne for
whom painting was a vocation (Malraux, 1978, p.601, emphasis in origi-
nal). Indeed, Czanne was well known for his sacerdotal view of the art-
ists vocation, famously asking is art a priesthood that demands the pure
in heart who must belong to it entirely? (Austin, 2005, p.151). For both
artist and priest, therefore, vocation was and is commonly understood as
being a matter not of personal choice, but necessity a point also made
by Malraux (1978, p.317). Some contemporary artists evidently feel the
same way. When asked in an interview how she decided to become an
artist, Tracey Emin replied: I had no choice. It made its decision for me,
I didnt make that choice.1
In addition to this similarity regarding the notion of vocation, artist
and priest also have in common a role as mediators of human meaning.
Both use symbolism, narrative and image to point to a truth beyond the
medium. In what follows, I will explore artistic and liturgical contexts in
order to delineate the function that artists and priests share as mediators
of human meaning. In the course of doing so, I will look at selected works
of popular contemporary artists, such as Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst and
Mark Wallinger. Many other areas of comparison could have been consid-
ered: brevity permits only a preliminary sketch.
It has been observed that very little serious contemporary art is con-
ventionally religious, either in form or function. As James Elkins points
out, religion is seldom mentioned in the art world unless it is linked to
criticism, ironic distance or scandal (Elkins, 2004, p.15).2 Yet, at the same
time, it is interesting to note that art with no explicit religious content is
often talked about in terms that draw heavily on theological vocabulary.
Charles Saatchi instrumental in the rise of the so-called young British
artists (YBAs) of the nineties routinely described the principal works of
his collection as icons. Between 2003 and 2005 he showcased these works

1 Matthew Stadlen, On The Road With Tracey Emin, BBC News, 28 May 2011.
2 Examples of this would include Chris Ofili Holy Virgin Mary (1996), Andres Serrano
Piss Christ (1987), and most recently Banksy Cardinal Sin (2011).
Creating the Sacred: Artist as Priest, Priest as Artist 53

in his own gallery space at County Hall, London, like so many icons in
the chapels around the altar of a church (Smith, 2009, p.51).
Among the icons in the Saatchi collection is Tracey Emins Ive got
it all (2000), a photographic image of the artist reminiscent of the arche-
typal symbolism of the myth of Dane. Unlike traditional representations
of this popular story from Greek mythology, however, the shower of gold
comes not from outside the picture not from the gods but from the
artist/subject herself. It seems to be pouring out of her, as the wealth she
has generated, which she is simultaneously, by the action of her hands,
appropriating back into herself. The gesture could also be taken as a refer-
ence to masturbation, which is a frequent motif in her work, or simply as a
reflection on her knack for turning sex into cash. But the image does more
than merely comment on the artists personal circumstances. It speaks to
our contemporary culture of individualism and consumerism and even
the commodification of spirituality, with its discourses of self-help and
personal fulfilment. Emin has said that the image is ironic, because in spite
of having made it with her Vivienne Westwood dress and the piles of
foreign currency reflecting her status as an international celebrity artist
this superficial wealth masks an inner poverty. It is just money after all;
hardly the content of a rich inner life. As such, the image evokes the age-
old tension between material and spiritual wealth.3
It is unlikely that many people would think of Emin as a religious
artist, and yet, as Brown points out, Religion and spiritual belief have
often been invoked by Emin in her work (Brown, 2006, p.111). If one
understands spirituality to be about matters of ultimate concern, meaning
and value our existential reflection on the experience of being human
then it becomes more plausible to see her frankly confessional work in
such terms. She is unflinching in her self-examination, itself a fundamen-
tal component of the life of faith, and in her work she tackles the pain of
human existence, as well as narratives of personal growth and transcendence,

3 For example, Jesus instructs his followers to store up treasure in heaven, For where
your treasure is, there your heart will be also. The passage concludes with the une-
quivocal statement: You cannot serve God and money Matthew 6.1921, 24.
54 Nicholas Buxton

with searing honesty. Although Emins art invariably takes her own experi-
ence as its starting point, it is not merely solipsistic but goes beyond the
personal to address issues that may be common to many as her evident
popularity would seem to confirm. That she sees her work as an articula-
tion of explicitly spiritual themes should not really be surprising. She is
well known for her beliefs in reincarnation and spiritualism her mother
conducted sances and, while distancing herself from organised religion,
she enthusiastically identifies as a pantheist. Indeed in one interview she
said, evidently with some exasperation, Everyone focuses on the sexual-
ity of my work. Why doesnt anyone ask me about my thoughts on God?
(Vara, 2002, p.173). If nothing else, this suggests that the question would
have had some relevance to her.
If Emins work was simply an unmediated record of her mundane life
experiences it would be banal. What makes it art is its intentionality: it is
constructed. We should not be too easily taken in, therefore, by the nave
view expressed in the media, as well as by quite a number of people who
should know better, that her life is her art, with no mediation. In spite of
its autobiographical subject matter, Emins work is highly mediated and
draws self-consciously on a sophisticated palette of artistic and cultural
references, precedents and contexts. The artist, like a priest, weaves mean-
ing out of a symbolic language, operating within a tradition and at a criti-
cal or reflective distance from the truth or reality they seek to mediate. As
Michael Austin puts it, artists are a priesthood struggling, at much cost
to themselves, to mediate deep truths about the world in which they, and
we, live and work (Austin, 2008, p.181).
Emins 1999 Turner prize entry, My Bed, is a case in point. Ostensibly
an installation of an unmade bed, viewers automatically assumed that it
really was her bed, rather than an installation fabricated for exhibition in
a gallery. Responses from the public were typically literal-minded in their
understanding of the work: I wouldnt put my bed on display as a piece
of art I dont think theres anything artistic about being a messy person
(Merck, 2002, p.121). Critics, dealers and the artist herself insist that her
work is produced out of and inescapably refers back to the events of her
life (Cherry, 2002, p.143). This is obviously true up to a point, but at the
same time Tracey Emins unmade bed is most emphatically a bed that has
Creating the Sacred: Artist as Priest, Priest as Artist 55

been made. It is a deliberate, self-conscious and highly mediated work

involving many layers of reflection on the archetypal existential themes of
sex, death, life and love. Indeed, one could argue that My Bed is about the
big questions of life and death. It may not offer us definitive answers or
indeed any answers such as we might expect from traditional religious
discourses and authorities, but it undoubtedly poses similar questions to
those addressed by religion: questions of meaning and value that are, by
definition, spiritual.
My Bed represents a collection of themes that are central to the experi-
ence of human existence. Many, perhaps even most, people will have been
conceived in a bed, and born in a bed. When we are ill we very often end
up in bed, and many will die in bed. Much of life happens in bed, whether
awake or asleep, and some of the most significant moments of the life cycle
have the bed as their primary locus. If My Bed can be seen as a work that
represents in some way the big questions the same big questions that
are the primary concern of religion then it is surely a work that has an
implicitly spiritual dimension, and has been made in order to articulate a
constructed reality-ordering narrative of human experience. In doing this,
the artist shares a role analogous to that of the priest, who likewise mediates
the meaning of human existence, albeit with a different text (though one
no less constructed and no less prone to literalism and misrepresentation).
Both artist and priest, therefore, are mediators of human meaning. As
such, they also have in common the function of being agents of alchemical
transformation, both in terms of the objects they work on whether the
materials and media of art, or the elements of the Eucharist and more
deeply in terms of the ultimate goal of personal transformation. Bread and
wine or paint and canvas are transformed to become more than the sum
of their parts, transcending their material nature and invoking something
that we refer to as spiritual. Indeed the language of alchemy is prevalent
in Christian mysticism, and in very obvious ways it also provides a meta-
phor for artistic practice. After all, art results from the transformation of
something if not base metal, then a base material of some sort into
something else, something that expresses something else. Similarly, the
worshipper is herself the base material that, moulded by the discipline of
faith, is transformed by participation in the ritual life of the Church. The
56 Nicholas Buxton

purpose of religion is to change us, the way we see the world and live our
lives, and thus the role of the priest is to act, like an artist, as an agent of
that transformation. As with participation in religion, so experiencing art
may bring about transformation, if not salvation, in the one who experi-
ences it. Indeed, at least one of the purposes of art is to change the way
we look at things, the world or each other. Michael Mayne expresses this
well when he writes:
It was William Blake who saw the artist as one who conveys to others the perception
of things in their true essence and points to a divine reality beyond himself. A priest
as pastor tries to do the same, helping people to make sense of the raw material of
their lives by building on whatever glimpses they may have of goodness or beauty
or suffering or love. (Mayne, 1995, pp.910)

The unique function of a priest (in Christianity, though much of what

follows could easily be generalized to other religious contexts) is to be a
minister of the sacraments. All the many other things priests do follow on
from that. A sacrament is a symbolic rite the outward and visible sign of
an inward and spiritual grace, in the classic formulation4 that defines the
Christian world view and identity. They are also, like art objects, tangible,
non-verbal expressions of intangible notions. The priest is thus responsible
for our common narratives of meaning and purpose: a mediator of the
sacred, whose function is to represent God or Truth to the people, and
the people to their God. And there is a sense in which this is also exactly
what an artist does by transforming our perception of, or relationship to,
reality through the medium of their art. Jackson Pollock, for example,
was not conventionally religious, yet nevertheless believed, like many of
his generation, that art dealt in metaphysical questions. Thus his work is
described by Daniel Siedell as an artistic performance that is not only a
creative act, but also a sacramental one (Siedell, 2008, p.88). Similarly, a
priest is called to articulate human meaningfulness. This is an essentially
creative function, analogous to that of the artist, who re-presents the deepest
truths of human experience in the various media of artistic production. The

4 As defined, for example, in the Catechism of the Book of Common Prayer.

Creating the Sacred: Artist as Priest, Priest as Artist 57

canvas for the priest, however, is everyday life itself, for he is charged with
the responsibility of managing the myth of our lives, helping us to relate
our personal story to some bigger story whose context gives it meaning.
In this, the principal art form of religion is the sacred drama of its ritual
life: the liturgy of the Church, whose purpose is to bring about personal
and social transformation.
Liturgy is an expression of faith as a way of living ritually; it creates
a pattern for life. In liturgy, the word of God is performed, acted out by
the company of people present. As David Stancliffe points out, liturgy is
a process of becoming what we are called in Christ to be (Stancliffe, 2010,
p.2). Through it, we become what we do. The purpose of liturgy (in the
Christian context) is to make the Word, made flesh in Jesus, incarnate in
the lives of those who participate in it. Similarly, Christopher Irvine takes
Tertullians famous expression that Christians are made, not born as the
starting point for his thesis that our being made Christian is the very
meaning of worship (Irvine, 2005, p.xv). In other words, the Christian is
formed becomes Christian by participation in the liturgical life of the
Church. The goal of the Christian life, he says, is to grow through prayer
and spiritual discipline into the likeness of God (Irvine, 2005, p.6). Irvine
goes on to draw an analogy between the artistic activity of rendering the
true form of things, and what he calls the art of God, whereby we are
formed in his image and likeness (Irvine, 2005, p.14). The art of God
then, is the reshaping of the human form to the likeness of Christ (Irvine,
2005, p.43). Whilst, strictly speaking, God is the artist and we, the raw
material, with the Church as his studio; nevertheless, the priest, as Gods
representative, shares in that creative work as the facilitator and curator
of Gods artistic activity. Liturgy is thus a catalyst for a spiritual reaction
between God and the human soul. The priest is simply the agent that sets
the reaction in motion. There is an interesting similarity here with the way
in which artists frequently talk of having a relatively passive role in the crea-
tive process, merely acting as the channel or means by which something
greater than or otherwise beyond themselves is unleashed. Marcel Duchamp
described the artist as a mediumistic being who is not conscious of what
he is doing or why he is doing it (Lebel, 1959, p.77). I have no doubt that
many artists would share this view.
58 Nicholas Buxton

According to Stancliffe, liturgy is the primary art form of the church

wherein the praises of God in sound and space, in word and action, in move-
ment and music combine to create a total picture a complete offering
in which the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts (Stancliffe,
2010, p.4). The priest, who presides over the sacred drama of the liturgy,
is, quite literally, playing a part, like an actor in a play. Like an actor, the
priest must adopt a role he is not simply playing himself for the priest
presides at the Eucharist in alter Christos, i.e. in the place of Christ. It is
thus fruitful to think of liturgy as the archetypical manifestation of per-
formance or installation art (Stancliffe, 2010, p.3). This notion of liturgy
as art is implicit in all liturgy, in spite of the lack of aesthetic quality in far
too many church services. Liturgy as a self-consciously creative activity is
perhaps most explicit in so-called alternative worship, whereby new litur-
gical forms are created that deliberately draw on, adopt, adapt or relate to
contemporary cultural forms.5
Transformation is not merely implicit in the practice of art and reli-
gion; it is fundamental to their very nature and purpose. As we have already
observed, the big questions of life and death the traditional subject
matter of religious discourse are prominent themes in much art. When
considering the art of the past this may easily be explained by the close
relationship which then obtained between culture and the religion that
defined it. In our contemporary and supposedly secular or post-Christian
society, the persistence of such themes albeit usually encoded in terms
that are not obviously religious suggests that spiritual concerns, whatever
one may mean by this nebulous concept, nevertheless retain some signifi-
cance. It is no coincidence, therefore, that theological vocabulary pervades
contemporary art discourses. Words such as sacred, transcendent, meta-
physical and spiritual are used indiscriminately in catalogues and reviews,
thus lending further support to the notion that much contemporary art
has an implicitly spiritual dimension. Indeed, the fact that people resort to

5 For more on this particular aspect of the engagement between the Church and
contemporary culture, see Baker (2010).
Creating the Sacred: Artist as Priest, Priest as Artist 59

such language may suggest that the art in question is fulfilling a spiritual
function in the absence of a common religious narrative.
In spite of the almost complete absence of religious iconography in
modern art, contemporary art, by contrast, seems replete with religious
imagery, even if it is not intended to be religious art as such; that is to say,
art with a religiously didactic or devotional function.6 Damien Hirst is
arguably the most well known contemporary artist who deliberately uses
explicitly religious symbolism in order to reflect on fundamental themes
of human existence. This is evident in works such as St Bartholomew,
Exquisite Pain (2006), Hymn (1996) and Virgin Mother (2006), to name
but a few. Indeed, entire exhibitions, such as New Religion, his 2007 show
held in Wallspace, the exhibition venue in the church of All Hallows on
the Wall in the city of London, have explored religious themes and imagery.
Arguably more than any artist of his generation, says the publicity for
another 2007 show, Beyond Belief, Hirst is preoccupied by the Western
tradition of Christian iconography.7 Hirst is widely criticized for his brash
commercialism, and his work is frequently castigated for being banal and
meaningless, an impression he does little to contradict. His champions,
on the other hand, see it as nothing less than an art which will become
an alternative to religion (Stallabrass, 2006, p.22). But although it is
doubtful that Hirsts exploitation of religious imagery is motivated by
genuinely religious impulses making it difficult to argue that his work
can be described as religious that does not necessarily mean that such
imagery and symbolism loses its religious or spiritual significance for a
viewer inclined to see it that way.
Much of Hirsts work treads a fine line between crass and profound. A
good example would be For the Love of God (2007), a diamond-encrusted,
platinum cast of a human skull with a 50 million price tag, which was
the centrepiece of Beyond Belief. The piece evokes the traditional memento
mori, suggesting the futility of amassing wealth that ultimately we cannot
enjoy itself a common theme in religious discourse. It combines the

6 For a fascinating analysis of this phenomenon see Elkins (2004).

7 <http://www.whitecube.com/exhibitions/beyond_belief/>.
60 Nicholas Buxton

time-honoured symbol of lifes transience with modern consumerisms

flashiest promise of eternity (Smith, 2009, p.117). The use of permanent
materials, which moth and rust cannot consume (Matthew 6.20), to create
this symbol of impermanence adds a new twist to the contemplation of
our finitude: it reflects the irrepressible human desire for immortality. In
a Lenten reflection broadcast by BBC Radio 4 in 2010, the novelist Will
Self (also a prominent figure in the cultural milieu under consideration)
said the following:
Hirst is a shaman who invests objects with a symbolic power that under the right
conditions becomes real. Mostly this is the power of money itself but he also
employs the powers of celebrity, sex, death and intoxication. But we shouldnt be
too critical of the highest-earning living artist, because he got that way by perfectly
exemplifying the sacred rituals that underlie the true religion of Britain today, which
is aesthetic humanism.8

Whether or not artist and priest (or shaman), bear any more than a super-
ficial resemblance to each other, the notion that they do seems nevertheless
to have taken root in our contemporary cultural consciousness.
One of the most infamous of Damien Hirsts works, The Physical
Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991), consists of
a fourteen-foot tiger shark suspended in a tank of formaldehyde. Like
much of his oeuvre, the shark floats vaguely between the sublime and
the ridiculous. Yet at a purely visceral level, it is undoubtedly a powerful
image and seeing it is a memorable experience:
If you bend down and peer through its sharply jagged teeth, youll be looking past the
pure white mouth at the large black hole of its gullet. Its a reasonable visual metaphor
for the crossing-over that we think will never happen. (Smith, 2007)

It may be a clich, but it is also true: death is impossible to conceive in

the mind of someone living. It is the great uncertainty that is at the same
time the only thing we can be certain of, and it is arguably this stark fact

8 Will Self, Lent Talks, BBC Radio 4, 24 February 2010. For a transcript of the broad-
cast see: <http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00qvpf0#broadcasts>.
Creating the Sacred: Artist as Priest, Priest as Artist 61

of life that is the very basis of those belief systems we call religions, deeply
concerned as they are with the imponderable questions of life and death,
supplying not dogmatic answers, but rather the means to live with the
questions that cannot be answered.
Like much contemporary art, Hirsts controversial shark provoked
hostile reactions from conservative critics who dismissed it on both aes-
thetic and conceptual grounds. This highlights a curious tension between
the ever-increasing popularity of contemporary art and the enduring fact
that it remains poorly understood or is perceived as being difficult. What,
therefore, can it mean to talk about Western art as the channel for human
self-understanding when so much of it is unintelligible to so many people,
conditioned as we are to think of art as basically representational and deco-
rative? The first thing to say is that although much modern and contem-
porary art does not conform to popular expectations of what art should
be or look like, that does not mean it is not art, or that it lacks meaning.
Yet, the fact that people continue to ask of contemporary art not only is
it art? but also what does it mean? is rather telling. It presupposes, first,
that the meaning is not self-evident perhaps because the art in question
does not have a readily accessible vocabulary and second, that it should
mean something. Art may be considered on some accounts to be an
end in itself but it is also, it seems, expected to convey an intelligible and
authoritative meaning. The viewer is seemingly reluctant to decide for him/
herself. This may be the residue of a pre-modern understanding of art as
illustration: the visual coding of a narrative derived from another source.
At the same time it supports the view that in the absence of a common
religious culture the narratives and symbolism of the Christian tradition
have effectively become a forgotten language art is becoming one of the
primary vehicles for the articulation of questions of human meaning and
value. Commenting on Francis Bacons approach to portraiture, Timothy
Gorringe says: They may not tell us much about their sitter but they
do tell us important, if rather negative, things about what it means to be
human (Gorringe, 2011, p.99).
The point of art like the point of religion is what it points to.
Art, especially abstract or conceptual art, engages with the fundamental
experience of being human. There may be a great deal of modern and
62 Nicholas Buxton

contemporary art that seems cynical and nihilistic perhaps even mean-
ingless but this then is simply a reflection of contemporary culture. On
this view, contemporary art continues to perform the traditional function
of art as mirror to society. It is presumably for this reason that Michael
Austin can say: Modern art, even the most despairing, even that art which
portrays man and his existence as absurd, may be fundamentally religious
(Austin, 2005, p.32). Art is the articulation of human meaning. Thus even
an apparently meaningless art reflecting a meaningless existence, is still in
some sense pointing towards a metaphysical or spiritual truth beyond itself.
Art, like religion, relies on faith modern and contemporary art espe-
cially and in this respect the art world mimics the relationship found
in religion between an elite of experts and a herd of followers. Art always
requires interpretation, and thus a priestly caste of interpreters schol-
ars, critics and curators just as religious texts and doctrines need to be
mediated by clergy and theologians. While it is true that conventional
representational art also requires interpretation, the casual viewer is at least
able to read it at a superficial level. This is often not the case with abstract or
conceptual art. The public have to take it on faith that a certain piece
of abstract or conceptual art does in fact represent or mean whatever it
is we are told it represents, when in fact this may be far from self-evident.
This applies even when we are told that it means whatever we want it
to mean! As with religion, there would appear to be an esoteric level of
understanding for the initiate, and a popular level of understanding or
misunderstanding for everyone else. Both artist and priest, therefore, act
as authorities: whether as guardians of orthodox doctrine or arbiters of
taste. Indeed they determine what counts as art or truth in the first place.
Art has thus become highly institutionalized, defined by the organs of the
art world: galleries, museums, critics and collectors.
In the late twentieth century, the gallery became a postmodern sacred
space the work displayed, the space itself and the viewers engagement
with it combining to become a liturgical act. For the artist, the gallery is
a blank canvas on which to project the activity of viewing art. And so as
art becomes liturgical, and engagement with it becomes for the viewer a
spiritual activity, so the artist assumes the sacerdotal role of priest. As the
artist is the priest of the gallery or museum, so the priest is curator of the
Creating the Sacred: Artist as Priest, Priest as Artist 63

sacred space of the church. This is true both in the mundane sense of exer-
cising a duty of care for the fabric of the building itself after all, churches
represent a vast heritage of art and culture and also in the stewardship of
the sacredness of a sacred space. Here the aesthetic and the spiritual meet,
and the priest responsible for this encounter is not only engaging in an
artistic activity by maintaining the aesthetic qualities of the building, but
also by cultivating a numinous atmosphere within it.9
Of course, the notion of curator goes further than that. It is no accident
that curator and curate derive from related etymological roots. A curator
is a keeper, custodian or caretaker; and so too is the priest as curate, stew-
ard of Gods mysteries, charged with the cure or care of souls. As such, the
priest stands at the juncture between the divine and human realms, between
matter and spirit; and much modern and contemporary art manifests this
same priestly function, becoming, as Siedell puts it, poignant altars to the
unknown god in aesthetic form (Siedell, 2008, p.34). The development of
abstraction in art in the early twentieth century saw the deliberate attempt
on the part of artists such as Kandinsky and Mondrian the latter deeply
committed to Theosophy to realize in a two-dimensional painted sur-
face an expression of unmediated spirit or truth (Hughes, 1991, p.202). If
an artist strives to mediate the deepest truths of human experience, then
this is an essentially spiritual, if not religious, activity. As sculptor Steve
Dilworth says: Ive never put the title shaman on myself, but I think
that all art is at heart shamanistic. It provides a bridge between the physi-
cal and the metaphysical (Gloucester Cathedral, 2010, p.4). The priest
too is a mediator, a bridge-maker, whose role is to mediate between the
human and the divine.
Mark Wallinger is another contemporary artist who frequently articu-
lates religious ideas and imagery in his work, one of the most obvious
examples being Ecce Homo (1999), dubbed the first public religious statue
in Britain since the Reformation. Wallingers use of religious imagery does
not come across as being so cynically exploitative as Hirsts, and although

9 The notion of sacred space is not unproblematic, however. If God is everywhere,

then why should some places be more sacred than others?
64 Nicholas Buxton

he is not religious, he recognizes that the laws and values of British society
have been shaped by its Christian inheritance. He is an atheist, but in his
own words a Christian atheist, who moreover understands that within
the human organism is a fundamental desire for transcendent meaning
(Herbert, 2011, p.104). Wallinger makes art that self-consciously explores
religion as a human phenomenon. And although it is not intended to
function as religious art, that does not prevent it from provoking reli-
gious reflection. A number of his works evoke religious themes, such as
Angel (1997), and Threshold to the Kingdom (2000), a slow-motion video
of people coming through the door in the Arrivals Hall at London City
Airport literally the gateway to a kingdom with Gregorio Allegris
Miserere as the soundtrack.
Threshold is a particularly striking and reflective work. Airports are
liminal spaces they are neither here nor there, but represent a state of
limbo. Anyone familiar with international air travel will recognize the
experience of entering the Arrivals Hall, after what may have been a lengthy
and disorientating interlude of not being anywhere, removed from the
earth a period almost of suspended animation into a new and often
strange world. Sometimes we are greeted by familiar faces, or reunited with
loved ones; at other times we may be lost, bewildered and alone. In either
case, we experience a sudden transition, from one world to another. Even
without the music, this piece would have strong spiritual resonances, pro-
voking reflection on the fundamental existential themes of life and death.
It presents a powerful but more subtle metaphor for the crossing over
that Hirsts shark confronts us with so aggressively. However, in choos-
ing Allegris setting of Psalm 51 with its plaintive cry for mercy before
the ruler and judge of all Wallinger amplifies the feeling experienced by
travellers of being scrutinized and judged as they go through customs and
immigration. As well as the obvious metaphysical resonances, Threshold to
the Kingdom also presents an image of state religion, a fusion of political
and ecclesiastical authority, under the all-seeing eye of God or a CCTV
camera (Herbert, 2011, p.112).
As discourses of human meaning, art and religion function as vehicles
for the articulation of memory and hope, identity and purpose. It could be
argued, therefore, that whereas art once pointed to a transcendent meaning
Creating the Sacred: Artist as Priest, Priest as Artist 65

using the symbolism of Christian iconography, now the same basic human
urge to express what is most essential and paradoxically inexpressible about
being human is rendered instead with pickled sharks and soiled mattresses.
The symbols and metaphors have changed their outward appearance, but
their use and purpose remain much the same. Contemporary artists con-
tinue to wrestle with questions of human meaning and identity, with or
without reference to the Christian story that used to be the common cur-
rency of Western culture. As mediators of human meaning, they exercise a
sacramental role in the secular religion of contemporary everyday life that
Will Self labelled aesthetic humanism.
Analogously, the priests of traditional religious institutions exercise an
artistic role, by articulating narratives ofhuman meaning and personal trans-
formation through the sacred drama of liturgy, as curators of sacred space,
and as mediators of our relationship to a shared story that encompasses
our own. However, although art may function as an implicitly religious
activity for some people, and although others may think that religion is
essentially a cultural practice, religious believers would be likely to claim that
religion is different from art in certain important respects. Leslie Goode
argues that the artistic revelation differs from religious revelation in that
what it refers to could not be said to exist independently of the subjectiv-
ity through which it is expressed; its revelation is incapable of alternative
articulation, whereas the notion God, for example, transcends any given
experience of his presence (Goode, 2010, p.113). In other words, whereas
art might be defined not by art theory but rather by what artists do, religion
is surely the opposite. It is defined by doctrine and revelation, which in
turn refers to an objective truth independent of the believing subject. This
claim may be contested, yet it nevertheless represents the realist assump-
tions that the majority of religious believers take for granted. But what if
religion were a human creation? What if faith was understood as an act
of imagination precisely because it is a commitment made in the absence
of certain knowledge? What if priests were creators as well as curators of
religious tradition? Art, and culture in general, is a story we tell ourselves
about ourselves, the manifestation of our collective self-awareness. On this
view, culture and religion become virtually synonymous; or at most, two
ways of expressing the same basic human instincts.
66 Nicholas Buxton

Much more could be, and indeed has been, said about the spirituality
of art. Some would argue that art is inherently spiritual, and that making
it and viewing it are in their own ways spiritual activities. For some, it is
the only religion they have. But for all the intriguing analogies, the reli-
gion of art seems to offer a rather superficial substitute for a traditional
religious faith and practice, requiring of its adherents commitment and
sacrifice to something other than and beyond themselves. If the artist is
priest of the religion of art, it is in spite of certain superficial similarities
ultimately a vacuous religion predicated on emotional stimulation rather
than deep transformation.10 Art, it seems, offers a spiritual encounter
without any real engagement with the reality of either this world or any
other. Ultimately therefore, casting the artist in the role of priest, fruitful
though the metaphor may be for reflection on social and spiritual roles in
contemporary culture, ends up being superficial too. Both artist and priest
are undoubtedly mediators of narratives of human meaning and reflection
on the human condition, but there is a big difference between the spir-
itual discipline of self-examination, and the prevailing culture mirrored
in much contemporary art of narcissistic self-obsession. The artist does
not engage directly with the human reality that confronts the priest in his
ministry. To put it rather bluntly, an artist does not have difficult parish-
ioners to care for, with all the challenges that can present. Finally, religion,
by its nature and in spite of efforts to confine it to the private sphere is
essentially communal, with a tremendous power to shape lives and socie-
ties; whereas most contemporary Western art, both in its production and
consumption, is essentially individualistic and, for the most part, without
material consequence.

10 Admittedly, the same is true of some forms of contemporary religiosity.

Creating the Sacred: Artist as Priest, Priest as Artist 67


Austin, M. (2005). Explorations in Art, Theology and Imagination. London: Equinox.

Austin, M. (2008). Can Contemporary Art be Religious?, Implicit Religion, 11:2,
Baker, J. (2010). Curating Worship. London: SPCK.
Brown, N. (2006). Tracey Emin. London: Tate Publishing.
Cherry, D. (2002). On the Move: My Bed, 19981999, in M. Merck and C. Townsend
(eds). The Art of Tracey Emin. London: Thames & Hudson, pp.13454.
Conrad, P. (2007). Artists, Gods & Origins. London: Thames & Hudson.
Elkins, J. (2004). On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art. London:
Gloucester Cathedral (2010). Crucible. Gloucester: The Chapter of Gloucester
Goode, L. (2010). Spiritualities of Life: The Neglected Role of the Artistic Paradigm,
Journal of Contemporary Religion, 25:1, 10723.
Gorringe, T. (2011). Earthly Visions: Theology and the Challenges of Art. New Haven:
Yale University Press.
Herbert, M. (2011). Mark Wallinger. London: Thames & Hudson.
Hughes, R. (1991). The Shock of the New: Art and the Century of Change. London:
Thames & Hudson.
Irvine, C. (2005). The Art ofGod: The Making ofChristians and the Meaning ofWorship.
London: SPCK.
Lebel, R. (1959). Marcel Duchamp. New York: Grove Press.
Malraux, A. (1978). The Voices of Silence. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Mayne, M. (1995). This Sunrise of Wonder: Letters for the Journey. London: Fount.
Merck, M. (2002). Bedtime, in M. Merck and C. Townsend (eds). The Art of Tracey
Emin. London: Thames and Hudson, pp.11933.
Siedell, D. (2008). God in the Gallery: A Christian Embrace of Modern Art. Grand
Rapids: Baker Academic.
Smith, R. (2007). Just when you thought it was safe, New York Times, 16 October
2007 <http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/16/arts/design/16muse.html>.
Smith, T. (2009). What is Contemporary Art? Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Sontag, S. (2009). The Pornographic Imagination, in Styles of Radical Will. London:
Penguin Classics, pp.3573.
Stallabrass, J. (2006). High Art Lite: The Rise and Fall of Young British Art. London:
68 Nicholas Buxton

Stancliffe, D. (2010). Liturgy as Art, Art and Christianity, 63, 25.

Thornton, S. (2008). Seven Days in the Art World. London: Granta.
Vara, R. (2002). Another Dimension: Tracey Emins Interest in Mysticism, in
M. Merck and C. Townsend (eds). The Art of Tracey Emin. London: Thames
and Hudson, pp.17294.
Wilkinson, R. (2004). New Conceptions of Art and the Artist. Milton Keynes: Open
University Press.
Peter M. Doll

Immanence, Transcendence and Liturgical Space in a

Changing Church

In the liturgical life of the churches, particularly of the Roman Catholic

and Anglican churches, we are living in a time of transition. Scholars, clergy
and the laity are taking a new and critical look at the reforms of the 1960s
and 1970s and at their architectural expression. There is unequivocally
a desire for a greater connection with the long tradition of the Church;
both the Anglican and Roman Churches want to rediscover a usable past.
In his liturgical reforms, Pope Benedict is not seeking a straightforward
return to what some fondly imagine were the good old days. When in
2007 he allowed the free use of the old Latin rite alongside the new order,
he expressed to the bishops of the Roman church his intention that these
two forms of the one Roman liturgy should mutually enrich one another,
the old Missal being strengthened by the many beautiful collects and pref-
aces of the new rite and its richer provision of Scriptural readings, and the
celebration of the ordinary form recovering that rich sense of the sacred
that characterized the traditional rite. Reactions to these developments
have been sharply divided; some see them as an overdue recognition ofthe
mistakes made in the implementation of the Vatican Council, while others
see any move made in a traditional direction as a betrayal of the spirit of
aggiornamento of the Council.
A similar process of rediscovery has been ongoing in the Church of
England, if with less fanfare and controversy. This is most apparent in the
appearance of Common Worship, the new generation of Anglican liturgical
books, in big ways and small. One of the most remarkable is the abandon-
ment of the Prayer Book tradition of a single liturgical volume. To date,
there are some eight volumes making up Common Worship. The rather
utilitarian language of the Alternative Service Book (ASB) has been replaced
70 Peter M. Doll

with language that is consciously richer and more poetic in order to recover
some of the memorability of the language of the Prayer Book indeed, the
collects are essentially those of the Prayer Book. The daily offices share the
shape of the Roman breviary; for many festivals the tradition of the last
Gospel has been revived. The medieval festivals of the agricultural year
have been restored, with provision for Plough Sunday, Rogationtide and
Lammastide joining that for Harvest Thanksgiving. Even small details like
the provision of rubrics in their traditional red rather than the blubrics
of the ASB mean that the books have a more traditional feel to them even
if they are printed in a modern sans serif typeface.
These developments are characteristic of the transition in our wider
society from a modernist viewpoint to a postmodern one. Modernity
has an unbounded confidence in the ultimate truth to be achieved by the
scientific method and human rationality. In every sphere of human life,
including the arts, progressive modernity entails the rejection of all that
is historic or traditional in favour of all that is rational, materialist, and
scientific, according to the assessment of experts. To take a characteristi-
cally blatant example of this, from the 1960s the centres of our cities and
towns were gutted because of the conviction that progress, as defined by
the motor car, demanded wider roads and multi-storey car parks in place
of historic street patterns and buildings built on a human scale. A belief
in the necessity of a rupture with the past, of a new beginning for modern
humanity, is characteristic of modernity.
The same modernist rules applied to the liturgical life of the church.
Those who characterized themselves as progressive insisted that the new
rite of the Eucharist had to be celebrated in a new way, entirely dissociated
from the traditional rite, and that historic churches needed to be reordered
so that this new rite could be celebrated properly. The needs of modern
people could not be served by what their ancestors had used for hundreds
of years previously. The same destructive architectural treatment was meted
out to church interiors as to town and city centres; they were reordered
in a way that blatantly ignored their historic forms and associations. Pope
Benedict has characterized this approach as a hermeneutic of rupture, of
an entire dissociation with what had gone before.
Immanence, Transcendence and Liturgical Space in a Changing Church 71

Postmodernity, on the other hand, represents a reaction against the

excessive rationality and materiality of modernism. It has learned that
modernitys conviction of endless human progress cannot deliver its prom-
ises. Postmodernity denies objective truth and puts a greater stress on
emotion and relationship, on human rather than ideological values. It is
much more sympathetic to the historic and the traditional, but only as part
of an almost infinite menu of options rather than as sources of objective
truth or the right answers to the needs of our times. And so, while the
Church of England in Common Worship makes provision for a recovery
of many historic liturgical traditions, this recovery is not mandated, but
only part of smorgasbord of options. Likewise the new freedom for Roman
Catholics to use either new or old rites is in part justified in the name of
variety and freedom of choice qualities not typically associated with
Roman Catholicism!
Pope Benedicts own priority, on the other hand, is a deeper one.
In contrast to the hermeneutic of rupture, which he deplores, he seeks
to re-establish a hermeneutic of continuity in Catholic worship, so that
the Churchs liturgy is a living development that has evolved organically
throughout history rather than being something that each generation cre-
ates or innovates according to its own preoccupations and prejudices. For
the Pope, the liturgy should be a means of enabling the faithful to enter
more deeply into the mystery of Christs self-offering to the Father in the
It is in this seeking after depth that Benedict seems to be tapping into
a widespread hunger. After the tawdry materialism of the boom years,
many people are seeking to find ways of living more deeply and sustain-
ably. The liturgies and styles of worship bequeathed us by modernity, with
their plain and direct language, their simplification of rite and symbol, and
their often informal and banal performance, no longer satisfy many. The
new rites and translations, however contested they may be in the details,
are evidence of a seeking after greater richness of symbol and meaning, a
reawakening of a desire for transcendence. As the liturgist and sociologist
of religion, Kieran Flanagan, has observed:
72 Peter M. Doll

Modernity embodies a particular plight, a blindness that disables an appreciation of

liturgical transactions. Liberal theologians have sought to adjust Christian forms and
styles of belief to the fashions of modernity, but in so doing, they simply assimilate
its ills into liturgical enactments. With the growth of post-modernism, they find
themselves orphans of the times, plodding up a road to see sociologists coming run-
ning down in the opposite direction seeking signals of transcendence elsewhere.
(Flanagan, 1991, p.286)

Even if the liturgical expression of modernity has passed its sell-by date, it
remains deeply entrenched in the life of our churches. Those seeking after
depth and transcendence have, perhaps not surprisingly, typically explored
non-liturgical directions. Three distinct phenomena of contemporary
church life draw explicitly on historic practices of the Church: the use of
icons, labyrinths and pilgrimage. Each in its own way is valued as a means
of entering a liminal place, a threshold that acts as a bridge between the
secular and the sacred, between time and eternity, between surface and
depth. Icons, with their inverse perspective, invite the beholder to enter
into the mystery of God as through a window. As John Baggley has written,
Icons form a door into the divine realm, a meeting point of divine grace
and human need; moreover, they are also a way by which we enter more
deeply into our own interior life (Baggley, 1995, p.4).
If praying with an icon is a means of entering another realm without
moving a step, the activity of walking the labyrinth provides an extended
liminal experience. In the Middle Ages labyrinths were frequently placed
in churches and cathedrals and they were most commonly associated with
the legend of the original labyrinth designed by Daedalus and the lair of the
Minotaur. The classical myth of Theseus braving the depths of the labyrinth
to slay the Minotaur and to free the Athenian captives was understood as
prefiguring the descent of Christ into hell to conquer Satan and set free
the souls imprisoned there (1 Peter 3. 1822), which is also a figure of the
descent and ascent of the believer with Christ in baptism (Romans 6. 34).
The labyrinth itself is only a compressed version of pilgrimage, where the
entire journey is a liminal zone between earth and heaven.
This questing after sacred places is by no means confined to these sorts
of practices. Many of you will have visited or know of the 2010 landmark
sculpture exhibition at Salisbury Cathedral, Liminality. The artists there
Immanence, Transcendence and Liturgical Space in a Changing Church 73

intentionally placed their work conceptually in an in-between place, a

place of possibility and encounter with that which is greater than ourselves.
Nevertheless, the sacramental worship of the Church tends to remain
resolutely in modernist mode. As popular as icons have become for private
devotion, no Western churches I am aware of are contemplating using icons
in a sacramental context, as part of a chancel screen, for example. There
are a few examples of churches applying the insights of pilgrimage to the
liturgy, using the entire church as the setting for a processional journey
through the Eucharist of clergy and people together St Gregory of Nyssa
in San Francisco under Rick Fabian, Portsmouth Cathedral when David
Stancliffe was provost, and the Episcopal Cathedral in Philadelphia led
by Richard Giles pioneered this approach. Even if they are well known,
however, their approach has not yet touched the typical parish Eucharist.
The parish liturgy remains under the sway of both theological and
architectural principles inherited from modernity. Since the 1960s a tacit
ecumenical consensus has grown up around an emphasis on the Eucharist
as the family meal of the church. (I say a tacit ecumenical consensus,
because official ecumenical documents, in particular the World Council
of Churches own report on Baptist, Eucharist and Ministry carefully bal-
ances emphases on meal and sacrifice.) A reductionist modernism, trying
to discard traditions of transcendence and sacrifice, located the origin of
the Eucharist in the domestic setting of the Passover fellowship meal. The
architectural setting of the liturgy has mirrored this prioritization of the
domestic. Through the influence of theologians like the Belgian Roman
Catholic Frdric Debuyst and architects like the American Lutheran
Edward Svik, churches have assumed a particularly community-focused
and domestic character. Gods presence is experienced only as immanent,
in the midst of his people, rather than also transcendent and beyond them.
Debuyst proposed that the church should be a kind of great livingroom, a
place where the faithful come together to meet the Lord, and one another
in the Lord (Debuyst, 1969, p.155). Svik built his churches to emphasize
that the congregation itself, not an altar or a pulpit, is the focus. Seating is
arranged so that the people can easily see one another. The emphasis is on
a comfortable space for hospitality.
74 Peter M. Doll

This approach to church building has become the accepted dogma.

Even historic churches built with a more complex underlying theology have
been reordered to reflect the understanding of the Eucharist as the simple
family meal of the church. The nave altar as the setting for the family meal
of the church is the hardly questioned standard of sacramental worship in
Roman Catholic and Anglican parishes up and down the land. But for those
who are seeking greater depth in the living out of their faith, however, this
approach has little to offer. It does not seek to go to the liminal places. It
goes on no pilgrim journey. It does not seek to plumb the depths of death
and hell, to bring the community into the midst of the heavenly banquet,
to open a window on eternity, or to celebrate the cosmic reconciliation
accomplished by Christ on the Cross. The celebration and affirmation of
the community itself is unchallenging and static. Is it only coincidental
that, when so much of its worship is inward looking, the energy of the
Church is dissipated in internal disputes rather than directed towards the
living out of the Gospel in the world?
The issue here, as I see it, is that there is a disjuncture between the
essentially modernist form of so much of our contemporary worship and
the postmodernist assumptions of our wider world alongside the growing
desire and, indeed, need for worship of greater richness and depth. Pope
Benedict is eager for the Church to recover the sacrificial character of the
Eucharist. He sees the family-style celebration as creating a circle closed
in on itself, self-absorbed and self-referential, turning its back both on the
Christ who is yet to come and on the wider world to which it is sent to
preach the gospel. The only real action he sees happening in the Eucharist
is not the activity of the congregation but Christs self-giving on the Cross.
In this project, he is far from alone. The feminist theologian Sarah
Coakley has said that her project for her tenure of the Norris-Hulse
Professorship of Theology at Cambridge, entitled Sacrifice Regained, is
to recover the theology of sacrifice for both the Church and the world. The
Biblical scholar Margaret Barker has recovered the central importance of
the Jerusalem Temple for early Christian teaching and worship. One crucial
consequence has been the recognition that the origin of the Eucharist is
in the Jewish liturgies in the Temple, not the Passover, which is a domestic
meal. As the Jesuit John McDade of Heythrop College argues:
Immanence, Transcendence and Liturgical Space in a Changing Church 75

In recent years we have so focused on the aspect of the Eucharist as a sacred meal
that we have forgotten that Eucharistic theology is atonement theology because it
centres on the priestly Lord offering himself for sins. You cannot get to the notion
of atonement for sins from what is contained in Passover theology: Eucharistic the-
ology comes from the Day of Atonement, not from Passover. (McDade, 2005, p.6)

This theological reassessment is strengthened by a parallel recovery of an

understanding of church buildings as sacred space.
One of the reasons church buildings could be treated so badly in the
1960s and 1970s is that there was a prevailing belief that buildings did
not matter, and only people did. Holiness was to be found in people, not
in bricks and mortar. To value such buildings, whether in themselves or
for what they teach about the faith, was seen as a form of idolatry. This
inflexible, either/or attitude arose from a misunderstanding of the Biblical
tension between the recognition that no building could contain the Lord
of heaven and earth but that nevertheless God chose to dwell in the midst
of his people, in a house made with human hands (I Kings 8). The temple
or the church is not sacred because of what people have made but because
God chooses to be there, enthroned on the Ark of the Covenant or in
the sacraments of the church. Thus the church building is also an icon in
a theological as well as a popular sense. It is a liminal place that acts as a
window into divine grace, a place where Gods people enter into the very
life of heaven. Like the labyrinth, it is a place where people journey with
Christ into the dark depths of sin and death and are raised to the highest
heaven. It is a place that embodies the whole pilgrimage of Christian life,
from the font at its door, where believers receive the fullness of Christs
life, to the altar of Christs eternal sacrifice and the table of his heavenly
banquet at its other end. The church building forms and directs the shape
of our Christian life because it is oriented toward Christs coming again in
glory and the fulfilment of all things in God. It is a shrine that embodies
the glory of the heavenly places to remind Gods people that they are not
merely people of flesh and this earth but are destined for heaven and already
fellow citizens with the saints and members together of the household of
God. Secular Britain received something of a shock last year when the
relics of St Therese of Lisieux attracted so many thousands who had their
76 Peter M. Doll

faith strengthened by being with her, praying with her, touching her shrine.
There has been for many years now a quiet movement of the restoration
of shrines and relics in British churches, and the practice of pilgrimage to
them, as to Compostela and Lourdes, is very much on the increase.
Modernism told us that Christians must choose to find God as imma-
nent in the midst of his people, for the transcendent was something that
scientific materialists could have nothing to do with. In truth this was a
false choice. Postmodernity has freed us from an either/or mentality. We
can be both/and. We can know both God immanent in the midst of his
people and experience his transcendence in journey and sacrament and
architecture. Now the insights that Christians have gained in the realms of
personal spirituality and through the various movements I have described
need to be applied to the communal worship of our parishes. In the same
way that over the last fifty years ancient and traditional churches have been
reordered to express an understanding of the Eucharist as communal meal,
so in this generation the challenge for our modern communal churches,
which strongly emphasize God immanent in the gathered community and
the meal, will be how they can adapt or reorder their spaces to express the
re-enchantment of our worship as sacrificial offering and pilgrim journey.


Baggley, J. (1995). Doors of Perception: Icons and their Spiritual Significance. Crestwood,
NY: St Vladimirs Seminary Press.
Debuyst, F. (1969). The Meaning of Religious Places in R. Lanier Hunt (ed.)
Revolution, Place, and Symbol: Journal of the First International Congress
on Religion, Architecture and the Visual Arts, New York City and Montreal,
August 26September 4, 1967. New York: International Congress on Religion,
Architecture and the Visual Arts, 1969.
Flanagan, K. (1991). Sociology and Liturgy: Re-presentations of the Holy. London:
McDade, J. (2005). A Promise Fulfilled, a Ransom Paid, The Tablet, 8 October 2005,
Michael Evans

Out of Nothing: Painting and Spirituality


This essay is an investigation of abstract painting and spiritual experience.

Beginning by looking at the problems that face spiritually motivated art-
work both from within the art world and from a broader cultural perspec-
tive, it moves on to attempt a working definition of contemporary spiritual
experience and explores changing approaches to the spiritual in abstract
painting. This is followed by a look at how my own painting acts as an
exploration of spiritual experience. The concluding section recognizes the
importance of the unknown and the apophatic as offering a way forward
for thinking about spirituality in relation to abstract painting.

The Spiritual Problem

The roots of modern abstract painting began with artists such as Malevich,
Mondrian and Kandinsky and continued in the generation that followed,
artists such as Newman, Rothko, Motherwell and Reinhardt. Many of these
artists expressed the importance of religion or spirituality in the formula-
tion of their aesthetic. The critics Roger Lipsey, Maurice Tuchman, Robert
Rosenblum and John Golding address the spiritual roots or connections of
much modernist painting. Academics and critics such as Donald Kuspit,
James Elkins and Mark C. Taylor have explored how spiritually moti-
vated painting can operate in postmodern terms. However, at the height of
78 Michael Evans

modern abstract painting and during the years of Abstract Expressionism

the situation was very different. The modernist critic par excellence Clement
Greenberg was not concerned with the spiritual element of abstract paint-
ing and the critic Rosalind Krauss described any aspiration toward the
spiritual in art as inadmissible in the twentieth [century], declaring that
now we find it indescribably embarrassing to mention art and spirit in
the same sentence (Krauss, 1985, p.12). Towards the end of the twentieth
century painting had been exhausted and doubt was cast on whether it
had anything left to say in the contemporary art world. This feeling was
exacerbated when painting was considered in conjunction with spirituality.
Re-enchantment (2009) stemmed from a symposium organised by James
Elkins and David Morgan on the subject of the relationship between art
and theology. Elkins tells of his attempt to encourage the dialogue between
art and religion. His attempts to invite leading art world figures to the con-
ference were defeated because of the distrust on both sides. He recalled:

I invited a couple of art historians whose positions against the inclusion of talk
about religion in talk about contemporary art are particularly severe and consistent
[] In different but very similar ways, they both said in so many words, although
one of them actually used the word that it would simply be too painful to sit at
a table at which people would talk about religion and art at the same time. (Elkins
and Morgan, 2009, p.110)

The size of the task becomes apparent. On the one hand secularists, ration-
alists and atheists do not wish to hear of the spiritual; it has been passed
beyond and is now either openly derided or ignored. On the other hand,
for the followers of organized religion any attempt to rework the concept
of the spiritual is often seen as a direct challenge to established and specific
religious belief systems. This is the difficulty of the task. However, there
are many who do not feel comfortable in either of these camps but who
quietly may recognize that spiritual experience may still be possible and
desirable (even essential) within a secular and even post-secular culture.
In spite of the divisions on the face of it, Elkins maintains that spirituality
underlies much art of the twentieth century. He observes that:
Out of Nothing: Painting and Spirituality 79

Religion is no longer an easy subject, and many artists do not link it directly with
themselves or their work. The buried spiritual content of modern and postmodern
art may be the great unexplored subject in contemporary art history. Still, any book
devoted to the subject is bound to fail because it would have to spell out so many
things that the artists do not even tell themselves. (Elkins, 2000, p.75)

Similar problems exists beyond the art world, and psychologist David Tacey
even goes as far as a cultural diagnosis, suggesting that as soon as anyone
touches on the numinous, a kind of spiritual complex is triggered in the
culture, which immediately sets up a resistance [] The egos anxiety trig-
gers an automatic defence reaction, activating forces of resistance. As with
any unconscious complex, the spiritual complex is triggered automatically
and is hard to detect (Tacey, in Casement and Tacey, 2006, p.219).
So the broader question is whether we are gripped by a spiritual com-
plex and, more specifically, returning to art, is the mere mention of the
spiritual in art still an embarrassment or is there a new openness to dis-
cuss such possibilities? Perhaps what has changed is the cultural climate
post-secularism allowing a gradual unfolding and exploration of issues
surrounding the spiritual. The art world now seems able at least in part to
again allow talk of the spiritual. This can be observed simply by looking
at examples of recent publications that address the topic such as James
Elkins and David Morgan, Re-enchantment (2009), and Mark C. Taylor,
Refiguring the Spiritual (2012). Interest even extends beyond academia to
Frieze magazine which dedicated an entire issue to the subject of religion
and spirituality in 2010 (Frieze, No. 135).

Defining the Spiritual

Before we proceed any further a working definition of what is meant here

by the term spiritual is needed as this is undoubtedly part of the problem.
When discussing the word spiritual it very quickly becomes apparent
that it can mean many different things to different people and is easily
80 Michael Evans

misunderstood. It is almost impossible to achieve agreement on the term

and a thorough exploration of this would require a philosophical discus-
sion, which is not my intention here. However, it is important to clarify
what the spiritual means within the context of this paper. The definition
of the numinous or wholly other which Rudolph Otto gives in The Idea
of the Holy (1917) provides a starting point for how the spiritual is viewed
for the purposes of this argument. Otto, in describing the aims of his book
stresses the profound import of the non-rational for metaphysic and cites
his aim as being an attempt to analyse [] the feeling which remains where
the concept fails (Otto, 1953, p.13). The emphasis on feeling is important,
as this describes the emotional power and range of the numinous, and
the sense of its overwhelming nature. My interest in the spiritual lies here
in the emotional power of the spiritual, in relation to the viewer and
not in the cognitive desire to construct interpretative systems to analyse
the spiritual, which in my opinion can be reductive (and often happens
with psychologically based approached). Likewise, it is not the intention
of this paper to assert anything beyond the spiritual feeling, for instance,
to assert the existence of an external entity which would move towards a
more religiously orientated approach. Otto gives a clear indication of what
he means when he uses the term wholly other, telling us that when we
encounter the numinous we encounter the wholly other that which is
quite beyond the sphere of the usual, the intelligible, and the familiar []
filling the mind with blank wonder and astonishment (Otto, 1953, p.40).
This I will take as serving as a description of a certain type of feeling which
may be termed spiritual without necessarily following Otto any further in
terms of what generates this feeling and where it may be situated.
Looking to the present day and the discipline of psychology, David
Tacey, author of The Spirituality Revolution (2007), explores the differ-
ence between religion and spirituality, observing that spirituality is by no
means incompatible with religion, but it is existential rather than credal.
It grows out of the individual person from an inward source, is intensely
intimate and transformative, and is not imposed upon the person from an
outside authority (Tacey, 2007, p.8). Here it can be seen that the spiritual,
although accessed via religion, is not necessarily an experience confined to
religion. Taken a step further we can argue that spirituality is part of the
Out of Nothing: Painting and Spirituality 81

experience of being human, and can be viewed apart from religion. Atheist
writers, such as Andre Comte-Sponville, author of The Book of Atheist
Spirituality (2008), claim the possibility of spiritual experience saying:

we are finite beings who open on to infinity [] we are ephemeral beings who open
on to eternity, and relative beings who open on to the absolute. This openness is
the spirit itself. Metaphysics means thinking about these things; spirituality means
experiencing them, exercising them, living them.
This is what distinguishes spirituality from religion, which is merely one of its
possible forms [] All religions involve spirituality, at least to some extent, but all
forms of spirituality are not religious. (Comte-Sponville, 2008, p.136)

So we have seen that for some spirituality is not necessarily tied to religion
and at this point I would tentatively offer my own working definition of
what is meant by spiritual experience, which I define as an encounter with
a profound sense of meaningfulness without necessarily having a rational or
conceptual framework with which to define this experience. The disagreement
on spirituality between different approaches, psychological, theological
or even atheistic could be seen to surround the source of the experience
rather than the feeling, i.e. for the religious person there is often an exter-
nal power at work (even if felt within the subject) while for the atheist, or
some schools of psychology, the source of spiritual feeling does not need
an external entity.

The Spiritual in Abstract Painting

Having now established some parameters for the term spiritual, I want
to examine how spirituality has been conceived of in modernist abstract
painting. Developments in much Western intellectual thought seem to
have been moving in a direction opposite to spiritual possibilities and in
many areas anything to do with spiritual experience has become deeply
problematic for contemporary Western intellectual culture. Donald Kuspit
82 Michael Evans

has observed the increasing difficulty for the spiritually motivated artist,
tracing a path from its early modernist roots:

for Kandinsky and Mondrian spirituality means overcoming modern materialism,

while for Rothko and Motherwell it means overcoming modern alienation. No
doubt Kandinsky and Mondrian felt alienated from the modern materialistic society
in which they found themselves, but it was the societys materialism that disturbed
them more than their alienation from it. They took alienation for granted; it came
with spiritual superiority. They wanted to save society through their spiritual exam-
ple. (Kuspit, 2000, p.65)

Kuspit has written extensively on the subject of painting and spiritual expe-
rience, and identifies the problematics in the pursuit of spiritual possibilities
in abstract painting in the later modernist era. He believes that the spiritual
becomes increasingly difficult to achieve within painting and to reconcile
with an increasingly secular and materialistic society. Kuspit charts the
decline of the early fervour with which the pioneer abstractionists worked
in a spirit of active engagement and detects a fundamental shift in the emo-
tional tone of the whole project of transcendental abstraction. If Kuspit
is correct then the important issue for later abstract artists became self
preservation. The focus becomes survival, survival of a part of the psyche
or psychic experience which is under threat within an overtly materialist,
secular culture. His stark conclusion demonstrates how seriously he views
the change when he observes: Where Kandinsky and Mondrian wanted
to save materialistic society, Rothko and Motherwell wanted to save their
own souls (Kuspit, 2000, p.66). Thus.
Since the height of the Abstract Expressionist era spiritual concerns,
with the exception of some Neo-Expressionistists, have not been of much
concern to many contemporary artists. For most postmodern abstract paint-
ers it seemed an issue that was simply not worth investigating. However,
some painters continued to reflect on issues of this depth and both the
British painter Ian McKeever and the German artist Gerhard Richter
are examples of artists for whom spirituality is a concern. Richter gives a
strongly worded assertion of the religious nature of art, saying:
Out of Nothing: Painting and Spirituality 83

Art is not a substitute religion: it is a religion (in the true sense ofthe word: binding
back, binding to the unknowable, transcending reason, transcendent being) []
the Church is no longer adequate as a means of affording experience of the transcen-
dental, and of making religion real and so art has been transformed from a means
into the sole provider of religion: which means religion itself. (Richter, 1993, p.38)

It seems clear from this statement that the spiritual possibilities for art are
a serious consideration for Richter and yet the subject is little discussed in
the context of his work, where preference is given to more technical con-
cerns about the relationship between his painting and photography. Ian
McKeever acknowledges the problems that a spiritually motivated artist
may face but still insists on the importance of this type of experience to
the painter.

who could paint a crucifixion now and make it meaningful? It would either be crass
or it would be considered post-modernist. But actually one couldnt do it [] So this
whole area of being, the possibility of elevating ourselves, is to a large extent cut off
and one appears to be either pig-headed or nave even to be going back into it. But it is
the area I think painting can have an authentic voice in. (McKeever, 2000, pp.1011)

Here it becomes clear that there are indeed serious and critically acclaimed
artists who recognize and explore the importance of a spirituality in their
work and who also understand the difficulties in approaching the subject,
many of which were outlined by Elkins earlier in the paper. I want now to
move on to examine my own work that will provide the platform for a fur-
ther investigation into how a contemporary abstract painter can explore the
territory of spiritual experience and the problems which accompany this.

A Personal Perspective

When I first started to work with abstraction, robbed of external forms

which had ceased to hold authentic deeper meaning for me, I could find
no reason or method with which to paint. The whole process of applying
brushstrokes of paint and colour seemed arbitrary and self-conscious.
84 Michael Evans

Abstraction became for me what was left when I removed all other com-
ponents in which I did not believe perhaps a form of radical doubt. I
was painting at a time when every painter seemed to be acutely aware of
the Barthian notion of the death of the author that shifted the focus
from authorial intentionality to the readers interpretation, and given this
tendency, the use of process, in my case the tipping and pouring of paint
and the removal of the handmade painted gesture seemed appropriate.
Colour was later removed for two main reasons. First, there was no reason
for colour to be in the paintings if they had no external reference and using
only grey helped to avoid naturalistic associations. The second and more
subtle reason which took longer to emerge was that of the sense of strange-
ness achieved when the uncertain grey spaces of my paintings were created.
If colour was viewed as of the world then the possibility also existed that
to paint without colour made the paintings seem more remote to our
everyday experience, some other type of space or place (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Michael Evans, Studio, 2009

Acrylic on canvas, 228.6 137.2 cm
Out of Nothing: Painting and Spirituality 85

However, I was never entirely comfortable with the notion of the

death of the author or with a detached form of process-based abstrac-
tion. A number of years later I began to see the connection between the
attacks on spirituality and those on the author. Writer Sean Burke astutely
observed that,

The death of the author might be said to fulfil much the same function in our day
as did the death of God for late nineteenth-century thought. Both deaths attest to
a departure of belief in authority, presence, intention, omniscience and creativity.
For a culture which thinks itself to have come too late for the Gods or for their
extermination, the figures of the author and the human subject are said to fill the
theological void, to take up the role of ensuring meaning in the absence of meta-
physical certainties. The author has thus become the object of a residual antitheol-
ogy. (Burke, 1992, pp.223)

This residual antitheology leads to a rereading of process painting itself.

As Burke has observed the antitheological side of this can be ideologically
driven, while from the discipline of psychology Christopher Lasch has made
some interesting observations concerning minimalist-inspired strategies
toward art-making as a type of protective withdrawal. Lasch suggests that

The only art that seems appropriate to such an age [] is an anti-art or minimal art,
where minimalism refers [] to a widespread conviction that art can survive only
by a drastic restriction of its field of vision [] the survival strategy par excellence.
Even the [] embattled self-assertion [of Abstract Expressionism] a typical artistic
defence against an unreal environment has proved impossible to maintain. (Lasch,
1984, pp.1312)

Seen from this perspective, minimal or process-based art can arouse criti-
cal interest not only for what it does but also for what it does not do. It
becomes significant to ask what it is that the minimalist approach avoids
or rejects. Lasch believes late modernist art unmistakenly expresses the
numbed emotional aura of the age and goes further to suggest that the
aspect which is being avoided is as Carter Ratcliff writes in an essay on
Robert Morris: the stasis or numbness induced by the refusal to risk the
pains of self-revelation (Lasch, 1984, p.151). The counter-argument may
begin by suggesting that it cannot simply be taken for granted that the
86 Michael Evans

only human response to such an age is defeat, pessimism and withdrawal.

The seemingly negative unreal environment may not be the whole of the
story. Moments of affirmation may still be found often through various
forms of aesthetic experience. Hans Kung has suggested a more optimistic
stance for the artist saying,
Despite all the absurdity, emptiness, meaninglessness, thrust upon him, he can hold
fast to a fundamental value and meaning of his life and of the world as a whole he
can still in principle accept reality in all its uncertainty: without superficial optimism,
without any affirmative lie; therefore, instead of a basic mistrust, there can be a basic
trust. And he can give expression to this basic trust in his art. (Kung, 1981, pp.312)

What begins to open as a possibility is to view paint itself as potentially

meaningful. Rather than process being cool detachment it can be viewed
as a celebration of matter and of the physical world, where the emphasis
becomes the substance of the paint rather than the artists hand. I will not
dwell too long on this but merely point to two pertinent descriptions con-
cerning paint itself. The first is the association of painting with alchemy
in the sense that Elkins has used the term. Elkins senses that both paint-
ing and alchemy offer a different relationship with the world, one that
runs counter to the analytical approach of the rational mind, observing
that science has closed off almost every unsystematic encounter with the
world. Alchemy and painting are two of the last remaining paths into the
deliriously beautiful world of unnamed substances (Elkins, 2000, p.199).
Remembering Ottos emphasis on the non-rational it is significant that
we have words such as unsystematic and unnamed, indicating that there
seems to be a common interest in something which lies beyond our rational
grasp or understanding.
The second term is hypostasis. I take my definition from Elkins but
it can be found in other writers concerned with the spiritual in painting,
such as Peter Fuller. Elkins says of hypostasis: Properly speaking, it is a
religious concept [] a descent from an incorporeal state into ordinary
matter, or in general an infusion of spirit into something inert. Hypostasis
is the feeling that something as dead as paint might also be deeply alive,
full of thought and expressive meaning (Elkins, 2000, p.44).
Out of Nothing: Painting and Spirituality 87

This way of thinking gives a radically different perspective to the use

of process in painting. The emphasis on this transporting the physicality
of paint goes some way to explaining a renewed commitment to the physi-
cality of painting in my later paintings which move beyond a process-only
approach (see Figure 3). However, problems exist with the highly physical,
gestural painting which involve the issue of over-familiarity. Critic Timo
Valjakka states the problem succinctly, asking: how does one proceed in a
situation where virtually all gestures and marks have been used, becoming
inscribed into the long history of painting? How should one spread paint
on the canvas to ensure that the spectator sees the painting as it is, and not
just as a web of references, quotations and pre-existing meanings? (quoted
in McKeever, 1996, p.16).
The problem of over-familiarity also extends in the opposite direction.
The empty or silent painting is equally prone to such issues. For much
painting in the twentieth century a movement toward the spiritual meant
to renounce form within painting and to begin to create empty paintings.
Donald Kuspit has commented on the emptiness or silence of much abstract
painting, observing that:

The problem is how to create essential silence in abstract art today. Abstract art must
pursue ever more complicated ways of becoming silent Touch itself exists under
enormous constraint; it often becomes increasingly inhibited [] Silence can be
understood as the eroded substance of the completely spiritual work of art. (quoted
in Tuchman, 1986, pp.31415)

The spiritual quest for silence in painting is given a different emphasis by

Fuller who instead writes about a theological term kenosis the self-emp-
tying of modernist painting leading to the apparent relinquishment of
skills by Fine Artists and to the abandonment of the omnipotent power
the painter once seemed to possess to create, like God, a whole world of
objects in space through illusions on a canvas (Fuller, 1983, p.145). This
emptying out of form from abstract painting can be seen in the work of
many abstract painters ranging from Mondrian and Malevich to Rothko,
Newman or Reinhardt. The problem now is that the once radically empty
abstract painting becomes simply a formalist device rather than the indi-
cator of an authentic spiritual or contemplative space. Theorist Jeremy
88 Michael Evans

Gilbert-Rolfe suggests that beyond painting the technological world has

given us an endless stream of empty surfaces further undermining or
altering the role of emptiness within painting.

the contemporary is the witness to the end of blankness as absence Im interested

in what blankness looks like now as opposed to a hundred years ago. I think its
appearance has changed and so has what it appears to be Where it once marked
the absence of the sign by being a sign for absence, it is now the sign of an invisible
and ubiquitous technological presence.
Where blankness used to be excluded from the world, it is now everywhere and
in everything. (Gilbert-Rolfe, 1999, pp.11113)

Interestingly Gilbert-Rolfe uses the term blankness and even the choice
of word is indicative of a fundamental shift. The poetic and spiritual asso-
ciations of the term silence as used by Kuspit go on to become a more
existentially charged and problematic emptiness in Fuller but with Gilbert-
Rolfe we have arrived at a more neutral and pessimistic use of the term
blankness. The empty, silent or blank painting now has many problems
with which to contend. Here it may be timely to make one point which
redresses the balance in terms of emptiness. This focuses on the nature of
what is meant by empty, blank or silent. In a reference to discourses which
are often attracted to near nothingness as an indication of the limits of
language and thought William Franke makes an important point that the
silence we can talk about and objectively experience is relative. For silence
per se, without relation to any order of sound, cannot be perceived []
It is always some particular relation to Nothing that is experienced, never
the Nothing pure and simple (Franke, 2007a, p.46).
For the most part it would seem Gilbert-Rolfe is correct. However, it
may be that the inability of painting to ever actually achieve true emptiness
is crucial; this inability to achieve total emptiness does not necessarily mean
it cannot approach the idea of emptiness (which is unachievable anyway).
The situation of an apparent emptiness being presented within a paint-
ing only on further inspection to be seen to contain something, possibly
barely perceptible, hinting at the possibility of something or a relation
to nothing may indeed be where the spiritual charge of apparently empty
abstract painting is located. This places it in a different position from the
Out of Nothing: Painting and Spirituality 89

emptiness or blankness of the technological surface which may achieve

this aim but has nothing to communicate having achieved it.
To summarize, at this point problems existed on a number of fronts for
my painting. I could not simply use a previous method of gestural abstrac-
tion and an overt celebration of the physicality of paint and expressiveness
of the author. Likewise, the path of empty or silent abstraction led into a
similar territory of overfamiliarity. A way was needed to generate form and
re-engage with the canvas surface without self-consciousness and without
the burden of the history of abstraction. It was here that the introduction
of technology became an essential part of my work.
Using image deconvolution software (working with a microbiolo-
gist who uses it for capturing and enhancing images of bacteria) I was
able to digitally analyse and transform a series of my process paintings.
The software had the result
of finding form within
my paintings paintings
which were generated purely
through my initial use of
process. I then went a step
further and combined the
whole series of these digi-
tal images into one single
composite digital image
which actually comprised of
twenty-four layers, each an
overlaid digital rendering of
an individual painting (see
Figure 2). The use of com-
puter software could be seen
as another form of process,
as a way of giving up direct
control and responsibility.
What was of interest to me
was that the forms created Figure 2. Michael Evans, Composite No.2, 2006
felt genuinely other to me Digital Image (size variable)
90 Michael Evans

and suggested new possibilities for form within my (relatively) empty

process-based paintings.
Prompted by the digitally generated form I returned to my process
paintings and began to reintroduce form into these. Also given previous
reservations with purely process-based painting and with the almost empty
canvas I began to introduce more physical elements to the paintings, reintro-
ducing the brushstroke. The conclusion reached through subsequent paint-
ings was that although spiritual may now no longer reside in the absence of
form, e.g. emptiness (as emptiness is familiar), neither is it guaranteed by the
expressive, gestural, overtly physical or alchemical route (in Elkinss use of
the term). The spiritual resides in the lack of a recognizable language; it is
through this that abstraction
gains its sense of otherness or
strangeness, by ridding itself
of the familiar and this means
not simply getting rid of rec-
ognizable objects but also
includes avoiding recognized
languages of construction.
This is what avant-garde art
once attempted as opposed
to the pseudo avant-garde art
that Donald Kuspit discusses,
which involves only a surface
reordering or ironic riposte
to the previous approaches of
modernism. Empty abstract
painting never was about
simply emptying painting of
representation or of worldly
objects. Its radical spiritual
side worked through emp-
Figure 3. Michael Evans, Untitled, painting tying painting of a language
No.11, Abstract Unconscious series, 2008 of known form (in nature or
Oil and acrylic on canvas, 76.2 50.8 cm art). This is where my work
Out of Nothing: Painting and Spirituality 91

is situated, with the inclusion of form and mark within my work, allow-
ing a new and strange language to be built. It is in the unknown of the
not-yet-established language that the spiritual can be encountered, where
painting can again be (if only for a limited time) other.
The key issue here is that the artist is prepared to move beyond security
and that painting should exist in the gap between known and unknown.
There is not a rejection of all possibilities of recognition or form but
an acceptance that this must always remain only partial. Painting which
aspires to this rather than being formless would contain strange or elusive
form. This type of painting could not be called formless but neither could
it be pinned down to a stable reading or recognition. It would need to be
genuinely strange and captivating, closer to the numinous or qualities of
otherness that may take us back to the ideas ofOtto. It would create a sense
of exploring an uncharted territory yet feeling one may somehow know it.

The Apophatic and the Unknown

Suzi Gablik proposed that, there are two postmodernisms a deconstruc-

tive and a reconstructive version (Gablik, 2002, p.21). Rather than dividing
postmodernism into two camps, these tendencies can be seen to exist in
tension. Another approach is to acknowledge elements of reconstruction
within the act of deconstruction viewing deconstruction not as destruc-
tion but as an attempt to move around or beyond modernism in order to
create space for alternative strategies of thought. Through the gaps in speech
and a lack of certainty both explored and encouraged by much postmodern
thought, a type of spiritual possibility has emerged from postmodernism.
This has been compared to the tradition of negative theology found in writ-
ers such as Meister Eckhart, Dionysius the Areopagite, Nicholas of Cusa
or in texts such as The Cloud of Unknowing (author unknown). Negative
theology uses a method of talking about God which involves speaking
in terms of what God is not (which we can know, as all the things which
92 Michael Evans

God is not are finite and therefore knowable). It has been pointed out by
the writer Didier Maleuvre that the danger of negative theology is that it
is focused on the absence rather than the experience of God and that fun-
damentally the two types of thought are very different in intent.
The term apophasis used by writers such as Michael Sells and William
Franke provides more room for manoeuvre than the label of negative the-
ology. Apophasis can be seen at work within negative theology and also
within postmodern thought. Franke sees apophatic discourse as a form of
discourse that is always aware of its own limitations saying:
The traditional term for this sort of self-negating discourse as well as for the condi-
tion of no more discourse at all, upon which it converges is apophasis. In fact, a
total cessation of discourse may be considered the purest meaning of the term, but
in practice this state is approachable only through some deficient mode of discourse
that attenuates and takes back or cancels itself out. Thus apophasis can actually be
apprehended only in discourse in language insofar as it negates itself and tends
to disappear as language. The many different sorts of discourses that do this may be
considered together as apophatic discourse. (Franke, 2007a, p.1)

He believes that in order to sustain what one could describe as the true
content of religious experience the apophatic sense must be recovered:

Metaphysical statements inevitably mean something different from what they are
able to say; only by recovering the apophatic sense, or rather nonsense or more-than-
sense, behind these statements will we be able to see what made such traditions so
compelling for so long. (Franke, 2007a, p.12)

When applied to painting we see the potential that aphophasis has for
abstract artists. The tradition of aphophasis has been commonly connected
to discourses about the spiritual, the numinous or the sublime, and in using
it now it features as a way of thinking about how contemporary abstract art-
ists can approach the spiritual in a post-secular society. When artists state-
ments of McKeever and Richter, for example, are approached again from
the perspective of apophatic thought strong similarities can be seen. For
instance McKeever acknowledges the importance of the unknown, saying:
Out of Nothing: Painting and Spirituality 93

We now comment on everything; very little is left unsaid [] The mystery of the
unknown, on the other hand, is now more or less considered worthless. Yet, attempt-
ing at least to make ourselves partly sensitive to things we cannot know, is perhaps
one of the great freedoms still available to us [] Implicit in the unknown and what
we cannot know about paintings, is a stillness and a silence. (McKeever, 2005, p.61)

Richter seems to have similar interests concerning the unknown and its rela-
tionship with abstract painting. He goes further in discussing how abstract
art is able to depict subjects that were once depicted via religious imagery:

Abstract pictures [] make visible a reality that we can neither see nor describe []
We denote this reality in negative terms: the unknown, the incomprehensible, the
infinite. And for thousands of years we have been depicting it through images such
as heaven and hell, gods and devils.
In abstract painting we have found a better way of gaining access to the unvisu-
alizable, the incomprehensible; because abstract painting deploys the utmost visual
immediacy [] in order to depict nothing [] as a possible way to make the inex-
plicable more explicable, or at all events more accessible. (Richter, 1993, p.100)

The similarity of the language of both painters points to the apophatic tra-
dition: they want to use art in order to push the frontiers of thought and
understanding, in order to depict that which we do not know. Abstraction
becomes a way of accessing the unknown. It becomes a way of moving away
from the age-old practice of naturalism and representation. Richter once
asserted that it is still possible for one to paint like the German Romantic
painter Caspar David Friedrich in the present day. In response to this
McKeever stated that Yes, the artist can, but there is a distinct difference
between likeness and the real thing. The question for the painter, in our
contemporary world full of likenesses, is not how to make yet another like-
ness, but how to paint the real thing (McKeever, 2005, p.50). Painting the
real takes us beyond representational into abstract territory.
Tacey has also approached this issue of the real and of imitation,
observing that the dominant cultural style or literary mode of the post-
modern period is parody and imitation [] reproducing the known, sus-
pecting that this brings sentimental comfort or nostalgia (Tacey, 2007,
p.226). Tacey continues to speculate on the deeper issues at work behind
the desire to reproduce the already known concluding that:
94 Michael Evans

it is easier to reproduce something than to make something new.

Making new calls for connection with the deep spiritual roots of creativity.
But we do not have control over the deep roots or over what they produce for us,
whereas we have a sense that a reproduced version is something we can control or
manipulate [] The hope for the future is that we can overcome our obsession with
imitation, stand-ins, substitutes and copies, and face the nature of the real. Not just
the surface real, but the deep real, from which surprising, alarming and transforming
things emerge. (Tacey, 2007, p.226)

In this coming together of differing terminologies and disciplines, words

such as unknown and incomprehensible have been used along with the
idea that there is a limit to the realm of the rational concept where feeling
takes over. The apophatic provides possibilities for the coming together
of contemporary abstract painting and spirituality. In the area of the apo-
phatic contradiction can be tolerated and an acknowledgment of areas of
experience which escape both reason and language is given. It would seem
appropriate then to move towards a conclusion with the words of Richter
on the subject of being lost, which is not viewed negatively but rather as
empowering: Strange thought his may sound, not knowing where one is
going being lost, being a loser reveals the greatest possible faith and
optimism, as against collective security and collective significance. To
believe, one must have lost God; to paint, one must have lost art (Richter,
1993, p.15).
In this seemingly puzzling statement what Richter proposes is I
believe, not a real loss of God or art but a loss of the empty formalized
and institutionalized versions of both. By losing the already known con-
cepts of religion and art the chance for an authentic experience of the
spiritual and of art is again made possible. To find the real we must begin
without the collective security of the already known and begin to create
out of nothing.
Out of Nothing: Painting and Spirituality 95


Burke, S. (1992). The Death and Return of the Author (Criticism and Subjectivity in
Barthes, Foucault and Derrida). Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Casement, A. and D. Tacey (eds) (2006). The Idea of the Numinous (Contemporary
Jungian and Psychoanalytical Perspectives). London: Routledge.
Comte-Sponville, A. (2008). The Book of Atheist Spirituality. London: Bantam Press.
Elkins, J. (2000). What Painting Is. New York: Routledge.
Elkins, J. and D. Morgan (eds) (2008). Re-Enchantment (The Art Seminar; Vol. 7).
New York: Routledge.
Franke, W. (ed.) (2007a). On What Cannot Be Said (Apophatic Discourses in Philosophy,
Religion, Literature, and the Arts). Vol. 1, Classic Formulations. Notre Dame:
University of Notre Dame Press.
Franke, W. (ed.) (2007b). On What Cannot Be Said (Apophatic Discourses in
Philosophy, Religion, Literature, and the Arts). Vol. 2, Modern and Contemporary
Transformations. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.
Frieze: Journal of Contemporary Art & Culture (2010), Religion & Spirituality. Issue
Fuller, P. (1983). Art and Psychoanalysis. London: Writers and Readers.
Gablik, S. (2002). The Reenchantment of Art. London: Thames and Hudson.
Gilbert-Rolfe, J. (1999). Beauty and the Contemporary Sublime. New York: Allworth
Krauss, R.E. (1985). The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths.
Cambridge: Massachusetts: MIT Press.
Kung, H. (1981). Art and the Question of Meaning. Trans. E. Quinn. London: SCM
Kuspit, D. (2000). The Rebirth of Painting in The Late Twentieth Century. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.
Lasch, C. (1984). The Minimal Self. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
McKeever, I. (1996). Ian McKeever: Paintings 19901996. Nottingham: Angel Row
McKeever, I. (2000). Ian McKeever: Paintings and Works on Paper. London: Alan
Cristea Gallery.
McKeever, I. (2005). In Praise of Painting. Brighton: Centre for Contemporary Visual
Arts and the University of Brighton.
Otto, R. (1959). The Idea of the Holy [Das Heilige]. 14th edn. Trans. J.W. Harvey,
London: Pelican Books.
96 Michael Evans

Richter, G. (1993). The Daily Practice of Painting (Writings 19621993). London:

Thames and Hudson/Anthony dOffay.
Tacey, D. (2007). The Spirituality Revolution. London: Routledge.
Taylor, M. (2012). Refiguring the Spiritual: Beuys, Barney, Turrell, Goldsworthy.
Columbia: Columbia University Press.
Tuchman, M. (1986). The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 18901985. New York:
Abbeville Press.
David Parker

Outsider Art and Alchemy

Solve et Coagula
However abstruse and strange the language and imagery of the alche-
mists may seem to the uninitiated, they become vivid and alive as soon as
comparative research reveals the relationship of the symbols to processes
in the unconscious. These may be the material of dreams, spontaneous
fantasies, and delusional ideas on the one hand, and on the other hand
they can be observed in works of creative imagination and in the figura-
tive language of religion.
Jung, 1989, p.xvii

This essay discusses perceived connections between the art of alchemy and
the Outsider artist, both of which explore and express aspects of the spir-
itual. Throughout the paper the psychology of Carl Jung will be used to
frame the discussion in order to reveal psychological similarities between
the imagery, processes and practices of alchemy and that of Outsider art.
Fundamental to this exercise is the desire to articulate the psychological
value of different modes of perceiving the world in relation to both cultural
and a-cultural factors, and to explore Jungs unique contribution to our
understanding of art and culture within the modern era.1
In 1972 Roger Cardinal published Outsider Art, bringing to the
English-speaking public the strange and bizarre paintings, objects and
environments created by those untrained and unschooled artists and makers

1 Throughout this document I am using the terms modern and modernist non-
specifically to refer in general to the cultural condition of the West as represented
by the arts throughout the twentieth and into the twenty-first century.
98 David Parker

situated outside the canon of mainstream arts practice.2 In publishing this,

Cardinal created an English language equivalent to the French term Art
Brut. It was the French painter Jean Dubuffet who first introduced the term
Art Brut the name given for the art he considered as the only genuine art
capable of expressing an intuitive, inner vision one untainted by academic
learning. Dubuffet collected and catalogued art created by such visionar-
ies and presented these alongside professional artists works in the major
exhibition LArt Brut prefere aux arts culturals held at Galerie Drouin in
October/November 1948. Dubuffet championed this art controversially
claiming it as the only true art:

True art is never where it is expected to be: in the place where no one considers it,
nor names it. Art hates to be recognised and greeted by its name. It runs away imme-
diately. Art is a person in love with anonymity. As soon as its unmasked, as soon as
someone points the finger, it runs away. It leaves in its place a prize stooge wearing
on its back a great placard marked ART, which everybody immediately showers with
champagne, and which the lecturers lead from town to town with a ring through its
nose. (Dubuffet, 1992, p.595)

Whether or not we choose to accept Dubuffets radical defence of Art Brut

as the only genuine art worthy of its name, the characterization of Art Brut
or Outsider Art as significantly marginal in relation to mainstream art and
culture inevitably presents us with the romantic idea of the a-social misfit,
the mad artist the other. Seen in this light, the very notion of Outsider Art
seems to present us with a curious dilemma. If a given cultures art defines
itself by what it is not, then this seems to suggest that what Outsider Art
represents aesthetically is fundamentally undesirable, and of little value to
mainstream art and culture. However, paradoxically, the huge influence
of what is now classified as Outsider Art on mainstream art and culture
throughout the modern period and into the postmodern, clearly shows
that this has not been the case. There are a number of issues raised by the

2 The term mainstream refers to the art made by artists who operate with a knowledge
and understanding of their work in relation to cultural precedents, most often having
been through formal learning of their craft and possessing a good understanding of
historical contexts.
Outsider Art and Alchemy 99

significance of Outsider art. From a psychological perspective, could it be

the case that the art of the Outsider reflects the hidden or occluded the
unconscious shadow aspect of an overtly civilized and rationalized collective,
cultural psyche? Are Outsider artists so because they represent aesthetic
values that are implicitly at odds with the collective values assimilated and
contained by mainstream culture? If so, what might these values be, and
why would such values be of interest in the cultural mainstream? Likewise,
the ancient art of alchemy also presents us with similar questions regard-
ing its perceived relationship to the pre-modern culture in which it was
practised. As an esoteric, fringe activity focused on the acquisition of inner
knowledge through engagement with visionary experiences, alchemy dis-
plays remarkably similar traits to those of the modern Outsider regarding
the strange flights of fantasy and associated symbolism. It is these connec-
tions that I wish to explore here.

Alchemy as Process

The alchemists work is predicated on the desire to execute a transforma-

tion of matter. The process itself involves the separation of base material
the prima materia followed by the reconstitution of this separated
matter by subjecting it to physical and chemical treatments. Outwardly,
the alchemical goal was a deeper, more profound, understanding of mate-
rial phenomena. Inwardly, the alchemists also discovered an imaginative
connection between material phenomena and psychological phenomena
where the images and thoughts stimulated by the process were shown to
both condition the activity and change the inner state of the practitioner
via excursions into highly charged states of imaginative reverie. The surviv-
ing images and texts of the alchemists reveal attempts to document and
communicate, through obscure, esoteric, symbolic images, these imagina-
tive excursions; and to express them through uncompromisingly powerful,
often bizarre, visual imagery. In modern psychological terms such imagery
100 David Parker

could be described as the unconscious aspects of psyche surfacing into

consciousness. It is in this respect that Jung made his revolutionary connec-
tion between the hidden psychological significance of alchemical symbols
and similar symbolic images revealed to him by his patients in therapy
( Jung, 1993). Jung recognized that both the alchemical process and the
therapeutic process shared similar images and motifs with meaning, for
those involved, being expressed as coded messages from the unconscious in
the psyches struggle to balance unconscious life forces with conscious life
experiences. Identifying these symbols as symbols of transformation, Jung
recognized their therapeutic value for the individual experiencing them
and, therefore, the essentially creative and positive aspects they contained
( Jung, 1991, para. 524).
It is clear from Jungs researches into the esoteric practices of alchemy,
that the symbolic images used to express these experiences seemed to reflect
attempts to express the profound psychological upheavals precipitated by
the alchemical practice. It is also clear that these upheavals appear to indi-
cate a fundamental need to affectively3 integrate conscious and unconscious
processes through engagement with a materially based medium. Jungs work
on the subject presents us with a powerful exposition on the significance of
alchemical thought for our understanding of the psyche and how psyche
conditions our actions in the world.
Within the framework of Jungs work on the alchemical opus:
Mysterium Coniunctionis: An Enquiry into the Separation and Synthesis of
Psychic Opposites in Alchemy ( Jung, 1963) this article discusses the psychol-
ogy of both the alchemist and the artist as outsiders and, in the process,
makes some tentative suggestions concerning how the meaning and content

3 In psychoanalytic terms affect is used as a general term for feelings and emotions. It
is used in relation to ideas and is seen as being attached to ideas in general (Rycroft,
1995, p.4). Here I am using the term to denote an emotional response to phenomena
that is not necessarily concerned with ideas as such, where idea is viewed as being
conceptually based. Rather, the reference is to a felt response that does not neces-
sarily have a rational basis or a clearly defined goal. The implication is that an affect
is aesthetically driven, creating a tension in the respondent that involves a symbolic
integration of the experience into the psychic structure.
Outsider Art and Alchemy 101

of Outsider Art might also echo similar psychological issues and condi-
tions to those of the alchemists. This assumption is based on perceived
similarities between both the Outsider artist and the alchemist given
that both practitioners appear to be primarily motivated by needs rooted
in the desire to engage with material and imagery emanating from power-
ful disturbances within the psyche.
My desire to make such a connection sprang essentially from a need to
try to understand intellectually why art considered as outside mainstream
practice held a particular fascination for me; also, to try to better under-
stand the possible motivating factors behind artists who do not necessarily
engage with the conventions of mainstream art practice or its cultural his-
tory and precedents, but who are clearly, and most definitely, not simply
recreational artists.4 In that respect, it seems to me that there are a number
of key elements detectable within Outsider Art that often parallel some
of the many features of alchemy but are not in any way directly connected
to an understanding or knowledge of alchemy as such. Broadly these can
be characterized as: a need to engage with, and express, imagery derived
from imaginative reverie; to work with a material/physical stimulus; to
express meaning by an often obscure, cryptic and idiosyncratic symbol-
ism; to practise their art regardless of social recognition or reward;5 to
reference or echo, sometimes overtly, sometimes covertly, religious/spir-
itual imagery and ideas; to produce imagery signalling a trans-cultural
dimension. It would seem that these six basic observations on some of the
characteristics and conditions pertaining to both activities illustrate some
important similarities.

4 By recreational artists I am referring to those individuals who make work simply

as a pleasurable pastime usually limited to conventional modes of representation
and genres and without much reflective speculation.
5 This appears in the main to have been the case, though it is said that some alchemists
were corrupted into using their art as tricksters and charlatans, in order to profit from
the gullible this point was highlighted in a BBC Radio 4 programme on Alchemy:
In Our Time presented by M. Bragg, 24 February 2005.
102 David Parker

Jung and the Archetypes

According to Jungian psychology, human patterns ofbehaviour are revealed

through both physical and psychological processes within the subject ( Jung,
1969, pp.397420). From this viewpoint, unconscious processes, as natu-
ral processes embedded within the psychic structure, will inevitably be
expressed symbolically regardless of time, place or culture. Being natu-
ral processes, they will possess the capacity to be trans-cultural though
inevitably mediated to a degree by culturally influenced conditions and
perceptions in terms of the specific imagery employed. Such a view of
course requires a relative approach towards how different individuals and
different cultures are perceived and understood one that is not solely
mediated by a dominant set of cultural values or particular socially inscribed
spiritual beliefs.
The premise for making these connections lies with the assumption
that, psychologically, both art and alchemy have their roots in certain pri-
mary needs the need to access and integrate with consciousness those
aspects of life experience which underlie or shadow consciousness. Taking
form from highly charged yet subliminally located images, these initially
unconscious images manifest and reveal aspects of human experience which
seem to contain a mysterious significance to the recipient defying any
literal explanation and transcending the social and cultural conditions and
precedents in which they are placed. This approach to an understanding
of the human condition presents us with some very interesting questions
concerning three primary categories of knowledge and understanding
the psychological foundations of art, science and religion. Setting aside the
issue of science6 in the context of art within modern culture and alchemy

6 It has long been recognized that the development of modern science has its roots in
the experiments conducted in alchemy. Some well known figures in the development
of modern science had a deep connection to alchemy not least of which we have
Sir Isaac Newton and the founder of modern chemistry Robert Boyle.
Outsider Art and Alchemy 103

within pre-modern culture (when both are being viewed as marginal prac-
tices7) a strong underlying relationship appears.

Alchemists and Outsider Artists

Medieval alchemists and their forebears sought knowledge (ultimately a

spiritual knowledge) directly through the manipulation of matter working
outside the strict hierarchical structure and symbolism of the Church and
its scholastic spiritual teachings. They were also largely learned, educated,
pragmatists, deeply committed to a wisdom achieved through practical
experiment and the direct experiencing of phenomena. In this respect
they are perhaps best viewed as learned marginal practitioners, operating
outside or on the borders of culture and its collective consciousness. That
said, alchemists were (or so it would appear) functionally adapted enough
to move safely between their inner and outer worlds, using their esoteric
knowledge and imaginative insights to negotiate a safe relational passage
between powerful unconscious forces and a conscious integration of these
forces into their relationship with the external world.
In contrast, modern Outsider artists, by definition, appear to prac-
tise their art in extremis, without regard for, or knowledge of culture and
formal learning, working from an inner drive based on a direct experiencing
of emergent mental phenomena, Outsider artists express their imagina-
tive world independent of such learning without compromise, and of

7 Fabricius notes that the alchemists originated in a pre-Christian cultural world and
occupied a marginal placed in society:
[T]hey occupied a strange position, religiously as well as scientifically. The alche-
mists were mystics without being orthodox Catholics, scientists without follow-
ing the learning of their time, artisans unwilling to teach others what they knew.
They were the sectarians, the problem-children of medieval society, and their
contemporaries were ever hesitant about deciding whether to regard them as
pure sages or sacrilegious imposters. (Fabricius, 1994, p.7)
104 David Parker

necessity, determined by unconscious forces beyond rational, conscious

control. Their art does however present us with strikingly similar parallels
to aspects of the alchemical opus as regards the highly cryptic and obscure
adventures into imaginative reverie and symbolic expression. There is
however one important yet key difference many Outsider artists would
appear to practise their art as a result of overwhelming psychological
disturbance, where the capacity to manage ordinary states of social and
cultural interaction is compromised to an extreme degree. Clinically this
condition would be described as a psychosis. Often unable to integrate
their imaginative experiences and relate these functionally to social adap-
tation, Outsider artists tend to display signs of being imprisoned within
their internal worlds and therefore beyond the reach of creative interper-
sonal exchange. Such artists are, in effect, swamped by their unconscious
to an extreme degree, often unable to escape from the underworld and
its demonic powers. However, it does seem that for both the alchemist
and the Outsider artist, extremely imaginative fantasy material appears
to be rooted within such depth experiences, where the ego, as outer agent
of individual identity and personality, is subsumed by an ecstatic reverie
beyond rational explication. Both Outsider artists and alchemists, there-
fore, seem to be motivated by unconscious forces that have little or no
direct need or relationship, regarding cultural integration or social accept-
ance and acknowledgement. These forces or disturbances, sometimes
clearly expressing a traumatic foundation, suggest a profound loss of self
through such moments of ecstatic reverie stimulated by acute visual
phenomena and intense engagement with material and its transformation.
In this respect the imagery of the Outsider artist, when seen in modern
terms, acknowledges and expresses such an acute psychological trauma
one borne perhaps out of an extreme reaction to a progressively secularized
culture coupled to the loss of any truly affective symbolic structures. For
the pre-modern alchemist, a similar process seems to have been at work
evidenced by the wealth of texts and imagery on which Jung drew for his
theoretical explorations. Viewed in this way, such imaginative sensibili-
ties, in both examples, point towards an extreme tension in the relation-
ship between inner and outer worlds; a fundamental loss of meaning,
belief, or faith and a pressing, overwhelming need to address this through
Outsider Art and Alchemy 105

autonomous creative expression. By engaging with the cryptic and sym-

bolic imaginative structures produced through creative reverie in art as
in alchemy the practitioner reconnects psyche with matter as a personal
and spiritual necessity in the quest for what Jung would call the process
of Individuation ( Jung, 2008, Collected Works 9, pp.489524). Such an
intuitive approach towards imagination and its unconscious foundations
effectively provides a creative, spiritual dimension to the developing per-
sonality one that accommodates, and values, freedom of thought and
action. The fall out for the Outsider artist, however, is the potential for
a complete psychotic breakdown in effect an uncontrollable madness.
Framed in this way, Outsider Art follows a trajectory that circum-
navigates the cultural orbit of the mainstream yet touching it at points
influencing the mainstream in places yet remaining a law unto itself
regarding its esoteric concerns. In similar ways, though in different his-
torical locations, the same might be said of alchemy in relation to main-
stream religious belief and practice. At root, what is particular to both the
artist outsider and the alchemist concerns the nature of their activities.
Both practices appear to involve self-absorption without compromise
towards religious, social or cultural conformity, and both create esoteric
systems of thought and imagery developed through a deep engagement
with material properties and imaginative manipulation. It is through such
intense imaginative activity that vital psychological and spiritual truths
are negotiated thus an internal dialogue is played out which, through
the art, marries, if only temporarily, opposing psychological forces and
an aesthetic, transformative insight is achieved. Both practices appear to
involve shifts in consciousness that affectively (meant in a psychoanalytical
sense) engage the spiritual realm, where the self, as individual ego, seems to
be negated and, crucially, both achieve this in different ways through an
engagement with physical substances, empirical observation and related
aesthetic qualities.
106 David Parker

Psyche and Spirit

Key to this argument is the assumption that the psychological refers to all
mental phenomena experienced by an individual, embracing both positive
and negative feelings,8 and that the spiritual is both a fundamental and
potential aspect of this irrespective of whether consciously acknowledged
or not. It is also taken that such states, although of necessity highly indi-
vidualized and particular, do have properties that are of value beyond the
individual and that these properties both manifest and mediate themselves
through generic (archetypal) and culturally specific, symbolic structures.
On these terms, spiritual issues are psychological issues and vice versa
having the potential for both positive and negative outcomes. Also, such
issues are concerned with a primary need to acknowledge and address
the forces that both order and disorder an individuals sense of self in the
world. This paper maintains that a disordered self or ego is, sometimes,
and when entered into voluntarily, a necessary spiritual, psychological and
ultimately aesthetic experience and that such disordered states9 can help
to condition spiritual and creative growth. I suggest it is for this reason
that Outsider artists are intuitively driven to negotiate such psychological
conflicts through the medium of art creatively working through both
ordered and disordered states of mind in the quest for some aesthetic reso-
lution between conscious and unconscious phenomena. The issue then
becomes the extent to which this process is truly voluntary and therefore
an essentially therapeutic resolution. The same could be said regarding
the primary driving force behind the creative activities of the alchemist.

8 See Jungs comments on his meaning regarding the differences between feeling and
emotion as intended here ( Jung, 1978, p.49).
9 The idea of the disordering of the senses was of course also fundamental to the
surrealists aesthetic aim to reconnect art and life via a recognition of the essential
part played by the unconscious in human behaviour and values. Such disordering
was also central to the art of the French Symbolist poet Rimbaud.
Outsider Art and Alchemy 107

The Outsider Aesthetic?

As I have stated elsewhere (Parker, 2008) it is important to disentangle my

intended meaning of the word aesthetic from its connection to the perhaps
more conventionally received meaning within the Western philosophi-
cal tradition. As Thomas McEvilley states, Kants separation of the three
faculties the cognitive, the ethical and the aesthetic, into separate and
distinct properties of thought, profoundly influenced the mindset of the
Western attitude to the other the outsider (McEvilley, 1992, pp.979).
Such a philosophical position presents the aesthetic as a separate and distinct
faculty having no connection to different ways of seeing and experiencing
the world and, therefore, any cognitive, ethical, or therefore I would argue,
psychological considerations that may be implicitly tied to such views. By
taking such a position, the aesthetic has the potential to become a pow-
erful tool for establishing control and dominance over the other those
individuals, societies and cultures appearing to be outside the collective
order. Arguably, such a view of the aesthetic is still quite influential in
attitudes and approaches towards the products and processes of difference
in art. If however one argues that, unlike the Kantian view (as presented
by McEvilley), aesthetic experience is not an experience that can be wholly
separated from the cognitive and ethical considerations promoting that
experience, in what way, theoretically, might outsiders and alchemists
be said to share similar psychological experiences beyond any perceived
cultural concerns? One suggestion would be that, in essence, all art (both
inside and outside a given culture) implicitly deals with spiritual concerns
as an essential counterpart to any purely materialist or pragmatic needs for
both the individual and the collective even though, of necessity, prag-
matically expressed via a medium. As the provider of both a spiritual and
aesthetic experience, Outsider art presents us with potentially new symbolic
images, thereby helping to mediate between the conscious and unconscious
within psyche and thus achieve a measure of stability concerning internal
psychological conflicts.
108 David Parker

Jungs Dilemma

As a creative thinker, born within a modern industrialized culture, it is

highly probable, and a topic for further in-depth research beyond the
scope of this paper, that Jung the psychologist and Jung the artist, strug-
gled both personally and professionally with the problem of the aesthetic
in the formation of his psychology. There are clear signs of this throughout
his work both within his theoretical expositions, and within his person-
ally traumatic experiences of overwhelming unconscious fantasy material.
This material became fundamental to his psychology as he attempted
to set this out methodically in both textual and visual form. In his own
words, these formative experiences were, in effect, the stimulus and pre-
cursor to all of his later lifes work and this can be clearly seen within his
production of The Red Book or Liber Novus ( Jung, 2009). Created during
a crucial period in Jungs life, yet only recently published, The Red Book
is an extraordinary document of his inner psychological processes. Jungs
overwhelming visions, expressed in both words and pictures, are rich and
imaginative evocations of his Confrontation with the Unconscious ( Jung,
1963, pp.16591). In many ways these visions seem to both parallel con-
temporary Outsider Art of the time10 in terms of the bizarre idiosyncratic
imagery used, whilst also recalling aspects of the alchemical texts he later
spent a large period of his life researching. It is a deeply introspective and
richly imaginative work and in it we find Jung the psychologist drawing on
his own direct experiences of archetypal imagery in the quest for personal
spiritual guidance and growth. These experiences became foundational in
his approach towards understanding the powerful movements of psyche
and its manifestations, informing his attempts as a psychologist to use
the knowledge gained in relation to the traumas he saw expressed within
the patients he treated. What is remarkable, and a measure of the man, is

10 For examples, see the extraordinary work collected by Hans Prinzhorn and docu-
mented in his influential text on art and mental illness: Artistry of the Mentally Ill
Outsider Art and Alchemy 109

the ability of Jung to negotiate that knife edge between a complete sur-
render to the unconscious and the ability to integrate the alchemical gold
of his visionary experiences into creatively conscious expression.
Jungs artwork in The Red Book borrows stylistically from ancient
illuminated manuscripts and it is clearly consciously designed to emulate
such prophetic texts. It can also be read as a document that aimed to illus-
trate his imaginative excursions into the underworld of the unconscious
in much the same way as the surviving alchemical texts chronicled simi-
lar experiences through the use of symbolic representation. Interestingly,
what we also find, in relation to both Jungs views on his art making and
the art-making practices of Outsider artists, is the unwillingness (in Jungs
case) or an innocent ignorance (in the latter case) to see their respective
art-making activities as art in any culturally inscribed sense. This of course
raises the question as to why such art has, over time, acquired a degree of
aesthetic value to culture over and above the framing of it as a diagnostic
tool. Likewise, the art of the alchemists, although implicitly referred to
as the art by its protagonists, always remained peripheral or outside any
broadly cultural context, following its own esoteric concerns in the path
towards the pearl of great wisdom or the philosophers stone.
By opening up pathways to the archetypal core hidden beneath, or
within, matter and form, both Outsider artist and alchemist stay true
to a fundamental quest regarding their drive towards psychological
transformation via aesthetic experience. Such a quest can be seen as one
highly individual, and esoteric, spiritual quest a quest which does not
demand cultural acceptance in order to be meaningful, but nevertheless
can be highly influential upon culture. Both Outsider artist and alche-
mist express their unique spiritual journeys into aspects of the uncon-
scious by symbolic images representing archetypal patterns of meaning
these meanings being deeply tied to their transformative functions.
The mysterious, cryptic imagery, expressed within both bear witness to
such possibilities.
110 David Parker


Throughout this paper, my aim has been to try to couch the activities of
both the Outsider artist and the alchemist within a broadly Jungian per-
spective on the psyche. It seems to me that a Jungian approach towards an
understanding of psyche provides us with a useful structure in which to
negotiate the complexity of meaning contained in each activity. From a
psychological perspective, Jungian theory is perhaps the most flexible and
creative in this regard. This is because a Jungian psychological approach
recognizes the crucial and valuable importance of the spiritual dimension
(however this may be expressed) to both activities. If an argument is to
be made for spiritually oriented aesthetic values as such, within an overtly
secularized culture, then a theoretical framework which helps identify pat-
terns of meaning within two highly particular, and yet, in some respects
not dissimilar, esoteric activities, could be helpful.
I drew a parallel between the Outsider artist and the alchemist, regard-
ing the two connecting strands, as I see it, of motivation and imagery. I
have not attempted to prove these connections by example such a short
exposition does not give sufficient time or space to explore this in depth.
However these initial thoughts open up some interesting theoretical avenues
regarding attempts to understand the fundamental part played by imagina-
tion in the desire to unify, through material and structural manipulation,
dualistic concepts of spirit and matter. Allied to this viewpoint, is the sig-
nificant part played by unconscious processes and their deeply collective
roots as regards their archetypal foundations.


Cardinal, R. (1972). Outsider Art. London: Littlehampton Book Services Ltd.

Dubuffet. J. (1992). Crude Art Preferred to Cultural Art, in C. Harrison and P. Wood
(eds). Art in Theory 19001990. Oxford: Blackwell.
Outsider Art and Alchemy 111

Fabricius. J. (1994). Alchemy: The Medieval Alchemists and their Art. London: Diamond
Jung, C.G. (1963). Memories, Dreams, Reflections. A. Jaffe (ed.). Trans. R. and C.
Winston. London: Collins.
Jung. C.G. (1969). On the Nature of the Psyche, in H. Read, M. Fordham, G. Adler,
W. McGuire (eds). Collected Works of Carl Jung, Vol. 8. Trans. R.F.C. Hull.
Bollingen Series XX. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press [1947].
Jung, C.G. (1978). Man and His Symbols. London: Picador, [1964].
Jung, C.G. (1989) Mysterium Coniunctionis: An Inquiry into the Separation and
Synthesis of Psychic Opposites in Alchemy, in H. Read, M. Fordham, G. Adler,
W. McGuire (eds). Collected Works of Carl Jung, Vol. 9. Trans. R.F.C. Hull.
Bollingen Series XX. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, [1956].
Jung, C.G. (1991). Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, in H. Read, M. Fordham,
G. Adler, W. McGuire (eds). Collected Works of Carl Jung, Vol. 9. Trans. R.F.C.
Hull. Bollingen Series XX. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, [193454].
Jung, C.G. (1993). Psychology and Alchemy, in H. Read, M. Fordham, G. Adler,
W. McGuire (eds). Collected Works of Carl Jung, Vol. 12. Trans. R.F.C. Hull.
Bollingen Series XX. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, [1944].
Jung, C.G. (2009) cited in Jung, C.G. & Shamdasani. S. (eds). The Red Book: Liber
Novus. S. Shamdasani (ed.). Trans. M. Kyburz, J. Peck and S. Shamdasani. New
York: W.W. Norton & Co.
McEvilley, T. (1992). Art and Otherness: Crisis in Cultural Identity. New York:
Parker, D. (2008). On Painting Substance and Psyche, in S. Rowland (ed.). Psyche
and the Arts: Jungian Approaches to Music, Architecture, Literature, Painting and
Film. London: Routledge, pp.4555.
Prinzhorn, H. (1995). Artistry of the Mentally Ill. New York: Springer-Verlag.
Rhodes, C. (2000). Outsider Art: Spontaneous Alternatives. London: Thames &
Rycroft, C. (1995). A Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis. London: Penguin Books Ltd.
Dino Alfier

Necessarily Selfless Action: An Enactment of

Simone Weils Notion of Attention as a Practice of
Detachment through Observational Drawing

The notion of attention plays a pivotal role in French philosopher Simone

Weils reflections on the possibility of and methods for spiritual progress.
For Weil, the attentive agent perceives reality as an all-embracing web of
necessary connections, which includes human actions, so that, Weil writes,
any action which has really occurred can be reduced to a play of necessities,
without any residual part of the self (Weil, 1994, p.331). This observation
does not lead Weil to ethical nihilism, but is rather a propaedeutic to a spir-
itual practice of detachment. I consider a drawing project that I developed
in the course of my doctorate on Weilian attention, that aimed at inviting
an interpretation of my drawings as indices of my intention to develop an
attitude of detachment. Despite being inspired, as an artist, by Weils phi-
losophy, I found her metaphysical views problematic. Can we make sense
of Weilian attention as a spiritual practice of detachment without her
metaphysics? I note the affinity between the Weilian and Stoic positions
on necessity and spiritual exercises, with a view to suggesting that, both in
Weil and Stoicism, spiritual exercises can be interpreted in ethical, rather
than metaphysical, terms. Weil also argues that the effort of attending to
our mistakes is a practice of detachment, because we come to see ourselves
as the source of error, while the truth is perceived as being independent of
ourselves. This idea is relevant to my drawing project, but Weils extremely
stringent characterization of truth (her examples of truth are often math-
ematical) is again problematic: such a high degree of exactness does not
seem to belong in the context of observational drawing. However, I also
find in Weils writings the conceptual resources namely, her notion of
artificial world as ethical training ground to address this difficulty.
114 Dino Alfier

Weilian Attention and my Observational Drawing Practice

I first encountered French philosopher Simone Weils notion of atten-

tion through her aphoristic notes collected in the book Gravity and Grace
(2002a). As I read passages such as we have to try to cure our faults by
attention and not by will or the virtue of humility is nothing more nor
less than the power of attention (Weil, 2002a, pp.116, 128), I felt that they
chimed with my artistic practice of observational drawing. Weil also explic-
itly describes attention in spiritual terms: she speaks of divine inspiration
that operates infallibly, irresistibly, if we do not turn away our attention
and of attention turned with love towards God; and, considering school
studies, Weil writes that Prayer being attention in its pure form and studies
being a form of gymnastics of the attention, each school exercise should
be a refraction of spiritual life (Weil, 2002a, pp.11920). I have been and
remain ambivalent about Weils spiritual characterization of attention: on
one hand, I was attracted to it because it seemed to intimate that attentive
observational drawing may lead to something more than the acquisition
of a technical skill (with all the vagueness that the adjectives attentive
and more imply here); on the other hand, I was reluctant to adopt, or
even entertain, terms such as God, divine or spiritual, as they entailed a
metaphysics that was alien to me.
I decided to pursue a fine art PhD to study the relationship between
Weilian attention and observational drawing. Broadly speaking, my research
involved devising art projects stimulated by my study of Weils writings on
attention. But, at the start of a project, I seldom could have stated explicitly
what the relation between the project and attention was; rather, consider-
ing the outcomes of a project would often lead me back to a Weil text I had
read, inviting further reflection on it, and revealing, as a kind of spotlight,
questions that had gone unnoticed at other times, the reading would
spark reflection on art projects.
This paper chronicles the process of reflection through one of my art
projects. In outline, the project evolved as follows (although in this paper
the order of exposition is somewhat different). Having noted that Weil
Necessarily Selfless Action 115

often correlates the notion of attention with detachment and necessity, I

started making observational drawings based on procedures that would
emphasize necessity with a view to beginning a practice of detachment.
Since Weil also claims that her concept of necessity and her ethics in gen-
eral is essentially Stoic in spirit, I turned to Stoic ethics and found that
indeed necessity and detachment were central to it. In both Stoicism and
Weils philosophy, necessity is construed very broadly as the law organizing
the material world (Vet, 1994, p.90), a law to which all human beings
are subjected. The Stoics conveyed the domineering character of neces-
sity with the following analogy: every human being is like a dog tied to a
moving cart that can either choose to follow the cart or be pulled unwill-
ingly (Bobzien, 2001, p.351).
Moreover, Stoic ethics suggested the possibility of thinking of a spir-
itual art practice without a metaphysics, thus sustaining my hope that
observational drawing may be considered as a spiritual practice, or at least
that it may in some way refer to spiritual practice, while avoiding Weilian
metaphysics. It was then time to return to the drawings I had made and
to probe more analytically into how they evidenced necessity and detach-
ment. (Lest this stage be thought as indistinguishable from the earlier stage
of making the drawings, I will highlight their difference with an analogy:
the two stages were as different as drawing a circle in complete darkness
and later seeing the drawing and describing in what sense it could be said
to represent a circle. I shall expand on this when I consider the drawings.)
Reflection on the drawings led to the re-examination of a passage in which
Weil argues that the contemplation of our mistakes constitutes a practice
of detachment. And this, in turn, engendered further thoughts on how
observational art could be considered a spiritual practice independently
of metaphysics.
I now turn to Stoic ethics and Stoic spiritual exercises.
116 Dino Alfier

Stoic Spiritual Exercises

My account of Stoic ethics relies exclusively on Pierre Hadots study of

spiritual exercises in ancient philosophy in his book Exercices spirituels et
philosophie antique (2002), and is therefore a very specific account.
According to Hadot, there are two conditions, two aims, that qualify
an exercise as spiritual: firstly, spiritual exercises are not merely an intel-
lectual pursuit but aim at affecting a profound change of perspective with
regard to reality; and, secondly, this envisaged new perspective requires
that one adopt a cosmic point of view, a universal and objective point of
view (Hadot, 2002, pp.21, 24, 32, 45, 524, 1727), which, for the Stoics,
means becoming aware that the results of our actions depend not on us but
on universal necessity. The Stoics pursue these aims to attain ethical free-
dom, which consists of renouncing the desire for anything that is beyond
our control and acting in accordance with cosmic reason, that is, acting
in a detached manner with respect to the results of our actions. As Hadot
(2002, pp.1734) writes, Stoic ethics invites the subject to act while
becoming aware of the fact that the results of our actions do not depend
on us, but from the interweaving of universal causes, of the general course
of the cosmos. The sort of detachment that can be attained through Stoic
spiritual exercises is a state in which the passions are completely absent,
a state effected by cutting our volition down to size. I use this idiomatic
expression to render Hadots retranchement de la volont through the con-
templation of necessity (Hadot, 2002, p.92).
The Epicureans, Hadot (2002, pp.334) says, also pursue spiritual
exercises they too aim at adopting a universal perspective but, unlike
the Stoics, they do not postulate an orderly, all-encompassing necessity:
while the Stoics see the order and rationality of the cosmos as a gift that
we should be thankful for and imitate, for the Epicureans, the gods are
indifferent towards the world they do not care about us and the ulti-
mate goal of spiritual exercises is not, as for the Stoics, ethical freedom,
but the simple joy of existing, that is, hedonism.
Necessarily Selfless Action 117

Weilian Attention as a Practice of Detachment

I have pointed to the distinction between Stoic and Epicurean reasons for
practising spiritual exercises i.e. ethical freedom and hedonism, respec-
tively in order to introduce Weils notion of attention and in order to
show that Weils practice of attention presents a great affinity with Stoic
spiritual exercises, with regard not only to aims but also to ethical rea-
sons. Even though Weil never wrote systematically on the correspond-
ence between her philosophy and Stoicism, there are several passages in
which she explicitly acknowledges her debt to the Stoics; for instance she
writes: The duty of acceptance with regard to the will of God, whatever
it may be, imposed itself on my mind as the first and most necessary of all,
the duty which one cannot abdicate without dishonouring oneself, after
having found it in Marcus Aurelius in the form of Stoic amor fati (Weil,
1966, p.40). Elsewhere she states that the reward for thinking about God
with sufficient attention and love is that we are forced to do his will. And,
reciprocally, the will of God is what we cannot not do once we have thought
about him with enough attention and love. Stoics: the good is what the
sage does (Weil, 1997, p.360).
As regards the aim ofWeilian attention, it is spiritual in the sense that it
aims at a profound change of perspective. Weil argues that the power we have
over how we perceive, or read reality is extremely limited: perceptions seize
us and are triggered without our participation, immediately and brutally. For
instance, Weil maintains, if in a certain situation we may necessarily perceive
a certain human being as someone we ought not to kill, in another situation
we may as necessarily perceive the very same human being as someone we
ought to kill (Weil, 2008, pp.747). But we do have a certain degree of con-
trol over how we read reality, Weil argues. Through a prolonged and attentive
apprenticeship, we can indirectly change our perceptions by modifying our
reading habit. She writes: One does not choose sensations, but, to a large
extent, one chooses that which one feels through them; not in a moment,
but through an apprenticeship. Indirectly and in time, the will, and above
all attention lead to a modification in reading (Weil, 1994, pp.41011).
118 Dino Alfier

Attention modifies our reading habit by making us see necessity. In a

sense, Weil claims, attention gives rise to reality seen as a web of necessary
connections (Weil, 1985, p.155). For both Weil and the Stoics, the ultimate
ethical aim is acknowledging necessity and using this acknowledgement
as a guiding principle of detached conduct. Here the distinction between
Stoic and Epicurean reasons for pursuing spiritual exercises becomes useful
to describe Weils ethics: Weil holds a Stoic ethical position insofar as, like
the Stoics and unlike the Epicureans, her motive for pursuing spiritual
exercises is the attainment of a stronger capacity for acting in a particular
way a freer way. The Epicureans seek happiness, whereas, for Weil and the
Stoics, happiness is subordinate to the capacity to act in harmony with the
cosmic order. Weils emphasis on action is evident in the second of the two
passages quoted above where she mentions Stoicism: we are forced to do,
what we cannot not do, what the sage does. What follows is a series of quo-
tations from various writings by Weil that convey her notion of attention:

Attentive intelligence alone has the power of carrying out the connections, and as
soon as that attention relaxes, the connections dissolve The necessary connections
which constitute the very reality of the world have no reality in themselves except as
the object of intellectual attention in action (Weil, 2005, p.188).

Any action which has really occurred can be reduced to a play of necessities, without
any residual part of the self (Weil, 1994, p.331).

There is no greater attitude ofhumility than that of silent and patient attending. [Note
that throughout her writings, Weil stresses the etymological affinity between attention
(likewise attention in French) and attending or waiting (attendre in French), often
using the two terms as synonyms.] The cry of pride is the future is mine, in some
form or another. Humility is the knowledge of the opposite truth. If only the present
is mine, I am nothing, for the present is nothing The whole ofthe carnal part of our
soul is oriented towards the future. Detachment is a death (Weil, 2006, pp.1259).

All true good entails contradictory conditions and is therefore impossible. He who
keeps his attention truly fixed on this impossibility and acts will do what is good
(Weil, 2002b, p.95).

Detachment is doing what one does, not in view of the good, but of necessity, and
having the good solely as an object of attention. (Weil, 2002b, p.256)
Necessarily Selfless Action 119

Weils claim that one ought to act of necessity and not in view of the good
may seem disconcerting from an ethical point of view. I have translated
Weils par ncessit as of necessity to suggest that here Weil does not mean
acting out of necessity as we may say, for instance, that someone stole
some bread out of the necessity to eat but acting with an awareness that
our actions are inscribed in the necessary order of the universe and reduce
to a play of necessities, as the Stoics also exhort. (I am not claiming that
of necessity is in general a more accurate translation of par ncessit than
out of necessity is par ncessit can mean either; rather my translation
is informed by my overall understanding of Weils philosophy.) We should
also keep in mind that, for Weil, the universe (in which necessity rules)
is secretly complicit with the good, but she warns against the danger of
taking our desires for the good (Weil, 1994, p.148). Thus when Weil writes
that the good is impossible, or that we must not act in view of the good,
I interpret these statements as admonitions to remain humble and not to
mistake the good with our desires, while at the same time attending to
the idea of the good (since losing sight of the good would lead to a purely
mechanistic view of reality a position that Weil rejects). This is the idea
that Weil expresses, for instance, in the following passage: It is sufficient
to note what is evident: namely, that all the goods here below, past, present
or future, real or imaginary, are finite and limited, and radically incapable
of satisfying the desire for an infinite and perfect good which perpetually
burns within us (Weil, 1994, p.277).
Before closing this section, and turning to my art project, I summarize
Weils view of attention: Weilian attention is akin to Stoic spiritual exercises
in the sense that the aim of attention is to attain a universal perspective
that acknowledges necessity in order to cultivate an ethical disposition of
detachment. It should be clear that, according to Hadots description of spir-
itual exercises, the qualifications spiritual and ethical overlap. Moreover,
as Hadot argues, there is a certain degree of continuity between Christian
and ancient spiritual practices (Hadot, 2004, p.242).
120 Dino Alfier

My Enactment of Attention as a Practice of Detachment

Through Observational Drawing

After the above considerations about universal necessity and the good, my
art project, which purports to be a response to my reading of Weils dis-
course on attention, will no doubt appear exceedingly crude, simple and
underdetermined with respect to the notions of necessity and detachment.
In this regard, firstly, I wish to give a candid representation of the place of
art in my study of Weils philosophy, and it would be misleading to portray
my artistic practice as fully and neatly overlaying theoretical findings, either
by inflating the practice or deflating the theory. Secondly, the sustained
effort on the project over an extended period of time, while at the same
time keeping my mind turned towards the ideas gleaned from reading
Weil, afforded insights which are sometimes difficult to express in words,
but some indication of which will be evident in the reflections that follow.
The project consisted of a series of portraits of artist Hephzibah
Rendle-Short, with whom I collaborated on a number of art projects. To
make these drawings, I used coloured felt-tip pens, and I switched to a
different pen every five minutes. I call this project an enactment of atten-
tion as a practice of detachment, and not an attentive practice of detach-
ment, because my intention was to make explicit the bearing of necessity
upon my drawing agency without pretending to any spiritual progress
on my part: the project merely afforded a space for reflection on Weilian
attention, and I did not pursue it long enough to even contemplate the
hope of spiritual progress.
Before considering the drawings to see how they convey necessity, a
preliminary clarification is required with regards to what kind of interpre-
tation of the drawings I believe I am giving. My intention in making the
drawings was rather vague: enacting attention as a practice of detachment
by representing necessity; but once the drawings were made, it became
possible to examine more analytically how necessity was represented in
the drawings recall the difference that I made earlier between drawing a
circle in darkness and later seeing the drawing. It is as if, after having drawn
Necessarily Selfless Action 121

a number of lines on an x-y graph with the intention of representing linear

equations (with no idea of which equations), I then proceeded to study
the graph to find out which equations the lines represent. I clarify this
point because many are critical of artists offering an interpretation of their
work that relies too heavily on their intentions, an approach that can be
described using the literary notion of the Intentional Fallacy. While I am
not in general persuaded by the arguments ofthese critics, it is nevertheless
undeniable that artists engaged in art practical research can be too easily
inclined to resort to their intentions as a defence against (fair) accusations
that their work is unintelligible. Thus my purpose here is to show how the
drawings indicate necessity in a manner that is evident without any refer-
ence to Weil and independently of my intentions in making the drawings.
As regards the images to which I refer below, the drawings were made
using eight different colours. The black and white reproduced images,
however, have been obtained by tracing the original drawings and scan-
ning the tracings that is, the images are diagrams of the drawings. In
Figure 1, the colours have been traced in pairs and the tracings have been
arranged from left to right so that we see a modified representation of the
progression from first to last marks in a single drawing. In Figures 2 and
3, this progression is even more abbreviated: the light marks trace the
first four colours I used, while the dark marks trace the last four colours.
Figures 1 and 2 are different diagrams of the same drawing. Figures 2 and
3 diagram two distinct drawings. Naturally, many of the qualities of the
original drawings have been lost in the reproduced images, but this draw-
back is compensated for by the fact that the simplified images obtained
by tracing and the chromatic limitation are easier to analyse with regard
to indications of necessity.
In the portraits, necessity is evidenced as follows. Firstly, the chro-
matic progression does not serve my representational purpose but, on the
contrary, is quite external to it. As the project progressed, I realized that
in order to make explicit the indifference of the chromatic progression
with respect to the representational purpose, I should avoid using first
light and dull colours, otherwise the progression would follow the quite
natural tendency to draw the darkest, most visible marks last, when the
object of observation is more distinctly perceived (art historian Norman
Figure 1. Dino Alfier, Portrait of HRS, 2008
Coloured felt-tip pens on paper, 29.7 20.1 cm

Figure 2. Dino Alfier, Portrait of HRS,

Coloured felt-tip pens on paper,
29.7 20.1 cm
Figure 3. Dino Alfier, Portrait of HRS,
Coloured felt-tip pens on paper,
29.7 20.1 cm
Necessarily Selfless Action 123

Bryson (2003) highlights this tendency). As this point about chromatic

progression cannot be represented in black and white, I invite the reader
to imagine, for instance, trying to rectify a black drawing mark with a light
yellow pen: perceptually, the black mark would be much more weighty than
the yellow one, and it would not be easy not for me, at least to remain
determined to rectify it. Again temporal progression, which is necessary,
works against my representational purpose and is explicitly represented in
the drawings. Figure 1 shows the drawing divided into four discrete tempo-
ral segments, and it should be kept in mind that, in the original drawings,
five-minute segments are very prominent because they are chromatically
differentiated; the drawings are similar to composite photographs of the
phases of a clock.
Secondly, comparison of several portraits indicates my drawings habits,
and these habits can be understood as a necessary rule that determines how
I draw. I am not suggesting that, with sufficient practice and time, I could
not change my drawing habits, but, as I now look back at the drawings I
made, I am aware of the full force of habit. I stress that habit becomes appar-
ent only by comparing several drawings and that it must thus be taken on
trust that the relevant characteristics which I indicate below by referring
to the reproduced images are in fact shared by several drawings. It should
be clear, however, that any one drawing may also possess characteristics
that are exclusive to it and that are to a greater or lesser extent exceptions
to the rules of habit. Figures 2 and 3 show that I have a habit of drawing
from left to right and that this habit is superseded by the more peremptory
habit of drawing the face first in those situations where the face is on my
right and the mass of hair on my left. For instance, looking at Figure 2, we
can see that I started with the face, which is on the right, but then spent a
great deal of time drawing the hair, because it is on the left. On the other
hand, Figure 3 shows that, having started with the face, which is on the
left, I concentrated on the face for most of the session; the hair is merely
sketched, because it is on the right. More fine grained observations as to
drawing habits could be made by considering the entire body of draw-
ings which belong to this project, but the observations I have adduced
illustrate sufficiently the point I wish to make: namely, that I experience
these habits as external to me, in the sense that they are quite impersonal.
124 Dino Alfier

For instance, the habit of drawing from left to right is very likely a conse-
quence of the culturally acquired manner of reading and writing; while the
habit of drawing the face first is a very common one which, I assume, is a
consequence of the fact that humans spend a lot of time looking at faces
(faces are psychologically highly charged). My activity as a drawing tutor
confirms that these are indeed very typical habits.
Thirdly, and lastly, mistakes, in the form of reassessments of previ-
ously made marks, are more explicit than they would be in a single-colour
drawing. For instance, in Figure 3, we can see that the single dark mark
representing the edge of the sitters right side of the forehead, cheekbone
and jaw (i.e. the mark to the viewers left) is intended as a rectification of a
series of lighter, and therefore earlier, marks depicting this same edge. (In
Figure 3 rectification is emphasized through tonal differentiation, but it is
clear that the chromatic differentiation ofthe original drawings is even more
emphatic in this respect.) Here the relevance of necessity is less obvious:
to interpret certain marks as a reassessment of mistaken marks implies the
postulate that there is an objective state of affairs that of necessity qualifies
the drawing marks that purport to represent it as either true or false the
remainder of the paper will expand on this.
Of the three observations I have made above i.e. chromatic and
temporal progression working against representational purpose, indica-
tion of habit, and evidence of mistakes it was the third that led back
to Weil. That is not to say, however, that the first two observations are
perfunctory, since they clarify by which means necessity was made more
explicit with a view to an enactment of attention as a practice of detach-
ment. Moreover, as I pointed out earlier, this paper is an account of my
reflection through art, and it would be disingenuous to pretend that I
knew from the very start what kind of questions would emerge from
considering the outcome of the art project. I now turn to Weils views on
contemplating our mistakes.
Necessarily Selfless Action 125

Attending to Our Mistakes and Artificial Worlds

For Weil, the effort of attending to our mistakes is a practice of detachment

because we come to see ourselves as the source of error, while the truth (or,
more precisely, the objective state of affairs that qualifies our statements
as true or false) is perceived as being independent of ourselves. Our mis-
takes are contingent on us: we may go wrong because we are tired, we are
hungry, we are ignorant, etc. On the other hand, when we are right, this
fact is necessitated by how things are, not by us. In other words, attention
to our mistakes requires, and therefore encourages, that kind of objective
perspective to which, as I have shown above, the Stoics also aspire in their
spiritual exercises. In the spiritual domain, Weil claims, no knowledge is
more desirable than the one that is acquired by contemplating our mistakes
(Weil, 1966, pp.8990). In her Notebook IV, she exemplifies her view as
follows: I say that 7 + 8 = 16, I am wrong; in a way, I make 7 + 8 = 16.
But it is not me who makes 7 + 8 = 15. A new mathematical theorem, a
beautiful line of verse; reflections of this great truth I am absent from
all that which is true, or beautiful, or good (Weil, 1997, p.125). But is this
kind of view regarding the contemplation of our mistakes applicable to
observational drawing?
Weils mathematical example of attending to mistakes is problematic
in the context of observational drawing, because in drawing there is noth-
ing as definite as 7 + 8 = 15. Furthermore, often although by no means
exclusively Weil refers to truth and reality in transcendent terms: truth,
she claims, comes of itself, as it were from outside; we cannot search for it
but only wait attend desirously for it (Weil, 1966, p.94; see also Weil,
2002b, pp.2278). That is to say, Weil speaks of truth as if it were a thing
that determines our epistemic state (causing, so to speak, our being in a state
of truth), as a physical object pushes another object thus determining the
state of the latter. This difficulty offers the opportunity to reflect on the
possibility of a spiritual art practice without metaphysics. Let us develop
Weils example. First I calculate 7 + 8 = 16. Then, realizing my mistake, I
calculate 7 + 8 = 14. If I am convinced that 7 + 8 = 14 is correct, then I
126 Dino Alfier

can attend to my initial mistake, and there seems no need to postulate a

transcendent truth. The following quote from Weils Notebook V may be
clarifying in this context: Mathematics: we catch ourselves being in glaring
error. Art, science: artificial worlds by which man tries to learn to not lie.
But, when diverted from their aim, they have the contrary effect. Means
and not ends. God is the only end (Weil, 1997, p.278).
In my view, the expression artificial world invites a non-metaphysical
interpretation: mathematics, art and science are artificial worlds in the
sense that they are created by us, and the fact that they are a good ethical
training ground e.g. to learn not to lie could be explained by the fact
that they are simplified closed systems in which our lies, or mistakes, stand
out with particular clarity. This interpretation accords with an argument
that Weil articulates in the essay De la perception ou laventure de Prote,
where she argues that artworks are particularly useful in the apprenticeship
of attention because, unlike the world at large, they are simple and allow
us to exercise a certain degree of control over our unruly emotions and to
attain a detached attitude (Weil, 1988, pp.12139). Similarly, in Rflex-
ions sur les causes de la libert et de loppression sociale, Weil writes that art,
science and sport are activities that appear to be the freest i.e. the most
arbitrary but have value only insofar as they imitate, and even exaggerate,
the rigour of manual work which comes up against the necessity of external
obstacles (Weil, 1955, pp.867). But I do not want to downplay the fact
that Weil writes: God is the only end: there is no doubt that Weils ethi-
cal and spiritual discourses proceed from, or lead to, metaphysics; for her,
mathematics, science and art are intermediaries between the world of the
senses and God, openings through which the breath and the light of God
may penetrate, image[s] of the creative will of God (Weil, 1985, pp.1257,
1579). My question is rather: can we make sense of Weilian attention as
an ethico-spiritual practice of detachment without her metaphysics?
I will conclude by briefly addressing this question in the next section
not by answering it, but by asking it again with reference to an anecdote
about Paul Czanne, and by suggesting how the anecdote could be inter-
preted non-metaphysically as an indication of art as spiritual practice.
Necessarily Selfless Action 127

Czannes Ethics

After countless sessions allegedly 115 on a portrait of the art dealer

Ambroise Vollard, the anecdote goes, Czanne (1899) left two small spots
of the canvas unpainted, on the knuckles. When Vollard asked Czanne
whether he would paint the two spots, Czanne replied that if he had
painted them at random, he would have to start the whole painting all
over again (Benesch, 2000, p.54). (It is an obvious point, but perhaps
worth stressing, that the force of the anecdote depends on the disparity
between the smallness of the points left unpainted they are really barely
noticeable and the great envisaged undertaking of starting the painting
all over again.)
Now I imagine that few among those who find the Czanne anecdote
ethically meaningful e.g. as an indication of Czannes honesty and
staunch commitment would be prepared to entertain the thought that,
had he continued working on the painting, Czannes eventual choice of
colours would have been determined by transcendental truth (i.e. deter-
mined in the Weilian sense that I described in the previous section). I would
go further and hazard that, for all Czannes honesty and artistically com-
mendable determination, it is difficult to dismiss the doubt that not even
the great Czanne himself could have been so sure of the right colours as
to warrant the possible repainting of the whole picture let us not forget
that Czanne had already spent a very considerable amount of time and
effort on the painting. The difficulty seems to arise, as for observational
drawing, from the fact that the issue regarding which colours are the right
colours in a painting is quite different from that of whether 7 + 8 = 15.
And yet, in my view, these considerations do not undermine the ethical
connotation of the anecdote.
Weils notion of artificial world may be helpful here. Even if one rejects
the view that transcendental truth would have determined the rightness of
Czannes colours, a counter-argument to the second objection i.e. that
Czanne could not have had such precise chromatic standards may be
conceivable if we consider that, as cogent as this objection is and notwith-
standing the complexity of the visual phenomena that Czanne beheld,
128 Dino Alfier

Czannes representation of what he saw is nevertheless a simplification of

it. The art critic Lawrence Gowing (2001) argued that, in his mature work,
in order to represent depth, Czanne developed a schematic chromatic code
that was only partially dependent on the local colours he actually perceived,
that is, Czannes ordering of colours was artificially constructed. If we
can think of Czanne as articulating an artificial world through painting,
it becomes easier to envisage his artistic endeavour as, to an extent, akin
to the search for the sum of two numbers, and as leading of necessity to
a right (or wrong) choice. Of course, easier to envisage does not mean
easy, but reference to the notion of artificial world goes some way towards
narrowing the gap between the prima facie arbitrariness of observational
art and the necessity and objectivity of, for instance, mathematics or, with
the Stoics, the cosmos and this in turn suggests how observational art
practice in general could be pursued as a spiritual practice of detachment
without metaphysical foundations.

Funding for this work was provided by the Arts and Humanities Research


All translations from French are by the author, unless otherwise stated.

Benesch, E. (2000). From the Incomplete to the Unfinished: Ralisation in the Work
of Paul Czanne, in F. Baumann, E. Benesch, W. Feilchenfeldt and K.A. Schrder
(eds). Czanne: FinishedUnfinished. Zrig: Hatje Cantz, pp.4162.
Bobzien, S. (2001). Determinism and Freedom in Stoic Philosophy. Oxford: Clarendon
Bryson, N. (2003). A Walk for a Walks Sake, in C. de Zegher (ed.), The Stage of
Drawing: Gesture and Act. Exhibition Catalogue. Tate Liverpool, Liverpool,
SeptemberMarch 2004, pp.14964.
Necessarily Selfless Action 129

Gowing, L. (2001). The Logic of Organised Sensations, in M. Doran (ed.).

Conversations with Czanne. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Hadot, P. (2002). Exercices spirituels et philosophie antique. Paris: Albin Michel.
Hadot, P. (2004). What is Ancient Philosophy? Trans. M. Chase. Cambridge,
Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Vet, M. (1994). The Religious Metaphysics of Simone Weil. Trans. J. Dargan. Albany:
State University of New York Press, [1971].
Weil, S. (1955). Rflexions sur les causes de la libert et de loppression sociale. Paris:
Weil, S. (1966). Attente de Dieu. Paris: Fayard.
Weil, S. (1985). Intuitions pr-chrtiennes. Paris: Fayard.
Weil, S. (1988). uvres compltes, Tome 1: Premiers crits philosophiques. G. Kahn &
R. Khn (eds). Paris: Gallimard.
Weil, S. (1994). uvres compltes, Tome 6: Cahiers, Vol. 1: 1933Septembre 1941.
A. Degrces, P. Kaplan, F. De Lussy, and M. Narcy (eds). Paris: Gallimard.
Weil, S. (1997). uvres compltes, Tome 6: Cahiers, Vol. 2: La science et limpensable.
A. Degrces, M-A. Fourneyron, F. De Lussy and M. Narcy (eds). Paris: Gallimard.
Weil, S. (2002a). Gravity and Grace. Trans. E. Crawford and M. von der Ruhr. London:
Routledge, [1947].
Weil, S. (2002b). uvres compltes, Tome 6: Cahiers, Vol. 3: La porte du transcendant.
A. Degrces, M-A. Fourneyron, F. De Lussy and M. Narcy (eds). Paris: Gallimard.
Weil, S. (2005). Intimations of Christianity amongst the Ancient Greeks. Trans. E. Chase
Geissbuhler. London: Routledge, [1985].
Weil, S. (2006). uvres compltes, Tome 6: Cahiers, Vol. 4: La connaissance surna-
turelle. M-A. Fourneyron, F. De Lussy and & J. Riaud (eds). Paris: Gallimard.
Weil, S. (2008). uvres compltes, Tome 4: Vol. 1: crits de Marseille (19401942),
Philosophie, science, religion, questions politiques et sociales. R. Chenavier (ed.).
Paris: Gallimard.
Ayla Lepine

Installation as Encounter:
Ernesto Neto, Do-Ho Suh and Kathleen Herbert

I think anyone who has left home and moved around understands the
act of crossing boundaries.
Do-Ho Suh in Corrin and Kwon, 2002, p.20

In 2004, Martin Warner wrote Known to the Senses, a book that connects
a deep investigation of sensory experience to the sequence of rituals and
Biblical events that comprise Holy Week. Noting that the senses can only
guide us so far in sacred experience, Warner uses hearing, touch, smell,
taste and sight as incarnational signs that may offer new forms of spiritual
knowledge. We may touch darkness, hear silence, or smell memory (Warner,
2004). My own work searches for these moments of meaningful sensory
encounter that point to the numinous and operate on the threshold of
spirituality in what has been increasingly described as a post-secular world.
This essay explores the work of Ernesto Neto, Do-Ho Suh and
Kathleen Herbert. Each has exhibited their work in the UK in recent
years, and each works in a variety of media. The work by Herbert I discuss
here are two films, Stable (2007) and De Magnete (20089). The Korean
artist Do-Ho Suhs work revolves around architecture and the tensions
between individual and collective identity. I am particularly interested
in his fabric architectural sculptures, which he began to produce after his
relocation to New York (Corrin and Kwon, 2002). Ernesto Neto works in
what could be described as a Brazilian sculptural tradition. Responsive to
multi-sensory immersive art that was first explored and theorized in the
1960s, Netos sculptural environments often contain aspects of touch and
132 Ayla Lepine

smell interaction for their audiences. Each artist emphasizes the importance
of contemplation in their work, but there is something different at stake
in how each project produces meaning and lays itself open to a visitors or
viewers interaction, perception and affiliation with the work.
For the past two decades, affect theory has helped to interlace different
strands of research in the humanities by negotiating and interpreting the
importance of emotion, experience and intensity. Affect itself can take
on an anthropomorphic quality, particularly when it is described in rela-
tion to forces that lie in internal regions beneath, alongside, or generally
other than conscious knowing, vital forces insisting beyond emotion
[driving] us toward movement, toward thought and extension, that can
likewise suspend us (as if in neutral) across a barely registering accretion
of force-relations, or that can even leave us overwhelmed by the worlds
apparent intractability (Gregg and Seigworth, 2010, p.1). The affective
principle of force-relations is a substantial element in my thinking about
how artwork by Ernesto Neto, Kathleen Herbert and Do-Ho Suh might
share threads of meaning and certain conditions in common. By affiliat-
ing the work of these three artists in relation to contemplation and in a
manner that places their art on the productive edges of spirituality, a web
of comparative possibilities can be established between this triad. This
text, like Suh and Netos architectural sculptures, erects semi-permeable
and semi-transparent boundaries between the discussions of each artist.
In each encounter with their work, the importance of relations between
bodies and the impact of the artwork upon the body of the viewer comes
to the fore.
Isobel Armstrong contends that bringing affect to bear in scholarship
does not have to instigate a rigid divide between subjectivity and rational-
ity. I am in agreement with Armstrongs position that: The task of a new
definition of close reading is to rethink the power of affect, feeling and
emotion in a cognitive space. The power of affect needs to be included
within a definition of thought and knowledge rather than theorized as
outside them, excluded from the rational (Armstrong, 2000, p.87). As
Armstrong explains, a strong binary between thinking and feeling can
alienate scholars from their chosen material, as we become located at a
distance from the object, text or experience that we simultaneously claim
Installation as Encounter 133

is open to analysis and which has made a particular and personal impact
upon the interpreter. If our account of site-specific artworks and acts of
participation that involve the body in multi-sensory ways is an account in
which we are, as Armstrong puts it outside, believing our subject to be
something external which has to be grasped or warded off (Armstrong,
2000, p.87) it will be substantially limited. Scholarship that claims to
explore the tensions and significances of art that relies on passing through
spatial thresholds, destabilizing our relationship to our environment, stimu-
lating us with diverse sensations, and extending our experience from the
immediacy of a gallery into an ineffable zone of spiritual encounter must
be responsive to the claims of affect theory in order to attempt a valuable
reading of what is at stake in artwork by Neto, Suh and Herbert. To the
best of my knowledge, none of the artists in this study have been discussed
in terms of spirituality. In making the decision to speak about these artists
and connect them in this way, I hope I do so in the spirit of Frank Burch
Browns claim that the art that has the greatest significance is not neces-
sarily the art of institutional religion but rather the art which happens to
discern what religion in its institutional or personal focus needs most to
see (Burch Brown, 1989, p.111).
Netos work invokes ideas about wonder, play, habitation and com-
munity, transforming gallery spaces into clusters of immersive experiences
where strangers are invited to encounter each other briefly yet meaning-
fully through shared sensory acts. Do-Ho Suh created a series of semi-
transparent soft sculptures based on architecture from his childhood and
his more recent past, the very details of which open them to viewers own
memories of home(s). Kathleen Herberts films transport audiences to
ambiguous places that question knowledge, reverence and spectatorship.
Each artist is committed to engaging with bodies in ways that demand deli-
cate and patient multi-sensorial encounter. Temporary, mutable, uncanny
effects of unexpected and fleeting habitation link the three artists work.
Conventional and traditional concepts of what constitutes a habitable space
and the displacing effect of site-specificity give way to new interpretations.
Prioritizing and manipulating mutability creates nothing less than spiritual
liminality, where the most important spaces are interstitial and in between.
Apparent divisions between sacred and secular experience are blurred and
134 Ayla Lepine

sensory perceptions are amplified and prioritized. Contemplation and

spirituality suffuse spaces and images and invite those who encounter these
artworks into deeper systems of relation.

Homing in: Ernesto Neto

In an interview with Ralph Rugoff in 2010, Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto

was asked if his artwork could help audiences to re-engage with the deli-
cacy of the world (Lauson and Rugoff, 2010, p.24). Neto enthusiasti-
cally agreed. Since the 1990s Neto has been creating stretched, taut nylon
site-specific artworks that invite multi-sensory encounter. His work is
dedicated to exploring how we perceive the world by constructing minia-
ture worlds within exhibition spaces that invite specific types of interac-
tion. One of the most evocative of his series of structures are the Naves,
a word which in Portuguese means boat or vessel, and has connotations
that might be productively connected to the English ecclesiastical term
nave. Ideas about thresholds, limits, and how these boundaries might be
stretched, pulse throughout his work. Neto has remarked that the naves
are simple structures with an inside and an outside. I think the complete
experience is from both sides. Touching and smelling are important, but
so is contemplation, just looking (Van Noord and Wilson, 2000, p.27).
The contemplative impulse is a foundational component of understanding
Netos work. They are playgrounds (though more on play later) for exploring
feeling as a medium for art-making and art-appreciating. They can be quiet
spaces that are set apart from quotidian experience but refer us back to the
simplicity and yet incomprehensibility of embodiment and selfhood.
In his classic interpretation of architecture and sensation, The Poetics
of Space, Gaston Bachelard speculated that One might say that immen-
sity is a philosophical category of the daydream an inner state that is
so unlike any other, that the daydream transports the dreamer outside the
immediate world to a world that bears the mark of infinity (Bachelard,
1994, p.183). The suggestive possibility of infinitude as something that can
Installation as Encounter 135

be indicated or signalled in some way was also an important motivator for

the development of a quality Le Corbusier termed ineffable space. The
architect described this in an interview at La Tourette in 1961:

When a work reaches a maximum of intensity, when it has the best proportions and
has been made with the best quality of execution, which it has reached perfection,
a phenomenon takes place that we may call ineffable space. When this happens
these places start to radiate. They radiate in a physical way and determine what I call
ineffable space, that is to say, a space that does not depend on dimensions but on
the quality of its perfection. It belongs to the domain of the ineffable, of that which
cannot be said. (Wogenscky, 2006, p.81)

Ineffability, an unspeakable, unutterable condition that radiates an ungrasp-

able suggestion of sacredness, is a useful way of thinking about spirituality
and contemplation in contemporary art. As the architectural historian
Karla Britton and many other scholars in numerous disciplines have noted
in recent years, we have entered a post-secular period. Britton suggests
that dominant discourses of secularization must be nuanced to take into
account the continuing influence of religious convictions in social discourse,
albeit at a more individualized level (Britton, 2010, 9). Exploring how
site-specific sculptures and films that interact with memory, the senses and
intersections of spirituality and materiality may help us to better under-
stand that sacred places take many forms, and are not necessarily limited
to those typological buildings we think of strictly in religious terms
(Britton, 2010, p.10).
In a 1997 solo show in New York, Neto weighted ends of his nylon
sculptures and filled them with pungent spices and powdery natural pig-
ments. The introduction of smell and the waves oflavender, cloves or pepper
that emanate from certain zones of his sculptures and permeate the air led
to the use of olfactory stimulation as an increasingly important and charac-
teristic component of his work. The nylon sculptures, weighted, stretched
and secured with metallic pellets, foam fragments or light wooden frames,
evoke bodily processes, caves and forests. For Katya Garcia-Anton, these
fabric environments allude to umbilical cords and vaginal openings (Van
Noord and Wilson, 2000, p.27). Touch and smell are just as important as
vision, and the overall sensation when perceiving and interacting with Netos
136 Ayla Lepine

objects is that each of them is an assemblage of permeable membranes.

Many of the materials he uses have a semi-transparent quality. A series of
corridor structures erected for the Hayward Gallerys 2010 exhibition in
London contained tubular elements stretched between two nylon layers,
into which visitors could insert their arms, or peer through to additional
structures in the complex. Many of these objects, particularly the naves,
required visitors to remove their shoes. This created a sense of intimacy,
informality and play, and also suggested a reverence that connected with
the physical conditions ofthe artworks as fragile and sensitive to the impact
of human bodies.
In the 1960s, Brazilian artists began to experiment with art projects
that focused on sensuality, and the ideal space between the viewer and the
artwork was no space at all (Van Noord and Wilson, 2000, p.11). Dan
Camerons brief essay on Neto in Van Noord and Wilsons book places him
within a wider narrative of twentieth-century modernisms. In Camerons
Why We Ask You Not to Touch, he links Netos projects with Marina
Abramovics body-centred work and Marcel Duchamps found objects.
Duchamp comes into contact with Netos work through the familiar made
strange, and Camerons claim is that like R. Mutts 1917 urinal, Netos objects
have an uncanny familiarity that is divorced from function, leaving space
for nothing but contemplation. The uncoupling of familiarity and the eve-
ryday from potential functionality also connects Netos work to Do-Ho
Suhs fabric architectural sculptures, discussed in more detail below.
There is an important relationship between contemplation and an art-
works potential for interactivity and enveloping the viewer. Asserting that
Netos work challenges the relationship between everything we touch and
everything that touches us (Van Noord and Wilson, 2000, p.13), Cameron
describes Netos sculptures (which are often described as structures, bring-
ing them closer to architecture than site-specific sculpture traditions) as:

Room-like environments that the viewer can enter and walk around inside. Because
he increasingly favours fleshy colours for these tent-based sculptures, the sensation
of passing through a layer of skin to enter a fleshy organism is acute. Even more star-
tling is the feeling one has of being separated from the outside world once inside the
structures. (Van Noord and Wilson, 2000, p.13)
Installation as Encounter 137

Netos beliefs about architecture and sensory encounter have an important

part to play in his critique of curatorial monumentality. In conversation
with Rugoff, Neto noted that the awe a viewer experiences when walk-
ing into a large gallery space containing a single sculpture or painting is
a false awe generated by scale and placement rather than the work itself.
I began to think that I should work with a variety of focal points, Neto
explained. I decided that I want to make people a little dizzy so that when
they think that the answer is here, I want to lead them to another place.
Because if there is an answer, I think were not going to arrive at it in a
strictly rational fashion, but that it will come together in a more melodic
or more fragmented way, more as a combination of effects (Lauson and
Rugoff, 2010, p.20). If Netos work is about the search for answers as a
series of exploratory sensorial encounters then the new purchase that may
be gained for their contemplative potential is intensified. In a 1966 article
in Artforum, Robert Morris discussed Minimalist sculpture and the body
in a manner that can certainly be applied to Neto and Suhs work and its
tensions between intimacy and immensity. Herberts video art also ques-
tions the viewers relation to a work, drawing her/him into an impactful
world of sensation. In a discussion of vision and relation, Morris wrote:
Every internal relationship, whether it be set up by a structural division, a rich sur-
face, or what have you, reduces the public, eternal quality of the object and tends to
eliminate the viewer to the degree that these details pull him into an intimate relation
with the work and out of the space in which the object exists. (Morris, 1966, p.22)

Aspects of play (indeed, Katya Garcia-Antons essay on Neto within the

2000 ICA exhibition catalogue is titled Playful Grammar) often come to
the fore in discussions of Netos work. You can romp through them; they
offer a sense of wonder and delight; they tend to be brightly coloured; the
materials have a toy-like quality; their interactivity opens up ways of link-
ing feeling to discovery. Neto, however, is reluctant to rely on fun and play
as a mode of enquiry. He links his own work to Arte Povera, Minimalism
and the artist Lygia Clark. Clarks work in particular drew viewers into
artworks as participants in revolutionary ways. Reflecting on her work in
an article for October written in the 1990s, she recalled that her notion of
138 Ayla Lepine

God in the 1960s was crucial for her output, explaining that she wanted to
emphasize her belief that everyone is [a] creator (Clark in Krauss, 1997,
p.45). A series of manifesto-like staccato statements follows, including
Clarks proposition of precariousness as a new idea of existence against all
static crystallization within duration (Clark in Krauss, 1997, p.46). In the
same essay, she described a project she initiated in 1964 called Trailings.
The simplicity of the artworks materials, process and apparent aim was
directed towards a significant idea in her Neo-Concretist movement: the
merging of meaning with choice. She explained that Trailings could be
made to articulate choice, control and imagination for any participant:

I will give an absolute importance to the immanently inscribed act that the participant
will bring about Make yourself a Trailing: you take the band of paper wrapped
around a book, you cut it open, you twist it, and you glue it back together so as to
produce a Mobius strip. Then take a pair of scissors, stick one point into the surface
and cut continuously along the length of the strip. Take care not to converge with
the pre-existing cut which will cause the band to separate into two pieces. When
you have gone the circuit of the strip, its up to you whether to cut to the left or to
the right of the cut youve already made. The idea of choice is capital. The special
meaning of the experience is the act of doing it. The work is your act alone At
the end the path is so narrow that you cant open it further. Its the end of the trail.
(Clark in Krauss, 1997, p.39)

Neto responded to Clarks importance for his exploration of the body

in the midst of architectural approaches to sculpture. His assertion even
though you can see an architectural link in my work, this architecture is
pretty much linked to the body, looking for a continuity from the body to
the landscape (Louson and Rugoff, 2010, p.21) forces us to think beyond
play when contemplating his works of art. The structures he creates are
less buildings within the built environment of the art gallery than they are
systems for bodily exploration where personal encounter and interaction
with the artwork results in a mutual exchange between the object and the
participant. Inside a clove-suffused space in bare feet with the thinnest layer
of nylon between the body and the rest of the world, the rest of the world
is less important than this delicate temporary space open to contemplative
acts of touch, smell and sight.
Installation as Encounter 139

Leaving Home: Do-Ho Suh

Red semi-transparent polyester fabric stretches across the gallery ceiling

from end to end, supported and kept taut by steel wires screwed into the
walls. In the middle of the room, a triangular object hangs suspended
from the flat red false ceiling, its form descending to a tantalizing level,
just above head height. Closer inspection shows that it is a staircase, but its
height, its position and its apparent softness make it impossible to climb.
There is a melancholic drift in this artwork. The closer one comes, the
more curious the viewer can be about its finely sewn details from banister
and balustrade to light switches the more clearly it becomes an object
out of reach. Staircase-III, completed in 2010, is an example of what Janet
Kraynak describes as Do-Ho Suhs engagement with and transformation of
sculptural Minimalism, in which transformation of the terms of viewing
is both recognized and dramatized and Suhs art is a continual tweaking
of the conditions of beholding (Kraynak, 2001, p.42).
Suh makes what he and others have described as clothing for spaces
(Corrin and Kwon, 2002, p.28). Protective wrappings or costume give
way to textile evocations of the spaces themselves where walls, windows,
furnishings, and even plumbing are all rendered down to the last physi-
cal details in sewn polyester, nylon or other fabrics. Suhs own childhood
home has generated some of his most interesting artwork. He has described
moving to America as akin to being granted a new body (Corrin and
Kwon, 2002, p.33). Embodiment and a viewing experience where visitors
are enveloped and literally housed by Suhs work gain a unique charge in
relation to migration and identity. The emotional conditions ofbeholding
the sense of longing, confusion, frustration and curiosity that is piqued
by an encounter with Suhs work can be yoked productively to Gregory J.
Seigworth and Melissa Greggs simple statement about the origins of affect:
it arises, they explain, in the midst of inbetween-ness: in the capacities to
act and be acted upon (Gregg and Seigworth, 2010, p.1). Do-Ho Suhs
soft architectural sculptures are manifestations of inbetween-ness and are
often discussed as objects that engage with displacement, a multiplicity of
140 Ayla Lepine

homes, immigration, and itinerancy. I was introduced to Suhs sculptures

via the red staircase, acquired by Tate Modern in 2011, and my discussion
will focus on Seoul Home/LA Home/Baltimore Home/New York Home/
Seattle Home/London Home (hereafter abbreviated to Seoul Home)
(see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Do-Ho Suh, Seoul Home/LA Home/New York Home/

Baltimore Home/London Home/Seattle Home, 1999
Silk, 378.5 609.6 609.6 cm
Serpentine Gallery, London, 2002. Photograph: Stephen White.
Reproduced with kind permission of Serpentine Gallery.
Installation as Encounter 141

This object, produced from carefully stitched green fabric to reproduce

the details of a portion of Suhs childhood home in Korea, is as much about
nostalgia and reiterating loss and the past as it is about a forward-looking
set of lived experiences that change and develop over time. Seoul Home is
widely travelled, as its long and growing title suggests. Every time the work
is exhibited its title lengthens to accommodate the latest site in which it has
been placed. Blurring boundaries between the connotations of home and
the capacity for an art gallery to house and protect its objects and indeed
artists in a manner that is not unlike a domestic or family sphere, the very
idea of home is at stake. Its forms are Korean, but its multiple site histo-
ries track each works exhibition history, not unlike the accumulation of
stamps from different countries in a passport (Corrin and Kwon, 2002,
p.17). Miwon Kwons critical essay on Suh accompanied his solo show at
the Serpentine Gallery in London in 2002. Seoul Home has appeared
in what we might call differing modes of installation in its various gallery
homes. In LA, for example, Seoul Home was positioned above a staircase
as a bridge between the exhibition material on the ground floor and the
upper floor. Visitors had to enter the house-sculpture as an integral part
of moving through the gallery spaces. In London, however, Seoul Home
was suspended high up in the gallery in a manner similar to Staircase-III.
The tantalizing quality accompanying an inability to enter was marshalled
effectively. Another aspect was also introduced, however. For Kwon, the
physical elevation of Seoul Home to a height above our heads and out
of reach of its viewers not only reifies the space, it objectifies the work and
elevates it as a precious object of pure aesthetic contemplation (Corrin
and Kwon, 2002, p.18).
As the sculpture gained an other-worldly quality through its out-of-
reach-ness, it also reflected Suhs ideas about house-parachutes which he
has invoked regularly throughout his practice. In conversation with Lisa
Corrin for the same Serpentine 2002 exhibition, he explained that he had
created a series of drawings where a house could be used like a parachute to
soften the potentially fatal and violent collision between a foreign invader
and the alien ground. The house-parachute is the lifeline for the foreign
arrival, Suh explained (Corrin and Kwon, 2002, p.20). Kwon connects the
raised height of Seoul Home with dreaming and idealism, but I suggest it
142 Ayla Lepine

is more provocative to explore its potential as a baldacchino signalling the

preciousness of an absent altar, or a protective canopy, beneath which the
visitor him/herself becomes precious, protected and saved. It also activates
the sense of confusion, longing and enthusiasm communicated by Peter in
the Transfiguration narratives of Matthew, Luke and Mark. The revelation
of Jesus pure white garments and the impulse to hold onto the fleeting
moment on Mount Tabor and construct tabernacles for Moses and Elijah
because it is good to be here is not unlike the longing for home expressed
in the suspended Seoul Home by Suh. The construction becomes allegori-
cal for an ideal, heavenly world which is paradoxically within grasp and
apprehension, but beyond comprehension and beyond the constraints of
space and time. Seoul Homes spiritual quality is its ability to be a bridge
between differing understandings of memory, the past, and the power of
Suh draws a close comparison between architecture and dressmak-
ing, and he worked with a group of women trained in traditional Korean
clothing design and sewing techniques to complete the project. When you
expand this idea of clothing a space, Suh explains, it becomes an inhab-
itable structure, a building, a house made of fabric (Corrin and Kwon,
2002, p.37). Inhabitability is always at stake in Suhs work. Especially
interested in migration and memory, his work on foreignness and the
phenomenon of displacement allowed him to reflect on personal, collec-
tive and national spaces through interrogating the confluence of origin
and original (Corrin and Kwon, 2002). Anxiety is also present in the lan-
guage of criticism, with numerous writers referring to Suhs architectural
sculptures as replicas. Replication implies like for like, and these objects
materiality suggest different descriptive strategies. Whether a remaking,
reworking or reflecting of Suhs lived-in spaces, the objects refer back to a
physical site which inspires but does not and could not contain the work.
Indeed, it is the sculptures distance and reflected meaning in relation to
the architecture to which it responds that gives it its power. Reflecting on
the proximity of Seoul Home to 348 West 22nd Street, a soft architectural
sculpture he designed based on his New York residence, Suh ventured:
Installation as Encounter 143

The transporting of the space in which I currently live into the space that I left behind
shows my desire to overcome or decrease the geographical and cultural distances
between the two spaces: the one from which I originated and the one where I am
now. The Perfect Home, when eventually complete [this was finished in 2004], will
combine all the fabric pieces that I have made into one large complex. My Korean
fabric house, New York apartment and even my studio are going to be connected
by way of a fabric corridor that has five doors. For example, you will be able to enter
my apartment and go into my Korean house through one of those doors. (Corrin
and Kwon, 2002, p.33)

The bridging corridor creates a spine or an umbilical cord between these

zones of highly specific spatial memory. It is also a processional way that
interconnects differing places of encounter which, as others have noted in
relation to Suhs work, are particularly appealing as sticky (to use an affect
theory term) places to situate the visitors own memories and sensations of
presence and absence, home and rootlessness, and even solidity and flimsi-
ness. Indeed, Frances Richard has described Suhs Seoul Home as a scrim
onto which anybody may project his or her reveries about any absent home
(Richard, 2002, p.115). Though the structures Suh designs are not tempo-
rary, their site-specific qualities, as well as the simple strangeness that each
of these objects can be dismantled, rolled into a bag and taken away like
so much light carry-on luggage, give them a fleeting and spectral identity.
Kwon expresses concern about interpretations of Suhs work that
denies it its Korean origins. She states that critics see through the signs of
cultural specificity and (mis)recognize a commonality of itinerancy. The
work is seen as commentary on or an analogue for the destabilized but
pervasive conditions of nomadism What is truly valued in Suhs work
is not its authenticity as a product of another culture but its capacity to
register through that authenticity another authenticity of itinerancy and
cultural displacement (Corrin and Kwon, 2002, p.23). This stance raises
productive concerns for Jane Rendell, who discusses Do-Ho Suhs work
and Kwons 2002 critique in her 2010 book, Site-Writing: The Architecture
of Art Criticism. Focusing closely on biography as a path to interpretation.
Rendell notes that Kwons encounter with Suhs artwork is a process of
decentring followed by recentring. Rendell suggests that there is a further
stage of decentring and that there are no easily resolved aspects of placing
144 Ayla Lepine

ones body in the midst of a Suh sculpture. She puts Suhs work between the
outside of the inside and the inside of the outside (Rendell, 2010, p.216)
and attempts to negotiate the relationship between absence and presence
that is so palpable and so urgent in Suhs work.
Rendell reveals how she finds herself contemplating an absent archi-
tecture. The visitor who inhabits, even if only momentarily, Suhs sculp-
tures (and indeed Netos) is drawn into a realm of familiar-made-strange.
Inhabiting the work from the inside clothes the viewer in absent architec-
ture, occupying the work from the outside is to be faced by an impossible
object, one which decentres rather than recentres the viewer (Rendell,
2010, p.219). The ineffable, incomprehensible condition Rendell describes,
in which home is always a threshold state and the limits of the encounter
with the work can be conceptually projected out towards a transcendence
of the boundary of the gallery wall, is a condition of experimentally delicate
instability. We are on the unstable edges of the world, hoping that a muta-
ble wall membrane we recognize and yet do not know could point the way
home by simultaneously thrusting us into a past and beyond our present.

Homeward Bound: Kathleen Herbert

Film has this beautiful live quality, Herbert enthuses. It has to be looked
after. It gets damaged easily. Its like a breathing thing. Its affected by light.
By time. By dust, air, exposure. A film is like a creature. It needs protection
(Herbert, 2011). For the filmmaker Kathleen Herbert, film is alive. Film
itself has holy qualities.
Lygia Clarks powerful concept that choice is the capital was invoked
and, in a sense, tested within a project initiated by Herbert that allowed
horses to roam throughout Gloucester Cathedral one night in 2007. Upon
completing her MA at Goldsmiths, she applied to be an artist-in-residence
at Gloucester Cathedral in 2006. An interview I conducted with her in 2011
explored the project in terms of sacred space, challenging environments,
and her more recent work, De Magnete (see Figure 2).
Installation as Encounter 145

Figure 2. Kathleen Herbert, still from De Magnete, 2009

16mm film, Firstsite, Colchester
Photograph: Kathleen Herbert. Reproduced with kind permission of Danielle Arnaud
contemporary art, London.

Like Suh, historic events and experiences are a starting point for
Herberts conceptual interpretations. Herbert began by observing. She
noticed the close relationship between enchantment and attachment: how
volunteers would clean the same monument regularly for decades, or how
visitors would usually gravitate towards the same spaces if they knew the
building and its sacred precincts well. She learned that horses had been
brought to the cathedral by Cromwells troops in the seventeenth century.
A document in Gloucesters Cathedral Library lists necessary repairs to
stonework and stained glass because of Cromwells horses. Herbert was
interested in this literal dehumanizing of the space an irreverent nega-
tion of the sites holiness and wondered if observing horses behaviour
in the cathedral might reposition viewers thinking about cathedral spaces
and their multiplicity of roles in numerous histories.
146 Ayla Lepine

Three horses were released into the cathedral overnight. Handlers were
hidden and all human presence was invisible. Herbert relied on lighting to
give the architecture a sense of no-particular-time to amplify the strange-
ness of the horses presence and avoid the banality of re-enactment. Horses
hooves on the stone floor echo through moments of the film. Animals
appear and disappear, led by their will. They make no distinction why
would they between altar, pillar, step and monument as elements within
the cathedral with different associations of cultural meaning. Questioning
the buildings meanings without undermining its sacred importance
indeed, the work requires the sacredness of the site to be of prime concern
for the viewer puts the viewer in a position of spiritual experimenta-
tion. As a horse looms into view, nuzzles a stone surface in the sanctuary,
or canters towards the west end of the nave, those spaces resonate with a
reconciliation between the seventeenth century past, its medieval founda-
tions, its present use, and its potential embodiment of a holy ethos for all
who enter, regardless of belief. On the subject of consecrated space and
the projects riskiness, Herbert remarked that I saw the space as being so
many different things simultaneously, and as a way to try and make people
understand that there were different ways of understanding that these spaces
are important but not so set apart. Jesus was born in a stable. Cathedrals
used to have animals in them (Herbert, 2011). Here again, language and
affect collide. The conflation of stable as a communal home for animals
and a description of solidity and safety complicate the works multiplicity
of meanings. The horses presence destabilizes received histories and cur-
rent understanding about what cathedral spaces can and should be for and
how they should be used. Herbert was also determined that the film would
suit gallery and other exhibition spaces and contends that the cathedral
itself was not well suited to viewing it. The feedback loop was too tight,
she explained (Herbert, 2011). The religious connotations of the cathedral
itself became intriguingly decentred in Stable:

I dont see Stable as a religious artwork on the one hand, but on the other it is impos-
sible to avoid. It unfolds in a cathedral. The initiation of the idea was from a way of
thinking about consecration and desecration, the history and politics ofCromwells
time, and the ritual and other-worldly aspects that came out of the work. I like my
work to walk a tightrope between the beautiful and the uneasy. Camera movements
Installation as Encounter 147

are steady and gliding. I am showing one thing but possibly indicating another. All
is not what it seems. I point to the uncanny and the mythical [] We are outsiders
looking in. (Herbert, 2011)

Herberts insightful perspective on Stable recalls Graham Howes recent

scholarship on religion and spirituality in The Art ofthe Sacred. Howes notes
that in a cultural transition away from religion and towards spirituality,
contemporary art can provide secular means that may serve sacred ends
(Howes, 2007, p.137). He notes Diane Apostolos-Cappadonas observation
that modern artists now have the singular opportunity of presencing the
spiritual significance of the totality of human experience in their recogni-
tion of the foundational necessity of the religious imagination (quoted in
Howes, 2007, p.136). Herberts Stable has an outside-in dynamic, where
we are observing unexpected encounters and experiences in a Gothic sacred
space. The spiritual seems to dwell not in the dogmas and rituals of the
cathedral, but in the cathedrals presence and accumulation of cultural nar-
ratives through time into which new moments of numinousness emerge,
however fleeting, uncanny, or unscripted they may be.
The outside-in dynamic in Stable is reversed, much like the suspended
state described between the two wall planes in Rendells encounter with
Do-Ho Suhs work, in Herberts De Magnete. The short film, commis-
sioned by the Firstsite gallery in Colchester in 2008, explores a theory
proposed by William Gilberd. Gilberd was a physician for Elizabeth I
whose experiments focused on magnetism and what would eventually come
to be understood as electricity. Herbert explained that she was drawn to
Gilberds work because he was among the first to conduct experiments and
observe his results empirically. His major publication, De Magnete, inves-
tigated attractive forces which he could produce by creating friction with
amber. He called the forces electric, based on the Latin word for amber
itself. The 16mm film Herbert produced in collaboration with the sound
artist Louise Martin is a multisensorial journey through a dense forest of
evergreens. The sounds are staticky, there are electrical hums and glitches
and blips. The camera itself is compelled in a magnetic-like way, seeking
the source of a greater force. Herbert envisioned the pine trees dense forms
as akin to electrical masts or pylons, picking up and transmitting signals.
148 Ayla Lepine

The viewers destination, pulled as s/he is through a foreboding wooded

area, is a white neon sign in a simple font. It reads: the soul of material.
According to Herbert, the soul of material is a very poetic way to talk
about something quite scientific. Otherworldliness and God are linked
to, or are the driving forces for, obtaining knowledge about the physi-
cal world and its properties. Gilberd was using the language of his age to
describe something that was new. There were no other words for his new
experiences of the physical world (Herbert, 2011). The forest-cathedral is
a space for discovery, but what is being discovered is unclear, even when
the neon proclamation is revealed. The centre destabilizes. Even though
youre outside, youre surrounded. You cant see out (Herbert, 2011).

A Spiritual Home

Herbert, Suh and Netos artworks are connected by their delicate and care-
ful attention to time. In Netos case, it is the time spent in multisensory
encounter that seems most important. In Suhs, it is the accumulation of
past times in conjunction with the implicit lengths of time taken to pains-
takingly produce the architectural soft sculptures of interiors. In Herberts
films, both De Magnete and Stable, time is figured as duration, and there is
a palpable sense of expectation always conflated with the not-yet as view-
ers are drawn in to unexpected repositionings of spaces, whether forests
or cathedrals. In her recent response to Damien Hirsts vast retrospective
at Tate Modern, Marina Warner has astutely written:
The words tempus and temple share the same root; the connection suggests that
the function of a sacred space is to make time stop or stretch, or render its passage
palpable to the worshipper/visitor. Galleries and museums explicitly recall temples
in their architecture, and they can also double as national mausoleums: they func-
tion socially in comparable ways (temples for atheists), providing an occasion for
assembly, for communal experiences, for finding meanings. Above all, its striking how
crucial the idea of developing our sensitivity to time has become in contemporary
artists work. (Warner, 2012, p.16)
Installation as Encounter 149

To talk about affect is to talk about intensity and exchange. Affect exists
between bodies and is relational by nature. It is found in those resonances
that circulate about, between, and sometimes stick to bodies and worlds,
and in the very passages or variations between these intensities and reso-
nances themselves (Gregg and Seigworth, 2010, p.1). By concluding the
exploration of Neto, Suh and Herberts projects within the precincts of
Gloucester Cathedral, the question of spirituality as a potential mode of
apprehension for each of these artists works becomes clarified and refined.
Memory, embodiment and multisensorial interactivity become pathways
that interweave through contemporary sculpture and film that question
where and how we may find a spiritual home.


Armstrong, I. (2000). The Radical Aesthetic. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Bachelard, G. (1994). The Poetics of Space. Trans. M. Jolas. Boston: Beacon Press.
Britton, K. (2010). Constructing the Ineffable. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Burch Brown, F. (1989). Religious Aesthetics. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Corrin, L., and M. Kwon (2002). Do-Ho Suh. London: Serpentine Gallery.
Gregg, M. and G.J. Seigworth (eds). (2010). The Affect Theory Reader. London: Duke
University Press.
Herbert, Kathleen. (2011). Interviewed by Ayla Lepine. 5 October 2011, London.
Howes, G. (2007). The Art of the Sacred. London: I.B. Tauris.
Krauss, R., ed. (1997). October: The Second Decade, 19861996. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Kraynak, J. (2001). Do-Ho Suh. Seoul: The Korean Culture and Arts Foundation.
Lauson, Cliff and Ralph Rugoff (eds). (2010). Ernesto Neto: The Edges of the World.
London: Hayward Gallery.
Morris, R. (1966). Notes on Sculpture, Part II, Artforum, October, 203.
Rendell, J. (2010). Site-Writing: The Architecture of Art Criticism. London: I.B. Tauris.
Richard, F. (2002). Home in the World, Artforum, January, 11216.
Van Noord, G. and V. Wilson, eds. (2000). Ernesto Neto. London: ICA Publishing.
Warner, M. (2004). Known to the Senses. London: Continuum.
Warner, M. (2012). Once a Catholic, London Review of Books, 34:13, 1617.
Wogenscky, A. (2006). Trans. Martina Milla Bernad. Le Corbusiers Hands. Cambridge:
MIT Press.
Judith LeGrove

Fragile Visions:
Reading and Re-Reading the Work ofGeoffrey Clarke

A damp morning in late October 2004. The red-brick frame ofStAmbrose,

Salford, stands witness to a procession of traffic the length of the
Langworthy Road. Inside, external noise yields to dank, dark silence,
cloaking the pews, shrouding the niches and archways. But light draws
the viewer to the east window, where sea-blues, greens and ambers throb
with intensity, ensnaring and retaining the gaze, inducing a visceral engage-
ment with colour and light. Slowly the glass reveals other messages. The
eye lingers downwards from the tracerys transparency to a cross, meshed
threads of light, and the obscure chaos of the lower margin. Heaven; the
cross of Christ; fishing nets; the earth. Symbols for Jesus words, Follow
me, and I will make you fishers of men (Matthew 4.19).

The Church of St Ambrose was demolished shortly afterwards to make way

for a multi-denominational faith centre as part of Salfords regeneration.
Its east window, created by Geoffrey Clarke to repair damage sustained
during the war, remains crated in storage.
This preamble is intended not as a eulogy, but to introduce this papers
scope of enquiry: the relation of art to the spiritual or sacred, and its recep-
tion according to the contextual variables of time, space and viewer. Plotted
against these co-ordinates is the constant of the artist, in this case Geoffrey
Clarke: a believer, whose faith has altered little since early adulthood in
the late 1940s. During a career of over sixty years, Clarke has created stained
glass, sculpture and fittings for some twenty churches and cathedrals as
well as an overwhelming body of work in which humankinds relation to
the divine is explored either directly or tangentially.
152 Judith LeGrove

Although the matrix of a spiritual encounter has its own parameters,

it nonetheless shares aspects in common with the perception of objects in
space, and can therefore draw upon a broader lineage of enquiry within
art history, architectural or museum studies. Space and context modulate
such encounters. The experience of St Ambrose was coloured by the con-
trast between external noise and internal calm, access via a locked door,
the impact of a spacious, historic interior, the disjunction of darkness and
light, the urgency of imprinting an image before it disappeared forever.
That particular rainy October visit might therefore be framed in terms of
power and subjection (Foucault, 1991; Gurian, 2005), of experiential space
(Lefebvre, 1991; Bachelard, 1994) or of the complex relationship between
art and context (ODoherty, 1999).
In each case, a viewer is essential in the construction of meaning, with
interpretation also conditioned by prior experience and knowledge. But
spiritual art, the contemplation of which formed the subject of a con-
ference held at Liverpool Cathedral in December 2010, presents its own
problems. Rina Arya, responding to the conferences themes, concluded
that while the religious component of an artwork can be decoded through
context and symbolism, the elusive quality of the spiritual is activated in
the experiential and therefore cannot be extrapolated as a thing-in-itself
(Arya, 2011, p.92). David Morgan, elsewhere, has defined the sacred as
socially constructed: as delineated spatially through sites of pilgrimage,
temples, private shrines or public festivals, and temporally through ritual
patterns of contemplation (Morgan, 2005, p.56). The act of seeing, or con-
structing the sacred, is thus Morgans sacred gaze: a practice, conscious or
unconscious, which structures social relations, self-concept, and experience
of the sacred. Morgans is a nuanced typology, acknowledging individuality
as well as shared practice, biology as well as culture, experience as well as
tradition in short, the embodied eye (Morgan, 2012, pp.678).
If the importance of the gaze (in all its manifestations scopic, male,
sacred) has received increasing attention over recent decades, the role of
the artist in the construction of the sacred seems precariously balanced.
In 2010, after a paper on Geoffrey Clarke was presented to an audience
of art historians, discussion turned to the geometry of fear, a shorthand
for the group of sculptors with whom Clarke exhibited at the 1952 Venice
Fragile Visions 153

Biennale, whose spindly, iron work Herbert Read felt to be character-

ized by an iconography of despair. One academic had analysed Clarkes
Complexities of Man in terms of abnormal psychology and Cold War repres-
sion. Acknowledging this as one of several possible readings, I added that
I understood from the artist that there was a profoundly spiritual impulse
behind the sculpture, to which the academic replied, Hes lying. While I
searched for words, he asked how old Clarke was. My answer 85 was
met with, Well, its probably too late to get him to change his story now.
Spurred by this exchange, this paper seeks to examine shifting responses
to Clarkes work. I shall start, perhaps controversially, from the premise that
Clarke was not lying in affirming a spiritual impulse to his art. There is, after
all, an overwhelming consistency to the spiritual symbolism used in his
work to the present day, explored equally consistently in writings (public
and private) and in conversation. Specifically, I shall question what further
understanding may be gained from re-inserting the artist into the equation
of artwork, patron or commissioner and viewer, and how the particular
example of Clarkes work, created in faith, to express or explore faith, func-
tions with or against the grain of its context. To bring such issues to the fore,
the examples chosen reflect environments typified broadly as Althussers
ideological state apparatuses: the museum (or gallery), the church and
the university. The gallery is represented by the 1952 Venice Biennale,
the church by an unrealized commission for St Chad, Rubery, and the
university by a commission for the Chadwick Laboratory at Liverpool.
Issues of terminology (the appropriateness of the terms sacred, religious
or spiritual) will be addressed in the course of these examples.

Britain strangely represented: The Venice Biennale (1952)

At the 1952 Venice Biennale, the British Councils selection committee chose
to emphasize the work of eight young sculptors, Robert Adams, Kenneth
Armitage, Reg Butler, Lynn Chadwick, Geoffrey Clarke, Bernard Meadows,
154 Judith LeGrove

Eduardo Paolozzi and William Turnbull, with Henry Moore presiding out-
side the pavilion as a nurturing, paternal influence. Although the choice of
new sculpture indicated that Britain was creatively up-and-running after
the war, the British Councils display was finely tuned in terms of content
and presentation. The predominant impression was of linearity and nerv-
ousness: outlines glimpsed and captured in motion, rather than laboured
and contemplated at leisure. Materials, supporting these notions, bore their
own messages. Iron, transposed provocatively from utilitarian to fine art
material, was forged and welded into spikes, rods or sheets, contrasting with
the aura and tradition of bronze-casting, while resonating with the mate-
rials still recent use for sculpture by Picasso and Gonzlez. Plaster, fragile
and seemingly unfinished, further suggested Giacometti. Herbert Read,
author of the catalogue essay and at the time Britains most influential art
critic, wove a consummate tapestry around the sculpture, endowing it with
a collective despair but through this threading messages about its newness,
its Britishness yet lack of insularity (materializing T.S. Eliots iron waifs,
but having learnt from Picasso, Calder and Giacometti) and its location
within the discourses of European psychoanalysis which gained such cur-
rency during the post-war period (Read, 1952, p.4). Although the British
Council was ostensibly apolitical in its promotion of British culture abroad,
recent research indicates not only its awareness of the political function of
fine art through cultural exchange, but its proactive promotion of an inte-
grated Europe in order to combat new threats of communist encroachment.
This mission would become more overt in later Biennales, and indeed the
1954 British Pavilion included Reg Butlers winning submission for The
Unknown Political Prisoner Competition, an openly anti-totalitarian
even anti-communist project ( Jachec, 2006, p.28).
Clarkes work at the 1952 Venice Biennale exhibited a distinct identity.
Each sculpture represented the human figure, constructed from an assem-
blage of vertical iron rods. Figure, the tallest, wrapped these rods around a
linear core, from which protruded sensory rods. Family Group presented
a single-stemmed man, woman and two children. Lastly, Complexities of
Man elongated the figures frame horizontally, as a fence-like row of iron
rods capped with symbols and protuberances. Behind these sculptures
Fragile Visions 155

hung three coloured etchings, again linear in essence: Blue Head, Purple
Head and Landscape, Death of a Flower.
In many ways Clarkes work fitted the agenda implicit in Reads
poetic essay. The sculptures material presence conjured the legacy of war
through its excoriated patina and emaciated waifs, perhaps inciting solidar-
ity against future threat. Picasso was strongly referenced in the etchings,
and Giacometti in the reductive, cursive linearity of the iron. Furthermore,
psychological preoccupations, suggested by the figures split and probing
frames, were confirmed by Clarkes title Complexities of Man. Yet each of the
images included a clue to the artists underlying and continuing preoccupa-
tion. Completed just a year earlier, Clarkes student thesis, Exposition of a
Belief (1951), constituted a painstakingly crafted creed in which Man (a
part of nature) is subject to a supreme, divine force, with the artist capable
of influencing spiritual well-being through the use of symbolism (Clarke,
2012, pp.5962).1 The second section of the thesis was a prcis of Bunyans
Pilgrims Progress, itself a metaphor for a spiritual journey, while Clarkes
theories were clarified visually through monotype symbols and etchings
(including Blue Head and Purple Head). Clarke avoided reference to any
specific religion, although discussion of the cross and crucifix as symbols
suggests Christianity as his cultural heritage. God, or the singular guid-
ing presence, was described as the supreme force, and the term spiritual
used once only. By such labels Clarke denoted his field of enquiry: the
spiritual, for him, would reside not within the prescribed boundaries of
organized religion, but within a practice of private contemplation more
akin to notions of mysticism. And if the precise nature of this faith remains
hard to classify, it is because Clarke has preferred to articulate it visually
through his art, hoping that his symbols may be understood and appreci-
ated by believers of any faith.

1 The term man consciously follows the artists usage during the 1950s prior to con-
sciousness of inclusivity, where the term was used to describe abstractions or sym-
bols for humankind. Clarke observed while writing his thesis, These notes apply
to etchings etc. Symbols for Man (man including woman).
156 Judith LeGrove

Nonetheless, considerable insight into Clarkes work may be gained by

using his thesis as a key. Thus, the iron Family Group and Figure at Venice
can be understood as seeking to align themselves, by means of sensory anten-
nae, with a divine presence, the latter suggested explicitly in Complexities
of Man by a cross. This process is confirmed by other etchings (not shown
at Venice), in which figures reach for or turn towards a supreme force: a
linear symbol descending from the uppermost margin of the image. An
etching relating specifically to Family Group also makes clear that it is a
divine presence which endows man and woman with children. Formally,
these iron and etched symbols are reminiscent of orreries seen by Clarke
at South Kensingtons Science Museum, themselves models for celestial
systems subject to their own laws for alignment (LeGrove, 2012, p.24).
Blue Head contains a cross within its brain and Purple Head a tripartite,
perhaps Trinitarian, symbol. Landscape, Death of a Flower, which seem-
ingly depicts decay, is in fact half of a cyclical pair with Birth of a Flower,
the divine presence in each providing either nurturing sun or rain dripping
from the dying flowers to moisten seeds beneath the earth.
Although it is arguable that Clarkes thinking, so carefully argued in
his thesis, was not known by critics and visitors to Venice, his work had
received considerable exposure in London since 1950. Iron sculpture had
been displayed at the ICA, Festival of Britain and a solo exhibition at
Gimpel Fils, and reviewed by critics such as Robert Melville, John Berger,
David Sylvester, M.H. Middleton and Stephen Bone. Of these, many
noted a spiritual dimension to the work. Berger, in particular, probed the
context of Clarkes sculpture, questioning how its religious, semi-mystical
symbolism [might] affect our consciousness as well as our senses to become
more than a series of stark sensations. Bergers conclusion, and we should
remember his own stance as a supporter of realism in the arts, was that
the weakness of Clarkes work lay in its obscure context, its oscillation
between a desperate, catacomb conception of art and an incompatible
sophistication, and because, lacking all sensuous roots, it often becomes
puritanically sentimental (Berger, 1952). Bergers observations, though
negatively charged, pinpoint important issues. The dichotomy of primitiv-
ism/sophistication and the darkness (or desperation) of the sculptures
material presence would be addressed in Reads essay. The obscurity of
Fragile Visions 157

Clarkes mysticism, which in fact drew syncretically upon Theosophy,

anthropology and psychology, was noted also by M.H. Middleton, who
nonetheless described it as a complete, unified and integral language of
symbols (Middleton, 1952). Lastly, by suggesting a correlation between
a lack of sensuality and puritanical sentimentality, Berger intriguingly
appeared to reference Reads geometry of love, a construct rooted in the
work of Scottish analyst W.R.D. Fairbairn and introduced by Read in a
lecture on Psycho-analysis and the Problem ofAesthetic Value, published
in 1951 (Hulks, 2007, pp.1445).
Any allusions to spirituality, however, were entirely absent from con-
temporary reviews of the 1952 Venice Biennale, many of which either para-
phrased Reads essay or lampooned the British Councils selection. Sylvia
Sprigge, author of Britain strangely represented, typified the latter: ref-
erencing Cold War preoccupation with rockets and napalm while reduc-
ing Clarkes Family Group to a particularly awkward set of fireirons and
Chadwicks Barley Fork to an undesirable, functionless instrument. While
Sprigge blamed T.S. Eliot for his malign influence on the British artists, she
acknowledged that Germaine Richier (in the French Pavilion) had bigger
and gaunter iron men and women, while Marino Marini (Italy) trumped
all with a rash of taut, metallic-looking horses in extremely uncomfortable
positions (Sprigge, 1952). The key words seem to be awkward, uncomfort-
able and undesirable. In contrast, Read, despite dramatizing the sculpture
as a reflection of guilt or fear, and despite allowing no space for a spiritual
reading, somewhat confusingly sought to cast its effect as positive: as a
revival, a creative touching to life, a peopling of The Waste Land.
While the 1952 Biennale was never completely forgotten as an epi-
sode in sculptures history, its fiftieth anniversary reignited discussion of
Reads geometry of fear, a phrase embedded equally as marketing tool and
art-historical signifier. Of the exhibitions which resulted, three in particu-
lar, Henry Moore and the Geometry of Fear ( James Hyman, 20023),
Geometry of Fear (Arts Council, 20079), and Exorcising the Fear
(Pangolin London, 2012), reaffirmed the significance of the gallery as a
site for the construction of meaning. The visual appearance of the 1952
British Pavilion has been perpetuated through grainy monochrome photo-
graphs showing sculptures on white plinths, drawings apparently in white
158 Judith LeGrove

mounts and white frames on white walls, and the works clustered in groups
by single artists. Clarkes Figure towered on an unnaturally high plinth,2
forming a vertical trio with the etchings Blue Head and Purple Head, and
flanking the horizontal trio of Death of a Flower and the two smaller iron
sculptures sharing a plinth. Taking a cue from Reads psychological coding
of the sculpture, David Hulks has recently posited the Venice Pavilion as
a sterile, modernist setting characteristic of the display of post-war sculp-
ture; an environment evoking the psychoanalytic or psychiatric clinic in
its offering up of dark, spiky, disorderly sculptures within a highly organ-
ized and controlled context. The artists of the period, Hulks suggests, were
not necessarily resistant to the agenda of this mode of display. Addressing
Clarkes Complexities of Man, Hulks ascribes further intentionality: that
the balls capping the sculptures iron rods represent Cold War suspicion of
free expression, preferring civilized restraint, and that Clarkes evident wish
[is] not just to illustrate mental divergence but rather to narrate it (Hulks,
2006, pp.97102). Although a plausible reading within the political and
cultural context of the sculpture, Hulks conflates his own interpretation
with creative intention. Ironically, on the same page is a photograph of
Complexities, in which the unmentioned (unmentionable?) symbol of the
cross signals Clarkes sphere of interest.
In 20023 Venices white cube display was recreated, so far as possible
with the works available, for Henry Moore and the Geometry of Fear,
whose catalogue sought to re-examine the ethos of Reads writing. Hyman
concluded, with Read (though notably not with Clement Greenberg),3
that the episode at Venice crowned Britains geometry of fear sculptors
as leaders of the international avant-garde. Hymans catalogue further, and
consciously, foregrounded Reads patina of pathos through close-up details
of surface texture (Hyman, 2003, p.10). While such analysis and display
have undoubtedly deepened understanding of the cultural and aesthetic

2 At Venice, Figure was mounted on a smooth, white wooden wedge, a substitute for
the coarse stone originally used by Clarke.
3 Clement Greenberg memorably described the renaissance of post-war British sculp-
ture as false: Moore is a minor artist Butler, Chadwick, Armitage are less than
minor (Greenberg, 1993, p.277).
Fragile Visions 159

concerns of the period, they simultaneously reinscribed Reads epithets and

applied them anew to a wider pool of works not originally associated with
Venice. Five years later, the theme of Cold War constraint rippled outwards
to encompass still further sculptors and sculpture in the Arts Councils
touring exhibition, titled simply Geometry of Fear (2007/9). It was not
until Pangolin Londons sixtieth anniversary exhibition, Exorcising the
Fear (2012), that the catch-all phrase was seriously challenged. Within
a white cube setting, Pangolin presented a powerful survey of sculpture
from the 1950s to early 1960s, underscoring the diversity of work from that
period. Polly Bieleckas catalogue essay, disarmingly personal in its response,
efficiently summarized the context and reception of British sculpture at the
1952 Venice Biennale, while drawing attention to the economic significance
of its materials and the formal correspondences with contemporary, linear
trends in fashion and design. Bielecka concluded by encouraging viewers
to look afresh at the work, noting the optimism, humour, vibrancy and
vitalism that came with peace and liberation [to] finally exorcise the fear
(Bielecka, 2012, p.12). This more expansive reading, while not yet broach-
ing spirituality, was marketed by Clarkes iron Man, photographed in stark
skeletal outline (see Figure 1). Clearly intended to imprint on the retina
in the fashion of Hulks clinical imagery, the symbolism of the sculpture
through the artists eyes could not be clearer. A divided figure holds
aloft a choice of two symbols: a ring (material, or worldly goods), and a
cross (the spiritual). Reaching for the cross would bring its torso back into
alignment; reaching beyond this, for worldly goods, would overstretch and
unbalance its equilibrium once more.
Before continuing to the next example, we might pause to consider
how two sources close to Clarkes field of vision illuminate these works. The
first, Evelyn Underhills Mysticism (1912), widely read and very much within
the sphere of Clarkes interest in the early 1950s, contains a description of
the conscious self as at the end of a telegraph wire, whose messages dot,
dash, colour and shape are modified by the limitations of the receiving
instrument: fine vibrations may not be felt, while others may be confused.
Hence a portion of the message is always lost; or, in other language, there
are aspects of the world which we can never know (Underhill, 1912, p.7).
This mystical, psychological reading chimes with Clarkes explanation for
160 Judith LeGrove

Figure 1: Geoffrey Clarke, Man, 1951

Forged iron and stone, 18.5 cm
Photo: Pangolin London / Steve Russell, Property of the Ingram Collection

Complexities of Man, as expressed in an interview with Lawrence Alloway

shortly after the Biennale, that the base of the rods represents the physi-
cal the thinner tops represent mental activities. Some are blocked
meaning that some of the mental or physical senses have never been used
(Alloway, 1953, p.69). A second source is Maritains Art and Scholasticism,
which Clarke owned and annotated, and which formed an important source
for his student thesis. Among passages highlighted by Clarke are Maritains
views that the artist acts as an associate of God in the creation of works of
beauty, and, further, that the creation of new and vital work takes place
when the contemplative activity in contact with the transcendental is
Fragile Visions 161

plainly predominant (Maritain, 1939, pp.63, 46). If Complexities of Man

attempted to create a symbol for mans spiritual psyche, aiding viewers
to ponder their own condition, Clarkes future work, as exemplified by
the series of reliefs at Rubery, focused increasingly on creating symbols
whose contemplation might aid a connection with the transcendental, or
indefinable. In the artists words (from his thesis), if [the symbol is] near
perfect, then the barriers of the material are broken down, insight made,
and witnessed, and the transformations from the tangible to the intangible
accomplished (Clarke, 2012, p.59).

Conveying theological truth: St Chads, Rubery (19579)

In May 1957 Wolverhampton architects Lavender, Twentyman & Percy

offered Clarke a commission for the new church of St Chads, Rubery,
whose west front would contain five dark grey-blue slate panels. A series
of life-size reliefs was suggested, perhaps incised into the slate or using
painted and gilded bronze strip, showing the Virgin and Child (centre),
flanked by St John the Baptist and St Nicholas (right), and St Chad and
St Stephen (left). Symbols might be used instead, but these should be
smaller about three feet high. Clarkes initial response appears to have
favoured symbols in bronze.4
Clarke had been suggested by John Piper, who was currently also work-
ing on stained glass for the new Coventry Cathedral (Clarke on three nave
windows, Piper the baptistery window). By this date Clarke, like Piper, had
considerable experience in ecclesiastical commissions. Clarke had furnished
a private oratory at the Bridge of Allan with iron sculpture and stained
glass (19512), created windows for a church in Australia (1953) and All
Saints, Stretford, Manchester (1957), and was collaborating with Louis
Osman on designs for a cross, aumbry and altar frontal for St James, Shere

4 A.R. Twentyman, letter to Clarke, 22 May 1957 (Clarke archive).

162 Judith LeGrove

(19578). The earliest of these commissions was realized using facilities at

the Royal College of Art, either in the stained glass studios or, for iron,
in space inside or outside a Ministry of Works hut. In 1954 Clarke moved
to a large rural house in Suffolk, where he set up a smithy in outbuildings
and a glass studio on an upper floor. The Rubery commission coincided
with Clarkes shift from iron to aluminium, the panels being among the
first works open-cast in a newly equipped foundry sharing the same build-
ing as the smithy.
In January 1958 Clarke received the vicars suggested subjects for the
panels, drawn largely from the book of Revelation. Reading from left to
right would be

(1) The lion of Judah (symbol of the Old Testament hope of the
(2) A star symbol (the morning or Christmas star, perhaps with
Sun of Righteousness or Seven Stars, giving a symbol of the
(3) The orb and cross (the cross as central symbol of atonement, the
orb to maintain a royal connection)
(4) A last things symbol (combining Alpha and Omega, two-edged
sword, crown of gold and sickle, symbolizing the judgement and
second coming)
(5) The lamb and flag (symbolizing Christ in heaven in the Revelation)
or (6) The flying angel (proclaiming the everlasting gospel to the

Such a scheme, the vicar concluded, would include both history and the-
ology, while presenting the Christian cosmic world view reading from
left to right.5
The idea of bronze persisted until September 1959, when Clarke
revealed his idea instead for open-cast aluminium panels. In early December

5 Excerpt from the Vicars letter, sent by A.R. Twentyman to Clarke, 3 January 1958
(Clarke archive). The Vicar is not identified by name.
Fragile Visions 163

the architect, Twentyman, requested a description of Clarkes symbolism

for the vicars brochure, and the panels were installed shortly afterwards. Yet
between installation and consecration on 15 December 1959 the panels were
removed. A letter to Clarke from Twentyman reported the verdict from
the Diocesan Advisory Committee, that while not wishing to discourage
artists from employing modern idioms, the plaques were not considered
to convey theological truth and were therefore inappropriate for use in a
Christian Church.6 What had gone wrong?
Since no copy of Clarkes explanantion has been traced, the open-cast
aluminium panels, titled Square World, must be described as they remain
in the artists studio. The back-plate of each measures 5 2 feet (152
76 cm), and the surface is raw neither waxed, varnished nor anodised.
Crucially, the designs bear no obvious relation to the vicars suggested sym-
bols. Reading from left to right, according to the artists numbering, their
appearance is as follows (my reading of the artists intended symbolism,
based on knowledge of his work, is included in parentheses):

(1) A square is penetrated by a vertical shaft, forming a cross at the

centre (the world as a meeting point for the celestial and terres-
trial, their union creating a cross) (see Figure 2).
(2) A horizontal line divides and off-balances a vertical shaft (the
horizontal representing the earth, the misaligned segments the
material and spiritual requiring union).
(3) A T-shape supports a curve terminating with a cross (the earth
as a table; above it Christs birth, symbolized by a crescent moon
and cross).
(4) A table sheltering two curves (the earth; below it two serpents
symbolizing evil).
(5) A horizontal line divides a curve below and a cross above (the
horizontal earth, with a shepherds crook below and cross above:
Christs earthly and spiritual presence).

6 A.R. Twentyman, letter to Clarke, 30 March 1960 (Clarke archive).

164 Judith LeGrove

Judging from the Diocesan

Advisory Committees response,
such symbols diverged too rad-
ically from the expectations of
the Church as commissioning
body. Yet from Clarkes point
of view they formed merely a
continuation, subject to further
abstraction, of ideas first articu-
lated nearly a decade before. To
understand Clarkes rejection of
traditional Christian symbolism
we need to return to the earlier
twentieth century, when artists
were prompted to reassess estab-
lished modes of expression in
order to reflect a brutally altered
world. A frequent response was
to plunder primitive prehis-
Figure 2: Geoffrey Clarke, Square World I, toric or models; to re-establish
1959 universal constants in order to
Open-cast aluminium, 180 76 11.5 cm begin afresh. This process can be
Photo: James Austin traced variously from Mondrian
and Kandinskys search for
purity through abstraction, to Sartres essay on Giacometti (The Search
for the Absolute, 1948, depicting the artists desire to place himself at the
beginning of the world to create new sculptural analogies for Man) to the
Abstract Expressionists retracing of art to its spiritual origins by way of
Jungian psychoanalysis (Sartre, 2003, p.612; Newman, 2003, pp.5767).
Clarke may be comfortably assimilated within this line of thought. His
thesis draws upon Rudolf Kochs Book of Signs, a compendium of symbols
used from earliest times to the middle ages by primitive peoples and Early
Christians, in which the first symbols are the dot and line, and the cross
is understood as the (pre-Christian) conjunction of the celestial and ter-
restrial (Koch, 1930, p.1). We might describe such retracing also in terms
Fragile Visions 165

of Steiners striving to touch the void: the directing of perception back to

a state of nothingness (or energized vacancy), from whence can spring an
impulse of theological-metaphysical meditation on the absolute (Steiner,
2001, pp.11315). In fact the analogy seems apt, both from Clarkes respect
for Steiners text,7 and from his avowed intention of creating symbols for
contemplation to encourage a connection with the divine.
From todays perspective, an equally perceptible movement towards
renewal in the Christian Church appears to originate post-war and gather
strength from the early 1950s. Of the texts that resulted, John Robinsons
Honest to God endures as the most widely read and influential in Britain,
encouraging an end to unthinking religious observance, but simultaneously
offering assurance that there may be many sincere and valid definitions
of being Christian (Robinson, 1963). Robinson questioned notions of
God and Christianity embedded in traditional worship, many of which,
he concluded, were fundamentally incompatible with, or unhelpful to,
modern society. Historical notions of God answering the inexplicable
could be deemed to recede as science discovered its own solutions; in this
respect God was no longer needed. Equally, traditional images of God
located metaphysically beyond reach became increasingly unviable as the
unknown universe contracted and space was absorbed into the human
realm. Robinson, noting (like Clarke) that the accepted terminology to
define or discuss God could no longer be considered adequate, turned for
justification to Paul Tillich, whose sermons were published in English in
1949 as The Shaking of the Foundations (Robinson, 1963, pp.212). Tillichs
adoption of a quasi-Biblical literary style characterized by repetition and
verbal simplicity paralleled in linguistic terms his return to primeval origins
to discover reasons for humanitys current predicament.8
Since this was the context in which the new Coventry Cathedral was
conceived and approved, it might therefore be asked whether Clarkes

7 Steiners Grammars of Creation was one of the last books Clarke is known to have
read and admired before the deterioration of his eyesight.
8 This consciously simplistic use of language mirrored Sartres Search for the Absolute,
Barnett Newmans The First Man Was an Artist, as well as Clarkes thesis.
166 Judith LeGrove

spiritual search was in fact fundamentally incompatible with the ethos of

post-war Christianity, or whether those involved at Rubery simply repre-
sented a reactionary faction of the Church. Certainly, Clarkes window
at All Saints, Stretford, Manchester (1957) was approved and realized
along similar symbolic lines, as was the entire sequence of nave windows
at Coventry Cathedral (19538), although the latter scheme was not with-
out detractors. Such commissions represent an openness to forms of artistic
expression unconstrained by the traditional symbolism of the Church.
The crucial difference between Rubery and Coventry might therefore be
considered to be the architect: the mediator between artist and patron. At
Coventry this role was fulfilled by Basil Spence, a devout Christian, enlight-
ened supporter of modern art, and champion, in particular, of Geoffrey
Clarke. Spence, as mediator, forms a link to the final example of Clarkes
work in this paper; one in which the artists spiritual imagery was trans-
posed to an unlikely setting.

The way to the scientists truth?:

Chadwick Laboratory, University of Liverpool (19589)

Spence contacted Clarke in June 1958 about the possibility of a mosaic

panel for a new Physics Building at the University of Liverpool. Clarke
provided the necessary estimates by return. A design was approved the fol-
lowing February, and the mosaic, made by Proctor & Lavender (Solihull),
installed by August 1959 (see Figure 3).
Geoffrey Moorhouse, reviewing Spences architecture for the Guardian,
included a description of Clarkes mosaic, whose symbolism he described
as sombre. To the left he identified a cross, which some figures face and
others shun; to the right he saw flames alternately fascinating and repelling
a group of spectral figures, and in the centre a vortex watched by further
figures. At the vortexs centre was a keyhole. Representing what? the way
to the scientists truth, perhaps (Moorhouse, 1959). It is clear from technical
Fragile Visions 167

Figure 3: Geoffrey Clarke, [Untitled], 1959

Mosaic for the Chadwick Laboratory, University of Liverpool
Photo: Henk Snoek / RIBA Photographs Collection

details, such as the use of 21,000 pieces of mosaic, that Moorhouse based
his description at least in part on the contractors handout, itself based
on an explanation by Clarke. Yet the identification of a cross in a Physics
Building seems too startling to be repeated without question. What was
Clarke thinking of ?
The circumstances of the Liverpool commission become more intrigu-
ing the further they are probed. Spences building was named after the
scientist Sir James Chadwick (18911974), who constructed Britains first
cyclotron a circular particle accelerator at Liverpool between 1936 and
1939. At the outbreak of war research priorities changed and Chadwick,
asked to investigate the possibility of a nuclear bomb, decided to use the
Liverpool cyclotron for a feasibility study. The focus of nuclear research
168 Judith LeGrove

subsequently shifted to the US, but Chadwick remained involved and

was responsible for the presence of British observers at the bombing of
Nagasaki in August 1945. Returning to Liverpool in 1946, Chadwick ini-
tially led plans for the building of a synchrocyclotron at the University,
whose design would solve the operating problems inherent in the ear-
lier cyclotron. Yet at this point science and religion strangely intertwine.
It was clear that a different site was needed to accommodate the larger
synchrocyclotron. Nearby, the crypt for the new Metropolitan Catholic
Cathedral, designed by Lutyens in the 1930s, had been abandoned for a
combination of reasons: the outbreak of war, excessive cost, and that the
building would be (unacceptably) larger than the Vatican. However, sci-
entist Joseph Rotblat, examining the site post-war, realized that Lutyens
sunken crypt, together with the natural slope and geology of the location,
would help solve the problem of radiation shielding. Negotiations were thus
undertaken to lease a small area of consecrated land for a nuclear physics
laboratory in the south-east corner of the site (Brown, 1997, pp.32930).
The Liverpool synchrocyclotron became operational in May 1954, func-
tioning until 1968, by which time its security was compromised by the
resumed construction of the Metropolitan Cathedral on the foundations
of Lutyens crypt: as Frederick Gibberds new design began to tower above
the cyclotron building, it became possible for children to jump onto the
roof of the machine room. To conclude the circling of events, Clarke in
fact submitted a maquette for the sculptural treatment of glass in the new
Cathedral, but was unsuccessful against John Piper and Patrick Reyntiens.
This narrative goes some considerable way to explain the symbolism of
Clarkes mosaic. The central vortex may be read as Chadwicks cyclotron or
synchrocyclotron, the cross and flames as the moral purposes for which it
might be used: good (medical research, for example radiotherapy) or evil
(the atomic bomb). But a web of detail connects it also to other work by
Clarke. The Liverpool cross is formally identical with one, designed con-
temporaneously, for the undercroft chapel at Coventry Cathedral (1958),
the first part of Spences design to be consecrated for worship, and for
which the architect paid Clarke personally. The vortex appears in numer-
ous works, including glass at Lincoln Cathedral, where the artist described
it as the smallest atom of life uncreated by Man which grows into a seed,
Fragile Visions 169

and a sculpture outside the Physics Department of Newcastle University,

described as swirling nebulae in space: the common ground seemingly
being the intention to convey a sense of energy and divine mystery, equally
inherent in spiritual contexts and scientific phenomena. The keyhole seen
at the vortexs centre also recurs frequently in Clarkes work as a symbol
for knowledge.
Yet, in spite of all this, the design at Liverpool still appears incongruous
in context. The scientific purpose and dedication of Spences building is
signalled in 1950s lettering above the doorway. Entering, the viewer turns
right to a broad flight of steps with polished timber banisters, at the top
of which the mosaic stretches from left to right, entirely filling the breadth
and height of the landing. The ceiling above the mosaic is timbered, punc-
tuated with low-level lighting which illuminates the design in pools, caus-
ing the predominating gold to glitter in shafts. Ascending to this jewelled,
Byzantine treasure guarded by altar-rails, the resonances seem inescapable;
although, sadly, none of the present, incumbent scientists has proved will-
ing to comment on the works meaning today.

Visions in Flux

Clearly these case studies pose different issues. The works for the Venice
Biennale, originally presented within a mesh of institutional and political
intention, are perceived today for the most part as psychological representa-
tions ofCold War Angst; their spiritual symbolism unheeded. Square World,
the only example for an ecclesiastical site, can no longer be assessed in terms
of its original intention to provide a site of contemplation before entering
the church. The mosaic at Liverpool, conceived within the context of sci-
entific research, paradoxically appears to function as a work of spiritual or
moral symbolism. Each example speaks for the agency of its commissioner
or disseminator: the British Council for promoting home-grown talent
abroad, Basil Spence for successfully mediating between client and artist
170 Judith LeGrove

where the architects at Rubery had failed. Similarly, the success or failure
of each speaks eloquently of the boundaries within which contemporary
art and spiritual expression were deemed acceptable to co-exist. The gaze
or embodied eye of those reporting further inflects the narrative of
the time: Sylvia Sprigge, apparently preconditioned to object to modern
sculpture; the Church, fighting to retain a hold upon traditional forms of
symbolism; Geoffrey Moorhouse, by his own admission both pickled in
the Book of Common Prayer and drawn by the magnet of church affairs.
But rounding this picture is surely the voice of the artist.
Interviewed in 1958 in relation to the glass at Coventry Cathedral,
Clarke was asked whether his own very personal symbols were too esoteric
for a building that called for universal appreciation. His response was no,
that it was simply a question of revitalisation: that the Churchs once mean-
ingful symbols, now stale and unnoticed, could be revitalized by engaging
artists to create afresh (Wickham 1958). It might be argued that each ofthe
three examples described above is sufficiently unexpected, both in form
and context, to jolt the receptive viewer to attention; certainly, at Pangolin
London in early 2012 Clarkes Man prompted extensive comment from a
range of visitors (critics to sculptors), most united in a view of its form as
still fresh. And yet Clarke, now almost blind, is still engaged in trying to
formulate fresh symbols: spiritual symbols, without constraint of organ-
ized religion, to express his belief and engage others in contemplation.
The original version of this paper, presented at Liverpool in 2010, drew
attention to the material fragility of Clarkes work, citing instances where
it had been removed or destroyed, often by the agency of the Church,
its commissioner. Now, in 2012, this balance is to some extent redressed
by Coventrys fiftieth anniversary exhibition exploring the making and
meaning of the Cathedrals numerous artworks, as well as by the timely
restoration to public visibility of Clarkes long neglected undercroft cross.
The brochure for Journey into the Light promises a modern interpreta-
tion of how Coventrys artworks combine in a unique expression of the
Cathedrals spiritual personality and mission. Such language is a reminder
like the apparently gratuitous, emotive image of the artist devising sym-
bols in solitude that if spirituality is to be considered at all, it cannot be
addressed with the detachment of art history.
Fragile Visions 171


The majority of newspaper and journal articles listed below exist as unpaginated press
cuttings in the Geoffrey Clarke archive (Henry Moore Institute, Leeds).

Alloway, L. (1953). Britains New Iron Age, Art News (NY), 52:4, pp.1820, 6870.
Arya, R. (2011). Contemplations of the Spiritual in Visual Art, Journal for the Study
of Spirituality, 1:1, 7693.
Bachelard, G. (1994). The Poetics of Space. Trans. M. Jolas. Boston: Beacon Press.
Berger, J. (1952). Geoffrey Clarke and Peter Potworowski, at Gimpels, New Statesman,
5 April 1952.
Bielecka, P. (2012). Exorcising the Fear, in Exorcising the Fear: British Sculpture from
the 50s and 60s. Exhibition Catalogue. Pangolin London, pp.313.
Brown, A. (1997). The Neutron and the Bomb: A Biography of Sir James Chadwick.
Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Clarke, G. (2012). Exposition of a Belief , Royal College of Art thesis (1951), abridged
text in J. LeGrove. Geoffrey Clarke: A Sculptors Prints. Bristol: Sansom &
Company, pp.5962.
Foucault, M. (1991). Discipline and Punish. Trans. A. Sheridan. London: Penguin
Greenberg, C. (1993). Interview conducted by Edward Lucie-Smith, 1968, in J. OBrian
(ed.). The Collected Essays and Criticism, Vol. 4: Modernism with a Vengeance
19571969. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp.27782.
Gurian, E.H. (2005). Threshold fear, in S. MacLeod (ed.). Reshaping Museum Space:
Architecture, Design, Exhibitions. London: Routledge, pp.20314.
Hulks, D. (2006). The Dark Chaos of Subjectivisms: Splitting and the Geometry
of Fear, in B. Taylor (ed.). Sculpture and Psychoanalysis. Aldershot: Ashgate
Publishing Limited, pp.95114.
Hulks, D. (2009). Despair, or Defiance: the Double Inflection in Herbert Reads
Geometry of Fear, in M. Paraskos (ed.). Re-Reading Read: New Views on Herbert
Read. London: Freedom Press, pp.14451.
Hyman, J. (2003). Henry Moore and the Geometry of Fear, in Henry Moore and
the Geometry of Fear. Exhibition Catalogue. James Hyman Fine Art, pp.611.
Jachec, N. (2006). The New British Sculpture at the Venice Biennale: Europeanism
and its Limits, The British Art Journal, 7:1, 2532.
Koch, R. (1930). The Book of Signs. London: First Edition Club.
172 Judith LeGrove

Lefebvre, H. (1991). The Production of Space, Trans. D. Nicholson-Smith. Oxford:

Blackwell Publishing.
LeGrove, J. (2012). Geoffrey Clarke: a Sculptors Prints. Bristol: Sansom & Company.
Maritain, J. (1939). Art and Scholasticism. Trans. J.F. Scanlan. London: Sheed & Ward.
Middleton, M.H. (1952). Art, The Spectator, 18 April 1952.
Moorhouse, G. (1959). Making Do with a Difficult Site, The Guardian, 18 November
Morgan, D. (2005). The Sacred Gaze: Religious Visual Culture in Theory and Practice.
Berkeley: University of California Press.
Morgan, D. (2012). The Embodied Eye: Religious Visual Culture and the Social Life of
Feeling. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Newman, B. (2003). The First Man Was an Artist, in C. Harrison and P. Wood (eds).
Art in Theory 19002000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas. Oxford: Blackwell
Publishing, pp.5747, [1947].
ODoherty, B. (1999). Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space.
Berkeley: University of California Press.
Read, H. (1952). New Aspects of British Sculpture, in the exhibition catalogue for
The British Pavilion at the XXVI Biennale, Venice, pp.45.
Robinson, J. (1963). Honest to God. London: SCM Press Ltd.
Sartre, J-P. (2003). The Search for the Absolute, in C. Harrison and P. Wood (eds).
Art in Theory 19002000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas. Oxford: Blackwell
Publishing, pp.61116, [1948].
Sprigge, S. (1952). The Biennale at Venice: Britain Strangely Represented, Manchester
Guardian, 24 June 1952.
Steiner, G. (2001). Grammars of Creation. London: Faber and Faber.
Underhill, E. (1912). Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Mans
Spiritual Consciousness. London: Methuen.
Wickham, G.E. (1958). Art & Architecture, Art News & Review, 4 January 1958.
Maxine Walker

Painting the Question: Barnett Newmans

Stations of the Cross

Mans first expression, like his first dream, was an aesthetic one. Speech
was a poetic outcry rather than a demand for communication.
Newman, 1990d, p.156

When first experiencing Barnett Newmans Stations of the Cross (1958

64) (Figure 1), the fourteen paintings with their black lines from top to
bottom appear as an analogous study in Euclidean geometry. Never will the
Euclidean lines cross, thus suggesting the impossible ontological metaphor
that God is man; however, given Christianitys faith in Christs divinity and
the historical Franciscan piety regarding these holy places that remember
Christs Passion on the way to the Crucifixion, that first visceral response
may or may not be the meaning/s of the paintings. In the 1966 Guggenheim
exhibition of Stations of the Cross, Barnett Newman stated in the catalogue
that he gave the series the Aramaic subtitle Lema Sabachthani part of
Christs dying cry, Why have you forsaken me? (Newman, 1990e, p.187)
Newman continues: this is the Passion. This is the outcry of Jesus. Not the
terrible walk up the Via Dolorosa, but the question that has no answer
(Newman, 1990e, p.188).
When earlier artists painted various Stations of the Cross, the icono-
graphic content had been established by centuries of Christian tradition.1

1 1. Jesus is condemned to death; 2. Jesus takes up his cross; 3. Jesus falls the first time,
4. Jesus meets his mother; 5. Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus carry the cross; 6. Veronica
wipes the face of Jesus; 7. Jesus falls the second time; 8. Jesus meets the women of
Figure 1. Barnett Newman,
Fifth Station, 1962
Oil on canvas, 198.7 153 cm
Collection of Robert and
Jane Meyerhoff 1986.65.5
2012 Barnett Newman
Foundation / Artists Rights
Society (ARS), New York

Figure 2:
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo,
The Road to Calvary, after 1749
Oil on canvas, 49 86 cm
Foto Reali Archive (National
Gallery of Art, Department of
Image Collections)
Painting the Question: Barnett Newmans Stations of the Cross 175

For example, in Giovanni Tiepolos The Road to Calvary (after 1749) (Figure
2), the artist knew the fifth station must represent Simon helping the fallen
Christ bear the heavy cross.
A 1966 review in Time magazine contrasts Newmans work with art-
ists who have depicted the Passion of Christ:

[The] abstract painter [] must face the problem of portraying the progression
toward Calvary without the props of episodic, cartoon-strip clarity, and at the same
time depict its essential agony. Barnett Newman, 61, the most abstract of the U.S.
abstract expressionists, made the problem even harder: he resolved to limit himself
to his own astringent style, depicting Christs passage in stark vertical chords, using
only black and white on raw unprimed canvas [] I want to hold the emotion,
says Newman, rather than waste it on picturesque ecstasies. (29 April 1966, p.82)2

Whereas many artists painted a single piece depicting some aspect of the
Passion, Newman chose to paint all the stations, and as he says in ARTnews
(May 1966, pp.268, 57), fourteen together make clear the wholeness ofthe
single event: Just as the Passion is not a series of anecdotes but embodies
a single event, so these fourteen paintings, even though each one is whole
and separate in its immediacy [is] [] a single subject. How, then, do the
black and white lines on fourteen raw canvases depict or evoke any con-
templations of the spiritual?
In a 1967 response to Rev. Thomas F. Mathews talk on an inher-
ent religious sensibility in modern artists, Barnett Newman remarks I
find it sort of embarrassing to talk on the title Spiritual Dimensions of
Contemporary Art. I had no idea that the spirit could be so easily measured

Jerusalem; 9. Jesus falls a third time; 10. Jesus is stripped; 11. Jesus is nailed to the
cross; 12. Jesus dies on the cross; 13. Jesus is removed from the cross; 14. Jesus is laid
in the tomb.
2 Gnther Frg depicted the Stations of the Cross in gestural bronze panels in 1989.
According to the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago, Frg is the first
artist on record to address Christs Crucifixion in abstract and expressively sculptural
terms, and thus lends a distance and a coolness to the subject that is more material
and intuitive than spiritual and narrative. See the following link, which was accessed
on 29 September 2011. <http://www.renaissancesociety.org/site/Exhibitions/Intro.
176 Maxine Walker

I wonder who is holding the ruler? (1990h, p.286). Newmans The Stations
of the Cross: Lema Sabachthani has been described as univalent given its
modernist simplified values. As Donald Kuspit argues in A New Sacred
Space: Michael Somoroff s Illumination I, modernist painting entropically
tends toward simplified values as Barnett Newmans paintings make clear.
(Kuspit, n.d.) Painter Jon Groom points to the work of Barnett Newman
as having a kind of materiality and substance which implies more than it
actually is. Groom sees in Newmans paintings a manifestation of colour
that addresses both the human condition and the spirituality of mankind
and argues that the tension between the surface and the text in Newmans
Lema Sabachthani? creates a multivalence that evokes memory and emo-
tion (Morgan, n.d.).
Newman himself acknowledged that Lema Sebachthani described
his feelings when he painted Stations of the Cross each station a stage
in his own life for in other writings Newman declares his artistic pur-
pose as painting the essence of alienation and suffering. However, if each
of Newmans Stations exhibits a centre, that is, an orienting, balancing,
organizing a priori transcendentally conceived purpose which governs the
interpretation and meaning, then interpreted both univalently and mul-
tivalently aspects of spirituality may emerge because that centre encloses
the meaning the essentiality of human suffering.
This paper suggest that a deconstructive viewing and reading of
this twentieth-century artists paintings on the moments leading to the
Crucifixion performs a critique of such a priori conceptions; painting
the question denies presence and opens any closure that the question is
answered with certitude. A determinate and constituted reality has long
been considered in Western metaphysics as presence. To interpret Stations
in this traditional way is to view the original cry of the suffering as held
in the paintings even though the acoustic sound is unheard and absent.
Using Jacques Derridas deconstruction of the transcendental signified,
Newmans Stations are shown to be a system of signs [signifiers] that does
not and cannot fully represent the signified, the original cry, any more
than the Aramaic Eloi, Eloi, Lama Sabachthani? can sign that cry. What
Newman sets out to accomplish in the Stations is possible because the cry
Painting the Question: Barnett Newmans Stations of the Cross 177

is absent. The trace of the cry remains the signifier the painting simul-
taneously differs and defers from the illusive signified.
This interpretative strategy of deconstruction, largely based on Jacques
Derridas corpus, opens the discourse on Stations of the Cross, discourse
which primarily noted the historical import of the paintings in the devel-
opment of twentieth-century Abstract Expressionism as well as suggested
that the Stations shadowed the suffering and displacements of World War
II. Considering Barnett Newmans own writings about art and specifi-
cally the Stations themselves, Richard Shiff in his introduction to Barnett
Newman: Selected Writings and Interviews evocatively points out that
Newmans language resembles that of his paintings, where, for example,
the presence of minor irregularities along the edge of a band of color forces
the viewer to reconsider the contrasting qualities of an opposing edge.
One element inflects another with surprising degree of complexity (1990,
p.xxiv). It is the contention of this paper that reconsidering how elements
inflect another deconstruction happens within the texts themselves, from
the inside, rather than from any external application of an interpretive
technique or formula. Deconstruction, in this singular moment, serves to
question Newmans work so that the question Lema Sabachthani? itself
disorients and unbalances any sense of fixed meaning.
When Newman participated in the First International Congress on
Religion, Architecture, and the Visual Arts in 1967, he commented on the
holy, the notion of sacred place and their relationship to art (1990h, p.289):
what matters to a true artist is that he distinguish between a place and no
place at all; and the greater the work of art, the greater will be this feel-
ing. And this feeling is the fundamental spiritual dimension. Concluding
a discussion with a Jesuit priest, Newman stated that his entire aesthetic
can be found in the Passover service: at the Passover Seder, the blessing is
made to distinguish between the profane and the sacred, between what
is holy and not holy. When the Passover falls on the Sabbath, the blessing
becomes Blessed be thou, O Lord, who distinguishes between what is
holy and what is holy. This is the artistic problem, and I think, the true
spiritual dimension (1990h, p.290).
Binary pairs, appearing in what is and is not holy, establishes a hierar-
chy which Derrida exposes as one sign having primacy over the other in an
178 Maxine Walker

attempt to fix and stabilize meaning. But, holy and holy show the capacity
of signs (and paintings) to be repeated in new situations and grafted into
new contexts, to say the same and not-the-same. This iterability, the inser-
tion of texts paintings, in this case in new spaces and places continually
produces both similar and different meanings from previous understand-
ings and perspectives. These Stations exist as differing signs but as noted
above are not that to what they refer, neither to any historical artistic prec-
edent nor to a metaphysical concept. The signs mean because they differ
from each other thereby opening a space from that which they represent.
These signs also defer by participating in temporality and thereby open-
ing up a temporal chain. The condition of distinction and delay, Derridas
diffrance (simultaneously spacing and temporalization), accounts for
meaning, i.e. the signified concept is never present in and of itself:

It is because of difference that the movement of signification is possible only if

each so-called present element, each element appearing on the scene of presence, is
related to something other than itself, thereby keeping within itself the mark of the
past element, and already letting itself be vitiated by the mark of its relation to the
future element, this trace being related no less to what is called the future than what
is called the past and constituting what is called the present by means of this very
relation to what it is not. (Derrida, 1982, p.13)

One Cry, Fourteen Signs

Newman says that from the beginning, he felt he would do a series but
he was not interested in a theme with variations nor in developing a
technical device over and over (Newman, 1990f, p.189). Newman felt
the Passion embodying a single event is whole and separate in its imme-
diacy, all form a complete statement of a single subject (1990f, p.190).
However, it is difficult not to view Stations as a traditional series, for
in December 1961, Newman exhibited the first station as a single work
Painting the Question: Barnett Newmans Stations of the Cross 179

Station and subsequently was reproduced as The Series 1.3 To counter

an interpretation of each painting as an episode, an anecdote, within a
series, or one painting as a sequel to the one prior, a deconstructive strat-
egy discovers their temporal and spatial opposition. These paintings exist
not as binary oppositions in which one painting is subordinate to another,
but they exist in relationship, much as Lawrence Alloway notes as spa-
tial unity as a group (Alloway, 1990, p.341). In this sense, the paintings
have a syntactical order in which each differs from the one prior and the
one following, and in this system pure meaning is never absolutely fixed
and centred in one. Each painting becomes a centre for another centre,
a continual deferring of meaning. Derrida orients the notion of deferred
meaning by asking what has preceded the question? In Newmans paint-
ing of the original cry, what has come before Lema Sabachthani? Derrida
says that the assumption preceding the question is Being-as-presence,
Being-as-presence of the present. This is to say, in a modernist interpreta-
tion, each of the Stations privileges a modality of time that is the present
in which Being-is-presence. Derrida questions this authority of presence
over absence, just as Newman questions the authority of representation
over emptiness. If presence is privileged, then the same is also privileged,
thereby marginalizing the other; the absent other cannot appear (Smith,
2005, p.31). In a deconstructive turn, to access the present, there must be
an experience of the trace by a connection to something else the other
past, the other future, or the other in general. The Stations expose this
relationship in which the artist and the viewer and the painting return
to the other, a making room for the other (Smith, 2005, p.70). There is
no hierarchical opposition between the binaries present/absent but a
kind of mediation and an affirmation, even a shadow-like awareness and
an unmerited hospitality, that the other is always other. Closure remains
impossible; meaning does not exist as a stable fixed.

3 Gray, 1961, pp.94100. Stations of the Cross were painted in the following chrono-
logical order: Stations 1 and 2, 1958; Stations 3 and 4, 1960; Stations 5 and 6, 1962;
Stations 79, 1964; Stations 1012, 1965; Stations 1314, 19656.
180 Maxine Walker

Jean-Franois Lyotard writing about presence in Stations of the Cross

(1988, p.86) recounts Newmans 1949 encounter with the Miami Indian
fortifications in Newark, Ohio: for Newman, both Indian and Jewish
space capture presence. Contrasting Derrida, Lyotard describes presence
[as that which] interrupts the chaos of history and calls out that there is
even before that which is has any signification (1988, p.86). Lyotard pro-
nounced Newmans paintings an angel because Newmans work announces
nothing it is itself the annunciation (1988, p.79). Newman himself in
a vigorous reaction to formalist aesthetics and the instrumentalist, anti-
metaphysical philosophy of John Dewey (1990b, p.58) writes: the artist
emphatically does not create form. The artist expresses in a work of art an
aesthetic idea which is innate and eternal.4 That the innate and eternal is
accessible presence is, of course, what deconstruction questions. Modifying
his 1926 reaction to the Barnes Foundation as cited above, Newman tenta-
tively acknowledges that the Original Voice (the Prime Mover or Being)
is not privileged but the original man discovered in the artistic work has
something to say about meaning, about the artists intentions, and thus is
privileged [my emphasis]:
[If ] we knew what original man was, we could declare what todays man is not []
In our inability to live the life of a creator can be found the meaning of the fallow
man. It was a fall from the good, rather than from the abundant life [] And it is
precisely here that the artist today is striving for a closer approach to the truth con-
cerning original man than can be claimed by the paleontologist, it is the poet and
the artist who are concerned with the function of original man and who are trying
to arrive at this creative state. (Newman 1990d, pp.15860)

Sociologist Roy Boyne (2001, p.51) cogently points out that Newmans
ontological presence is anchored in the utter validity of the core self and
that the artists work is a preservation of subjectivity which is formative
of the humanities. However, what Boyne also implicitly reads in Newman
is that original man is the original voice. In citing Derridas critique of
the original voice, Boyne declares that Newman would have massively,

4 Newman is expressing an opposing view to modern theory that understands art as

a combination of line and colour that make up pictorial form.
Painting the Question: Barnett Newmans Stations of the Cross 181

fundamentally, disagreed with Derridas critique, for the original voice

according to Newman was a cry, expressing solitude and anguish. The
Stations of the Cross tell of this voice (2001, p.49). Boyne, on the other
hand, acknowledges, But if the cry is within language, formed by the rules
of language, surely we must be confronting an intersubjective moment?
Must not the subjectivity be structured like a language? (2001, p.50). Boyne
then queries if the cry is framed within language, then the cry from the
First Station [is treated] as formed when it may be formless (2001, p.50), an
interpretation configured with distinct binary oppositions. Given Boynes
agenda to identify the enduring qualities of the self that resist the weight
of social forces (2001, p.xi), the sociologist cites Newmans statement
for the Guggenheim in which a number of embedded binaries (italicized
below) show that the cry is not prior to man because such a first singular
cry does not exist. Man is not prior to language; man is born into language:

Mans first expression [] was an aesthetic one. Speech was a poetic outcry rather than
a demand for communication. Original man, shouting his consonants, did so in yells
of awe and anger at his tragic state, at his own self-awareness [] Mans first cry was
a song. Mans first address to a neighbor was a cry of power and solemn weakness, not
a request for a drink of water. (Newman, 1990d, p.158)

Aesthetic / inartistic; Poetry / demand for communication; consonan-

tal yells of awe and anger / song; power/ weakness; address / question.
Read in this way, the opposing signs refer to a transcendental signified
in fixed and centred meaning on each side of the slash. For Derrida,
presence operating through binary oppositions determines a traditional
interpretation of subjectivity, i.e. a self that lurks beneath ones actions
and experiences and that can access a temporal experience from an exter-
nal first-person point of view. In a deconstructive manner, David Roden
points out that linguistic signs, according to Derrida, exemplify the trace-
structure because their meaning depends on contrastive relationships
within [my emphasis] linguistic systems (2004, pp.93102). It is my
contention that Stations of the Cross is structured as a language-system.
As art historian Annika Marie puts it, If [the] paintings can be said to
picture anything it would be the enacting of the possibility of language
itself (unpublished thesis). Newman says, modern painting is an attempt
182 Maxine Walker

to change painting into a poetic language, to make pigment expressive

rather than representational (Newman, 1990c, p.88). Derrida early on
in Of Grammatology considers the problem of language, that is, the
near devaluation of language given its global horizon of most diverse
discourses that inflate the sign itself (1974, p.6).
Acknowledging this critique, language employed here to interpret
Newmans Stations may, as Derrida calls it, menace [the very life of lan-
guage and set it] adrift in the threat of limitlessness (1974, p.6). Language
remains a sign, however problematic its horizon and the sign itself must
be brought back to its own finitude (Derrida, 1974, p.6). This is not to
suggest that Newmans paintings are hieroglyphs in the historical develop-
ment of writing nor figurative writing that undoes original phonocentrism
with marvellous museum exhibition aspects; however, it is to suggest that
what Newmans art says it re-states the philosophical certainty that
Derrida seeks to undo:

In order to think art in general, one thus accredits a series of oppositions (meaning
/ form, inside/outside, content/container, signified/signifier, represented/repre-
senter, etc.) which precisely structure the traditional interpretations of works of art.
One makes of art in general an object in which one claims to distinguish an inner
meaning, the invariant, and a multiplicity of external variations through which, as
through so many veils, one would try to see or restore the true, full originary mean-
ing. (Derrida 1987, p.22)

On originary meaning, Newman, in ARTnews at the 1966 exhibition of

the Stations of the Cross (Guggenheim), identifies the original moment,
the agony that is single, constant and unrelenting:

Neither did I have a preconceived idea that I would execute and then give a title
to. I wanted to hold the emotion, not waste it in picturesque ecstasies. The cry, the
unanswerable cry, is world without end. But a painting has to hold it, world without
end, in its limits. (Newman, 1990f, p.190)
Painting the Question: Barnett Newmans Stations of the Cross 183

The Cry Without a Frame

Originary meaning with its metaphysics of presence has implications how

the frame or border is perceived, according to Nicole Anderson (n.d., p.2
of 7). The inside/outside opposition [of the frame], Derrida deconstructs.
Such interpretations delimit the difference between inside and outside. A
frame or border encloses something:

The permanent requirement to distinguish between the internal or proper and

the circumstance of the object being talked about organizes all philosophical dis-
courses on art, and meaning as such [] This requirement presupposes a discourse
on the limit between inside and outside on the art object, here a discourse on the
frame [sic]. (Derrida, 1987, p.45)5

Newmans feelings on his paintings and frames are evident in his Letter
to the editor of Times magazine and the new director of the Guggenheim
Museum after frames were stripped from artists works as Picasso, Braque,
Mir: This [action] is not a simple matter of display and decorative tech-
nique. I, as one of the first painters to reject the frame, feel that any pres-
entation of my own pictures in a frame would, in effect, mutilate them
(1954, 1990a, p.41). Newman in his vertical and rectangular paintings
devises an approach that avoids the opposition between the conventional

5 In The Truth of Painting, Derrida uses l. Kants term parergon [frame] to deconstruct
the distinction between inside and outside. Ergon is the meaning of the work of art,
the inside (Derrida, 1987, pp.45, 634). Derrida points out that this entails not only
knowing where the frame and work begin and end, but also knowing what one is
excluding as frame and outside the frame (Derrida, 1987, p.63). Derrida points out
that there is not only a limit, a separation between the frame and the work, but also
between the work and the wall: With respect to the work which can serve as a ground
for it [parergonal frame], it merges into the wall, and then gradually, into the general
text. With respect to the background [general text], it merges into the work, which
stands out against the general background (1987, p.61). The frame is not a unified
concept: the parergonal is neither the inside nor the outside of the frame; neither
the inside nor the outside of the work but both the inside and outside (Anderson,
n.d., p.3 of 7).
184 Maxine Walker

figure and ground, and between the canvas and the wall, an approach with
various interpretations. Ori Soltes puts it this way: Newmans large frame-
less paintings, with all the pigment extending to the edges of the paint-
ings, reorders the universe. Soltes positions Newman as a Jewish Abstract
Expressionist whose lines that slash vertically through the paintings draw
the eye and hold together the unity of the opposing sides of the composi-
tion; [the line] withdraws, emerges, emanates and expands out pushing
the color-field to the edge (2009, p.295).
In a centripetal direction from outside in, artist Frank Stella in
Working Space claims that the strength of Barnett Newmans painting
comes from the ability of stripes (or, zips, as Newman calls them,) to attach
themselves to and into the background. They [zip] the space together
(1986, p.123). Newmans black and white zips throughout Stations vary
in placement, width and appearance in the composition of each Station.
Some have brushings or vertical drips/specks. Sometimes they mirror
each other (Stations 7 and 8; the 10th Station with white zips are in the
same location as 7th and similar light brushings as Station 5) as if one
canvas is open to the other. In Station 13, there is an inversion of black
and white zips from Station 8, with a thicker right zip on 13. Station 14
uses two kinds of white paint for zips and includes no right-hand feature,
an emptiness that breaks from the right-hand elements of the others. The
fourteen Stations, the zips, call not to the centred Absolute but to each
other, within and without. Each Stations identity is constituted by its
differing from itself and others. In Newman and Derridas understanding,
a frame does not enhance and set off the central object without detract-
ing from it; the unopposed outside and inside, the frameless, opens the
closure of fixed meaning.
A generation earlier, Wassily Kandinsky wrestled with inner and outer
polarities in his art and came to the conclusion that there is a spiritual har-
mony, a divine life within so that one can paint music (Kandinsky, 1977,
p.xix). From a Derridean perspective, music itself is not that originary
centre. As Laurel Ralston, in her article, A Derridean Approach to Musical
Identity (2008, p.33) argues: in musical works it is philosophically dan-
gerous to proceed as though a works original identity are capable of being
fully determined and full restored (Ralston, 2008, p.33). Compositional
Painting the Question: Barnett Newmans Stations of the Cross 185

intention and performance, as Ralston points out, are the par excellence
of a past that has never been present. What Ralston says of music could
be said of the Stations: What can we say about a work that is never self-
identical but which takes its identity from its difference from and division
within itself ?6

The only things in the picture that count are the stripes.7

With regard to Stellas notion of splicing space by a zip, art critic Harold
Rosenberg suggests that zips are the transcendental self, and this suggestion
agrees with Newmans desire that his paintings have the impact of giving
someone, as it did [him], the feeling of his own totality, of his own sepa-
rateness, of his own individuality, and at the same time of his connection
to others (Newman, 1990g, pp.2578). The zip in this reading preserves
the transcendental dignity of the self with regards to signifying presence.
If so, are the zips either the expressive in a transcendental manner or the
material indicative as phenomenologist Edmund Husserl might divide
them? For Derrida, such a distinction is impossible as the indicative is
within (Stocker, 2007, pp.856). Roy Boyne helps here as he conjectures
that the lines [zips] enclose not because of their intrinsic properties but
their call to others (2001, p.61). Boyne is highlighting Derridas position
that lines will group together (differences) as a result of failed attempts to
re-establish lost language of the first moment (2001, p.60). The repetitions
of the zips classify them, a form of recognition but also a kind of enclosure.
Boyne says that to reverse this condition [enclosure by classification],

6 Ralston, 2008, p.34; the Time art critic describes Newmans striped Stations as
quivering with the vibrancy of lines of diffracted light seen through an electric arc
spectroscope (29 April 1966, p.82) a difference and division within light itself.
7 Quote is from Barnett Newmans response to a museum curator who commented
that Newmans Vir Heroicus Sublimis was merely about the relation of forms (cited
in Schor, 2005, p.151).
186 Maxine Walker

and privilege line as Makom, which is Hebrew for place God as place-
less place (Ofrat, 2001, p.64) was the goal of Barnett Newman, and his
desire was for something to jump from the white canvas once [a] line
has been inscribed there (Boyne, 2001, p.63). This is something akin to
Jean-Franois Lyotards description of Newmans zip descending like a
thunderbolt (1988, p.88).
As a reinvigoration of the mythos a conversation with the other
Roy Boyne suggests a reading for the zips responds to something neither
mute nor endowed with authority (2001, p.64). That Newman attempted
to establish a referential function, a metaphysical presence, has been noted
from early art critics on Newmans work, Thomas Hess and Clement
Greenberg, and observed again by Sarah K. Rich in The Proper Name
of Newmans Zip (Rich, 2005). Rich observes Newmans attempts to link
zip with a proper name, and thus a singular effect, but Rich rejects this
effort because the success of the name [zip] was dependent on its repeti-
tion in various contexts (Rich, 2005, p.108). Moreover, the intention of
offering a proper name as something unique is undercut (or deconstructed)
as Derrida noted in Of Grammatology: the proper name has never been,
as the unique appellation reserved for the presence of a unique being []
because the proper name was never possible except through its functioning
within a classification and therefore within a system of differences (Derrida,
1974, p.109). Rich concludes that [Newman] initially intended to convey
a metaphysical message through a vocabulary spoken in the new art world
[] [In] the end, Newman produced a term that compromised the very
operations of presence he valued (Rich, 2005, p.111). At the conclusion of
Richs rather dismissive treatment of Newmans attempts to differentiate
between stripe, band, line, in the perspective of structural linguistics, zip
becomes an empty category (2005, p.109). However, it is the absence of
presence in the zip that both differs and defers meaning: the zip implies
traces of presence, and the systematic play of difference delimits meaning
residing in the centre.
At this point, a question emerges whether the Stations can be exhib-
ited in any linear order to retain the play of difference and diffrance? In
a traditionally framed painting depicting a stop on the Via Dolorosa, the
object is usually centred in the foreground against a contextually obvious
Painting the Question: Barnett Newmans Stations of the Cross 187

background, such as Giovanni Tiepolos painting. If such paintings, titled

by their occurrence on the Via Crucis, were positioned in a linear order
that paralleled Christs walk of suffering, their respective enclosed objec-
tive centres claim to have meaning by standing in for the original event.
On the other hand, not only are Newmans Stations not identifiable by
figurative elements but also are without titles. Newmans interview with
film director Emilio de Antonio indicates that the artist viewed assigning
titles as a complicated and personal problem: he claims that since he was
not painting anything he was looking at, it didnt seem to matter much
if he gave a title or a number to his paintings (Newman, 1990i, p.305).
Newmans Stations are identified by number, an iterability that alters
any idealization it reproduces, for numbers have no present or signified
content and no absolute referent [] They are not trying to say anything
(Derrida, 1981, p.350). Joshua Soffer points out that considerations as
when to begin a counting for various purposes, when to halt it, via which
mathematical schemes or operators to relate series of numbers to each
other, these decisions all relate to intentional factors and thus are them-
selves subject to alteration and context (Soffer, 2002). What intentional
factors emerge in Lema Sabachthani? The question itself becomes that
intentional factor. Newman explained in an article that each stage was a
meaningful stage in his own artistic life, so that he was a pilgrim as he
painted (9 May 1966, p.100), even though Newman had no interest in
painting a series of anecdotal episodes. One of the many ways in which
Derrida approaches the issue of intentionality, is to say that intentionality
is not separate from the total context of any text or utterance. Rather it is
part of the total context (Smith & McIntyre, 1989, p.151).
When the Stations were exhibited in the High Gallery of the Solomon
R. Guggenheim Museum (1966) according to the order in which they were
painted, the viewer standing in front of a painting could glimpse the next
one in her peripheral vision: paintings about to be seen were glimpsed
before they were viewed, and paintings already seen were recalled as new
ones were regarded (Godfrey, 2005, p.55). Derrida puts it this way, an ele-
ment functions and signifies, takes on or conveys meaning, only by referring
to another past or future element in an economy of traces (1978, p.29).
[And] the play of differences supposes, in effect, syntheses and referrals
188 Maxine Walker

which forbid at any moment, or in any sense, that a simple element be

present in and of itself, referring only to itself (Derrida, 1978, p.26). This
is the engine of deconstructive movement. Deconstruction rather than
identifying a particular/general binary sets up a chain of distended sin-
gularity. No painting, no singularity, is more named than any other. This
is to say, if deconstruction resists the reduction of meaning to a coherent
scheme, is chronological order for validity privileged over repressed pos-
sibilities for alternative positions? In a Derridean turn, is any repositioning
another way of saying that one of the Stations is no longer a hostage but
a guest: hospitality is the deconstruction of the at-home; deconstruction
is hospitality to the other (Derrida, 2002, p.364).

Sign-ature/ Signature

In Writing and Difference, Derrida makes an interesting observation about

the fabric of traces: once the book is repeated, its identification with itself
gathers imperceptible difference which permits us [readers and interpreters]
efficaciously, rigorously [] to exit from closure (1978, p.295). This eter-
nal return does not remain identical to itself; [] this writing repetition
is the writing that retraces, tracking down the signs of its disappearance,
the lost writing of the origin (1978, p.295). Once Newman completed
a Station, he signed the canvas along the bottom with the year that the
painting was completed. Each signature was applied with the same paint
used for the rest of the painting, black or white, and placed in an area of
exposed canvas. The Fourteenth Station is an exception, as it has no exposed
canvas, so the signature appears in white on top of another white. Many
writers have criticized the inclusion of these signatures, especially Dore
Ashton who claimed that they [stand] out, that they destroy the unity of
the field; they intrude a note of three dimensionality, and that they show
a tremendous lack of tact (1966, p.5). In a deconstructive strategy, these
signatures call the viewer again to a sign emerging and repeating itself, a
Painting the Question: Barnett Newmans Stations of the Cross 189

sign without a centre, a phantom of the centre calling to us (Derrida, 1978,

p.297). Newman attempted, as Boyne points out, to portray the struggle
of the subject without reducing the struggle to a narrative (Boyne, 2001,
p.166). That Newman avoided a representational narrative of object and
subject is certain; nevertheless, his signature holds the trace of self as it
denies its presence.
Derrida concludes Writing and Difference with the evocative question
that if the centre is mourned is one not naming death (1978, p.297)? When
one steps outside the High Gallery of the Guggenheim, Newmans Be II is
the last painting after the fourteen Stations. The thin cadmium red zip on
the left side of Be II, Mark Godfrey describes as a re-beginning, a moment
of awareness (Godfrey, 2005, p.58). This is not a resolution; this is not the
finality of crucifixion in position fifteen. This is an opening of the closure
of death, not resurrection to divine life, but the eternal return to a sign
which itself is borne of having been divided. The deconstructive strategy
explored throughout this paper questions the existence ofOriginal Cry and
subjective presence independent of Stations: if Lema Sabachthani requires
the paintings to hold the cry then there is a distinction between what is
heard and what is painted; one is privileged over the other. Deconstruction
attempts the conjoining by observing that the presence of one is the absence
of the other and the absence of one is the presence of the other. The cry
of Lema trying to paint the impossible for Newman, was the only
objective worthy of an artist (Schneider, 2005, p.136), and painting the
question has no neat and tidy formula. The immutable and enduring cry
is only heard and glimpsed through detours and deferrals, and through a
close look at the forces at work in the paintings, a ceaseless openness that
destabilizes interpretations and fixed meanings to allow the question why?
to stand witness

Blessed be thou, O lord, who distinguishes between what is holy and what is holy.
Thats the problem, the artistic problem, and, I think, the true spiritual dimension.
(Newman to Rev. Thomas F. Mathews, 1969, 1990, p.286)
190 Maxine Walker


Alloway, L. (1990). Barnett Newman: The Stations of the Cross and the Subjects of
the Artist, in D. Shapiro and C. Shapiro (eds). Abstract Expressionism: A Critical
Record. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.32836.
Anderson, N. (n.d.). (De)constructing Technologies of Subjectivity, Scan: Journal
of Media Arts Culture, pp.17, accessed 20 September 2011 <http://scan.net.
Ashton, D. (1966). Barnett Newman and the Making of Instant Legend, Arts and
Architecture, 83:4, 45, 34.
Boyne, R. (ed.) 2001. Barnett Newman: The Transcendent Subject, in Subject, Society,
and Culture. London: Sage, pp.4669.
Clement, C. (1990). Art Chronicle: Feeling is All (Newman), in D. Shapiro and
C. Shapiro (eds). Abstract Expressionism: A Critical Record. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, pp.3301.
Derrida, J. (1974). Of Grammatology. Trans. G. Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins
University Press.
Derrida, J. (1978). Writing and Difference. Trans. A. Bass. Chicago: University of
Chicago Press.
Derrida, J. (1981). Dissemination. Trans. G. Johnson. Chicago: University of Chicago
Derrida, J. (1982). Margins of Philosophy. Trans. A. Bass. Chicago: University of
Chicago Press.
Derrida, J. (1987). Truth in Painting. Trans. G. Bennington and I. McLeod. Chicago:
University of Chicago Press.
Derrida, J. (2002). Acts of Religion, G. Anidjar (ed.). New York: Routledge.
Foster, S. (1980). The Critics ofAbstract Expressionism. Studies in the Fine Arts: Criticism.
D. Kuspit, 2. Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI Research Press.
Gabriele, S. (2005). Barnett Newmans Here Series: A Meditation on Sense ofPlace,
or How Can a sculpture Say I?, in M. Ho (ed.). Reconsidering Barnett Newman.
Philadelphia Museum of Art. New Haven: Yale University Press, pp.14860.
Godfrey, M. (2005). Barnett Newmans Stations of the Cross and the Memory of
the Holocaust, in M. Ho (ed.). Reconsidering Barnett Newman. Philadelphia
Museum of Art. New Haven: Yale University Press, pp.4666.
Golding, J. (2000). Paths to the Absolute: Mondrian, Malevich, Kandinsky, Pollock,
Newman, Rothko, and Still. Princeton: National Gallery of Art, Washington
D.C., Princeton University Press.
Painting the Question: Barnett Newmans Stations of the Cross 191

Goossen, E.C. (1990). The Philosophic Line of B. Newman, in D. Shapiro and

C. Shapiro (eds). Abstract Expressionism: A Critical Record Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, pp.3325.
Gray, C. (1961). The Art in America Show, Art in America, 49:4, 94100.
Greenberg, C. (1948). The Situation at the Moment, Partisan Review, 15:1, 84.
Greenberg, C. (1955). American-Type Painting, Partisan Review, 22:2, 17996.
Hess, T.B. (1951). Abstract Painting: Background and American Phase. New York:
Hess, T.B. (1990). Barnett Newman: At the Parsons Gallery, in D. Shapiro and
C. Shapiro (eds). Abstract Expressionism: A Critical Record. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.
Jachec, N. (2000). The Philosophy and Politics of Abstract Expressionism 19401960.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Kandinsky, W. (1977). Concerning the Spiritual in Art. Trans. M.T.H. Sadler. New
York: Dover.
Kuspit, D. (n.d.). A New Sacred Space: Michael Somoroff s Illumination I, accessed 17
July 2011 <http://www.percontra.net/5kuspit.htm>.
Lyotard, J-F. (1988). The Inhuman: Reflections on Time. Trans. G. Bennington and
R. Bowlby. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Marie, A. (2006). The Most Radical Act: Harold Rosenberg, Barnett Newman, and
Ad Reinhardt. Unpublished PhD Thesis, University of Texas, Austin.
Morgan, R.C. (n.d.). To Unknow What We Know: The Paintings of Jon Groom,
accessed 12 August 2011 <http://www.jon-groom.com/essays/robert-c-morgan/>.
Newman, B. (1966). The Fourteen Stations of the Cross 19581966, ARTnews, 65:3,
5, 248.
Newman, B. (1990a). Letter to the Editor, The New York Times Magazine (7 June
1954), in J.P. ONeill (ed.). Barnett Newman: Selected Writings and Interviews.
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, pp.401.
Newman, B. (1990b). Concerning Objective Criticism, in J.P. ONeill (ed.). Barnett
Newman: Selected Writings and Interviews. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, pp.568.
Newman, B. (1990c). Painting and Prose/Frankenstein, in J.P. ONeill (ed.). Barnett
Newman: Selected Writings and Interviews. New York: Alfred A. Knopf,
Newman, B. (1990d). The First Man Was an Artist, in J.P. ONeill (ed.). Barnett
Newman: Selected Writings and Interviews. New York: Alfred A. Knopf,
Newman, B. (1990e). The Stations of the Cross, Lema Sabachthani, in J.P. ONeill
(ed.). Barnett Newman: Selected Writings and Interviews. New York: Alfred A.
Knopf, pp.1878.
192 Maxine Walker

Newman, B. (1990f ). The Fourteen Stations of the Cross, 195866, in J.P. ONeill
(ed.). Barnett Newman: Selected Writings and Interviews. New York: Alfred A.
Knopf, pp.18990.
Newman, B. (1990g). Interview with David Sylvester, in J.P. ONeill (ed.). Barnett
Newman: Selected Writings and Interviews. New York: Alfred A. Knopf,
Newman, B. (1990h). Response to the Reverend Thomas F. Mathews, in J.P. ONeill
(ed.). Barnett Newman: Selected Writings and Interviews. New York: Alfred A.
Knopf, pp.28690.
Newman, B. (1990i). Interview with Emile de Antonio, in J.P. ONeill (ed.). Barnett
Newman: Selected Writings and Interviews. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, pp.3028.
Newsweek, The Unanswerable Question (no author given), 9 May 1966, p.100.
Ofrat, G. (2001). The Jewish Derrida. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press.
Ralston, L. (2008). A Derridean Approach to Musical Identity, Postgraduate Journal
of Aesthetics, 5:2, pp.3340.
Rich, S.K. (2005). The Proper Name of Newmans Zip, in M. Ho (ed.). Reconsidering
Barnett Newman. Philadelphia Museum of Art. New Haven: Yale University
Press, pp.96114.
Roden, D. (2004). The Subject, in J. Reynolds and J. Roeffe (eds). Understanding
Derrida: An Invitation to Philosophy. New York: Continuum Press, pp.93102.
Rosenberg, H. (1952). The American Action Painters, Art News, 51:8, 223.
Rosenberg, H. (1990). Newman: Meaning in Abstract Art, II, in D. Shapiro and
C. Shapiro (eds). Abstract Expressionism: A Critical Record. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, pp.34450.
Schneider, P. (2005). Flat Forms, Deep Thoughts: Newman on Gricault, in M. Ho
(ed.). Reconsidering Barnett Newman. Philadelphia Museum of Art. New Haven:
Yale University Press, pp.13247.
Schor, G. (2005). Barnett Newmans Here Series: A Meditation on Sense ofPlace, or
How Can a Sculpture Say I? in M. Ho (ed.). Reconsidering Barnett Newman.
Philadelphia Museum of Art. New Haven: Yale University Press, pp.4666.
Shiff, R. (1990). Introduction, in J.P. ONeill (ed.). Barnett Newman: Selected Writings
and Interviews, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, pp.xiiixxviii.
Smith, J.K.A. (2005). Jacques Derrida: Live Theory. New York: Continuum.
Smith, D.W. & R. McIntyre (1989). Theory of Intentionality, in Mohanty, J.N.
& W.R. McKenna (eds). Husserls Phenomenology: A Textbook, for Advanced
Research in Phenomenology and University P of America, Washington
D.C., Derrida on Intentionality accessed 5 October 2011 <www.lextek.com/
Painting the Question: Barnett Newmans Stations of the Cross 193

Soffer, J. (2002). After Derrida and Deconstruction Critical Analysis of Derridas

Deconstruction, Phenomenology and Cognitive Psychology, accessed 3
November 2011 <http://www.angelfire.com/psy/schafer10/deconstruction.
Soltes, O. (2009). Mysticism in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam: Searching for Oneness.
Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
Stella, F. (1986). Working Space. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Stocker, B. (ed.) (2007). Jacques Derrida: Basic Writings. Trans. D.B. Allison and
N. Garver. London: Routledge, pp.85104.
Time, Painting: Of a Different Stripe (no author given), 29 April 1966, p.82.
Rina Arya

Painting in a Godless World:

Contemplating the Spiritual in Francis Bacon

There are numerous examples of modern and contemporary Western art-

ists who employ religious subjects and images in their work. In some cases
this may be a declaration or articulation of faith, whilst in other cases the
artists are using the subjects to make extra-religious points, often about
their culture and the society that they live in. Sarah Lucas 2003 Christ you
know it aint easy is one such example which uses cigarettes as the basic unit
of a sculptural form of Christ on the Cross, and can be seen to be remark-
ing on how difficult it is to kick the habit. Whilst it is clearly meant to
be humorous, it is not unsurprising that some view it as blasphemous or
transgressive; it is using a sacred image in a way that is not respectful or
sacrosanct. Increasingly, in a post-secular society, artists are using loaded
symbols from different religions to communicate their ideologies.
The twentieth-century artist Francis Bacon used a preponderance of
Christian symbols in his work, especially the crucifixion and the pope.
He also used the device of the triptych, which was traditionally used in
religious altarpieces. Arguably, his most religious subject matter was the
human body, which he used to explore aspects of the human condition such
as suffering, desire and mortality. In many cases it is not apparent that he
was using the said symbols; indeed if it was not for the explicitly religious
titles the viewer would not conjure up a religious context in interpretation.
Bacon was not religious and he denied that his employment of Christian
symbols was motivated by religious intentions. This in itself is unproblem-
atic as I have discussed there are a number of artists who use religious
symbols in a non-religious way. However, it is the frequency, prolonged
use and the fervour of his non-religious expression that singles Bacon out
as a special case. In spite of this, no further discussions have considered at
196 Rina Arya

length Bacons use of religious subject matter. His resolute atheism, which
he expressed unabashedly in conversations with interviewers, halted further
interrogation. His definitive statements and dogmatic views on religion
closed conversation rather than encouraged dialogue. Bacons unequivo-
cally atheistic stance is one of the reasons that many critics do not pursue
the subject of religion in his art.1 These critics willingly acknowledge the
plethora of religious symbols in Bacons work, but downplay the religious
aspects by acknowledging that Bacon was a very visually and culturally
attuned artist who responded to the post-war times that he lived in by
employing myths and symbols that resonated with him. These critics take
Bacons statements about religion at face value and disregard the religious
aspects as a pertinent or proper area of study. Such an approach, however,
is a gross misjudgement of the significance of the religious in Bacons art
and has led to a notable gap in criticism. My monograph Francis Bacon:
Painting in a Godless World goes some way to addressing the neglect of the
religious aspects in Bacon scholarship.
In this paper I want to ponder on what has been overlooked and to
consider the explanations for Bacons ongoing use of religious symbols by
focusing on his use of the crucifixion. By doing this I am not suggesting that
we should not take Bacons atheistic statements seriously. Indeed, Bacon
had interesting and incisive views about art and the world around him and
it would be remiss to disregard comments he made in interviews. However,
his statements should be approached with caution and not accepted, as
Ernst van Alphen suggests, as authoritative accounts of his work (van
Alphen, 1992, p.17). Instead, they should be considered in dialogue with
his paintings, where it becomes clear that Bacons art provokes questions
that are central in religious discourse, and the state of godlessness that
the human is in. Paul Tillich defines religion broadly as being ultimately

1 Martin Harrison states how critics have persisted in overlaying conscious or sub-
conscious religious motivations to many of his paintings; indeed, they continued to
dwell on his fascination with religious themes long after he had ceased to treat them
(Harrison, 2006, p.45). Andrew Brighton recalls how Bacon had vetoed a book (by
the picture editor and writer Bruce Bernard) that was on the subject of religion in
Bacons work when it was on the verge of publication (Brighton, 2001, p.28).
Painting in a Godless World 197

concerned about ones being, about ones self and ones world, about its
meaning and its estrangement and its finitude (Adams, 2001, p.311). These
concerns can be described as spiritual. Spirituality is a continuing concern
and commitment to questioning the nature and condition of humanity in
an ever-changing world. It is a quest to look beneath the surface of reality
to explore deeper issues about purpose and meaning; a concern with the
deepest values and meanings by which people seek to live (Sheldrake,
2007, pp.12). Bacons art enables the viewer to engage with spirituality
whether it be of a religious or non-religious kind. His work then elicits
religious dimensions.

The Crucifixion

The crucifixion was one of Bacons most popular subjects. He painted at

least eight paintings that contained either the term crucifixion in the
title or had the subject of the crucifixion in the image, and he worked on
the theme for over five decades. He had a number of reasons for choosing
the crucifixion as a subject but none were motivated by religious factors.
Moreover his interpretation of the crucifixion was not explicitly connected
to the Crucifixion of Christ.
In 1933 Bacon produced three paintings with the term Crucifixion
in the title. He would continue with the subject in the mid-1940s when
he painted Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (c.1944).
Fragment of a Crucifixion (1950) is plausibly the bridge between the ear-
lier and later Crucifixions. The next significant stage in his paintings of
Crucifixions was in the 1960s when he painted the Crucifixion triptychs
Three Studies for a Crucifixion (1962) and Crucifixion (1965). By the 1970s
Bacon felt that the possibilities of the Crucifixion had been exhausted and
he stated that he would or could never use it again because he had drained
it of its possibilities. However, he would return to the subject in the 1980s
with a later version of his 1944 triptych, Second Version of Triptych 1944
198 Rina Arya

(1988), four years before his death.2 Bacons dismissal of the symbol should
be regarded tentatively as it had clearly been resonant throughout his career.
Bacon catalogues a number of reasons for his interest in the crucifix-
ion, which range from the formal to the anthropological. He was inter-
ested in the aesthetic and formal possibilities that it held the position
of one figure being raised above the others gripped him. He enthused
how the very fact that the central figure is raised into a very pronounced
and isolated position which gives it, from a formal point of view, greater
possibilities than having all the different figures placed on the same level
(Sylvester, 1993, p.46) although he never actually depicted this particular
configuration in any of his own representations. From an anthropological
perspective the crucifixion gave him the scope to examine human behav-
iour in the extreme situation of torture (Sylvester, 1993, p.23). Bacon told
David Sylvester how he felt that the crucifixion is a magnificent armature
on which you can hang all types of feeling and sensation, adding that he
had not found another subject so far that has been as helpful for covering
certain areas of human feeling and behaviour (Sylvester, 1993, p.44). Paul
Moorhouse claimed that Bacon latched on to the cultural resonance of the
symbol: the image of the Crucifixion is so immediately recognizable that
the viewer is able to respond to the feelings it arouses and reflect on its
particular treatment without having to decode the narrative components
(Moorhouse, 1989, p.24).
Bacon did not use the crucifixion for explicitly theological reasons
but instead used it to explore ideas about the nature of human behaviour.
Anthropology investigates the behaviour of human beings, their behaviour
towards one another, and it elicits ideas about human suffering, empathy,
sacrifice, pain, humiliation, pity, loss and fear. Bacons interpretation of
anthropology is not incompatible with theology, and the components
that he uncovers can be found in the Christian story in the ninth hour
Christ experienced fear as he cried on the Cross, My God, my God, why
hast thou forsaken me? (Matthew 27.467). In his incarnated form Christ
experienced excruciating pain on the Cross and his followers experienced

2 Francis Bacon interviewed by Davies, 13 August 1973 (Yard, 1999, p.16).

Painting in a Godless World 199

sorrow after his death. The contemplation of suffering occurs in both the
Christian interpretation of the Crucifixion and in Bacons Crucifixions but
the main difference is that whilst in the former we contemplate Christs
suffering as a prelude to the suffering of others, in Bacons Crucifixions
there is no saviour and contemplation is oriented towards the suffering
of humanity.
Bacons interest in the crucifixion can also be couched in terms of his
overall interest in the human body. The crucifixion wounds and breaks the
body, pushing it to the limits of physical and psychological pain. Bacon also
conceived of the crucifixion metaphorically as demonstrating the pinning
down of a body, of fixing the body to a single representation. The death of
God, which was the cultural climate that he was working in, destroys the
possibility of reproductive mimesis and the inability to fix the body to a
single representation (van Alphen, 1992, p.93). Other motifs, such as the
hypodermic syringe, functioned in a similar way to the crucifixion in that
they pin that figure down to the surface (of a bed, for example) (Sylvester,
1993, p.78). Lying Figure with Hypodermic Syringe (1963) shows the syringe
piercing an outstretching arm. The vitality of Bacons bodies resist being
pinned down and break free of any artificial restraints. In that respect the
crucifixion (and its indices, such as the syringe) are used symbolically to
critique the predilection to mimetic representation.

Bacons Earliest Depictions of the Crucifixion

Bacon embarked on the subject of the Crucifixion in 1933 when he did a

total of three works on this theme. His earliest depiction was fairly sche-
matic. He was experimenting with the formal aspects of the symbol the
relationship between the horizontal and vertical axis and the placement
of the limbs of the outstretched figure. On a black background a spectral
200 Rina Arya

white stick-figure stands with arms apart covered by a diaphanous veil.3

The contrast between the white on black is stark and eerie. Bacon was
exploring the configuration of a figure with arms apart being held on a
cross and the spatial contours of the room. The materiality of the figure
is elementary and undeveloped; it displays what Matthew Gale describes
as a violated physicality (Gale, 2008, pp.13651). Although basic in
outline and form, it was one of the only instances where Bacon explicitly
used the cruciform shape. This first Crucifixion (1933) was purchased by
the major British art collector Sir Michael Sadler (18611943) and was
reproduced in the art critic Herbert Reads publication Art Now (1933)
opposite Picassos Baigneuse (1929). By placing Bacons Crucifixion along-
side that of Picasso, Read not only affirmed the iconographical similari-
ties between Bacons early works and Picassos biomorphic forms but also
elevated Bacons status.4
The second Crucifixion (1933) is a variation on the theme. Executed
in chalk, gouache and pencil on paper, it shows three spectral forms two
in luminescent white and one in brown behind cage-like bars and was
also purchased by Sadler. In 1933 Bacon also produced The Crucifixion,
which features a distorted figure of a man with arms spread, looking down
at a skull. The use of the skull historically can be traced back to the medi-
eval tradition of placing the skull at the Crucifixion. It also refers to the
Crucifixion of Christ which occurred at Golgotha, the place of the skull
(Matthew 27. 33 and Mark 15. 22.) and was actually the impression of the
x-rayed skull of Sadler, who had requested that he feature in Bacons paint-
ing (Peppiatt, 1997, p.65). In great contrast to the other two Crucifixions
of 1933, this painting does not explore the configuration of the elevated

3 Lawrence Gowing likened Bacons representation to Andr Massons figures, par-

ticularly the bat-like figure that Masson designed in 1933 for the Russian ballet Les
Presages (Gowing, 1989, p.12).
4 In 1992, celebrating the occasion of the exhibition Corps Crucifies (The Body on the
Cross), Grard Rgnier and Anne Baldassari presented Picassos Crucifixion (1930)
and Bacons Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (c.1944) side by side
in the Muse Picasso in Paris as indicative of the closeness of the pictorial relation-
ship that existed between both artists (Baldassari, 2005).
Painting in a Godless World 201

figure on the cross, but is a depiction of a figure that has pulled himself
off the cross and is freestanding with the moulded skull beneath him. It
explores the fleshiness of the body more than the previous two contri-
butions and is the first instantiation of man as meat. From the ghostly
portrayal of the first Crucifixion (of 1933) to the more stolidly outlined
body in this example, Bacon was clearly in an experimental phase and was
working out the relationship between the body and its articulation on a
cross. A development of this process seems to have been worked out in
Wound for a Crucifixion (1934), which was destroyed by Bacon (Russell,
1993, p.17).

Crucifixion Triptychs

In total Bacon painted four triptychs of the Crucifixion that are character-
istically minatory. By adopting the triptych format Bacon was adhering to
the visual convention of presenting the Crucifixion narrative in triptych
form. Traditionally, the triptych is a three-panelled piece that covered the
altarpiece and displayed the Christian narrative. The central panel of the
triptych (as in the case of the Isenheim Altarpiece) was of the greatest sig-
nificance because it would be on show when the panels were shut. In that
respect the preceding panel led up to the central panel, which was usually
a depiction of the Crucifixion and the viewer would be able to follow the
narrative in a sequential or chronological order. However, Bacons use of the
triptych is not typical: first, there is no narrative sequence that the viewer
is able to follow and, second, the Crucifixion is either absent or modified
in an alternative form.
202 Rina Arya

Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion

Bacons first Crucifixion triptych is Three Studies for Figures at the Base
of a Crucifixion (c.1944). The work launched his career as a painter and
gave the British public a taste of his weltanschauung. Bacons work invites
comparisons with Graham Sutherlands Crucifixion (1946) which was com-
missioned for St Matthews Church in Northampton. Sutherland conveys
Christ dying a horrible death by being nailed to the Cross while wearing
a crown of thorns, in the manner of Grnewalds Christ in the Isenheim
Altarpiece. They have in common their use of the grotesque, the twisted
organic forms that Sutherland developed from his studies of nature and
which Bacon worked out in relation to Picassos studies. Sutherland uses the
gnarled and deformed nature of Christs body to emphasize his suffering,
and to depict Christs empathy for humanity. The grotesque was inversely
proportional to Christs glory. In Bacons portrayal, the grotesque is not
framed theologically but anthropologically it demonstrates the abject
nature of humanity. Bacon creates alien forms, embodiments of inhuman-
ity that provoke and agitate the viewer.
Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion features three
greyish grotesque forms that are in some respects human whilst in others
are unmistakably animal-like, particularly in their elongated necks that
operate as valves for release. These three figures are isolated in their respec-
tive panels and are each seated on a podium or stand. The orange and red
background is uniform and creates the impression that these figures are
occupying the same space. However, the three figures are oblivious to one
another and cry and grimace in pain. As the title suggests, they are at the
base of a crucifixion but while a crucifixion is mentioned in the title, it is
noticeably absent in the depiction. Furthermore, John Russells observa-
tion of the use of the indefinite article transforms the meaning of the
painting we are not looking at the Crucifixion of Christ but at a generic
unspecified crucifixion (Russell, 1993, p.11). This transforms the meaning
and intentions of the painting and the identity of the three figures becomes
unspecified, leaving the viewer perplexed by their identity. The inadvertent
Painting in a Godless World 203

allusion to the Crucifixion opens up the possibility that these three figures
are connected to the three mourners in the biblical tradition, which were
traditionally the Virgin, St John, and Mary Magdalene.5 Hugh Davies and
Sally Yard argue that the figure in the left-hand panel, with her bowed head
and crestfallen look, is a comprehensive mourner at the cross (Davies and
Yard 1986, p.16.) and could plausibly be described as a Magdalene figure.
There are other artistic precedents for the figures. The bowed shape of
the shoulders and downcast head bears similarities with Roy de Maistres
Crucifixion (1944) whilst the bandaged figure in the central panel is based
on Grnewalds Mocking of Christ (1503). As rich as these possibilities are
Bacons three figures are not easily identifiable and resist simple definition.
Ronald Alley and John Rothenstein trace the three figures back to Picassos
post-Cubist work, namely the Three Dancers of 1925.6 The distortion of
the human form that Bacon adopted from Picassos practice widened the
possibilities of expression and extended the range of human expression.
Bacon merged the human with the animal in order to explore the extremes
of human psychology. During experiences of extreme pain and suffering,
the human resorts to the position of the animal to release their urges. This
often takes the form of a cry or scream, expressions which Bacons three
figures are in the throes of. Dawn Ades observes how the figure in the
central panel, bearing gritted teeth, and the figure in the right-hand panel,
with open mouth, vent frustration that seems to stem from their inverted
positions in the genital region. The displacement of mouth or teeth to the
genital area contributes to the bestiality of the imagery (Ades, 1985, p.16.)
By merging the human and animal in these forms, Bacon conveys the
desperate nature of these creatures and uses these figures to represent the
dysfunctional nature of humanity. Their bestial outlets provide channels for
the ravening appetites of the figures, which are insatiable and destructive.
By widening his vocabulary of human and animal forms, Bacon articulates
three hideous-looking creatures that are actually antithetical in spirit to
the three mourners at the foot of the Cross.

5 Peppiatt comments how the original title for the work was, in fact, Figures at the
Foot of the Cross (Peppiatt, 1997, p.87).
6 Alley and Rothenstein, 1964, p.16. See also Davies in Chiappini, 1993, p.36.
204 Rina Arya

A more explicit attribution of the figures is to the Greek Eumenides.

In a letter dated 9 January 1959, Bacon states his intentions for these figures:
these are figures for the Eumenides (the Greek Furies), which I intend
to use at the base of a large Crucifixion, which I may do still (Alley and
Rothenstein, 1964, p.11). The Eumenides, or Furies, as they are more com-
monly called, are the goddesses of retribution who exacted punishment
for murder and other serious crimes, particularly of kin against kin, and
who guarded the established order of the world (March, 1998, p.165).
The Furies became a metaphor for the psychological demons that stalk the
psyche and they become an ongoing presence in Bacons paintings where
they feature as amorphous shapes that lurk in the background.
Another possible characterization of the three figures is that they are
reflections of the viewer. Given that the viewer is looking at a generic cru-
cifixion, and furthermore, one that it is absent, the viewer is left with no
focal point. This raises the question: to whom and on what do we fix our
attention? The focal point may be deflected on to the viewer. One response
is that we cannot see the crucifixion because we are the crucifiers, and
that these three figures are not the mourners or the figures of sorrow but
are actually also the perpetrators. Wilson Yates suggests that these figures
represent the ones who crucify or who embody the emotions that feed
the vengeance and cruelty of the act of crucifixion (Yates, 1996, p.24).
Similarly, Stephen Spender comments on how:
These appalling dehumanized faces, which epitomize cruelty and mockery are those
of the crucifiers rather than the crucified [] His figures are of those who participate
in the crucifixion of humanity which also includes themselves. If they are not always
the people who actually hammer in the nails, they are those among the crowd which
shares in the guilt of cruelty to the qualities that are or were beneficently human,
and which here seem to have banished forever.7

Bacon places all the three figures at the eye level of the viewer because he
is offering the viewer a reflection of themselves. This is what we as human-
ity have become. It is a post-Holocaust statement of humanity. We are

7 See Spender, in Yates, 1996, p.24.

Painting in a Godless World 205

implicated in the brutality of the action that goes into the act of putting
to death. Therefore, in the context of Bacons image, the crucifixion is no
longer a spectacle in the sense of something that we stand back and think
about contemplatively or sadistically: we are actually implicit in the making
and complicit in the act itself. By deflecting the focal point on to us, Bacon
is intimating that in order to make sense of these creatures we have to place
ourselves at the centre of our interpretation of them. The generic nature of
this crucifixion is disquieting because we cannot sanction the brutality of
the act in theological (or eschatological) terms. Nor can we absolve our-
selves from the scene of this heinous crime; the deflection on to us means
that we are accountable. The ambiguity of the mannerisms of the figures
means that it is possible to flip their identity around and regard them not
as predators but as prey, as the hunted. They then become the victims of
atrocity and bear the scars of inhumanity. Whether as predator or prey,
crucifier or crucified, the figures are indisputably carriers of raw emotion
that cannot be tamed.
The Tate triptych was first exhibited at the Lefevre Gallery in London
in April 1945, a month before the end of the war in Europe but after the
newsreel footage ofthe concentration camps has been released. In this group
exhibition, which included the work of Graham Sutherland, Matthew
Smith and Henry Moore, Bacons contribution stood out in all its ghastli-
ness and repulsiveness. The public wanted to be soothed but Bacons work
did anything but this. He makes us culpable by implying that we are involved
in the brutal atrocities that have occurred not simply in wartime but in the
history of humanity itself. The religious allusions aroused by the title of
his work may have provided comfort and solace to a public who awaited
structural frameworks of hope, and which religion would have been able
to provide. But the lack of religious meaning would have jolted the sensi-
bilities of the viewers; there is no God and all the frames of reference that
once provided routine and contentment do so no longer. The three forms
do not refer to preternatural forms that exist in a fantastical realm but are
the remnants of humanity. The viewers come face to face with three forms
which they cannot explain and this is hugely dislocating. They represent
the monstrousness of the human condition.
206 Rina Arya

The impact that the Tate triptych had was monumental and in effect it
eclipsed the contributions of then better known artists, such as Sutherland
and Moore. Critics unanimously expressed the shock value this painting
had on the British public. John Russell conveys the impact the painting had:

Common to all three figures was a mindless voracity, an automatic unregulated glut-
tony, a ravening undifferentiated capacity for hatred. Each was as if cornered, and
only waiting for the chance to drag the observer down to its own level. They caused
a total consternation. We had no name for them, and no name for what we felt about
them. They were regarded as freaks, monsters irrelevant to the concerns of the day,
and the product of an imagination so eccentric as not to count in any possible per-
manent way. They were spectres at what we all hoped was going to be a feast, and
most people hoped that they would just be quietly put away. (Russell, 1993, pp.1011)

Whilst the exhibition of the painting had a tremendous impact on the

publics reception of Bacon, it is important to remember the context of its
development in Bacons oeuvre. Davies and Yard argued that, rather than
viewing this triptych as a reaction to the atrocities of the Second World
War, it should be viewed as the summation of twelve years of Bacons
exploration of the crucifixion theme (Davies and Yard, 1986, p.14). It is
also worth emphasizing that Bacons use of the crucifixion did not coincide
with the war given that he was engaged with the subject in the early 1930s.
Bacon returned to Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion in
his second version in 1988, which is remarkably similar to the original but
with a darker palette and modelled figures, giving it a more stately look.
This may indicate the persistence of his outlook on humanity.

Fragment of a Crucifixion

Bacons Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (c.1944) was
followed by Fragment of a Crucifixion (1950) six years later. Fragment of a
Crucifixion is an exploration of the complexity of emotions evoked in the
event of a crucifixion. The painting consists of two figures a screaming
Painting in a Godless World 207

figure that adopts the pose of the crucified and a fragmented figure that
looms above the screaming figure. The influence of two earlier works is
discernible here. On a formal level we see the influence of Bacons Heads
series that he was engaged with in the 1940s, both in the scream of the
figure and in the outline of the frame. The biomorphic forms of both fig-
ures resemble the amalgamated human and animal forms in Three Studies
for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion. The theme of predator and prey is
also developed here where the two figures could feasibly be considered to
occupy both roles as the direction of flight is ambiguous. One reading is
that one figure is screaming because it is has been pursued by the other
figure (the theme of the Furies persists). Reversing the roles, the fleeing
figure is now prey and escapes from the fierce creature that is chasing after it.
The frame structure in which the shrieking figure is situated deflects the
focus from the tau cross, which forms the vertical axis of the painting and
stretches across the backdrop of the painting. The figure is placed against
the cross. Extending this similarity and charting the actions sequentially it
is possible to construe the screaming figure as the crucified whilst the raised
figure is symbolic of the Ascension. Bacon transposes the Biblical story
against an incongruous modern background of figures and cars in motion
against the backdrop of a sea. The figures are oblivious to the crucifixion. In
the modern world the significance of the sacrifice of Christ goes unnoticed,
or in the death of God the purpose of the Crucifixion loses pertinence.
In his triptych Crucifixions of the 1960s Bacon problematized the role of
the Crucifixion by dehumanizing the crucified further.

The Crucifixion Triptychs of the 1960s

Whilst Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion references an

established tradition, Bacons next two Crucifixions, Three Studies for a
Crucifixion (1962) and Crucifixion (1965), represent a departure from the
Biblical event and we see the crucifixion in the abattoir, where we are meat;
208 Rina Arya

we are potential carcasses (Sylvester, 1993, p.64). Margarita Cappock

discusses how the Crucifixion for Bacon was devoid of any religious
meaning and instead epitomized mutilation of the flesh, pain, butchery,
and ultimately, death in a horrific manner. The Crucifixion rendered the
human form into nothing more than a splayed slab of meat (Cappock,
2003, p.311). Paul Moorhouse referred to the correlation between the
way animals being led to slaughter are aware of what is going to happen to
them and the essential feature of crucifixion which is that the victim has
to endure the torture of knowing that death is imminent and inevitable
(Moorhouse, 1989, p.27). We smell death. In the Crucifixion triptychs of
the 1960s Bacon augmented the level of violence by portraying the actual
slaying of a living being.
Bacons Crucifixion triptychs of the 1960s reveal his fascination with
meat. A friend of Bacon from his early years in Ireland recalls how Bacon
was captivated by his local butchers shop in Sallins, County Kildare, and
would persuade her to go in to look at the hanging meat (Molony, 1977,
p.9). A visual representation of this is seen in works such as Carcass of
Meat and Bird of Prey (1980). He was inspired by images of carcasses and
meat, and owned images of meat joints as well as reproductions of images
of carcasses by Rembrandt and Soutine. Another source of influence was
Documents, the leftfield journal edited by Georges Bataille, which ran from
1929 to the early 1930s and which Bacon knew about. Documents 6 (1929)
contained Eli Lotars photographs of the abattoirs of La Villette (1929),
which would have provided rich material for Bacon in his formulation of
carcasses. These black and white photographs are of objectified and trun-
cated animal forms (Gale, 2008, p.137).
Both Three Studies for a Crucifixion and Crucifixion evoke the ambi-
ence of butchery and the sense of imminent slaughter. This is conveyed by
the colour palette of reds and pinks and motifs of chop bones, two omi-
nous figures, blood-splattered bodies in bed, the naked female form and
wrestling figures (in the 1965 triptych). Both works also include a figure
that is crucified but this does not mean that this has to be interpreted as
the crucifixion since it is possible to conceive of the crucifixion as a mood
rather than an event that pervades the work. In discussion of Three Studies
for a Crucifixion, Shone argues that the blood-spattered figure on a bed
Painting in a Godless World 209

in the central canvas [is] hardly less horrific than the upside-down human
carcass on the right (Shone, 1996, p.844). The mood of both paintings
is tense and angst-ridden. There is a feeling of imminent doom. Another
reading conceives of the crucifixion less as a subject area and more as a spe-
cific event that is explored in both triptychs. If we are taking the term the
crucifixion to refer to the method of execution where the body is tied or
hung on a cross and left to die, then there are two figures in either triptych
that match this description. In Three Studies for a Crucifixion, it is the third
figure that ungracefully slides down a waste chute. It has been slain, eviscer-
ated, with its ribcage exposed and its mouth open in agony; the moment of
death is imminent, if not already past. Bacon explicitly connects this figure
with Cimabues Crucifix (c.12878), and explains that I always think of
that as an image as a worm crawling down the cross. I did try to make
something of the feeling which Ive sometimes had from that picture of
this image just moving, undulating down the cross (Sylvester, 1993, p.14).
Although the description of undulation is an apt designation of what is
happening in the painting, the mood and context in comparison with
Cimabues serpentine form could not be more different. Where Cimabue
uses the sinuous line in order to naturalize the body ofChrist and to depict
his magnitude in suffering, Bacon uses the softening of line to convey the
animality of the carcass as it stealthily slides down the cross into a heap
of waste. The black amorphous shape in the foreground could be a ghoul
present at the moment of death or, to extend the association further, the
ghost of one of the three mourners in the Gospel, a Fury-figure. This is
not the death of a saviour or a martyr but that of a nobody. In Crucifixion
the central figure has been pinned with his bandaged arms down and his
elongated body raised in the air, with legs prised apart in plaster splints.
This time the crucified is more animal-like.
The animal natures of the crucified in both triptychs bring to mind
Christ as the sacrificial Lamb of God and the flayed carcasses in the work
of Rembrandt and Soutine. Norman Bryson encapsulates the complex
relationship between these two traditions. On a formalist level the works
have a great deal in common: the sense of the exposed spine and ribcage
the appalling colours of meat, red, brown and blue. However, the crucial
difference is that whilst Bacons meat is living flesh, Rembrandts is truly
210 Rina Arya

dead, a ruin (Bryson, 2003, p.51). Bacon is displaying the crucified figure
at the point of expiration, where we see the final gasp before life ceases,
which is a reminder of Angela Carters existentialist insight: at any moment
man can be transformed into meat (Carter, 1979, p.140). In Grnewalds
Crucifixion panel from the Isenheim Altarpiece, the final cry of Christ on
the Cross marks the holiest moment. However, in Bacon it becomes the
most abased moment, the cry into the abyss. The cry of agony in the cru-
cified figure in Three Studies for a Crucifixion recalls the twisted mouth of
Bacons Head 1 (19478), which is an amalgam of an animal and human
mouth what Lawrence Gowing described as the chattering teeth, like
the teeth of a hunted rodent, [that] break lose in their orifice (Gowing,
1989, p.14). The placement of the bodies on the vertical plane and their
inversion add to the gratuitousness of the portrayals and to the extent of
Linda Nochlin discusses the significance of the placement of the axis
in visual representation and argues that the vertical plane is the axis of form
and beauty, whilst the horizontal plane generates different impressions. This
is pertinent in the discussion of Rembrandts The Slaughtered Ox (1655)
which is hung vertically.8 It has a grandeur and presence that endows it with
an air of solemnity, which Bryson argues is elegiac (Bryson, 2003, p.51).
We feel like we must be respectful in its presence, rather like the willowy
figure who peers from behind the ox and looks toward the viewer. She is in
a Chapel of Rest and respects the sanctity of the spiritual being. Kenneth
Craig comments on the curious ritual solemnity with which the butchers
carry out their task (Craig, 1983, p.236). Craig reflects on how the very
presentation of the ox provokes a kind of religious contemplation and
includes the lack of visual distractions, the simplicity of the composi-
tion and the quiet mood as features which contribute to the ambience
(Craig, 1983, p.238). In contrast the graceless figures in Three Studies for a
Crucifixion and Crucifixion do not fare well. Although in vertical articula-
tion, they come to rest on the horizontal plane, which renders them abject.

8 There are two representations of The Slaughtered Ox by Rembrandt, one in Glasgow

Art Gallery (1638) and the other in the Louvre (1655). The latter is referred to here.
Painting in a Godless World 211

This is carried our more subtly in Three Studies for a Crucifixion where
the figure ungraciously oozes down to a pool on the floor, lying in what
supposes must be his own spilled viscera (Danto, 1995, p.101), whilst in
Crucifixion the figure is deliberately nailed to the horizontal axis on the
L-shaped board. Bacon further desublimates the figures by portraying them
upside down, as if to strip them of any dignity. This echoes the Crucifixion
of St Peter who was crucified upside down. The final damnation is the shift
from the crucified as human (in Three Studies for a Crucifixion) to animal
Without prior knowledge ofthe title, the viewer could plausibly assume
that we are looking at a scene in an abattoir, but the title of Crucifixion
immediately connects the Crucifixion of Christ with the slaughtering of
an animal. The ramifications of this can be taken in two ways. Bacon is
polarizing the Christian narrative of hope, where the resurrection follows
death with the permanent death of the animal. He is showing the utter
baselessness of Christian belief in a godless world. Or else he is likening
the Crucifixion of Christ to the undignified slaughtering of an animal, and
the docility of the bodies in both triptychs to the Passion of Christ, thus
conveying the extent of Gods love.

The Crucifixion as Self-Portrait

In Bacons art the crucifixion is not framed as a spectacle that permits

voyeuristic viewing but is instead an interrogation of the individual. Bacon
turns the mirror on to humanity. Bacon said that he saw the crucifixion as
being about all kinds of private sensations nearer, really, to a self-portrait
(Harrison, 2006, p.46). If a self-portrait is defined as a study ofthe different
aspects of selfhood, including the characteristics of our nature, then by
extension the crucifixion was a form of self-portrait. In his depictions he
focused on traits that are universal to humanity, such as being governed
by ravening instincts. The crucifixion takes us back to a meditation on the
212 Rina Arya

self where we are confronted by our deeds and our private demons (our
Furies), which permeate the psyche. The potential of the crucifixion as
self-portrait was innovative but was certainly not new. For centuries art-
ists have gleaned the metaphoric possibilities of the crucifixion as a vehicle
for self-portraiture. Emily Bilski discusses the trope of Christ as a stand-in
for the struggles of the tortured artist (Bilski, 2008, p.364). In Chagalls
White Crucifixion (1938), the crucified Christ operates as a symbol of Jewish
suffering. In this example the Crucifixion is set against a backdrop of dis-
array. Jews flee in fear, homes are ransacked and a synagogue is in flames.
The crucified here serves not as symbol of Christianity but as a reminder
of Jewish suffering. The very deliberate displacement of the loincloth with
the tallit confirms the crucified as Jewish. Chagalls portrayal of the cruci-
fied conveys the universality of suffering.
Bacons self-portraits dated from the 1950s and continued until the end
of his career. His choice of himself as subject was out of a sense of necessity.
He told David Sylvester: Ive had nobody else left to paint but myself I
loathe my own face, and Ive done self-portraits because Ive had nobody
else to do (Sylvester, 1993, p.129). Bacon likened the painting of crucifix-
ions to the painting of self-portraits: Well, of course, youre working then
about your own feelings and sensations, really. You might say its almost
nearer to a self-portrait. You are working on all sorts of very private feelings
about behaviour and about the way life is (Sylvester, 1993, p.46). Michael
Peppiatt argues that, if one takes Bacons phrase, its almost nearer to a
self-portrait, at face value, what he was saying, quite literally, was that he
identified with Christ and, in some way that was never ever explained
that Bacon himself felt crucified (Peppiatt, 2008, p.104). Two images
visually bring together the notion of self-portraiture as Crucifixion. Four
Studies for a Self-Portrait (1967) comprises, as the title says, a tower of self-
portraits where the contours of the face continue like a sinuous shape that
snakes down the canvas. It resembles the crucified figure in Three Studies
for a Crucifixion (1962). Bacon used the crucifixion cathartically to exorcise
his own demons and confront his fears. The crucifixion as vehicle enabled
him to vent the violence of all the personal tragedies that he had suffered
in his life, such as the experience of rejection from his father.
Painting in a Godless World 213

Bacon did not treat his self-portraits differently to his representations

of other people. Hunter observed how the self-portraits, show the same
curious mixture of cold objectivity and intense immediacy as in his paintings
of his friends (Hunter, 2009, p.60). In Self-Portrait (1973) Bacon slumps
mournfully. The bareness of the room draws us in to his mental anguish.
He wears a wristwatch, which indicates the transitory nature of existence,
something of which Bacon was acutely aware, having lost so many loved
ones in his life, especially George Dyer, whose death had recently occurred.

Returning to the Foot of the Cross

Bacons depictions of the crucifixion can be described as extra-religious.

His crucifixions are visually eccentric because they do not feature the cross,
as conventionally considered. Moreover they do not feature the image of
the crucified Christ. He was interested in the role of the crucifixion as a
vehicle to explore human behaviour what humans do to one another, the
cruelty inflicted and suffering caused. Although Bacon was vehemently
opposed to storytelling and would deny the claim that particular paint-
ings referred to specific political events, it is plausible to argue that Bacon
was examining violence more generally as a phenomenon that is present
in human life, and conveying the dehumanization and disintegration of
Western civilization that was revealed in a post-Holocaust world. The
accessibility of the crucifixion as a symbol that is so steeped in the collec-
tive consciousness (its mythic power) makes it appealing to Bacon and
enables him to explore sensations and experience with recourse to it. From
an anthropological perspective, he is exploring human behaviour and the
prevalence of violence in human nature, which is expelled in various ways,
often by resorting to animal impulses. A generic crucifixion conveys torture
and violence and has the propensity to evoke feelings of horror, fear and
tragedy. From a sociological perspective, he is commenting on the effects
that it has on society by focusing on the individual. He also used it to
214 Rina Arya

explore human psychology, notably through the Furies, which symbolize

moral conscience. In all cases we are seeing the human being pushed to its
most extreme state, the point at which its body breaks and its mind snaps.
Bacons interpretations of the Crucifixion developed in various ways. In
one respect his representations of the 1960s mark a departure from conven-
tional portrayals in the Bible and in Western art history as he moved away
from typical crucifixion iconography. In another respect, he can be seen to
be moving closer to the Christian, particularly Catholic, meaning of the
suffering body on the cross, which is evoked in his Crucifixion triptychs.
In its application Bacon is not representing the Crucifixion as an archaic
symbol that has no pertinence in the contemporary age. By deconstructing
or decoding the symbol, Bacon explores the meaning of the symbol not
within the Christian narrative but in its original sense as an instrument
of torture, and merges Golgotha with the abattoir. By showing us the
bloodiness and the broken body on the cross, or even the empty Cross
itself (in Three Studies at the Base of a Crucifixion), he is reviving the sig-
nificance of the Crucifixion. He is stripping away the sanitized veil that
representations of the Crucifixion are viewed behind and is restoring the
primal violence of the Cross. Centuries of overexposure in the history of
Western art have reduced the Crucifixion to a common symbol that com-
municated the Christian narrative. By exposing the violence and brutality
at the heart of the symbol, Bacon is revitalizing the Crucifixion as well as
ironically sacralizing the theological significance of the Cross. So although
Bacon is not depicting the Crucifixion, in most cases by implicitly con-
necting his representations with the religious even he was capitalizing on
the theological potential that this event held for Christians. By referring
to the Crucifixion, Bacon augments the emotional scope of the subject.
He used the religious event to increase expectation and to impart associa-
tions, but not because he believed in the truth of the Crucifixion or what
the Crucifixion symbolizes for a Christian. He expressed his belief in the
power of the symbol and not a belief in the veracity of the symbolization
or the truth of the event.
Painting in a Godless World 215


Adams, D. (2001). Theological Expressions through Visual Art Forms, in D. Apostolos-

Cappadona (ed.). Art, Creativity and the Sacred: An Anthology in Religion and
Art. New York: Continuum.
Ades, D. (1985). Web of Images, in D. Ades and A. Forge. Francis Bacon, Exhibition
Catalogue. London: Tate Gallery and Thames and Hudson, pp.823.
Alley, R. and J. Rothenstein (1964). Francis Bacon, introductory essay by John
Rothenstein, Catalogue. London: Thames and Hudson.
Baldassari, A. (2005). Bacon Picasso: The Life of Images. Trans. D. Radzinowicz.
Paris: Flammarion.
Bilski, E.D. (2008). Jewish artists, Christian themes, in Michelle Brown (ed.). The
Lion Companion to Christian Art. Oxford: Lion Hudson, pp.32667.
Brighton, A. (2001). Francis Bacon. London: Tate London.
Bryson, N. (2003). Bacons dialogues with the past, in W. Seipel, B. Steffen and
C. Vitali (eds). Francis Bacon and the Tradition of Art, Exhibition Catalogue.
Milan: Kunsthistorisches, Skira Editore, pp.4355.
Cappock, M. (2003), The Motif of Meat and Flesh, in W. Seipel, B. Steffen and
Christoph Vitali (eds). Francis Bacon and the Tradition of Art, Exhibition
Catalogue. Milan: Kunsthistorisches, Skira Editore, pp.31127.
Carter, A. (1979). The Sadeian Woman: An Exercise in Cultural History. London:
Craig, K.M. (1983). Rembrandt and The Slaughtered Ox, Journal of the Warburg
and Courtauld Institutes, 46, 2359.
Danto, A.C. (1995). Embodied Meanings: Critical Essays and Aesthetic Meditations.
New York: Noonday Press.
Davies, H. M. (1993). The Screaming Pope: Past Art and Present Reality, in
R. Chiappini (ed.). Francis Bacon. Milan: Electra, Museo dArte Moderna Citta
di Lugano, pp.3368.
Davies, H.M. and S. Yard (1986). Francis Bacon. New York: Abbeville Press.
Gale, M. (2008). Crucifixion, in M. Gale and C. Stephens (eds). Francis Bacon.
London: Tate, pp.13651.
Gowing, L. (1989). Francis Bacon: The Human Presence, in Francis Bacon, Exhibition
Catalogue, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. New York: Smithsonian
Institution in association with Thames and Hudson, pp.1138.
216 Rina Arya

Harrison, M. (2006). Francis Bacon: Extreme Points of Realism, in A. Zweite (ed.)

in collaboration with Maria Mller. Francis Bacon: The Violence of the Real.
London: Thames and Hudson.
Hunter, S. (2009). Francis Bacon. Barcelona: Ediciones Polgrafa.
March, J.R. (1998). Cassell Dictionary of Classical Mythology. London: Cassell.
Molony, D. (1977). Unclaimed Genius from County Kildare, Irish Press, 28 March,
Moorhouse, P. (1989). The Crucifixion in Bacons Art: A magnificent armature,
Art International, 8, 237.
Peppiatt, M. (1997). Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma. London: Phoenix.
Peppiatt, M. (2008). Francis Bacon: Studies for a Portrait, Essays and Interviews. London
and New Haven: Yale University Press.
Russell, J. (1993). Francis Bacon. London: Thames and Hudson.
Sheldrake, P. (2007). A Brief History of Spirituality. Oxford: Blackwell.
Shone, R. (1996). Francis Bacon. Paris and Munich, Burlington Magazine, 138:1125,
Spender, S. (1961). Francis Bacon, Quadrum, 2 December.
Sylvester, D. (1993). Interviews with Francis Bacon: The Brutality of Fact. London:
Thames and Hudson.
Van Alphen, E. (1992). Francis Bacon and the Loss of Self. London: Reaktion Books.
Yard, S. (1999). Francis Bacon, in Dennis Farr (ed.). Francis Bacon: A Retrospective,
Yale Center for British Art, Exhibition Catalogue. New York: Abrams in associa-
tion with the Trust for Museum Exhibitions.
Yates, W. (1996). The Real Presence of Evil: Francis Bacons Three Studies for Figures
at the Base of a Crucifixion, Arts, 8:3, 206.
Harry Lesser

Spirituality and Modernism

This paper will argue that, although the ideology of the modernist move-
ment in art was opposed to spirituality, the effect of the movement has been
to produce a number of new ways in which the visual arts can represent
or transmit a sense of the spiritual. This is largely because a tension exists
between accurate representation of the physical world and expression of
spiritual ideas. Hence, simply by breaking away from realism, the modern-
ist movement created, unintentionally but powerfully, new opportunities
for expressing the spiritual.
To demonstrate this, I need to show that there is such a tension between
realist portrayal of the physical world and communicating a sense of its
spiritual dimension. Evidence of this can be found in both Christian and
Jewish traditions, and perhaps others. If we begin with Christian tradition,
and with its expression in European painting, a useful way of seeing the
tension is to consider the following quotation from what is still a very good
introduction to European art, by Eric Newton (1956, pp.267):
Imagine an artist commissioned to paint an altarpiece of a Madonna
and Child He has four tasks to perform

(1) He has to invent a set of shapes and colours which will express his
feeling about the Madonna and Child theme.
(2) He has to invent a set of shapes and colours which will (however
vaguely) remind the spectator of a woman holding a baby.
(3) He has to invent a set of shapes and colours which will fill the
required space pleasantly, and
(4) Having reconciled the conflicting claims of these three sets of
inventions, he has to translate them into pigment applied to a flat
218 Harry Lesser

Newton goes on to point out that task 2 is easy enough for any com-
petent painter, and the problem is to reconcile it with task 1, to paint a
picture of divine motherly tenderness, free from the bonds of space and
time, and also to paint a picture of two persons with particular features and
expressions, in a particular light and particular setting. Manifestly the thing
is impossible. A compromise must be found (1956, p.27). He goes on to
give four examples of different ways in which the compromise is reached,
of which the first and fourth are of particular interest, the second and the
third (to which reference will also be made) being stages between them.
The first is a Russian icon from the School of Rublev, which cheerfully
sacrifices visual truth about women and children to symbolic truth about
tenderness and divinity (1956, p.28). The fourth, Madonna and Child by
Tiepolo, is a charming portrait of a lovely signora and her exceptionally
fine child: though presented as a religious picture, it is in fact simply a
portrait (see also 1956, illustrations, pp.23).
What this suggests is that the expression of spirituality is not only
incompatible with extreme realism, but even with the aim of exactly repre-
senting what one sees physically. Since modernism has freed the artist from
the requirement to represent things exactly as they are or as near to that as
possible, modernism has recreated one of the conditions for representing or
expressing spirituality. This was not the intention of many of the modern-
ists, but it is a consequence of the way the movement has changed things.
However, Newtons claim that spirituality and realism are incompat-
ible unless there is at least a compromise is not indisputable. The opposite
view is expressed by Browning in the poem Fra Lippo Lippi. Browning
puts into the mouth of Lippi (14061469), whose realism did at the time
offend some churchmen, the following:

A fine way to paint soul, by painting body

So ill, the eye cant stop there, must go further
Suppose Ive made her eyes all right and blue,
Cant I take breath and try to add lifes flash,
And then add soul and heighten them threefold?
Or say theres beauty with no soul at all
(I never saw it put the case the same )
If you get simple beauty and naught else,
Spirituality and Modernism 219

You get about the best thing God invents

Thats somewhat. And youll find the soul youve missed
Within yourself when you return Him thanks. (1907, p.206)

So Lippi, as imagined by Browning, claims that to display the beauty of

a beautiful woman is to display spirituality. As a believing Christian, he
connects this with being grateful to God for creating such beauty. But a
non-believer could equally find spirituality in the reverent and grateful rep-
resentation of physical beauty. On the other hand, the churchmen would
say that this is indeed beauty but not spiritual beauty, which comes from
the soul and not the body. These churchmen believed, presumably, that the
soul and body were separate entities, though very closely interconnected;
but, again, someone who believed that there is only one world, but that
it has both a physical and a spiritual dimension, could agree with them.
Newton perhaps is an example: he does not say, as Brownings churchmen
do, that a painters job is to express the spiritual rather than exactly portray
the physical, but he does say that one cannot do both in the same painting.
The complication here is that spiritual can mean many things. Lippi,
or Brownings Lippi, can claim quite correctly that in one entirely valid
sense of spiritual the reverent painting of physical beauty expresses some-
thing spiritual. The actual Lippi could claim in addition that his Madonnas
express more than this, that they also express the charm and attractiveness
of maternal tenderness, so that they are about the soul as well as the body,
and are spiritual also in this sense, as indicated in the lines above. Indeed,
for Newton this would give Lippis paintings a spirituality not present in
the Tiepolo, beautiful as the lady in that picture is.
But for Newton there is a still greater spirituality in the icon from the
School of Rublev. And this is not only because the painter is, as Newton
puts it, more concerned to represent a mothers tenderness than to repre-
sent an actual specific mother and child. Lippi, in fact, succeeds in doing
both, as does Raphael in the third of Newtons four examples of Madonna
and Child. Nor is it simply that the emphasis on the tenderness is greater.
It is rather that it tries to express, in Newtons words, a divine motherly
tenderness, whereas Lippi portrays a tenderness that is very much of this
220 Harry Lesser

world though no doubt he would wish to remind us that earthly tender-

ness is itself something divine.
But what is the difference between tenderness experienced as earthly
and tenderness experienced as divine? The answer seems to be that the first
is charming and the second awe-inspiring. Awe-inspiring is rather too
strong in this context, but some word indicating a reverence that is more
than simple respect is needed. Otto (1959) coined the word numinous to
express this sense of something mysterious and awe-inspiring: as applied
to the Madonna it would express the sense not of something frightening
but of something more than ordinary and more than simply physical it
might, as has been suggested, connect with a childs original experience of
their mother, when mother and child are for the child the whole universe.
This is very speculative, but one can at any rate say that the painter of the
icon seeks to make us reverent, whereas Lippi and even Raphael seek to
make us charmed: and although both charm and reverence can be spir-
itual emotions, reverence is a deeper one. And Newton seems to be right:
if there is too much realism, reverence cannot be expressed by the artist or
produced in the viewer. So, if we get away from realism we are not auto-
matically encouraging spirituality in art, but we are providing the artist
with a new opportunity to express it.
An examination of Jewish tradition leads by a different route to the
same conclusion. The starting point here is the requirement not to make
a graven image (Exodus 20.4) This involves not only the prohibition of
making images of things other than God for the purpose of worship, but
also of making any image of God Himself, for any purpose whatsoever.
The verse You shall not make Me gods of silver, and gods of gold you shall
not make for yourselves (Exodus 20.23) was interpreted as prohibiting the
making in three dimensions of a representation of anything resembling
God: silver and gold were taken to be examples of material that might be
used. Now humans are said to be in the image of God (Genesis 1.27), and
this was interpreted as referring to human intelligence or rationality, as
being a very pale reflection of divine intelligence but nevertheless resem-
bling it. The conclusion was that, since intelligence is expressed in the face,
any representation in three dimensions of the human face is forbidden.
Spirituality and Modernism 221

As a digression we might ask whether it is intelligence, especially in the

form of rationality, that is fundamentally human and connects the human
with the divine. May not some emotions be more important? It has been
observed that animals reason, sometimes, especially in the case of hunting
and predatory animals, very efficiently: they do not, presumably use theo-
retical reason, or reasoning about their moral obligations, but they can, for
example, work out successfully how to catch a prey. But they do not laugh
or cry: in Kiplings Jungle Book it is when Mowgli begins to cry that the
animals say that he is a man and not a man-cub (half animal) those are
only tears, such as men use (1992, p 19).
To this it could be replied that it is a particular kind of intelligence that
results in tears and laughter. Only the sense of something as being pathetic
will produce tears of emotion, as opposed to what may be caused by physi-
cal pain; only the sense of something as incongruous will produce laughter.
One could generalize the point, that not only tears and laughter but all
human emotions, especially the more spiritual emotions, such as reverence,
pity and some forms of love, require a kind of perceptual intelligence. So,
it seems correct to say that it is intelligence that makes the human resem-
ble the divine, provided that ones notion of intelligence is extremely rich,
as something involving not only calculation and practical reasoning, and
being able to formulate and understand general truths and principles, but
also creative ability and the ability, without necessarily being able to put
things into words, to sense values and to respond with appropriate emo-
tions. And it is in the face that all this is expressed.
So there was a requirement not to represent the human face in sculp-
ture. This was sometimes extended to painting and drawing: some medi-
eval illustrated manuscripts, such as the Haggadah (order of service for the
evening of Passover) from Sarajevo, give the human figures the heads of
birds or animals. As Lionel Kochan says in his book on the Jewish attitude
to idolatry, Absolutely and unconditionally disallowed is the three-dimen-
sional statue of a human being (Kochan, 1997, p.114). The conclusion is, it
would seem, the same as that of the churchmen, but reached by a slightly
different route. The churchmen held that to portray the physical exactly
as it is means that one ignores spirituality; the rabbis held that it means
that one reduces spirituality to the merely physical. To put it another way,
222 Harry Lesser

for the churchmen excessive concentration on physical qualities brings us

too close to atheism, or the general denial of the spiritual; for the rabbis
it brings us too near to idolatry, or the worship of the physical. The effect
is for members of both traditions the same: the weakening rather than
strengthening of the sense of spirituality. Thus Kochan speaks of mans
iconic status in relation to God and continues To make this icon present
in wood, marble, stone or whatever is to petrify that divine image, to pre-
sent life in terms of inert, inanimate matter, which is tantamount to a
form of intellectual self-destruction (1997, p.119). To paint the icon was
not forbidden, but, as we see from the decision of some artists, to avoid
portraying the human face was nevertheless problematic.
However, Jewish tradition also provided a solution to the problem.
This lay in the idea that only exact and total representation was forbidden,
and partial or distorted representation permitted. Even a heathen idol could
be made use of, provided a heathen annulled it by doing some permanent
damage to it (Kochan, 1997, p.126). Thus the Mishnah (the second century
CE code of Jewish practice which forms the older part of the Talmud) says
How is an idol desecrated? If a gentile cut off the tip of its ear or the end
of its nose or the tip of its finger, or battered it even though naught was
broken off, he has desecrated it (Mishnah, Avodah Zarah, Idolatry, chapter
4; Danby, 1933, p.442). The same principle applied to purely ornamental
sculptures, except that with them a Jew could do their own damage. As
examples, Kochan (1997, p.130) mentions a third century rabbi who was
advised to take out the eyes of the human face on his signet ring, and a
devout man of the nineteenth century who, being widowed, moved in with
his children and grandchildren, and proceeded to strike away the nose from
a marble bust that stood on the family sideboard. A different application
was the allowing of partial representation, though what this included was
disputed. Some rabbis allowed busts, and held that only a complete statue
was forbidden; others insisted that to be permissible the sculptured head
must be without the form of a recognisable face (Kochan, 1997, p.130).
As a result, when Jews take to the visual arts themselves, this need to
represent the human face and body in a way that is partial, or lacking detail,
or distorted, continues, consciously or unconsciously, to influence them.
This, it has been suggested, is particularly true of the first Jewish artists to
Spirituality and Modernism 223

win European recognition. However, it may not be true of the very first
of them, Pissarro, for example, although the claim has been made that
he, along with Modigliani, Chagall and Soutine, did work which points
to a meeting between modern art and the Jewish condemnation of the
image (Sabil, 1950, quoted by Kochan, p.134). There are two reasons for
possibly excluding Pissarro. One is that, though by no means a self-hating
Jew or someone who denied his Jewishness, he was hostile to Judaism as a
religion, and perhaps to religion in general. This in itself, though, would
not show that he was not still influenced by religious ideas, especially if
the influence was unconscious: its being unconscious might make it all
the more powerful. A more important point is that representation of the
human form without detail is not a feature of his portraits but is found in
the numerous figures of people in his landscapes and country scenes, and
so could be explained simply as part of the technique of impressionism, of
painting what the eye actually sees before the brain works out in detail what
is actually there. Nevertheless, what he does in these paintings is consistent
with Jewish tradition, even if this is only a coincidence.
With Chagall we are on firmer ground. Both the dream-like quality of
many of his paintings and the influence of the intensely Jewish milieu of his
childhood are obvious. What may be less obvious is how closely these were
connected. The Judaism of nineteenth-century Russia, or rather of many
parts of it, including Chagalls native town of Vitebsk, was very influenced
by mystical ideas, and by a sense that not only was there a vast spiritual
world but that the physical world was very close to it and constantly, for
good or bad, influenced by it, to the point that a true understanding of
the physical world would require seeing it as part of the spiritual one. This
feeling has been expressed in arts other than painting. Thus Anskys play,
The Dybbuk, creates in literature this sense of the two worlds meeting, and
is a work that gives via literature a very similar feeling to that produced by
Chagalls pictures (Ansky, 1986).
This does not mean that the physical world is an illusion. But it does
mean that, for a painter coming from this tradition, to represent the physical
world exactly as it appears to the eye after close and detailed examination is
to leave out a very great deal. Hence the need to paint things as if in dreams,
to use colour in a way that is non-realistic but emotionally powerful, to show
224 Harry Lesser

things that if taken literally are impossible people flying, babies visible
in the womb, etc. all notable features of Chagalls paintings. Hence also
the need, not always but often, to distort in some way the human figure,
whether through the colouring, the impossible postures, the schematic
representation or the elongation of faces and/or bodies. And this is in line
both with Jewish tradition and with the modernist reaction against realism:
the meeting spoken of in the quotation above from Sabil.
In this connection Modigliani is particularly interesting. His back-
ground was Jewish, but not soaked in the religion in the way Chagalls had
been. His upbringing was not totally secular he had a bar mitzvah, and
he could sing the kaddish (the prayer for the dead) (Mann, 1980, p.10).
But by and large his concerns were not religious, and Judaism, it would
seem, had not played a large part in his early life: his religious education
was otherwise [i.e. apart from what he learned for his bar mitzvah] kept
to a minimum (Mann, 1980). Nevertheless his human figures and the
human figure was his main subject are nearly always distorted. This is
true of both his painting and his sculpture: the distortion is very often in
the form of elongation, of the face, the neck, the body or all of them, and
also in a kind of schematic rendering of the face, though not in a way that
fails to bring out its individuality. This distortion sometimes produces a
sinister effect, though more often a sense of a rich inner life. Both could
be considered as directing us towards the spiritual world: in Jewish tradi-
tion, as in others, this world contains demons as well as angels. Modigliani
probably did not believe in either angels or demons, but he may well have
believed that the human personality contains both, and that it was his
business to represent them.
Admittedly, one reason for Modiglianis style is the time at which
he lived and the milieu in which he worked. The general artistic mood
in Paris at the beginning of the twentieth century meant that a painter
might go in any of various directions, but they were all away from natu-
ralism. On Modigliani there was also the particular influence of the post-
impressionists, Czanne and Toulouse-Lautrec, and, as for others at that
time, the influence of African and Oceanic sculpture (Mann, 1980, p.65ff ).
Nevertheless, Modiglianis work, like Chagalls, is also in line with the
Jewish tradition of not representing the human form exactly. Indeed, in one
Spirituality and Modernism 225

way Modigliani goes further than either Pissarro or Chagall. Distortion

is not a feature of Pissarros portraits; and Chagall has much less of it in
some of his portraits than he does in his works of the imagination. But in
Modigliani it occurs throughout his portrayal of the human figure (almost
his only subject), in portraits as much as in other paintings. He does not
have Chagalls element of fantasy, but he is even more consistently avoid-
ing exact realism.
What is harder to decide is whether Modigliani was attempting to
convey a sense of the spiritual, in the way that Chagall tried, with success,
to do. Certainly, it would be a very different kind of spirituality, but then
there are many different kinds. Explicit spirituality appears only in a few
drawings of 1916, which, surprisingly and perhaps under the influence of
his friend Max Jacob, who converted to Christianity, use Christian images
such as the Crucifixion (Mann, 1980, pp.1312). Of the rest of his work,
the cautious thing to say might be that at any rate, consciously or uncon-
sciously, he was aiming, successfully, to portray people as having an inner
life, and not being simply bodies or simply social beings. His nudes are an
interesting example of this. They have voluptuous bodies, complete with
pubic hair, but faces that show thought and intelligence: and it is par-
ticularly the elongation that brings this out. So we may say of Modigliani
that, while remaining a secular Jew, he portrayed at any rate the potential
for spirituality, that he did this by distorting the human form from how it
actually appears to the eye, and that in so doing he was applying the age-old
Jewish tradition of resisting idolatry. How far he intended this is unclear;
and very likely not known to the man himself.
Still harder to assess is the significance of the work of Modiglianis
close friend Soutine, the fourth of the Jewish artists named by Sabil. He
concentrated less exclusively on the human figure, but his figures, like those
of Chagall and Modigliani, are to some degree distorted, the distortion
again often involving elongation. Once again there is the question whether
this is connected with his Jewish background, despite his rejection of the
religion at the conscious level, or whether it simply has to do with how he
felt compelled to paint, whether realism is being sacrificed to spirituality of
some kind or simply to the need to express emotion if these are different.
There is a further complication, at least for us naive viewers. Modigliani is
226 Harry Lesser

fairly clearly exploring, to some degree, the inner life of his subjects, and
not his own. With Soutine, it is unclear whether the emotion belongs to
the sitter, the painter or both.
So in the Jewish entry into the European artistic tradition there are four
very different painters who have in common that they frequently paint the
human figure as distorted, or schematic, or lacking detail. Whether this is
connected with their background, and with the Jewish requirement to avoid
exact representation of human figures, is uncertain: very likely in the case
of Chagall; very possible with Modigliani and Soutine; perhaps unlikely
but not impossible with Pissarro. What can be said with more certainty is
that the distortion makes possible the creation of a sense of the spiritual
world (or of the spiritual dimension of the one world), so that the use of
modernist techniques impressionism, post-impressionism and expres-
sionism has resulted in new ways of conveying spirituality.
So far, I have discussed this in very general terms, being concerned
with the overall tension between spirituality and realism. But there are two
particular features of modernism which enable spirituality to be expressed,
apart from its general feature of freeing artists from the obligation to paint
exactly what is physically there. The first of these is the use of imagery
from dreams or generally from the artists imagination, as in the surrealist
movement. In Chagall, who in a way anticipated surrealism, this combines
with Jewish imagery and with imagery from the world of his childhood; in
Soutine it is more personal. But for both, though especially for Chagall, it
serves to express some aspect of spirituality, of emotions that go beyond the
purely physical, whether anguished (for Soutine) or wrapt (for Chagall).
Secondly, there is the connection between spirituality and movement.
This is complex, since there is also a spirituality connected with stillness
and calm. But, perhaps particularly, though by no means only, in Jewish
tradition, the spiritual world is a world of movement and development,
and, hopefully, of improvement. Idolatry is wrong because by worship-
ping the physical, i.e. what is impermanent and changing, it represents
the imperfect as perfect: things which are impermanent and constantly
changing need to develop, and are constantly threatened by the dangers of
corruption, whether physical or moral, are treated as ifthey were permanent
Spirituality and Modernism 227

and unchanging, in no danger of weakening or destruction and in no need

of improvement.
Sabil, in the passage already mentioned, sees Jewish tradition as con-
demning the image because it creates a pretence that time has stopped, or
that something represented by the image has escaped from time and change.
The images created by impressionism and the movements that follow it
resist this pretence in various ways: by making it an image of how things are
at a particular moment, or how they strike the eye at a particular moment,
being different before and different after (impressionism); or by making it
an image of a shifting and changing dream-world or partially dream-world
(surrealism); or by linking the physical world to the world of thought and
emotion (expressionism). Sabil does not say all of this in the quotation
given by Kochan, but what he does say, to quote him more fully than I
did above, is that the work of Pissarro, Modigliani, Chagall and Soutine
points to a meeting between modern art and the Jewish condemnation
of the image as an arbitrary fixation of appearance outside time, as a blas-
phemous attack on the majesty of time (Sabil, 1950, pp.2845, quoted
in Kochan, 1997, pp.1345). Pissarro does it in the impressionist way;
Chagall does it like a surrealist avant la lettre; Modigliani and Soutine do
it like the expressionists, though again Modigliani anticipates expression-
ism, and the emotion represented, though very much there, is an emotion
more controlled by intelligence than is represented in the work of Soutine.
Of course, and to repeat, neither Sabil nor Kochan is suggesting that the
meeting was altogether (perhaps even at all) conscious or intentional:
but it is nevertheless there.
Kochan goes on to connect this with a basic idea in Jewish religious
thought (which is found in other traditions as well). This is that both the
world and God are in a state of becoming, and not a state of unchanging
being: in the case of God it might be better to say action rather than
becoming. Hence, to leave unfinished the image of God (i.e. the human
figure) is therefore to bring to mind the God who is also in a state ofbecom-
ing and, as Kochan says on the same page as the statue annihilates the
human original into the perfection of arrest, so too would it now impose
on God a static finality (1997, p.135).
228 Harry Lesser

Merely to leave unfinished (e.g. by withholding some of the detail),

or to distort can be enough to create the sense of something which is in a
process of development rather than fixed and static, and which is therefore
part of the spiritual world. But it can also be done by representing it as
being in movement. And it is a feature of modernism to have made some
real advances in the representation of movement. This is partly because of
the aims of modernism, partly because there is greater freedom in what
counts as a work within the visual arts, which are no longer limited to what
can be done with paint, carving and moulding, and partly because there
is now a greater range available both of materials and of techniques for
using them. There are, for example, sculptures and constructions which
do move, as well as pictures and sculptures which suggest movement in
various ways the use of water would be one example.
So, to the conclusion. I have argued that, even though modernism
as an ideology, or set of ideologies, was, as a rule, hostile to spirituality, it
nevertheless has provided artists with an increased range of techniques for
conveying a sense of the spiritual. This has happened primarily because
modernism freed artists from a commitment to painting what they see
physically, which, as we have seen, inhibits representation of the spiritual.
Modernism has also widened the range of subjects that can be depicted,
because of the introduction of imagery from dreams and the imagination.
Finally, modernism has made possible the depiction of movement in ways
that were previously not available or not used. In all these ways, despite
its conscious aims, which were different, modernism has opened up new
possibilities for those artists seeking to convey a sense of things spiritual.


Ansky, S. (1986). The Dybbuk, in J. Landis. Three Great Jewish Plays. New York:
Applause Theatre Book Publishers.
Browning, R. (1907). Poems, 18421864. London: Oxford University Press.
Cassou, J. (1965). Chagall. London: Thames and Hudson.
Spirituality and Modernism 229

Danby, H. (1933). Trans. The Mishnah. London: Oxford University Press.

Kipling, R. (1992). The Jungle Book. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kochan, L. (1997). Beyond the Graven Image: A Jewish View. Basingstoke: Macmillan.
Mann, C. (1980). Modigliani. London: Thames and Hudson.
Newton, E. (1956). European Painting and Sculpture. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Otto, R. (1959), The Idea of the Holy. Trans. J.W. Harvey. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Sabil, J. (1950). Les juifs dans la peinture franaise moderne, E-J. Finbert, Aspects du
gnie dIsrael. Paris: Cahiers du Sud.
David Jasper

The Spiritual in Contemporary Art

This paper will visit four places in which the encounter between modern
and contemporary art and the spiritual may be found. First, the spiritual
and history, with a consideration of the work of Anselm Kiefer and Paul
Celan; second, the spiritual and place, discussing the sacred architecture of
Le Corbusier; third, the spiritual and community, reflecting on the art of
Stanley Spencer and the 1984 fire in York Minster; and finally, the spiritual
and the liturgical, with a reflection on the Rothko Chapel in Houston,
Texas. The paper concludes with a brief reference to the essay of Wassily
Kandinsky Concerning the Spiritual in Art.
This essay has its beginnings in certain elements of autobiographical
reflection. As an academic I am a professor of literature and theology. I
have also, for much longer than that, been an Anglican priest. Those two
elements of my life have not always existed comfortably beside each other,
but still never less than interestingly so in a confluence of what, in the
nineteenth century would have been called something like the critical spirit
and the will to believe and perhaps more than that. The origins of the
paper lie in a time in 2010 when I was also teaching as Changyang Chair
Professor in the School of Liberal Arts in Renmin University of China in
Beijing, and I now spend two months of each year there. In China, where
Christianity has always existed on the very edge of a far more ancient cul-
ture, the traditions of painting are fundamentally abstract, though never
absolutely so, for they are rooted in a particular relationship that is held
with nature and perhaps also the spiritual. In the words of one contempo-
rary Chinese art historian, Lin Ci:
[Ancient painting in China] was [] a combination or harmony between the natural
world and human emotion, a product of heaven (nature) and human. The effect
Chinese painters would like to illustrate in their paintings was not a visual effect of
232 David Jasper

colours and patterns as their Western counterparts would like to achieve [] What
they would like to achieve was a world in their minds of non materials. The natural
world was not an object for them to make a true copy of [but] it was rather elements
for them to build their own world. (Lin Ci, 2010, p.7)

After a detour into Western art and the spiritual I will return again to
China and its art at the end of this paper.
At times, it may be said, the quest for the spiritual is indeed an entirely
interior journey of the spirit, although through art one whose shape and
geography is built up from familiar materials to hand in the world around
us. In theistic traditions, perhaps, and clearly in contrast to those of China,
the quest has a rather different geography, often interior also, but also a quest
for the other which is transcendent, or a yearning for that which not of
this world but which frequently exists in uneasy and far from harmonious
tension with its observed materiality and the society of which we form a
part in our own minds and bodies. This I discovered for myself some twenty
years ago when I was involved as a theological commentator in the first
showing of the American video artist Bill Violas then highly controversial
video installation The Messenger in the sacred space of Durham Cathedral
the video being concerned with the figure of a naked man shown in a
place of Christian worship, for which the Cathedral was threatened with
prosecution for indecency.
A common experience I have in my life as an academic theologian who
is concerned with the creative arts is to be asked to comment or speak con-
cerning things for which I have few or even absolutely no academic quali-
fications. This is always an unnerving moment in a profession which tends
to pride itself on particular expertise and forms of specialist knowledge.
For example, I was invited some years ago by the Glasgow School of Art
to come and talk to art students who felt insistently drawn to speak of the
spiritual dimension in their work as young painters, sculptors, printmak-
ers, and so on but had no clear idea themselves what this really meant.
Very few of them were prepared to admit to any adherence to particular
religious beliefs themselves. Could I help them to set this in a context
or provide them with some kind of vocabulary that might help them to
articulate the spiritual dimension in their art? The last thing I felt drawn
The Spiritual in Contemporary Art 233

to do was to tell them that they were, it might perhaps be, Christians (or
indeed anything of a religious nature) though not themselves aware of
it. This would, anyway, have been wholly untrue for the most part. But
nevertheless the spiritual remained an insistent and even valid term for
them, and one to be contemplated.
In this short paper, I do not wish to revisit the familiar ground which
acknowledges the creative and ancient tension that exists between the
Judaeo-Christian tradition and art, with its complex debates and histories
at once, and sometimes at the same time, of iconoclasm and marvellous
creative invention. But I will visit, somewhat at random, four different
places, let us call them, in which the encounter between contemporary or
at least modern art and the spiritual may be discovered, bearing in mind
the capaciousness of those terms in human experience, and remembering
that the words which I write here, now in my home town of Glasgow,
have their origins in thoughts and writing pursued in the heart of modern
Beijing a stretch indeed across space and cultures for the mind and spirit
in humankind.
First, the spiritual and history: I begin with a painting of 1973 by the
German artist Anselm Kiefer, entitled Resurrexit. I link it in my mind with
the writings of the poet and holocaust survivor Paul Celan, which have
deeply influenced Kiefers art in many ways. In their work, both artist and
poet were engaged in the work of mourning, not precisely for lost friends
or particular severed relationships, but a deeper mourning of the soul.
Born into a Jewish family in Romania in 1920, Celan mourned for a lost
generation and a lost community, for the German language; the mourning
of one who barely survives (and finally commits suicide), articulating it at
an extreme of language in poetry of a steely fragility. Kiefer was born much
later, on 8 March 1945 in Donnaueschingen, Germany, and was brought up
as a Roman Catholic. His was the mourning of a German without any per-
sonal memory but still a profound awareness of the defeated, a nation still
overshadowed by Nazism and the Holocaust. For both Celan and Kiefer,
dialogue with the previous generation was blocked, either by erasure or
else forbidden their expression in art verbally or visually, if any form of
expression were still possible, was a coming to terms with the experience
of exclusion (Lauterwein, 2007, pp.201).
234 David Jasper

The events of history with their devastating human cost bleached

these mens hearts, minds and souls as an indelible sensibility. In the words
of the American Jewish critic Edith Wyschogrod: The holocaust is itself
intrinsic to modern sensibility in that it forces thought to an impasse, into
thinking a negation that cannot be thought and upon which thinking
founders.1 For Celan and Kiefer there is the sense of an ending, but also
a sense of starting over once again. Kiefer explains the repetition of the
image of the artists palette which is seen in his paintings, relating precisely
to his vocation as an artist: The palette represents [he says] the idea of the
artist connecting heaven and earth (Kiefer, 2006, p.171). But that point
of connection, which is also and at the same time the vanishing point in
perspective, recurs endlessly in his work as the point at which thinking
founders vanishing in the railway tracks converging on Auschwitz, in
the stairs leading to the closed door of his studio in the Oden Forest in
this painting Resurrexit, and in the jagged, mysterious confluence of his
1990 work Zim Zum.
Zim Zum is the name of the point in the Kabbalah at which God
withdraws in order that the world may appear a moment at once of divine
disappearance but also of creation. In Kiefers vast canvas, that point, in
almost the dead centre of the picture, seems primarily to be a point of
desertion. If it is a point of creation, then there flows from it a scorched
and wasted world which both emerges from and vanishes into the point
of Gods departure, the point of chora, disintegrating into a place of noth-
ingness in which the viewer stands helplessly before the vanishing God,
perhaps the God who indeed dies.
From the twelfth century in Europe it was said of God: Deus est spaera
cuius centrum ubique (God is the sphere of which the centre is every-
where and the circumference is nowhere) (Hart, 2004, pp.12). But if
God reveals himself at every point in the universe, we are also conscious
of an utterly paradoxical presence which is at the same time a vanishing
an absence and we may no longer make any distinction between the
transcendence of God and the disappearance of God. God disappears in

1 From an unpublished paper quoted in Taylor, 1992, p.299.

The Spiritual in Contemporary Art 235

Auschwitz God disappears into Auschwitz. Thus we sing the praises of

the one who is Nothing, as in Paul Celans Psalm:

Gelobt seist du, Niemand.

Dir zulieb wollen
Wir blhn.

Ein Nichts
Waren wir, sind wir, werden
Wir bleiben, blhend:
Die Nichts-, die

[Praise be your name, no one.

For your sake
we shall flower.

A nothing
we were, are, shall,
remain, flowering:
the nothing , the
no ones rose.] (Celan, 1990, pp.1745)

And yet actually our uncomfortable reality is an experience of the absence of

God, which is, as Martin Heidegger said long ago, is not nothing. Creation
and disintegration are opposites, yet they match one another in equal
measure and therefore there is no interior to any possible reality but merely,
as for Kafka, only the outside, the glistening flow of the eternal outside
(Blanchot, 1982, p.83). The poets hopelessness (both Celan and Kafkas)
is matched only by his obsession with salvation (or perhaps, more precisely
for the Christian, resurrection) an obsession continually extinguished
by despair and yet, he or she continues to write.
And so Celan writes after Auschwitz (despite Adorno), and Kiefer
paints and constructs his works, labouring often with the material of lead
236 David Jasper

(once used in the roof of Cologne Cathedral), poisonous, impenetrable,

impervious to light and even x-rays, yet the base metal of alchemy and the
ancient quest for the secret of its transformation into gold. Kiefer also often
works in the medium of ash, especially in the series of paintings inspired
by Celans great poem Todesfuge (Death Fugue), the ash from the ovens
of the concentration camp joining together the golden hair of the Aryan
Margarete and the ashen hair of the Jewish Shulamith. For ash is but a trace
of that of which nothing remains the present memorial, barely material,
in Kiefers art to that which is no longer a whole generation obliterated
and lost: Gelobt seist du, Niemand (Praise be your name, no one). And so
the blessing and the praise remain in what does not remain. In Kiefers art,
the ash that is a mere trace, an almost nothing, is offered as a sacrament
and a memorial to the lost and forgotten and to those who died and whom
he had never known. In the ash there can be no remembering, or coming
together in celebration, and no remembrance, but yet in the ash of Kiefers
canvasses the very vanishing point, the confluence of the railway tracks
at the gate of oblivion itself is an opening of another kind, as incompre-
hensible as the black holes in space into which all time and matter rushes
headlong. Kiefer says, I tell stories in my pictures to show whats behind
the story. I make a hole and go through (Quoted in Madoff, 1987, p.128).
To pass through the non-space of the vanishing point, the beginning and
the end, is the reminder of the being of the sacramental moment and of
its utter oblivion. Within the Christian tradition there is but one moment
of such true art, one moment of utterance in the story which Kiefers art
dares to seek in what Celan calls the illegibility of this world (Celan, 1990,
pp.3201). That moment is when Jesus utters his cry of dereliction from
the Cross, recorded in only two of the gospels, Mark and Matthew My
God, my God, why have you forsaken me in his deeply interior interroga-
tion of the absent deity, and the necessary prelude to the recovery of any
possible sacramental and sacred community.
In Kiefers work Am Anfang (In the Beginning) (2003), the artist throws
out his interrogation of the watery wastes of the cosmos, the works poly-
hedron offering us the moment of at once formation and despair. Kiefer
describes the moment in this way: It is the artists job to imagine the most
impossible things. These are not answers. They are just possible entries into
The Spiritual in Contemporary Art 237

hidden things (Kiefer, 2006, p.134). Thus the artist calls us to stand before
and at the vanishing point: the gates of Auschwitz, the gates of heaven the
darkest of all entries into hidden things. In his work Die Himmelspalste
(The Heavenly Palaces) (2002), Kiefer draws us again to the same point
through the vision of an immense pillared hall, reminiscent of the vast
Nazi architecture of Albert Speer and Wilhelm Kreis, of which almost
nothing survives, to a distant point under a roof of stars. This with an irony
of reference that is necessarily present, perhaps, in every moment of true
worship as it sanctifies that which it destroys, the immediate inspiration
of the work is the ancient Jewish book, Sefer Hechaloth, which recounts
the mystical ascent by chariot through the seven heavenly palaces to the
palace where the wise are finally united with God.
Second, the spiritual and place: Maurice Blanchot asks us:
But where has art led us? To a time before the world, before the beginning. It has cast
us out of power to begin and to end; it has turned us toward the outside where there
is no intimacy, no place to rest. It has led us into the infinite migration of error. For
we seek arts essence, and it lies where the nontrue admits of nothing essential. We
appeal to arts sovereignty: it ruins the kingdom. It ruins the origins by returning to
it the errant immensity of directionless eternity. (Blanchot, 1982, p.244)

In his work The Space of Literature, Blanchot proposes a radical vision of

the warfare between religion and the arts after modernity. It is a vision that
goes far beyond the theological irresolutions of the ancient spirit of icono-
clasm in the Western church. In the grip of such a vision Anselm Kiefer
spent a profoundly formative, period of retreat in 1966 in the Dominican
monastery of La Tourette, designed by Le Corbusier. In its vast space and its
deep asceticism, La Tourette has been described as one of the most haunt-
ing, numinous buildings of the twentieth century,2 being at once rooted
in the monastic tradition of worship and inescapably of its own time. Le
Corbusiers sacred space continues to inform the art of Kiefer in its evoca-
tion of the simultaneously terrifying presence and absence of the divine,
the necessary primal moment for any sense of the sacred, the Zim Zum.

2 Glancey, 2002.
238 David Jasper

As Le Corbusier seeks the miracle of ineffable space in his church

buildings and follows Pythagoras in noting that number is the base of all
beauty,3 Bill Viola has linked the medieval European Gothic cathedral
with the same tradition when he writes:

To the European mind the reverberant characteristics of the interior of the Gothic
cathedral are inextricably linked with a deep sense of the sacred and tend to evoke
strong associations with both the internal private space of contemplation and the
larger realm of the ineffable [] Cathedrals such as Chartres in France, embody con-
cepts derived from the rediscovery of the works of the ancient Greeks, particularly
those of Plato and Pythagoras and their theories of the correspondence between
the macrocosm and the microcosm, expressed in the language of sacred number,
proportion and harmony, and that manifest themselves in the science of sound and
music. These design concepts were not considered to be the work of man, or merely
functions of architectural practice, but represented the divine underlying principles
of the universe itself.4

Violas video work, The Messenger, which I mentioned at the beginning of

this paper was made specifically for installation in the space of Durham
Cathedral, its contemporary video technology reaching out in conversation
with the massive medieval technology of the building, moving from the
inside outwards. From its place near the West door of the church, Violas
naked figure rises and then sinks in the water, expanding its presence into
the space of the building without imposing on it any particular Christian
theology or liturgy of baptism or initiation (as has been wrongly suggested),
but growing into the place of worship as a possibility or an invitation that
symbolically embraces the sacred and becomes the context for a possible
liturgical community. The Messenger engages with the ancient Christian
architecture of Durham Cathedral and also with Violas own contempo-
rary sense of the sacred which is variously drawn from the mysticism and
the via negativa, the negative way, of both the Eastern and the Western
traditions, and the influence on him of sources as different as Jalaluddin
Rumi, Chuang Tzu, St John of the Cross and Meister Eckhart. All these,

3 Jeanneret and Ozenfant, 1975, p.28.

4 Viola, 1995, pp.1545.
The Spiritual in Contemporary Art 239

even those outwith the Christian tradition, Durham Cathedral somehow

knows and so it is upon this enriched and contemporary spirituality that
the liturgy of the church today now deeply feeds and thereby grows. Thus
sacred space grows outwards from the intimate immensity5 of the work
of art, and is not dictated to by the established theological order of ancient
liturgical practice. For, as Gaston Bachelard has observed, isnt imagina-
tion alone able to enlarge indefinitely the images of immensity, and thus
does not that immensity begin within ourselves? Prompted by the tireless
imagination of the artist, even (and perhaps, for us above all through the
abstractions and deconstructions of modernity and postmodernity), such
immensity, in the meeting of finite and infinite, realizes an expansion of
a sense and experience of being that too often life, and even the life of the
church and its order, only serves to curb and arrest.
Into such immensity the Christian Eucharistic liturgy leads us
prompted by the ineffable immensity of sacred spaces. As in the architec-
ture of Le Corbusier and others, these are by no means always spaces of
comfort, and their motion is centrifugal rather than centripetal (though
these two movements may ultimately be one). Thus as Bachelard exclaims
in a meditation on the two movements of concentration and dilation and
the exaltation of space beyond all frontiers: Away with boundaries, those
enemies of horizons! Let genuine distance appear!6 Thus, it may be, fini-
tude meets the infinite in a moment of eternity.
Third, the spiritual and community: moving from place to the action of
community within a space of the sacred, I link two moments in the history
of the art of the twentieth century. The first is a length of time between
1923 and 1927 during which Stanley Spencer created his most famous paint-
ing, The Resurrection, Cookham (see Figure 1; another resurrection, in stark
contrast to that of Kiefer which we have just been contemplating), and the
second (indeed a moment of divine art) the great fire in York Minster of 9
July 1984, in which I myself played a very tiny part by my presence there.

5 Bachelard, 1994, pp.183210.

6 Bachelard, 1994, p.190.
240 David Jasper

Figure 1: Stanley Spencer, The Resurrection, Cookham, 19247

Oil on canvas, 274.3 548.6 cm
Tate, London 2012

Spencer once described the Tameside village of Cookham where he

lived and worked as a village in heaven. In his painting, perhaps his most
famous, it is the villagers whom he knew, as well as his wife, who rise,
without any decomposition, from their tombs, from which the lids are
flung aside, combining apocalyptic images from the Gospel of Matthew
with the Home Counties community of the everyday. In his art, which
Spencer himself described as a wonderful desecration, two moments in
time and in eternity meet with an oddity, a surreality and a humour that
invites a contemplation of the spiritual precisely because our feet are left,
even uncomfortably, set firmly on the ground. Oddly it was this painting
from the early modernism of Stanley Spencer that came to my mind as
I stood on 9 July 1984, in the transept of York Minster as it lay open to
the sky, still smoking from the fire that had destroyed its roof which lay a
blackened mess on the floor ( Jasper, 1984, pp.1723). It was a moment of
profound spirituality. For the Minster was at once destroyed and in ruins,
an act of God, perhaps, or even divine wrath, some said, from the conse-
cration there a few days earlier of a certain bishop, yet its roof had been
flung aside in glorious invitation, like the lids of the tombs in Cookham
The Spiritual in Contemporary Art 241

and the stone rolled aside from the tomb of Christ. Within the walls the
community of the faithful were already absorbed in their task of clearing
away the still smoking wreckage, the work of restoration, without hesita-
tion beginning the task that was to renew the church in their day. Today
no hint of the fire remains.
I give you this image from life by way of illustration of the capacity of
art (and there was a strange artistry at work on that day in York Minster) to
capture those necessary, impossible and unbelievable moments of absolute
dereliction that prompt a resumption of business of life lived both here
and in eternity, moments of the devastating realization of the coincidentia
oppositorum and that exist in the midst of life every day. Superficially odd
and eccentric, Stanley Spencer captures the moment of deconstruction
at the heart of the artistic vision that alone is realized in its identification
with resurrection in the eternal everyday: a zero point and a moment, in
T.S.Eliots familiar words, sempiternal though sodden towards sundown
(T.S.Eliot, 1959, Little Gidding). And it is this unthinkable, at times unwel-
come, moment in modern and contemporary art that is articulated in its
way in the ancient liturgy of the Christian church at the opening utterance
by the gathered community of the Great Thanksgiving, the sursum corda, a
moment caught between time and eternity, between presence and absence,
an utterance of the one who are the manifold in unity.
Fourth, the spiritual and the liturgical: this final place might seem,
for some at least, an odd one for an essay on the spiritual in contempo-
rary art, but the liturgical must remain central, for the life of the spirit
can finally only be sustained in an attitude of worship and contempla-
tion, and it is this attitude that art calls forth in both its stillness and its
provocation both within and from the everyday in our history, our sense
of place and our membership of community. Nowhere in the art of the
twentieth century is this more profoundly known than in the fourteen
great canvasses of the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas, finally completed
and dedicated in 1971. Set next to Barnett Newmans memorial to Martin
Luther King, Broken Obelisk, the chapel stands to remind us, in the words
of Dominique de Menil, that the spiritual and the active life should remain
united (Hopps, 1997, p.314). Art, and above all religious art, rarely speaks
in a singular voice, and the Rothko Chapel finds voice in the unearthly
242 David Jasper

music of Morton Feldman it speaks and yet instils silence in our contem-
plation. Originally intended for a chapel for the University of St Thomas,
the Rothko Chapel and its murals now stands open for people of all faiths
and perhaps none. It is, above all, a place of contemplation, the textures
of the paintings drawing us on a journey that is deeply liturgical an act
that is at once solitary and communal to time and space that is utterly
interior and yet there also transcendent, to a presence that is quite absent.
Here we encounter Kafkas eternal outside, and Kiefers Zim Zum the
disappearing presence of the divine at the vanishing point, the sphere of
which the centre is everywhere and the circumference is nowhere. In the
pure interweaving of the spiritual and the physical we both lose and find
ourselves in the darkling plains of Rothkos paintings which open our eyes
so that finally we become one with what we see.
You see here how the language of the spiritual as it is prompted by
art participates at once in each particular religious tradition and yet is of
all and none just as in The Messenger of Bill Viola. And yet the silent
art of Rothko, like that of Kiefer, Viola, Le Corbusier, and even Spencer,
initiates conversations in words that are familiar to each of us, though they
are words that allow the unsayable to remain unsaid.7 Such a guarding of
silence is what makes them so profoundly liturgical, and why the various
and many artists with which this brief essay has been concerned engage in
exchanges with the sacred space of churches and chapels. Like the Great
Thanksgiving of the Christian Eucharist they begin with a movement
of the heart the sursum corda which is eternal and yet also rooted in
history: the artists of the New York School cannot be known apart from
their roots in the European tradition, especially of Dutch landscape; Viola
cannot be understood without recognizing his roots in the Renaissance;
Kiefer cannot be contemplated apart from his mourning for his people,
and for Celan; Spencer cannot be appreciated apart from his eccentric
participation in the daily life of Cookham, but behind that his experience
of the Great War which marks his obsession with the resurrection of the

7 Martin Heidegger. See, Clark, 2002, p.105.

The Spiritual in Contemporary Art 243

body and his odd inflections of Christian belief; and York Minster stands
over its six hundred years still.
I began on a personal note, and I shall conclude on one. I have spoken
ofthe spiritual in the work ofEuropean and American artists and architects,
and largely, though not exclusively about, from within the Christian tradi-
tion and its liturgy. But words composed must also take their flavour from
their place of origin, and in this case it is China, where the thoughts for
this essay had their origins. Here the ashy, leaden presences of Kiefer and
the huge cliffs of the Rothko Chapel become also Chinese landscapes of
mountain and mist, of which the mist is somehow more material than the
rocks: expressionist landscapes of the soul that express their own tragedy,
apocalypse, burdens and hopes, rooted, like Kiefers art, in words the
ancient calligraphy without which there would be no Chinese painting. In
the work of the contemporary Chinese artist Ding Fang the Chinese tradi-
tion is transfigured into landscapes that are rougher and more tenacious in
texture, very similar, says Ding, to the bodies struggling to break free from
the shackles of chaos of Michelangelo.8 The spiritual in art, to borrow the
phrase of Kandinsky, is heard universally and yet to each in his or her own
language and tradition, in acts of memory, contemplation and anticipation.
In every age the artist is the first to know of the death of God, the disap-
pearance that is continually renewed and makes possible the sacramental
presence the small material substance that is art and allows our vision
to transcend the material in moments of faith and doubt, moments that
may usher in the darkness of Rothkos suicide in 1970, before the chapel
was completed, or else instances of resurrection as in the little world of
Cookham by the Thames. Their fragility and their persistence are caught
in the words of Wassily Kandinsky in the Introduction to Concerning the
Spiritual in Art:

8 How Can Anguish be so Sweet. A Conversation between Ding Fang and Zheng
Naiming, in, Ding Fang (2008), 6.
244 David Jasper

Only a feeble light glimmers like a tiny star in a vast gulf of darkness. This feeble
light is but a presentiment, and the soul, when it sees it, trembles in doubt whether
the light is not a dream and the gulf of darkness reality.9

And yet it is a dream of the artist that has not forgotten us and a light in
art that the darkness cannot finally comprehend (Kandinsky, 1910, p.12).

Substantially revised elements of this paper will be published in my forth-
coming book The Sacred Community (Baylor University Press, 2012). An
earlier form of it was also published as an article in Art and Christianity
Enquiry 65 (2011, pp.26).


Bachelard, G. (1994). The Poetics of Space. Trans. M. Jolas. Boston: Beacon Press.
Blanchot, M. (1982). The Space of Literature. Trans. A. Smock. Lincoln, Nebraska:
University of Nebraska Press.
Celan, P. (1990). Selected Poems. Trans. M. Hamburger. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Clark, T. (2002). Martin Heidegger. London: Routledge.
Ding Fang (2008). A Dirge for Mother Earth. Taipei.
Eliot, T.S. (1959). Four Quartets. London: Faber.
Glancey, J. (2002). Divine Inspiration, The Guardian, 14 January.
Hart, K. (2004). The Dark Gaze: Maurice Blanchot and the Sacred. Chicago: University
of Chicago Press.
Jasper, D. (1984). York Minster, 9th July 1984, New Fire, 8, 19723.
Jeanneret, C.E., and Ozenfant, A. (1975), Aprs le cubisme. Turin: Bottega DErasmo.
Kandinsky, W. (1910). Concerning the Spiritual in Art. Trans. M.T.H. Sadler. New
York: Dover Publications.
Kiefer, A. (2006). Heaven and Earth. Organized by Michael Auping. Fort Worth:
Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, in association with Prestel.

9 Kandinsky, 1910, p.12.

The Spiritual in Contemporary Art 245

Lauterwein, A. (2007). Anselm Kiefer/Paul Celan: Myth, Mourning and Memory.

London: Thames and Hudson.
Lin Ci (2010). Chinese Painting: Capturing the Spirit of Nature with Brushes. Trans.
Yan Xinjian and Ni Yanshuo. Beijing.
Madoff, Stephen (1987), Anselm Kiefer: A Call to Memory, ArtNews 86:8, 12530.
Taylor, M.C. (1992) Disfiguring: Art, Architecture and Religion. Chicago: University
of Chicago Press.
Viola, B. (1995) Reasons for Knocking at an Empty House: Writings 19731994. London:
Thames and Hudson.
Notes on Contributors

Dino Alfier is an artist who specializes in drawing. He completed a

doctorate on Simone Weil at the University of the Arts London. His solo
exhibitions include Attending: A Celebration of Simone Weils Thought,
Gayliana: Isle of Idle and Is Capable of Not Not-Being. He has published a
number of papers on Weils ethical notion of attention and its significance
for art, including Where there is nothing, read that I love you: Simone
Weils Attention and the art of perception (Indigo, 2, 2010, 3441), Il
valore dellarte in Simone Weil e Agnes Denes (Prospettiva Persona N.
67/09, 2009, 403) and Bton de laveugle (Tome XXXII No. 3, 2009,

Rina Arya is Reader in Visual Communication at the University of

Wolverhampton. Her primary area of research is in art theory. She has
published articles on Francis Bacon, Georges Bataille, and art and theol-
ogy. She is author of Francis Bacon: Painting in a Godless World (Lund
Humphries, 2012), Chila Kumari Burman: Shakti, Sexuality and Bindi
Girls (KT Press, 2012) and editor of Francis Bacon: Critical and Theoretical
Perspectives (Peter Lang, 2012). She is currently working on a monograph
about abjection and disgust entitled Abjection and Representation, which
is forthcoming with Palgrave Macmillan in 2014.

Nicholas Buxton is a priest in the Church of England and a Visiting

Fellow at York St John University. His research interests include religion
and culture, truth and language, the secularization debate, and the role
of the Church in contemporary society. He has lectured, published and
broadcasted widely in these areas, and is the author of Tantalus and the
Pelican: Exploring Monastic Spirituality Today (Continuum, 2009).
248 Notes on Contributors

Franco Cirulli is a Lecturer in the Core Curriculum at Boston

University, where he completed his PhD in Philosophy. His speciality is
eighteenth- and nineteenth-century philosophy, and the history of Western
aesthetics. He is author of Hegels Critique of Essence a Reading of the
Wesenslogik (Routledge, 2006). He is currently completing a manuscript on
theo-humanism in German aesthetics, from J.J. Winckelmann to G.W.F.

Peter M. Doll is a graduate of Yale and Oxford Universities. Formerly

Chaplain of Worcester College, Oxford, and Team Vicar in Abingdon, he
now serves as Canon Librarian of Norwich Cathedral. He is the author of
After the Primitive Christians: The Eighteenth-Century Anglican Eucharist
in its Architectural Setting (Grove Books, 1997) and Revolution, Religion,
and National Identity: Imperial Anglicanism in British North America,
17451795 (Fairleigh Dickinson University Presss, 2000) and is the editor
ofAnglicanism and Orthodoxy 300 Years after the Greek College in Oxford
(Peter Lang, 2006).

Michael Evans is Senior Lecturer and Course Leader for Fine Art at the
University of Northampton. He has recently completed his PhD at London
Metropolitan University, which explored the possibilities and problems for
spiritual experience in contemporary abstract painting. He has delivered
papers internationally on this subject in San Francisco, Cardiff and most
recently at Cornell University, a number of which have been published in
international journals. He is a founding member of the Psyche in the Arts
Research Network at the University of Northampton.

David Jasper is Professor of Literature and Theology in the University

of Glasgow and Changjiang Chair Professor in Renmin University of
China, Beijing. He holds degrees from the universities of Cambridge,
Oxford, Durham and Uppsala. His most recent publications in the field
of theology and the arts include The Sacred Body (2009) and The Sacred
Community (2012), both published by Baylor University Press.
Notes on Contributors 249

Judith LeGrove studied music at Cambridge before working for eleven

years as curator at the Britten-Pears archive in Aldeburgh and gaining a
doctorate on the work of Geoffrey Clarke. Publications include the anthol-
ogy A Musical Eye: the visual world of Britten and Pears (Artists Choice
Editions, 2012) and the monograph and catalogue raisonn Geoffrey Clarke:
a sculptors prints (Sansom, 2012). She is currently researching the work of
sculptor Michael Lyons.

Ayla Lepine is an art and architectural historian who specializes in

British art history and the phenomenon of revivalism. She has taught at
Warwick University, Kings College London, the V&A and the Courtauld
Institute of Art. Her work has been published in Art and Christianity, The
Burlington Magazine, The Architectural Review and Music and Modernism
(ed. Charlotte de Mille, 2011). With Laura Cleaver, she is the co-editor of
Gothic Legacies: Four Centuries of Innovation in Art and Architecture (2012).
She is a 2012 Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the Courtauld
Institute of Arts Research Forum and a 2013 Fellow at Yale Universitys
Institute for Sacred Music.

Harry Lesser is an Honorary Research Fellow in Philosophy at the

University of Manchester. Before retirement, he was a Senior Lecturer in
Philosophy at the same university, teaching especially Ancient Philosophy,
Philosophy of Law and Philosophy and Psychiatry. His latest publication
is an edited book, Justice for Older People (Rodopi, 2012). His other pub-
lished work is particularly in the area of Medical Ethics, and also includes
several articles on Jewish Philosophy.

David Parker is Reader in Fine Art and Psychological Studies at the

University of Northampton where he teaches painting and drawing. He
has a theoretical interest in Jungian and post-Jungian psychology in relation
to painting and drawing. He has published and exhibited both nationally
and internationally on psychology and the practice of painting and is a
founding member of the Psyche in the Arts Research Network. Notable
publications include his essay On Painting Substance and Psyche in Psyche
and the Arts (Routledge, 2008).
250 Notes on Contributors

Matthew Rowe is a philosopher whose main research interests are in

the philosophy of art in particular artwork ontology, questions of defi-
nition and the relationship between art history and artistic practice and
philosophy. He lectures to art students in London and the South East and
speaks regularly at aesthetics conferences including at the Joint Session of
the Aristotelian Society and the Mind Association. He was awarded his
PhD in 2007 from the Open University.

Maxine Walker is Emerita Professor of Literature at Point Loma

University, San Diego, and Affiliated Scholar in Religious Studies at
Kenyon College, Gambier Ohio. She lectures and writes on interdis-
ciplinary studies with such publications as The Sounds of Silence in
Gathered Community: T.S. Eliot and the Church in Orthodox and
Wesleyan Ecclesiology (St Vladimirs Seminary Press, 2007). As Director
of the Wesleyan Center for 21st Century Studies in San Diego, she was
responsible for hosting international conferences, securing grants for fac-
ulty and student research, and editing theological studies for PL Press. For
a number of years she participated in the consultation on Orthodox and
Wesleyan Spirituality. She is a former member of the Board of Directors,
San Diego Ecumenical Council.

Abramovic, Marina 136 Britton, Karla 135

Adams, Robert 153 Brown, N. 53
Ades, Dawn 203 Browning, Robert 21820
Adorno, Theodor 42 Bryson, Norman 401, 42, 121, 123, 209,
Alley, Ronald 203 210
Alloway, Lawrence 160, 179 Bukovski, Charles 25
Althusser, Louis 153 Burke, Sean 85
Anderson, Nicole 183 Burroughs, William 25
Angelico, Fra 44 Butler, Reg 153, 154
Ansky, S. 223
Apostolos-Cappadona, Diane 147 Cameron, Dan 136
Armitage, Kenneth 153 Cappock, Margarita 208
Armstrong, Isobel 1323 Cardinal, Roger 978
Art & Language 28 Carter, Angela 210
Arya, Rina 152 Celan, Paul 9, 231, 233, 234, 235, 236, 242
Ashton, Dore 188 Czanne, Paul 52, 126, 1278, 224
Austin, Michael 54, 62 Chadwick, Sir James 1678
Chadwick, Lynn 153, 157
Bachelard, Gaston 134, 239 Chagall, Marc 212, 2234, 225, 226, 227
Bacon, Francis 8, 61, 195214 Chirico, Giorgio de 43
Baggley, John 72 Cimabue209
Barker, Margaret 74 Clark, Lygia 1378, 144
Bataille, Georges 208 Clarke, Geoffrey 7, 151, 1523, 15470
Bellini, Giovanni 45, 46 Coakley, Sarah 74
Benedict see Pope Benedict XVI Comte-Sponville, Andr 81
Berger, John 156 Conrad, Peter 50
Beuys, Joseph 29 Correggio, Antonio Allegri 379, 44, 45
Bielecka, Polly 159 Corrin, Lisa 141
Bilski, Emily 212 Craig, Kenneth 210
Binkley, T. 28
Blanchot, Maurice 237 Davies, Hugh 203, 206
Bone, Stephen 156 Debuyst, Frdric 73
Boyne, Roy 1801, 1856, 189 Derrida, Jacques 34, 17689
Brauwn, Stanley 28 Dewey, John 180
252 Index

Dilworth, Steve 63 Heidegger, Martin 235

Ding Fang 243 Herbert, Kathleen 6, 7, 131, 132, 133, 137,
Dubuffet, Jean 98 1448, 149
Duchamp, Marcel 57, 136 Hess, Thomas 186
Hirst, Damien 52, 5961, 63, 64, 148
Eliot, T.S. 157, 241 Hogarth, William 25
Elkins, James 52, 77, 789, 83, 86 Howes, Graham 147
Emin, Tracey 52, 535 Hulks, David 158, 159
Hunter, S. 213
Fabian, Rick 73 Husserl, Edmund 185
Feldman, Morton 242 Hyman, J. 158
Flanagan, Kieran 712
Flavin, Dan 11, 13, 17, 20, 22 Irvine, Christopher 57
Flynt, Henry 28
Franke, William 88, 92 Jacob, Max 225
Friedrich, Caspar David 93 Jarman, Derek 25
Fuller, Peter 86, 87, 88 Jung, Carl 97, 100, 102, 1045, 1089,
Gablik, Suzi 91
Gale, Matthew 200 Kafka, Franz 235, 242
Garcia-Anton, Katya 135, 137 Kandinsky, Wassily 9, 23n. 63, 77, 82,
Giacometti, Alberto 154, 155, 164 164, 184, 231, 2434
Gibberd, Frederick 168 Keats, John 51
Gilbert, William 147, 148 Kiefer, Anselm 9, 231, 233, 234, 2357,
Gilbert-Rolfe, Jeremy 878 242, 243
Giles, Richard 73 Kierkegaard, Soren 43
Gilray, James 25 Koch, Rudolf 164
Godfrey, Mark 189 Kochan, Lionel 2213, 227
Golding, John 77 Kosuth, Joseph 29
Gonzlez, Julio 154 Krauss, Rosalind 78
Goode, Leslie 65 Kraynak, Janet 139
Gorringe, Timothy 61 Kreis, Wilhelm 237
Gowing, Lawrence 128, 210 Kung, Hans 86
Greenberg, Clement 78, 186 Kuspit, Donald 77, 812, 87, 88, 90, 176
Gregg, Melissa 139 Kwon, Miwon 141, 143
Groom, Jon 7, 176
Grnewald, Matthias 203, 210 Lasch, Christopher 85
Le Corbusier 9, 135, 231, 2378, 239, 242
Hadot, Pierre 116, 119 Leonardo da Vinci 51
Hegel, G.W.F. 446 Lin Ci 2312
Index 253

Lippi, Fra 21820 Newton, Eric 21720

Lipsey, Roger 77 Nochlin, Linda 210
Lochner, Stephan 4, 44, 467
Lotar, Eli 208 Osman, Louis 161
Lucas, Sarah 195 Otto, Rudolph 80, 86, 220
Lyotard, Jean-Franois 180, 186
Paolozzi, Eduardo 154
McDade, John 745 Peppiatt, Michael 203, 212
McEvilley, Thomas 107 Picasso, Pablo 154, 155, 200
McGrath, Alister 2 Piper, John 161, 168
McKeever, Ian 5, 82, 83, 923 Pissarro, Camille 223, 226, 227
Maistre, Roy de 203 Pollock, Jackson 56
Maleuvre, Didier 92 Pope Benedict XVI 69, 70, 71, 74
Malevich, Kazimir 77, 87
Malraux, Andr 512 Ralston, Laurel 1845
Marie, Annika 181 Raphael 423, 44, 46, 219, 220
Marini, Marino 157 Ratcliff, Carter 85
Maritain, J. 1601 Read, Herbert 153, 1549, 200
Martin, Louise 147 Reinhardt, Ad 77, 87
Masuzawa, Tomoko 2 Rembrandt 208, 20910, 210
Mathews, Rev. Thomas F. 175 Rendell, Jane 1434, 147
Mayne, Michael 56 Reyntiens, Patrick 168
Meadows, Bernard 153 Rich, Sarah K. 186
Melville, Robert 156 Richard, Frances 143
Menil, Dominique de 241 Richier, Germaine 157
Middleton, M.H. 156, 157 Richter, Gerhard 5, 823, 92, 93, 94
Modigliani, Amedeo 223, 2245, 226, Rilke, Rainer Maria 335
227 Robinson, John 165
Mondrian, Piet 63, 77, 82, 87, 164 Roden, David 181
Moore, Henry 154, 157, 158, 205, 206 Rosenberg, Harold 185
Moorhouse, Geoffrey 1667, 170 Rosenblum, Robert 77
Moorhouse, Paul 198, 208 Rothenstein, John 203
Morgan, David 78, 79, 152 Rothko, Mark 3, 9, 77, 82, 87, 231, 2412,
Morris, Robert 85, 137 243
Motherwell, Robert 77, 82 Rublev, Andrei 218, 219
Rugoff, Ralph 134, 137
Neto, Ernesto 67, 1312, 133, 134, 1358, Russell, John 202, 206
148, 149
Newman, Barnett 78, 77, 87, 17389, Saatchi, Charles 523
241 Sabil, J. 223, 224, 225, 227
254 Index

Sade, Marquis de 26 Tacey, David 79, 80, 934

Sadler, Sir Michael 200 Taylor, Mark C. 77, 79
Sainte-Simon, Henri de 51 Thornton, Sarah 50
Sarto, Andrea del 412 Tiepolo, Giovanni 175, 187, 218, 219
Sartre, Jean-Paul 164 Tillich, Paul 423, 165, 1967
Schlegel, Friedrich 4, 33, 3544, 467 Toulouse-Lautrec, Henri de 224
Seigworth, Gregory J. 139 Tuchman, Maurice 77
Self, Will 60, 65 Turnbull, William 154
Sells, Michael 92 Twentyman, A.R. 161, 162, 163
Shiff, Richard 177
Shone, R. 2089 Underhill, Evelyn 159
Siedell, Daniel 56, 63
Smith, Matthew 205 Valjakka, Timo 87
Smith, Terry 50 Van Alphen, Ernst 196
Soffer, Joshua 187 Van Noord, G. 136
Soltes, Ori 184 Velzquez, Diego 51
Sontag, Susan 51 Viola, Bill 3, 232, 2389, 242
Soutine, Cham 208, 209, 223, 2256, 227
Svik, Edward 73 Wackenroder, Wilhelm Henrich 41
Speer, Albert 237 Wallinger, Mark 52, 634
Spence, Basil 166, 167, 168, 16970 Warhol, Andy 27, 28
Spencer, Stanley 9, 231, 239, 240, 241, Warner, Marina 148
2423 Warner, Martin 131
Spender, Stephen 204 Weil, Simone 6, 11315, 11720, 121,
Sprigge, Sylvia 157, 170 1246, 127
Stancliffe, David 57, 58, 73 Wilson, V. 136
Steiner, G. 165 Wolterstorff, Nicholas 39, 42
Stella, Frank 184, 185 Wyschogrod, Edith 234
Suh, Do-Hu 6, 7, 131, 132, 133, 136, 137,
13944, 148, 149 Yard, Sally 203, 206
Sutherland, Graham 202, 205, 206 Yates, Wilson 204
Sylvester, David 156, 198, 212
Cultural Interactions
Studies in the Relationship between the Arts

Edited by J.B. Bullen

Interdisciplinary activity is now a major feature of academic
work in all fields. The traditional borders between the arts
have been eroded to reveal new connections and create
new links between art forms. Cultural Interactions is intended
to provide a forum for this activity. It will publish monographs,
edited collections and volumes of primary material on
points of crossover such as those between literature and
the visual arts or photography and fiction, music and
theatre, sculpture and historiography. It will engage with
book illustration, the manipulation of typography as an art
form, or the double work of poetry and painting and will
offer the opportunity to broaden the field into wider and
less charted areas. It will deal with modes of representation
that cross the physiological boundaries of sight, hearing and
touch and examine the placing of these modes within their
representative cultures. It will offer an opportunity to publish
on the crosscurrents of nationality and the transformations
brought about by foreign art forms impinging upon others.
The interface between the arts knows no boundaries of time
or geography, history or theory.

Vol. 1 Laura Colombino: Ford Madox Ford: Vision, Visuality

and Writing
275 pages. 2008. ISBN 978-3-03911-396-5

Vol. 2 Graham Smith: Light that Dances in the Mind:

Photographs and Memory in the Writings of E. M.
Forster and his Contemporaries
257 pages. 2007. ISBN 978-3-03911-117-6

Vol. 3 G.F. Mitrano and Eric Jarosinski (eds): The Hand of the
Interpreter: Essays on Meaning after Theory
370 pages. 2009. ISBN 978-3-03911-118-3
Vol. 4 Grace Brockington (ed.): Internationalism and the
Arts in Britain and Europe at the Fin de Sicle
368 pages. 2009. ISBN 978-3-03911-128-2

Vol. 5 Gabrielle Townsend: Prousts Imaginary Museum:

Reproductions and Reproduction in la Recherche
du temps perdu
232 pages. 2008. ISBN 978-3-03911-124-4

Vol. 6 Lennart Nyberg: Bodies of Poems: Graphic Poetics in

a Historical Perspective
187 pages. 2009. ISBN 978-3-03911-343-9

Vol. 7 Jeff Adams: Documentary Graphic Novels and

Social Realism
214 pages. 2008. ISBN 978-3-03911-362-0

Vol. 8 Caroline Patey and Laura Scuriatti (eds): The Exhibit

in the Text: The Museological Practices of Literature
292 pages. 2009. ISBN 978-3-03911-377-4

Vol. 9 Francesca Orestano and Francesca Frigerio (eds):

Strange Sisters: Literature and Aesthetics in the
Nineteenth Century
324 pages. 2009. ISBN 978-3-03911-840-3

Vol. 10 Carole Bourne-Taylor and Ariane Mildenberg (eds):

Phenomenology, Modernism and Beyond
404 pages. 2010. ISBN 978-3-03911-409-2

Vol. 11 Gillian Pye (ed.): Trash Culture: Objects and

Obsolescence in Cultural Perspective
264 pages. 2010. ISBN 978-3-03911-553-2

Vol. 12 Carol Adlam and Juliet Simpson (eds): Critical

Exchange: Art Criticism of the Eighteenth and
Nineteenth Centuries in Russia and Western Europe
420 pages. 2009. ISBN 978-3-03911-556-3

Vol. 13 Kyriaki Hadjiafxendi and Patricia Zakreski (eds):

What Is a Woman to Do? A Reader on Women, Work
and Art, c. 18301890
404 pages. 2011. ISBN 978-3-03911-116-9
Vol. 14 Emma Wagstaff: Writing Art: French Literary
Responses to the Work of Alberto Giacometti
227 pages. 2011. ISBN 978-3-03911-871-7

Vol. 15 Linda Goddard: Aesthetic Rivalries: Word and Image

in France, 18801926
323 pages. 2012. ISBN 978-3-03911-879-3

Vol. 16 Kim Knowles: A Cinematic Artist: The Films of

Man Ray
342 pages. 2009. ISBN 978-3-03911-884-7

Vol. 17 Jo Carruthers and Andrew Tate (eds): Spiritual

Identities: Literature and the Post-Secular Imagination
248 pages. 2010. ISBN 978-3-03911-925-7

Vol. 18 Giovanni Cianci, Caroline Patey and Sara Sullam (eds):

Transits: The Nomadic Geographies of Anglo-American
350 pages. 2010. ISBN 978-3-03911-949-3

Vol. 19 Nick Havely (ed.): Dante in the Nineteenth Century:

Reception, Canonicity, Popularization
343 pages. 2011. ISBN 978-3-03911-979-0

Vol. 20 Phillippa Bennett and Rosie Miles (eds): William Morris

in the Twenty-First Century
323 pages. 2010. ISBN 978-3-0343-0106-0

Vol. 21 Simone Francescato: Collecting and Appreciating:

Henry James and the Transformation of Aesthetics in
the Age of Consumption
217 pages. 2010. ISBN 978-3-0343-0163-3

Vol. 22 Herv Castanet: Pierre Klossowski: The Pantomime

of Spirits
Forthcoming. ISBN 978-3-0343-0209-8

Vol. 23 Savina Stevanato: Visuality and Spatiality in Virginia

Woolfs Fiction
309 pages. 2012. ISBN 978-3-0343-0241-8
Vol. 24 Paola Spinozzi and Elisa Bizzotto: The Germ: Origins
and Progenies of Pre-Raphaelite Interart Aesthetics
310 pages. 2012. ISBN 978-3-0343-0298-2

Vol. 25 John Harvey: The Poetics of Sight

Forthcoming. ISBN 978-3-0343-0723-9

Vol. 26 Rina Arya (ed.): Contemplations of the Spiritual in Art

264 pages. 2013. ISBN 978-3-0343-0750-5

Vol. 27 Shannon Hunter Hurtado: Genteel Mavericks:

Professional Women Sculptors in Victorian Britain
348 pages. 2012. ISBN 978-3-0343-0756-7

Vol. 28 Adrianne Rubin: Roger Frys Difficult and Uncertain

Science: The Interpretation of Aesthetic Perception
287 pages. 2013. ISBN 978-3-0343-0791-8