Maureen Mullarkey is a painter who writes on art and culture. Her essays have appeared in various publications, among them: The Nation, Crisis, Commonweal, Hudson Review, Arts, The New Criterion, First Things, The Weekly Standard, and The Magazine Antiques. She was a columnist for The New York Sun.
Blood is either absent or decorously minimized in those images of Jesus’ Passion with which we are best familiar. The death of Jesus is only part of the Christ story; the momentous, history-shattering disclosure comes later. Accordingly, traditional Passion imagery inclines toward a reflective distance from the physical realities of a Roman scourging and crucifixion.
In the earliest crucifixes, the corpus is dressed in an ecclesiastical tunic and its outstretched arms do not bend with the weight of the body. Straight and firm as they are, the outstretched arms suggests either a welcoming embrace or triumphal acclaim—the exuberant gesture of a victory lap. The fresco below is an eighth century addition to the walls S. Maria Antiqua, built in the fifth century and the oldest church within the Roman Forum:
The legacy of Western art is reticent about the actual deed of nailing Jesus to the cross. Few such scenes exist in fresco, on panel, or on canvas. They tend to appear almost exclusively on the conventional pilgrimage series we know today as the Stations of the Cross. These were introducd and popularized—as sculpture—closer to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. This fourteenth century panel from Meister Bertram’s Passion altarpiece for the Church of St. John, Hamburg, is one of the few exceptions. Again, there is little blood despite the violent brutality of the tableau. A calculated reserve dictates the scene.
Our customary crucifix presents itself to us as more an emblem of redemption—sign and symbol of our ransom—than an instrument of torture. Bowing to prototypes from medieval and Renaissance painting, it presents a mental image that permits us to look upon the corpus without cringing. Art’s role extends beyond narrative. It exists to penetrate the challenge to contemplation encountered in witnessing a grisly event.
Rubens’ famous crucifixion—to take a single example—presents a muscular Jesus unmarked by the disfiguring whip that left prisoners in a state of half death. Blood runs discreetly from wounds fastidiously marked but deemphasized. Neither in his crucifixion motif nor his deposition does Rubens display the corpus in terms appropriate for a man dehydrated, enfeebled, torn and blood-soaked from the cruelty of the previous day. It is, instead, the figure of an athlete in his prime displaced from a classical gymnasium.
Fra Angelico’s version, universally loved, aestheticizes the flogging with an ethereal symmetry. A transcendent calm infuses the scene. Jesus maintains a graceful contraposto , more like a dancer than a man whose execution is beginning.
It would be a great pleasure to feed representative images onto this post for another ten yards or so. That is my favorite thing to do. Prose is a mere handmaiden to paintings. For me. But perhaps not for you. So let me cut to the chase and admit that all of this has been meant as a segue to Franz Heinrich Louis Corinth (1858-1925), known in art history texts as Lovis Corinth. Student of Bouguereau at the Academie Julian in Paris and, later, director of Berlin’s Sezession , Corinth was the archetypical German Expressionist. In short, a modernist.
He was also a painter compelled by the Passion as a creative motif. Crucifixion scenes occupied his imagination over several years. In 1910, he donated Golgotha for the altar of his hometown church in Tapiau, East Prussia. All that we have is the record of the donation. The painting itself disappeared after the Second World War. Tapiau was left intact, unviolated, during the Second World War. Consequently, it is believed that the painting was looted by the Red Army when it invaded East Prussia at the end of the war. No one quite knows.
I would love to see this vanished work. What is left to us is moving enough: Red Christ painted in 1922, just three years before Corinth died. It is not an easy work to look at. Most people see only the subject of a painting, not the paint or the handling—the art—itself. Red Christ is a beautiful painting of a horrendous subject: the depiction of Jesus pierced by Longinus and encrimsoned with the blood of his ordeal.
The painting is a howl of anguish, perhaps the most gruesome of any Western image of the motif. It is a darker and more agonized evocation of what the Son of Man suffered, for your sake and mine, than anything else in the longue durée of sacred Christian art. It surpasses even Beckmann—and Nolde—who had turned previously to Christ’s Passion to find a paradigm for human suffering. The only valid comparison, historically, is with Matthias Grünewald who drew close to the substance of raw agony.
We are unaccustomed to treatments of the Passion which extend beyond the compositional familiarity of what we revere as the Church’s high patrimony. Our nerves have slackened, gone drowsy, from seeing the Passion through the lens of art tamed by centuries. And by an increasingly self-conscious fondness for what is fast becoming a reigning catchword: beauty.
Note : A careful reader wrote to correct my spelling of Corinth’s birthplace: Tapiau. All fixed above. (It is now Gvardeysk, Russian Federation.)
Earlier this month Sandro Magister’s Chiesa broadcast an interesting particular in the Masses celebrated by Pope Francis:
At the moment of communion, Pope Jorge Mario Bergoglio does not administer it himself, but allows others to give the consecrated host to the faithful. He sits down and waits for the distribution of the sacrament to be completed.
At solemn Masses, Francis distributes the eucharist only to his assistants on the altar. And at the juvenile detention center on Holy Thursday, he gave the sacrament to young detainees who approached to receive it. These, however, are exceptions to his habit of abstention. What explains it?
Magister locates the origin of Francis’ practice in a passage from On Heaven and Earth , a series of conversations between then-archbishop Bergoglio and Abraham Skorka, biophysicist and rabbi of Buenos Aires. First published in Argentina in 2010, it contains this from Bergoglio:
David had been an adulterer and had ordered a murder, and nonetheless we venerate him as a saint because he had the courage to say: ‘I have sinned.’ He humbled himself before God. One can commit enormous mistakes, but one can also acknowledge them, change one’s life and make reparation for what one has done. It is true that among parishioners there are persons who have killed not only intellectually or physically but indirectly, with improper management of capital, paying unjust wages. There are members of charitable organizations who do not pay their employees what they deserve, or make them work off the books. [ . . . ] With some of them we know their whole résumé, we know that they pass themselves off as Catholics but practice indecent behaviors of which they do not repent.
For this reason, on some occasions I do not give communion, I stay back and let the assistants do it, because I do not want these persons to approach me for a photo. One may also deny communion to a known sinner who has not repented, but it is very difficult to prove these things.
Receiving communion means receiving the body of the Lord, with the awareness of forming a community. But if a man, rather than uniting the people of God, has devastated the lives of many persons, he cannot receive communion, it would be a total contradiction. Such cases of spiritual hypocrisy present themselves in many who take refuge in the Church and do not live according to the justice that God preaches. And they do not demonstrate repentance. This is what we commonly call leading a double life.
For the first time since the conclave my heart did not lift at news of Francis. It hurts to admit it, but this time I was nonplussed. Even disappointed. Our pope has a teaching authority in matters of morals as well as of faith. Because we are subject to that authority, we want it—need it—to be as unambiguous in gesture as in directive and the proclamation of imperatives. I cannot shake discomfort with Francis’ conventionalizing an act that, by its nature, warrants deliberate, focused discernment.
There exist means of keeping photos at bay. Ask any museum. They are expert at blocking photography when they choose on grounds of etiquette, trespass, or both. Nevertheless, the issue at stake here is not about optics. By routinely sitting it out, Francis elevates optics over substance. Refusing to discriminate when discrimination is in order cannot be applauded on grounds of prudence or charity. It is neither.
Nancy Pelosi and vice-president Biden attended the Mass for the inauguration of Francis’ pontificate. Both Catholics, both high-profile boosters for abortion, they stood for communion. (In 2008, then-archbishop of Denver Charles Chaput, called Biden’s support for abortion a grave public fault, adding “I presume that his integrity will lead him to refrain from presenting himself for communion.”) The two received from Francis’ assistants while the pope remained seated behind the altar. Had he distributed communion himself but turned the chalice over to his assistants before reaching two public proponents of what the Church considers a non-negotiable, intrinsic evil, a point would have been made. Instead, a rare historic moment for apostolic witness was lost, sacrificed to Francis’ customary abstention and the protocols of state.
By sending Pelosi and Biden as representatives, our president took a sly, sophisticated swipe at the Church’s condemnation of abortion. In effect, he taunted the Church, confident in the power of diplomacy—the ferocity of manners—to smother witness. Francis’ custom left him not complicit—that is too harsh a word—with the insult but certainly toothless in the face of it. Hoist on the decorums of state and his own inclinations, the pope kept his hands clean. But the price of that is on the scoreboard: Abortion Regime 1, Francis 0.
Americans have a phrase for this: passing the buck . Precisely because the pope’s abstention is a general habit—rather than a targeted gesture—it loses sinew. Any moral vigor his restraint might have is dissipated by indiscriminate application. Efficacy requires a more surgical, less theatrical, employment. Without that, abstention shrivels to theatre. Mere style.
Observant readers will have noted another worrisome thing in Francis’ 2010 statement. The species of sin he specifies (improper management of capital, paying unjust wages) are the stock bogeymen of Marxist grievance. Charitable organizations who do not pay their employees what they deserve . Who are these employers who “have killed indirectly”? We have been around this block before on behalf of that abstraction, the exploited worker. What, precisely, determines what any employee deserves without reference to a specific employee in a specific context? Generalized swats lend themselves easily to class resentment and all its familiar mischief. They contribute to demagogic mystifications, illuminating nothing.
The statist bureaucrats of Jorge Borgoglio’s native Argentina nationalized private pensions—the savings of responsible citizens—while he was archbishop. It was an act of theft more consequential than the mundane imperfections of unnamed charitable organizations. Colossal public debt and deficits are more formidable enemies of the common good than Marxist-lite hobgoblins in the workplace. Surely Francis knows this. Let us pray his reign is marked by the boldness to say so.
We who live in the Western world at the present time continue to suffer under the reign of a great tyranny — the tyranny of artistic modernism.
New English Review , August 2012
It gets tiring, this lingering need to swipe at modernism. To the extent a date applies, the waning of modernism hovers between the late 1930s and the end of the Second World War. Yet seven decades later, one Quixote or another still gallops forward to tilt at the carcass. Beating a horse in extremis is unseemly. And doltish. It keeps us from recognizing the singular achievements of this fluid and variegated offensive against Victorian-era academies.
In the early decades of the twentieth century, modernism’s heyday, biblical imagery still held purchase on Western culture. One stunning example of modernist reimagining of a traditional subject is Max Beckmann’s Deposition:
Beckmann reintroduced the sepulchral, nightmare quality that centuries of familiarity have drained from—to take the closest example—Gerard David’s Deposition :
David evokes the graveyard that was Golgotha—“place of the skull”—by scattering bones in the foreground. With that gesture he observed the customary iconography which separated skeletal remains from the corpus of Christ. Beckmann, steeped in death as a volunteer medical attendant on the Belgium front in the First World War, reversed David’s diagonal composition. He turned his eye, and ours, to the skull beneath the taut-drawn skin of the dead Christ. The corpus is distorted by rigor. Violent death reveals itself in tortured angularities: feet contorted upward to display wounds from the underside; arms stiffened into unsupported extension, locked in unnatural outreach. Emaciated shoulders and clavicle tell their own tale. Skeletonization has begun.
Julius Meier-Graefe, a modernist art historian—one of the few included by the Nazis in their attack on “Degenerate Art”—commented on the severity of Beckmann’s initial post-war work, so reminiscent of Gothic painting. Writing in 1919, he interpreted Beckmann’s Deposition as a collective indictment on their place and time:
These paintings are anything but decorative. Their disposition is much more violent. An almost mystical embitterment impels such forms. The voluptuousness of pain . . . A fleshless Grünewald—fleshless, not soulless. The details spell out the want of ardor of our machine age . . . Color, which could soften the factual details, is despised . . . The apparition stands with inexorable clarity. But it is nonetheless animated. These terrifying figures [indicate] a prodigious self-conceit . . . embraced by an entire nation, which sinned extravagantly and atones extravagantly, which by means of monstrous instruments of torture has its rotten flesh burned away so that its spirit might come to its senses.
The imitatio Dei is not a matter of copying. It is a matter, first, of comprehending; and, then, of seeking forms to render that comprehension. Modernism did not abandon form. Rather, it sought a means of creating fresh forms for interpreting the world—the world of our own time—not merely duplicating what greets our senses. Or repeating routinely what we love in the art of an earlier age.
The previous post ended with reference to what “the centuries have wrought.” A reader emailed me to askhopefullyif I was referring to modernism. No, not at all. In mind was the kind of emasculate anti-art rampant on plaques, statuary, prayer cards in funeral parlors, and too often in our own churches. Side altars, especially. Pictorially equivalent to sob songs, the stuff mimics Renaissance and Baroque painting but is sorely disconnected from the achievement of its prototypes.
Mass produced sentimentality has been the hallmark of Catholic art since the 1840s flooded the market with a cascade of devotional stuffs from French companies located around the church of Saint-Sulpice on the Left Bank. A taste for it lingers in much of the disdain directed at modernism in the arts. Particularly in relation to religious subjects, even sophisticated Catholics are prone to uncritical favor toward imitations of the premodern. Whatever comes closest to Renaissance realism or the Baroque figuration of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is considered more spiritual, more authentic, than anything that reveals twentieth century authorship.
Compare the gravity of Bramantino’s depiction of the risen Christ with the emotional tenor of the modern resurrection scene that follows it. Bramantino evokes the suffering of a man newly risen, in the flesh, from his descent into hell:
Simon Dewey, a popular contemporary painter of “Christ-centered art,” gives us a male model coming out of a bathhouse on Fire Island. We’ve seen that face before, but where? In GQ ? An old Marlboro ad?
Thomas Merton phrased things nicely: “If there were no other proof of the infinite patience of God with men, a very good one could be found in His tolerance of the pictures that are painted of him.”
And of His mother, too. The pansied piety of Marian kitsch denatures the Theotokos . In the coronation scene, below, Mary is a fluff of cotton candy; the blond putti flutter over her like so much pastel confetti. Not least among the image’s offenses is the exaggerated refinement of the hand holding the ceremonial rod as if it were a teacup. A traditional symbol of authority, the mace dwindles here into something close to a gilded swizzle stick:
In the accustomed bloodless cliché, grace streams from Mary’s hands like gas from a stovetop jet. This manikin is not so much virginal as bleached, pasty, mincing. Here she steps on a skinny green snake that would barely threaten a frog. Not much as a symbol of a demonic force seeking the ruin of souls:
Miriam of Nazareth lived under Roman occupation. She likely witnessed other crucifixions before she endured the sight of her own son on the gibbet. She named her infant Yeshua , Aramaic for the name we call Joshua . Her boy was the namesake of a Jewish hero, a battlefield commander who brought down the walls of Jericho and conquered the Canaanites. In the minds of Jews of Miriam’s time, the image of Joshua was then what it remained for centuries after in biblical illustration:
That is not the choice of a girl without mettle. Mary, meek and mild? Only if we attend to the definition of meek offered by Fr. George Rutler in his May 12th sermon:
The spiritual “meek” are not milquetoasts, or spineless wimps. The Greek praus for “meek” means controlled strength, a suppleness like that of an athlete. Without praus , a surfer would stand stiff and soon fall off the surfboard, and a boxer would be knocked out with the first punch without agile footwork.
Art’s expressive power is not necessarily benign. Bad art has its own pernicious effect, working its way on religious sensibilities like corrosive salts on a fresco. Images resonate apart from their subject matter. They can mislead. An understanding of this led German writer Hermann Brocha convert to Catholicism and major figure among the early Moderniststo declare kitsch not only a perversion of taste but also “the element of evil in the value system of art.”
Granted, that might be going some. Nevertheless, it is worth asking ourselves to what extent simpering or banal religious art drains us of the force and fortitude faith requires in a faithless world. Or, more pointedly, a world with Islam rising. I sometimes wonder: if Miriam of Nazareth were to rechristen any one of us, what name would she pick?
Bernard Berenson called Piero della Francesca “the mighty Tuscan.” Among contemporary painters, he remains the best loved of Renaissance painters, influential to a range of modern artists whose debt to him might not be readily apparent. Nevertheless, renowned as he is among artists, he is not widely known to American audiences.
When a respondent to my previous post sent a link to Piero’s Madonna del Parto , it jolted me into contrition for having neglected to say a word about the gem of a Piero exhibition that opened at the Frick in February. This rare and marvelous opportunity ends this coming Saturday. Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa . I have hogged it to myself, returning several times to bask in it. And, yes, pay homage to the enigmatic and majestic Piero.
Piero was better known in his own day as a mathematician, an authority on solid geometry and the author of a treatise on perspective. Little of his art survives, much of it having fallen victim to renovation fever over the centuries. Most of it was executed in fresco; fresco cycles do not travel. To boot, the Victorian era, smitten with Raphael, never gave Piero a nod. Hence, a current audience’s relative lack of acquaintance with an artist who, today, ranks with Leonardo as both artist and man of science. To see his work in its full splendor requires winding through small Tuscan villages—the Way of Piero—an itinerary that begins in Arezzo and Perugia, moves on to Monterchi, through Rimini to Urbino, and Sansepolchro, Piero’s home town.
Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels , owned by the Clark Institute, Massachusetts, is one of only three works by Piero in this country. An oil on panel, it is one of the uncommon transportable ones; yet this is only the second time in sixty years it has been visible in New York City. It is the heart of the Frick exhibition and a glorious initiation into Piero’s particular genius.
This Virgin, like all his Marys, has the impassive, thickset solidity of an Etruscan farm girl. Four angel sentinels stand sturdy and substantial. They bear wings, but more as emblems of station than locomotion; nothing ephemeral marks this watchful quartet. These seraphs are as firm-footed as Wim Wender’s angelic pair in Wings of Desire . A husky, self-contained toddler, Christ reaches for a pink carnation, foreshadow of the crucifixion, in Mary’s grasp. He puts out his hand without affect, composed, as inscrutable as his mother.
Roses, too closely identified with Venus and profane imagery, frequently gave way to the elusive charms of the carnation—more sharply defined than the rose—in fifteenth century painting. Piero blends them easily together. His Virgin’s throne, set under the open sky [beyond the frame of the detail here], is decorated with stylized rosettes. Living flowers repeat in the garland worn by the farther angel, symbol of paradisial rapture. “Let us crown ourselves with rosebuds,” cry celebrants in the Book of Wisdom. When, for whatever reason, a Renaissance painter chose against the rose, he painted a carnation. A rosebud or a pink carnation—let us not fret the allegorical difference.
Plants, fruits and flowers came into full fashion as visual metaphors in the art of the Renaissance. They are the fragrant, unspoiled things—good gifts—loved by antiquity and, so, embraced by antiquity’s self-chosen heirs. In the hieratic serenity of Piero’s composition we find the interplay of symbolic motifs that have become part of the heraldry of the Church.
The freshness of Piero’s achievement has held for more than six hundred years. His work speaks today with a grace and power made ever more precious by what the centuries between us have wrought.
Pray for us O holy Mother of God,
that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.
Motherhood, as you understand and honor it, is passé. Outmoded. It has faded into a quant bit of Americana, an artifact of folklore like Johnny Appleseed or Aunt Jemima.
That is the undisquised message of the Museum of Motherhood (MOM), established this past January on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Following the lead of “museums” of contemporary art, MOM exists neither to preserve nor conserve an iota of cultural heritage. It obtains exclusively to promote a product. In this case, the article on display is a stake through the heart of our “cultural fairy tale” of what constitutes a family.
MOM’s website features a daily blog, Mamablogger365 , open to submissions on the subject of “reframing” motherhood. Kimberly Dark’s entry for May 5 th is a definitive decoction of this new and exciting project. Substance is all there in the title: “Queer ParentingCan We Stop Acting Like It Is Something New?”:
Even if we find the fairy tale [of traditional marriage and family] foolish and think there’s nothing wrong with non-adherence, this story is in our cultural consciousness.
Ms. Dark, aka Mommy Queerest, welcomes the MOMuseum’s mission to supplant the antiquated preachments of our false cultural consciousness:
Here’s the truth of it: Sometimes people meet and marry and have children. Often, people start having sex with one another before marriage and sometimes children result. Sometimes marriages involve sexual fidelity sometimes not. Sometimes multiple sexual partners are a planned part of loving relationships, sometimes not. And any combination of those people can create children, or not. Some people have children without marrying. Some people can’t have their own children because neither of them is able to give birth either because of their own fertility or because both of them are the same gender. Yes, sometimes people of the same gender have sex, and fall in love, and sometimes they even marry either because gay marriage is legal where they live or they gain state support by concealing or changing one of their genders in order to conform to cultural norms. All of this has been happening for all of recorded time. All of it. Families are complex and we construct them both in accordance with and in opposition to cultural norms and laws.
For all of recorded time . All of it . Ms. Dark, an LBGT performer and sociology professor, puts queer scholarship to work in the war against the intellect that has become the hallmark of popular culture.
Go to MOM’s website, follow the links, and weep. Under the gaudy banner of gay liberation and reproductive rights, women have succeeded in doing what Western patriarchy has not. They have maneuvered women to the status of brood mares. And proud of it.
Note: MOM is here . Kimberly Dark’s site is here . Joy Rose, foundress and executive director of MOM and The Motherhood Foundation, can be found here . The Foundation is a certified 501(c)(3), tax exempt contribution to the demotion of traditional concepts of marriage and family.
Here it comes.
Truth to tell, I do not like Mother’s Day. It is a mawkish, manufactured holidaya counterfeit tradition like Kwanza. But now that it is upon us, women might as well make the most of it. This is the day to milk what remains of filial guilt for all it is worth. Lay it on thick, sisters.
Get the jump on neglectful, inattentive offspring. Do not wait for your begets to send the usual Mother’s Day boilerplate from the greeting card industry. Plug the ooze of pastel, market-researched sentiments. Go on the offensive; upend protocol. Drop this in the mail to your slack brood:
If you prefer suggestive indirection, you can remind them of your tender, sheltering, watchful, supportive maternity with this:
Then there are our own mothers to be thought of. No problem. Ask the endearing Zeichen Press to run this off for you:
Anna Jarvis, unmarried and childless, founded Mother’s Day in honor of her own mother, Ann Marie Reeves Jarvis. Mrs. Jarvis was a dynamic woman, an eloquent public speaker, organizer and true humanitarian in the Civil War era. She also knew her own worth and impressed it upon her daughter:
I hope that someone, sometime will found a memorial mother’s day commemorating her for the matchless service she renders to humanity in every field of life. She is entitled to it.
The eye never has enough of seeing.
What is the point of having a weblog if I can’t talk about things I like? One of them is the photography of William Meyers. He was my colleague on the culture desk of The New York Sun during its balmy years as a print publication . He writes on photography now for The Wall Street Journal. You might well have read his commentaries but you have not seen his own approach to the craft he observes. And celebrates.
Though he did not devote himself seriously to photography until the late ’90s when he was about 60, Meyers aligns himself with the generation of photographers who developed their visual language in the 1960s and ’70s. (He was born in 1938. Lee Friedlander was born in 1934, Joel Meyerowitz in 1938, William Eggleston in 1939). All were heirs of Garry Winograd, sophisticated documentarian of the 1960s’ social landscape. All shared a lively determination to seize small moments of humanity out of chance glimpses on the streets.
Let Bill explain himself:
Most of my pictures were taken on anonymous streets where the people of the place live and go about their business; they represent the quotidian, not the spectacular; they are the outer boroughs of the spirit as well as of the physical city. The work is not concerned with documentation, the way things look, but with . . . the feel of a place at a particular moment. Each image represents a certain time in a certain part of a certain city where, I have found, even in unlikely neighborhoods there are occasions for beauty.
. . . Rather than shoot intrinsically exciting sites like mid-town Manhattan, I sought out ones that would be considered uninteresting and tried to take compelling pictures of them.
His first solo exhibition opens this Tuesday at the Nailya Alexander Gallery, 41 E. 57th Street. If you are in Manhattan or passing through between then and June 8th, you might want to stop up to the gallery.
Modernism in the arts is an indefinite term. Like fascism , the word gets bandied about despite the absence of any firm idea of what it means. Even the editors of Modernism: 1890-1930 , a widely used text, fell back on this:
The name [i.e. modernism] is clear; the nature of the movement or movements … is much less so. And equally unclear is the status of the stylistic claim we are making. We have noted that few ages have been more multiple, more promiscuous in artistic style; to distil from the multiplicity an overall style or mannerism is a difficult, perhaps even an impossible task.
At about the same time, critic Monroe K. Spears echoed the sentiment when he prefaced an important book on the same subject by observing that “Modernism is, of course, an impossible subject.” That was the mid-1970s. Here we are thirty years later and head-long into post-Modernism, yet still with no definitive idea of precisely what we are post of.
So we have to be careful not to discard the achievements of modernism in the arts—the visual arts, my chief concern—on ideological ground that has more sand in it than we like to think.
Pius X’s condemnation of modernism as the “synthesis of all heresies” has reverberated in unsuspected ways. The shadow of heresy-by-association blankets the fragmentation and disjunctions of modern art (much of it a reaction to the horrors of war). Since modern art challenged the authority of preceding art, it was disdained as an expression of the same heretical impulse.
This over-simplification is far less interesting than the reality. The entire history of Western art has been a succession of challenges to previous art as well as a story of intricate branching and wandering, with many false starts along the way. People of faith, skeptical toward unnuanced Darwinian hypotheses about the origin of man, accept without question mainstream Darwinian views of art history. Following the received wisdom, they lend themselves to the myth of the supposedly organic structure of art history, imagining an unbroken line of progress from classical times to the Renaissance. (Some stretch it to the 1880’s and the beginnings of Impressionism, but no later.) After that, in the modern era, the presumed ladder of ascendancy collapses. Believers jump ship to take up the unsmiling game of modernist-spotting. The visual correlative of heresy-spotting.
And that is too bad. The volume and scope of art dismissed by this attitude is staggering. Stay awhile with Beckmann’s interpretation of the theme of the woman taken in adultery. There is great power in Christ’s gesture, staying the mob of accusers with one hand; with the other, making a gesture of acceptance toward the woman. While the crowd mocks, it is they who look grotesque, not Christ—self-assured and protective—and not the woman who places herself under his protection with closed eyes in trust.
And the paint! The beauty of it does not translate onto the screen. It is one of modernism’s great gifts.