New York Sun, December 14, 2006                                          Back to Bibliography

The Sacred And the Banal

Lance Esplund

      One of the most compelling works of sacred art made during the last 25 years is a set of stained-glass windows commissioned by Minyan M’at at Ansche Chesed synagogue on the Upper West Side.
      Designed in 2001 by abstract painter Deborah Rosenthal, the two windows flank the ark of the Torah in the synagogue’s sanctuary. Both windows, each 2 1/2 feet wide by 5 feet tall, beautifully meld Modernist and medieval abstraction.The subject of the north window is the pomegranate, a symbol for the old temple. The south window depicts the tree of life, which symbolizes the Torah, or Bible, as a “tree of life for those who cling to it.” It represents the new temple as a place of prayer and study as opposed to sacrifice. Ms.Rosenthal, a devout Jew, has also explored the subjects of the Garden of Eden and Adam and Eve in her paintings. But she has said in a television interview: “I don’t think it is possible to create sacred art at this point. Sacred art is the collective expression of a society. Even among religious people there isn’t an audience that readily understands all of the signs and motifs.”
      Ms. Rosenthal, I believe, is referring to the fact that as society changes, art, an expression of that society, changes along with it. During the Middle Ages, the vast majority of the churchgoing public could not read, but they could read the signs, symbols, and sacred geometry in a stained glass window. How many art lovers, today, I wonder, are familiar with the stories and myths in our museums’ paintings and sculpture, themes that a century ago would have been readily understood by most college-educated viewers? As Modernists, we are probably more apt to respond to the sacrificial nature of Soutine’s expressionistic paintings of dead fowl and sides of beef than we are to depictions of martyred saints, slain heroes, and the Crucifixion.
The 19th century may have pronounced that God is dead; and certainly sacred subjects, along with Greek myths, have practically disappeared from contemporary art. But during the last hundred years, artists such as Georges Rouault, Henri Matisse, Marc Chagall, and, more recently, Ms. Rosenthal, have continued to keep the tradition alive.
      A small show at the Museum of Biblical Art explores the nature of biblical narrative in 20th-century Western art. Curated by Patricia Pongracz, the exhibition of approximately 30 paintings, drawings, prints, and sculpture by two dozen artists includes works by Rouault, Chagall, Giorgio de Chirico, Andy Warhol, Kiki Smith, and Jeff Koons. It casts a wide net, attempting to cover the spectrum of approaches both to the Bible and to art. Because of this open-ended tactic, in which the only constant is the exhibition’s broad subject matter, the catch-all show lacks an artistic and spiritual center.
      If the museum is the new temple, and art is its god, then there is little to worship at “Biblical Art in a Secular Century: Selections, 1896–1993.” The show, which gives us a sampling of the last century’s artistic styles, from late-19th-century realism to subversive Postmodernism, includes a few gems and a few surprises, but the majority of works are sub-par. The show’s thesis — that 20th-century artists have responded and continue to respond to the Bible as subject matter — does not really take into account that some artists do it better than others.
      Art, sacred or otherwise, must come from a deeply personal place before it can speak to others. If the artist does not have profound feelings about his subject (and if he does not possess the gifts to convert those feelings into form), then meaningful communication is absent. Great art, regardless of its subject, conveys life and mystery. Too many of the works in “Biblical Art in a Secular Century” seem to have been chosen for their names or to round out the variety of sacred art, rather than for their quality. And, consequently, they have little personal, or spiritual, presence.
      There are exceptions. Alfred Manessier’s abstract painting “Figure of Piety” (1944–45), a faceted head in blues, oranges, pinks, and greens, conveys an intensity of purpose. Eric Gill’s stone sculpture “The Sacred Heart” (1935–36)—in which a neo-Romanesque/Gothic Christ stands on an inscribed base and points to his exposed heart—is tender. Dame Barbara Hepworth’s sketch in oil on canvas, “Madonna and Child” (1953), though unresolved, merges the Virgin and Christ in a single, womblike form. Chagall’s small, Cubist-inflected watercolor “A Pinch of Snuff” (c. 1912), which depicts a rabbi who is tempted by the devil, is beautiful, taut, and quirky. Mark Tobey’s “The Last Supper” (1945), a sketchy tempera painting in browns, blues, and grays, is a cacophonous scene that, merging the Crucifixion and the Last Supper, explodes against the confines of the rectangle. And de Chirico’s possibly unfinished “Copia del Tondo di Michelangelo” (begun in late 1950s), a copy after Michelangelo, is an unusual, lyric departure for the artist.
      The best works in the show are two paintings by Rouault. His tiny “Sacred Heart” (1953–56), a heavily impastoed red heart surmounted by a yellow cross, has the presence of a bas relief and transforms image into amulet. In his dark “Crucifixion” (1937), Christ’s yellow-green and dirty pink body, handless and footless and barely contained by broad black strokes, is rooted to the frame as if he were a tree. Built out of component parts, the painting presents us with Christ’s sacrifice as the central backbone, or structure, of the composition. The painting’s muted light, jarred by moments of bright yellow and blood red, is veiled and sorrowful. Rouault conveys the messiness and horror of death, as well as the contemplative inwardness of prayer.
      Where the exhibition goes offtrack is in its seeming sense of duty to diversity and brand names. Included in the exhibition are mediocre works by James Ensor, George Segal, Otto Dix, George Wesley Bellows, David Aronson, and Karl Schmidt-Rotluff. In Käthe Kollwitz’s bronze sculpture “Pietà (Mother With Dead Son)” (1938), the son is held back, like a nut in a shell, by his mother. Completely closed off and withdrawn,the sculpture treats the death as personal melodrama, rather than as universal sacrifice. The mother’s mourning is selfish, rather than selfless, leaving no room for redemption.
      In Kiki Smith’s cast-aluminum “Processional Cross” (1990s), Christ’s body is crude, clumsy, and unnecessarily exaggerated—which gives the figure the sense that Christ is not only disproportioned but confused. Included also is a contemporary critique of the Church’s materialism. For that, we find Jeff Koons’s Baroque nod “Christ and the Lamb” (1988). A gilded mirror in the shape of “Christ and the Lamb” from Leonardo’s “Virgin and Child With St. Anne” (1510–13), in the Louvre, Mr. Koons’s extravagance, originally part of a series titled “Banality,” speaks not to the materialism of the church but to banality and materialism of empty art.
      Every work in “Biblical Art in a Secular Century” deals in one way or another with sacred themes, and many of its artists are sincerely grappling with those subjects. But if a work of sacred art cannot summon the mystery, what good is it? What purpose does it serve? If a work of sacred art is aesthetically weak or, as in the case of Mr. Koons’s one-note joke, it mocks aesthetics, then it also mocks the very notion of mystery—the bedrock of the sacred.

Until March 11 (1865 Broadway at 61st Street, 212-408-1500).

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