Art, Religion and the Smartphone: The Selfie by AHA Tutor Freddie Mason

When people take pictures of famous paintings in galleries, these pictures are often selfies: ‘this is me in the Louvre, pointing at and smiling next to the Mona Lisa’. It is the ‘me’ and the ‘next to’ that the selfie really cares about; people want to watermark their own original version of the painting with that thing that is indisputably their own: their face.

Someone taking a selfie in front of the Mona Lisa

 

What we are now able to do with Smartphones is put ourselves in the same picture as the Mona Lisa. We can enter the same frame as her. We can place our face into the same visual context as the most iconic face in existence. We can change ourselves slightly. We can get something new about ourselves to take back across that mysterious threshold between art and life.

For the cultured ‘art-lover’ there is nothing more embarrassing than the selfie. There are those that take selfies in front of Leonardos and there are those art-lovers that look on in despair.

Why is this?

I think this opposition between different kinds of gallery-goers has a lot to do with the theological oppositions between Catholicism and Protestantism.

Let me make a crude summary:

One of the things that particularly annoyed the new modes of protestant faith that developed during the Reformation was the worship of holy objects, relics. The worship of relics involves a very bodily orientated kind of faith: it is all about your physical proximity to the holy object. This catholic mode of worship is an externalised kind of religious being that is based upon the arrangement of people and things within space. In some cases, religious objects are even touched, a ritual act I’ve always found exquisitely dramatic.

 

A nail from the 'True Cross'

Protestantism, on the other hand, is much more internalised. It requires the individual to contemplate, in the solitude of prayer, their own fallen existence: faith and faith alone. One should not need the bones of the saints or a bit of the true cross to help absolve sins, only your own intense relationship with the word of God.

But, what has this got to do with selfies?

The tourist that sidles up alongside a Caravaggio to take a selfie is really interested in this Catholic belief in proximity. The tourist is not ‘learning to look’ as the exasperated art history tutors that surround them would like. What’s really important is that they were there, here, near, right next to the divine presence of the ‘original work of art’. In the world of art experience this pertains to a very Catholic set of values. ‘I was physically there. Next to this! The actual one!’

The desire to affirm physical presence in relation to the original artwork with a selfie is, I think, related to that mysterious, much more ancient impulse to physically touch works of art or religious objects.

Some artists have noticed this desire, creating works that ask you to break the rules. Meret Oppenheim’s ‘Objet’, for instance, cries out to be touched.

Meret Oppenheim, Objet, 1936, The Museum of Modern Art, New York

On the other end of the spectrum of gallery-goers is the good student who keeps their Smartphone switched off in their bag, listens attentively to the tutor and looks carefully in the hope that they might one day ‘learn how to look’ properly at art. For the good student, the whole affair is much more internalised. For them, proximity to the original is part of an individualised learning process through which they might gain a private aesthetic sensibility. With regards to their experience of art, they are acting like a Protestant might.

A sign in a gallery

 

Max Weber’s ‘protestant work ethic’ perhaps applies here: does one have to work to understand Caravaggio? Or is being there, having made the journey, the pilgrimage, enough?

I do not want to say something boring about which kind of gallery-goer is more or less superior. Instead, I think we can learn something about our historical position by observing this opposition. This is: however much we think society has become secularised, our ‘secular’ activities are structured by impulses that have their origins in religious ritual or dogma.

 

 

 

Concealed in Cookham: Helena Roy visits the Stanley Spencer Gallery

Stretched along the Thames, Cookham is a town better known for boating and riverside walks than iconic British art. Visitors are more likely to be heading to a local pub, than a gallery for renowned artist Stanley Spencer. But this little-known gem is a poignant and fascinating tribute to the artist.

Spencer's 'Self Portrait' (1959) painted the year he died
Spencer's 'Self Portrait' (1959) painted the year he died

What makes the gallery so personal is its sole dedication to Spencer and proximity to his life. The gallery opened in 1962, three years after Spencer’s death. He was born in Cookham, and died in Cliveden – the neighbouring village.

Spencer drew heavily on his surroundings. Much of his work depicts biblical scenes happening not in the Holy Land, but this small Thames-side village. From Christ’s miracles to the Crucifixion, all is relocated to leafy Berkshire. He referred to Cookham as ‘a village in heaven’: his choice of setting gives the visitor an eerie immediacy to Christianity’s stories. The gallery even offers a walk through the areas which inspired the paintings: you can visit the church depicted in Spencer’s work ‘The Resurrection’.

'The Resurrection, Cookham' (1923-7)
'The Last Supper' (1920)

From 1908 to 1912, Spencer studied at the Slade in London. He was so attached to his birthplace that he would often take the train back home in time for tea – his fellow student C.R.W. Nevinson nicknamed him Cookham.

With the arrival of the First World War, Spencer volunteered to serve with the Royal Army Medical Corps. His survival affected Spencer’s attitude to mortality irrevocably. Upon his return to Cookham, he had lost that ‘early morning feeling’ which had so awakened his spirit. But the war provided fresh, if bloody, inspiration. He was commissioned by the War Artists Advisory Committee to paint from his experiences and his works in this genre included ‘Travoys Arriving with Wounded at a Dressing Station at Smol, Macedonia, September 1916’ (now at the Imperial War Museum), and murals for the Sandham Memorial Chapel. The altarpiece here depicts ‘Resurrection of the Soldiers’. On the eve of the centenary, Somerset House began an exhibition of his work, aptly titled ‘Heaven in the Hell of War’.

Spencer's murals in the Sandham Memorial Chapel

Spencer’s work has a soothing storybook nature. Its form is clear – lines firmly separating shapes into recognisable bodies. His style has a calmness about it, and incorporates mainly soft, natural colours. This lends it a sense of finality and completeness; the events he depicts are untouchable. His biblical imagery thus seems more spiritual and legendary than physically realistic. The paintings are detached from the viewer’s reality – comfortingly similar but still a mythical portrayal of religious or military events.

'Christ's Entry Into Jerusalem' (c. 1920) was based on Cookham's landscape

To me, Spencer’s conjoining of Christian miracles with local areas showed a belief in people’s inherent morality. It insinuates people – not the divine – are the foundation of religion. He depicts soldiers being resurrected, and painted a military hospital scene inside a chapel. Just as Christ and Christianity have been preserved through art, so Spencer made immortal the sacrifice of the First World War through his paintings.

'Christ Preaching at Cookham Regatta' (1954)

Spencer’s work is easily accessible elsewhere: from the Tate Britain to Royal Academy, Cambridge Fitzwilliam and Imperial War Museum. But there is something significantly different about experiencing his art so close to where he lived for most of his life. The meaning of his work is pervaded by the context in which he created it: spiritually, physically and mentally. Both the Stanley Spencer Gallery and the village of Cookham provide a profound sense of the artist and his heritage.

With thanks to siue.edu and the BBC for photos.

The Stanley Spencer Gallery is open everyday from 10.30-5.30. More information can be found at http://www.stanleyspencer.org.uk/.

A Christmas trail around Cambridge: finding England’s religious history, by AHA alum Helena Roy

After considering art’s relationship with religion versus secularism (and with Christmas fast approaching) I decided to take a closer look at Christian art in my surroundings. Perhaps my location was too biased for an average survey – in Cambridge, where 31 colleges each have their own chapel, Christianity’s influence on art and architecture seeps through the city.

Starting with my own college – Pembroke. Pembroke was the first college in Cambridge to have its own chapel. Tucked between two courts, placed next to the church-like library, with its imposing bell tower, the chapel carries its own, having been the first building of Christopher Wren – the impetus behind St Paul’s Cathedral in London. Built after the Civil War, it breathed vitality into the tired late Gothic architecture of seventeenth century England.

Pembroke College Chapel, Cambridge, as designed by Christopher Wren

Pembroke is not alone in being built from pockets of Wren’s vision. The view that greets the visitor in Emmanuel College‘s first court is another Wren chapel framed by classical archways of a long gallery.

The view of Emmanuel College Chapel as you walk into the first court

Perhaps the most famous chapel in Cambridge is King’s College. With a world-famous choir and towering façade abutting Cambridge’s Market Square, the chapel is an inescapable figure on the city’s skyline: it is impossible to take a mediocre photo of it. Its magnificence is undeniable; with a delicate, lace-like beauty which complements its solid, immovable stone foundations. The chapel was built in phases, by a succession of Kings of England, from 1446 to 1525 – a period which spanned the War of the Roses.

King's College Chapel, Cambridge, viewed from the side, and the famous Backs perspective

Stepping out of the sandstone structures that pervade the collegiate system, there are snippets of religious architecture from other periods. St Bene’t’s is one grey example, while the Round Church is a geometric exception.

With origins dating back to 1130 AD, the Round Church is one of the oldest buildings in the city. Plumped up at a busy junction, it is covered with visual idiosyncrasies. In building the church, the architects were influenced by the style of a notable church in Jerusalem built by Emperor Constantine in the 4th century.

The Round Church, Cambridge, in the snow

 

The Round Church is beaten in age by St Bene’t’s Church – which is also the oldest building in Cambridge. Previously the chapel of Corpus Christi College, St Bene’t’s is now a mélange of Anglo-Saxon starkness and Victorian grey. The tower, built between 1000 AD and 1050 AD gives way to a beautifully monochrome interior, with deep chocolate wood and creamy plaster that belies pockets of light intricacy and stained glass.

The interior of St Bene't's Church, Cambridge

Alain de Botton argues that by focusing so much on the beauty of their buildings, religion was recognising that as humans we inherently ‘suffer from a heightened sensitivity to what is around us, that we will notice and be affected by everything our eyes light upon.’ Religious architecture can be admired by worshippers and atheists alike – that it holds a different meaning for each adds, rather than detracts, from its power.

With thanks to Wikipedia for photos.

‘Our museums of art have become our new churches’… Helena Roy considers whether art today is too secular

With the influence of Christianity declining in Britain, I was struck by Alain de Botton‘s statement in his recent book, ‘Religion for Athiests‘: ‘Our museums of art have become our new churches’. De Botton explores the power Christianity previously exercised over civilian life; many aspects of which he mourns as a loss to society. He is looking to replace what positives Christianity could bring to society with an atheist version. But what would this mean for art and museums.

Masterpieces which command global admiration today were often designed for worship in the past. Though some of these remain in their original intended setting, such as Titian’s ‘Assumption of the Virgin’ at the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, many have been plundered from religious buildings, now only viewable in a sterilised gallery environment.

Titian's 'Assumption of the Virgin' in Venice (1516-1518)

Perhaps this sterility is the result of tension between secular and religious perceptions of art: Hegel defined art as ‘the sensuous presentation of ideas’; whereas De Botton argues Christianity  ‘never leaves us in any doubt about what art is for: it is a medium to remind us about what matters… whereby our memories are forcibly jogged about what we have to love and to be grateful for, as well as what we should draw away from and be afraid of.’ Religious culture’s power to move might be shown by the author’s own experience – an ardent atheist, he admits to a crisis of faithlessness in his twenties, which he attributes to Bach’s cantatas and Bellini’s Madonnas.

Comparing the two, it would seem that Christian art understands that images are important primarily in generating compassion, enabling the boundaries between strangers to dissolve, and provoking a sense of fragility that leads us to understand new situations and morals. Modern museums – as fascinating as their avant garde enclosures are – can be too frigid, detailing the material facts and dry context of a piece, not its meaning or what we should learn from it. Catholic architecture, for example, made a point, ‘half touching, half alarming’ about how humans function: as a race we suffer from ‘a heightened sensitivity to what is around us… we will notice and be affected by everything our eyes light upon’, a vulnerability to which Protestantism, and our secular celebrity-heavy society prefers to remain indifferent or blind.

Basilica Cattedrale Patriarcale di San Marco in Venice

Maybe this is what scares people away from modern art: is it presented in an inaccessible manner, too technical and seemingly unrelated to the average bystander to merit a segment of everyone’s time? Modern museums tend to groups works of art according to the period they were born from; de Botton argues ‘a more fertile indexing system would group together artworks from across genres and eras according to the concerns of our souls.’ Perhaps in one room we would be taught about love, in another fear might feature, and another might show suffering as an impetus for pathos. A compulsory dose of culture by way of a visit to a museum would then be transformed into a structured encounter with some of the concepts which are easiest for us to forget, and the most essential and life-enhancing to remember.

The Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice might be an example. Tall and striking with its ruddy terracotta facade, it is proudly indifferent to the dusty indexing science of academic methodology. The Frari instead presents an eclectic range of works – including a fresco by Paolo Veneziano (c. 1339),  Giovanni Bellini’s ‘Madonna and Child with Saints’ (1488) and a large altarpiece by Titian (1516-1518) – designed to rebalance our souls, priorities and understanding. Sculpture, painting, and architecture are artfully thrown together from across regions and centuries to coordinate the impact of art on our sentiments; prioritising a coherent effect on our souls over a rigid grouping of origins and stylistic inclinations. Separating paintings by genre or period risks reducing any real coherence at an emotional level in museums. The art might not need to change, but museums maybe do.

Giovanni Bellini's 'Madonna and Child with Saints' (1488)

Maybe all of this is because modern priorities have taught us as a society at large not to worry about leaving an impact on art for future generations. This ignores art’s ability to shape society, however. Though many would not like to admit it, art is infinitely indebted to religion: beliefs, a desire for status and aggregated money has fed demand for art during some of the most important aesthetic periods and can still teach us new ideas today. Auguste Compte believed capitalism aggravated people’s ‘competitive, individualistic impulses and distanced them from their communities, their traditions and their sympathies with nature… Capitalism would in the end always favour a skilled, obedient and unintrospective workforce over an inquisitive and emotionally balanced one.’ Art and culture is not part of the ends towards which our modern economic society tries to force everyone to hurtle.

But art can offer society a guiding moral force – less dogmatic than religion, merely challenging and probing. Religious pictures in the past presented images it would be easier to turn away from, but standing witness to them directs us towards those who deserve our sympathy. ‘Crucifixion’ by Andrea Mantegna (1459) demonstrates this. De Botton argues that the ‘unreliability of our native imaginative powers magnifies our need for art.’ In the past, religious works were commissioned to show specific scenes or emotions to communicate with a largely illiterate audience. Levels of literacy may be very different now, but the power of the visual is not. Art should seek to give us a moral lesson; and perhaps museums and commissioners should focus on this, marrying painters with thinkers. To specify which topics art should focus on is not to insist that it all appears identical.

This is not an argument for religion: there are many ways it has irrevocably damaged nations, societies and cultures; and its decline may be inevitable, as it increasingly struggles to reconcile itself with our scientific age. It is instead an argument for perspective; the kind of outlook religion once advocated and offered. Religion, in some ways, promotes a sense of humility in the individual, a sense of there being something bigger, greater than us; and perhaps that is a good thing.  Art can help spread that perspective; perhaps museums should work to facilitate this. There are few other institutions that can.

With thanks to Wikipedia for photos.

Saints: Alive or Dead? AHA alum Helena Roy visits Michael Landy’s exhibition at the National Gallery

Few artists see their work exhibited at the National Gallery during their lifetime. To many, the idea of modern art at the London landmark is disconcerting – a genre that belongs to the imposing, edgier Tate Modern across the Thames.

But Michael Landy’s Saints Alive exhibition is far from traditional. The unpredictable artist is famed for destroying all his possessions in 2001, in his Break Down exhibition – but not before meticulously cataloguing all 7,227 in detail. Landy admits contemporary art is regarded as an eyesore by stereotypical frequenters of the National, before adding: ‘I like eyesores’. Despite this avant-garde background, Landy was chosen as the Rootstein Hopkins Associate Artist in residence at the gallery in 2010.

The only brief Landy was given was that his exhibition had to engage with the National Gallery’s collection. Thus the exhibition is juxtaposed to classical works, highlighting Landy’s intensely modern interpretation. Its violent nature could have been deleterious to understanding the paintings that inspired him, but in fact it brings out the serenity of the originals – making you to appreciate the pain behind the expressive beauty. Landy unites polar opposites – from Carlo Crivelli to the 1970s kinetic sculpture of Jean Tinguely.

Carlo Crivelli’s Saint Lucy (about 1476)

Landy had never visited the National Gallery prior to his appointment, and regarded it as ‘stuffy’. By responding to the gallery’s collection as an outsider, he has utterly broken that. Michael Craig-Martin has called Landy a ‘sophisticated innocent’. As a newcomer, he was drawn to the saints and martyrs; as an ‘innocent’ he noticed the physical and emotional details over the theological. He has made the saints kinetic in a way not seen before.

Landy first became fascinated with the saints when he repeatedly saw Saint Catherine with her wheel (Saint Catherine of Alexandria with a Donor (1480-1500), by Pintoricchio)

Saints Alive is an experience. Health and safety notices are pointed out before you visit (curators ‘wanted to avoid the torso of Christ hitting the public in the face’). I jumped out of my skin after pushing an innocent-looking pedal which made a gigantic sculpture of Saint Apollonia rock fiercely after bashing her mouth with pliers.

The concentrated exhibition contains seven huge sculptures, climbing up like distorted fairground figures, mimicking horror-movie dolls. A personal favourite was the body of Saint Francis – gigantic and kneeling – with an industrious, rusted crane constantly taking of his body to try and give. It was here that I felt the symbolism of saints the strongest.

The Stigmatisation of Saint Francis,1437-44, by Sassetta, which inspired my favourite sculpture in the exhibition
Michael Landy with his Saint Francis of Assisi sculpture, my favourite in the collection

Statues are assembled with one of Landy’s artistic hallmarks: refuse. He has scoured car boot sales and flea markets, accumulating old machinery to construct the works. Landy says he feels ‘like Baron Frankenstein, digging around getting various body parts from different parts of the Renaissance.’ In a short film we see torsos sawn apart to make his sculptures – a martyrdom of the saints yet again, this time in the name of art.

Accompanying collages combine elements of Picasso’s distortion with classical painting and greyscale line-drawing. Components are made bold and surreal on blank white canvas – psychedelic cogs tear renaissance torsos apart.

Michael Landy at work on Saints Alive

Violence pervades the exhibition. Landy has worked solely with martyrdom: he satirizes the arrow piercing Saint Sebastian’s body by multiplying hundreds of them across one perfectly sculpted torso; fate is arbitrarily decided on a spiked martyr’s fortune wheel, inspired by Saint Catherine; Saint Francis doubles as a donation box, and strikes himself with a cross when coins are received, as if pain is what the giver wants. I was left confused about what the overt brutality meant – modern media may anaesthetise society to violence to an extent, but in Saints Alive it seemed almost unnecessarily explicit.

Paired with religion, the violence engenders uneasy tension. Landy expected religious controversy. He fell in love with the saints’ stories as an artist – not a Christian – affectionately calling them ‘barmy’. Martyrdom is inherently paradoxical: the saints seem to destroy themselves in the name of furthering faith in God, but by doing so in such brutal fashions often diminish belief.

As mirrored in his sculptures, Landy thinks the saints have been discarded. He argues ‘we’ve forgotten about them and they’ve been junked, really.’ Saints Alive tries to regenerate them for another audience. The saints of Saints Alive seem desperate: the sculptures begin to destroy themselves with the force of pedals and buttons visitors push, worn out trying to prove their faith.

Landy said of Saints Alive that ‘you can’t dictate how people interpret artwork’. He was unsure of what people’s reaction would be, and yet I am unsure of my own. The vitality Landy has brought to the National is exhilarating and fascinating, but the saints don’t necessarily seem more ‘alive’ to me. Landy has transformed fragments from altarpieces into destructive modern art: to me, this made the saints seem deader than ever.

The sculptures of Saints Alive

‘Saints Alive’ by Michael Landy is exhibited at the National Gallery until 24 November 2013.

To discover the paintings in the National Gallery that inspired Landy’s work, visit www.nationalgallery.org.uk/visiting/printed-trails/michael-landy-trail.

With thanks to the National Gallery, the Guardian and the Telegraph for photos.