Christian-themed portraits by Kehinde Wiley

“Painting is about the world we live in. Black people live in the world. My choice is to include them. This is my way of saying yes to us.”—Kehinde Wiley

Last weekend I visited the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, where the exhibition “Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic” is showing through September 5, a fifteen-year survey of Wiley’s art organized by the Brooklyn Museum. An academically trained artist, Wiley paints black and brown bodies in proud poses against ornate decorative backgrounds on monumental canvases, riffing on art-historical masterpieces from the Renaissance and Baroque eras. He “street casts” his models: walks the streets of inner-city neighborhoods, inviting black males, ages eighteen to thirty-five, to sit for portraits. In this collaborative process, the model chooses a reproduction of a painting from a book and reenacts, in his streetwear, the pose of the painting’s figure.

In the exhibition catalog, Connie H. Choi, a research associate at the Brooklyn Museum, writes,

In inserting the urban black male figure into the art-historical canon, the artist brings the canon up to date and at the same time questions its centuries-long exclusion of such figures. His manner of portraying African American men is Wiley’s way of affirming their presence in a society that has long discounted or undervalued them. (24)

Cultural critic Touré describes Wiley’s oeuvre as an “attempt to rehabilitate black images”—in the media (especially before the presidency of Barack Obama), often simplistically skewed toward hip-hop music videos and newsreels of urban gang violence—“by putting them in the context of nobility, of import, of beauty” (52).

Kings, nobles, and wealthy merchants are among the subjects depicted in Wiley’s source material. But biblical and extrabiblical saints, and Christ himself, are also present. For centuries religious imagery had a commanding presence in churches, palaces, homes, and government buildings, exercising sway over the imagination and steering popular devotion. By translating European devotional paintings—fashioned in the image of the white ruling class—into a contemporary idiom that places black bodies up front and center, Wiley rectifies the lack of representation of racial minorities in and as the body of Christ.

His Down series, which seeks to capture the majesty and severity of fallen warriors and entombed saints, features three paintings of the dead Christ. Hans Holbein’s life-size predella panel on the subject was the starting point; showing Jesus’s putrefying corpse, it is regarded as one of the all-time most grotesque paintings of Jesus. In The Idiot, Dostoyevsky’s Prince Mishkin says that viewed in isolation from the Resurrection, the painting has the power to make one lose one’s Christian faith.

Dead Christ by Kehinde Wiley

In Wiley’s reconceptualization, Jesus’s body is fit, his skin shining. Gone are the blue face, puncture wounds, and emaciation of the prototype. Art critics have recognized in this and many more of Wiley’s paintings a homoeroticism, reading them in light of Wiley’s sexuality. Notice how the eyes of Wiley’s dead Christ turn out toward the viewer rather than roll up and back.

The Down series predates the Black Lives Matter movement but speaks powerfully into that context. It challenges the public—especially the white public—to see the rampant shooting deaths of unarmed black men by police and to name it what it is: an injustice, a tragedy.

Veiled Christ by Kehinde Wiley

Lamentation (Kehinde Wiley)-01

For all their visual engagement with and meditation on the Passion, Christians at large have proven deficient in their willingness to mourn the suffering and death of black brothers and sisters. Maybe, just maybe, gazing on a dead black Christ could produce more empathy in us when we see news photos of black people whose lives have been taken from them. Maybe these paintings can lead us into lament. In Wiley’s Lamentation, for example, we’re invited to poke our heads into the void left by the excision of Mary and John and to wail and moan. (For more on racial tensions in America from a Christian perspective, I commend to you the lecture “The Heart Cry of #BlackLivesMatter” by Jemar Tisby, cofounder of the Reformed African American Network.)

In these three paintings Wiley continues the legacy of those Harlem Renaissance artists—poets, illustrators, musicians—who linked the nation’s destruction of black bodies through lynching to the Crucifixion of Christ.   Continue reading “Christian-themed portraits by Kehinde Wiley”

John Berger on how to see

John Berger—essayist, novelist, poet, screenwriter, art critic—loves to help people see what is around them, teach them how to look at the world. His life’s work is dedicated to this endeavor.

One of his most celebrated achievements is the BAFTA Award–winning Ways of Seeing, a four-episode television program written and presented by Berger and originally airing in 1972 on the BBC. “A British arts broadcasting landmark” and “a key moment in the democratisation of art education,” The Guardian calls it. The script was adapted the same year into a book, a collaboration among Berger, Mike Dibb (BBC producer/director), Richard Hollis (graphic designer), Chris Fox (consultant), and Sven Blomberg (artist). It’s still in print!

Berger’s super-conversational style and his bucking against tradition no doubt contribute to his appeal. In the first episode, he establishes his aim: to get people to cut the mumbo-jumbo that always rises up around art and instead approach art directly, much like children.

Here it is:

The episode points out the ways in which photographic technology has changed the way we look at art—it has made it more accessible, but it can also manipulate. When a painting is reproduced in a textbook, for example, details may be cut out to force your focus somewhere, or arranged to form a narrative, or compared with other works, and words surround the painting that will influence your reading of it. If presented on film, camera movement and music also play a part. Berger gives examples using, among others, Pieter Bruegel’s The Procession to Calvary [14:03]; Vincent Van Gogh’s Wheatfield with Crows [16:12]; and Francisco Goya’s The Third of May 1808 [18:28].

He says,

The camera, by making the work of art transmittable, has multiplied its possible meanings and destroyed its unique original meaning. Have works of art gained anything by this? They have lost and gained.

Paintings (especially sacred ones) used to be an integral part of the buildings for which they were designed, says Berger, but now they are often experienced outside that context, rendering their meanings ambiguous. Of paintings in churches, he says, “Everything around the image is part of its meaning. Its uniqueness is part of the uniqueness of the single place where it is. Everything around it confirms and consolidates its meaning” [05:20]. He briefly addresses icons, which I know some Orthodox believers are averse to having displayed in museums, where they cannot even be touched and thus lose part of the function for which they were created.   Continue reading “John Berger on how to see”

ESSAY: “The Poetry of Jesus” by Edwin Markham

Edwin Markham (1852–1940) was a popular American literary figure during the first half of the twentieth century whose oeuvre fuses social justice concerns with religious faith. He gained international renown with his poem “The Man with the Hoe,” which, inspired by a Jean-François Millet painting of the same title, protests the plight of the exploited laborer. In addressing the issues of his day Markham looked to Jesus, who he considered an embodiment not only of peace, love, and other such virtues but of poetic genius as well. His essay “The Poetry of Jesus,” reprinted below, first appeared in the December 1905 issue of The Homiletic Review. Emphasis is mine.


Earth gives us hint and rumor of a divine beauty that broods above us, an ideal splendor that completes the real. To express that beauty is the perpetual aspiration of the poet. Poetry expresses this beauty in words; religion in deeds. So Jesus, as the supreme religious genius of the world, carried the vision of the poet—

The light that never was on sea or land,
The consecration and the poet’s dream.

This light is the light of the ideal; this consecration is the consecration to the service of humanity; and this dream is the dream of the social federation of the world. Toward these glorious finalities all religion labors and all poesy aspire.

Jesus, like every great poet, was stung with the pain of genius, the passion for perfection, the yearning for the ideal. No wonder, then, that He was “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” Out of the long collision between the is and the ought-to-be, between the world that exists and the world that awaits us in the future, springs that majestic sorrow, that noble reticence, that touches with its shadow all elevated and poetic natures.

Upon Greece came the passion for beauty, upon Palestine the passion for righteousness. Jesus carried both ideals in His heart, for He saw the glory of the lilies in the furrow and also the perfidy of the oppressors who walk over graves. He was moved not only by the beauty of holiness, but also by the holiness of beauty.

Jesus preached artistically as the true poet always preaches; He twined the truth with the beauty. For the most part He spoke in symbol, in parable, leaving His hearer to point the moral—leaving the truth to be inferred from the beauty. If His art-feeling seems meager and His insistence upon beauty scant, let us remember that He was forced to spend most of His priceless life in teaching a few of the primary principles of conduct. Still, in spite of all obstacles, the inborn poetry of His nature was continually breaking forth through the crevices of His conversation. His message was flung forth in telling metaphor, vivid simile, pointed parable—the chief machinery of the poet. He unsouled Himself in the poet’s way, because the poet’s way is the natural and spontaneous utterance of the heart.

Feeling ever the pity and terror of our existence—its sad perversity, its pathetic brevity, and its tremendous import—still His poet’s heart took loving note of the beauty and wonder never wholly lost from these gray roads of men. He did not fail to note the wayward wind that bloweth where it listeth, the red evening sky that means fair weather, the cloud out of the west that brings the shower, the tempest in the sea, and the calm that follows after the storm. Nor did He overlook the birds of the air that feed on the Father’s bounty in the open fields and lodge in the branches of the mustard-trees; nor the green grass that glories in the field to-day and to-morrow is cast into the oven.

He knew all these, and He knew also the homely aspects of the day’s work—the bottling of the new wine, the sifting of the wheat with fans, the digging of the fallen ox from the pit, the casting of the fish-nets into the sea. He saw the young virgins trimming the lamps, the bowed women grinding at the mill, the housewife hiding the leaven in the measure of meal, and the mother forgetting the pangs of labor in the joy over the new-born child.   Continue reading “ESSAY: “The Poetry of Jesus” by Edwin Markham”

Roundup: Controversial Eve painting, liturgy, protest, visualizing belief, and “Ya Hey”

“Mormon painting of a black Eve draws fire, but not for the reasons you might think” by Peggy Fletcher Stack, Salt Lake Tribune: Early this year a new painting of a seminude black Eve by Mormon artist J. Kirk Richards went on display at Writ & Vision gallery in Provo, Utah. While many Mormons have expressed how captivated and inspired they are by it, a few have insisted it’s wrong for a white man to depict a nude black woman because it conjures up collective memories of sexual brutality and enslavement. The article features some interesting perspectives by black Mormon feminists. In addition to the issue of racial representations (and I’ll just note, black figures are extremely rare in Mormon art), I’m intrigued by how Richards’s painting illustrates a distinctly Mormon view of the Fall, which differs from the orthodox Christian view—a fact he alludes to in his March 14 gallery talk.

Eve and the Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge by J. Kirk Richards
J. Kirk Richards (American, 1976–), Eve and the Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, 2016. Oil on panel.

“A Conversation about Creativity and the Liturgical Calendar,” panel discussion presented by Brehm Center and Fuller Studio: Moderator Edwin M. Willmington, composer-in-residence at Fuller Theological Seminary, talks with an all-star trio of creatives and liturgists comprising David Gungor of The Brilliance [00:50], on authenticity in songwriting and introducing liturgical practices to the evangelical church he attended; Todd E. Johnson [10:40], on the history, purpose, and major observances of the church calendar; and Lauralee Farrer [26:18], on discovering the Canonical Hours in a New Mexico desert and later developing them into characters for a film project. Questions: [34:02] How has liturgy shaped you? [36:20] Advice for artists on how to bring the church year to bear in their art? [37:11] Have you found that lament is generally embraced or resisted? [39:41] Advice for worship leaders?

“An Art Historical Perspective on the Baton Rouge Protest Photo that Went Viral” by An Xiao Mina and Ray Drainville, Hyperallergic: During a July 10 protest following the fatal killing of Alton Sterling, Reuters photographer Jonathan Bachman captured the moment of twenty-eight-year-old Ieshia L. Evans’s arrest. As heavily armored policemen pressed in, the other protestors dropped back, but Ieshia stood assuredly in the middle of the three-lane highway, prepared to be bound. This article lauds the strength of this image of confrontation by citing compositionally and thematically similar paintings, including Briton Riviere’s Daniel in the Lion’s Den and Giotto’s The Arrest of Christ, and other works of art.

Ieshia Evans arrest photo

Ieshia considers herself a vessel of God, eager to be used by him to bring justice and peace. Here’s what she wrote on her Facebook wall the night of her release from jail:

Ieshia Evans statement

“Things Unseen: Vision, Belief, and Experience in Illuminated Manuscripts”: Running through September 25 at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, this exhibition “explores the visual challenges artists faced as they sought to render miraculous encounters with the divine, grand visions of the end of time, the intricacies of belief, and the intimate communications of prayer.” It includes a September 15 talk, “How Do We Depict Religious Experiences?”—that is, how do we convey metaphysical essence in physical form? I appreciated the Getty’s blog post this week featuring a newly acquired choir book leaf that’s part of the exhibition. Curator Bryan C. Keene writes about the difficulties of identifying the illuminator and about discovering, through an examination of the back and a search on the Cantus database, that the illumination depicts the wiping of tears from saints’ eyes, not, as previously assumed, the healing of the blind.

Christ wiping the tears from the eyes of the saved
Initial A: Christ Wiping the Tears from the Eyes of the Saved, attributed to the Master of the Antiphonary of San Giovanni Fuorcivitas, ca. 1345–50. Tempera and gold leaf on parchment, 5 1/3 × 5 1/3 in. (13.5 × 13.5 cm). The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. 113, recto. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.

“Ya Hey” song cover by The Brilliance: Written by Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend, “Ya Hey” is a modern-day psalm that expresses frustration with God’s seeming unresponsiveness—to being spurned and being sought, to brokenness and suffering, to sin and struggle. The title is a play on the word Yahweh, the Hebrew name for God. The chorus references the burning bush of Exodus 3: “Through the fire and through the flames / You won’t even say your name / Only ‘I am that I am.’” The Brilliance’s acoustic cover of “Ya Hey” was released last month as a music video on YouTube featuring four New York City ballet dancers. It abandons the shrill vocoder and heavy percussion of the original song in favor of a softer, purer sound. Read the lyrics and an analysis at Sound: Interrupted.