Roundup: New acquisitions; prison psalms; “Sacred Noise”; the spiritual in contemporary art

ACQUISITION: Self-Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria by Artemisia Gentileschi, National Gallery, London: This month the National Gallery in London announced its acquisition of a self-portrait by Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi posed as the fourth-century Christian martyr Catherine of Alexandria. For centuries it has been in the private collection of a French family, hidden from public view; now it is undergoing restoration and framing before being permanently hung in 2019 alongside other Baroque masters like Caravaggio.

Self-Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria by Artemisia Gentileschi
Artemisia Gentileschi (Italian, 1593–1653), Self-Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria, ca. 1615–17. Oil on canvas, 71.1 × 71.1 cm (28 × 28 in.). National Gallery, London.

Gentileschi is best known for her dramatic paintings of strong female heroines, biblical and extrabiblical, and this painting is no exception. In her left hand she holds a spiked wheel, a torture device used on St. Catherine, and in the right she holds a palm branch, symbol of victory through martyrdom. The painting has biographical resonance, as just a few years earlier, when she was eighteen, Gentileschi was raped by one of her father’s artist colleagues, Agostino Tassi. During the highly publicized trial in 1612, she was subjected to a thumbscrew-like torture called the sibille to test the veracity of her testimony. Although Tassi was convicted, his sentence of five years of exile from Rome was not enforced, and he continued painting frescoes for Pope Paul V. To learn more about the challenges and successes Gentileschi faced as a female artist in the seventeenth century, see Jonathan Jones’s recent Guardian article.

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ACQUISITION: Rothschild Pentateuch, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles: “This is the most spectacular medieval Hebrew manuscript that’s come to market in over a century,” says Getty Museum Director Timothy Potts of the Rothschild Pentateuch, a thirteenth-century illuminated manuscript that the museum acquired last month—its first Jewish manuscript, consisting of the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The extent and vibrancy of the illuminations, which feature fantastical beasts, humanoid figures, temple accoutrements, and foliate designs, set the manuscript apart from other Jewish Bibles, which are typically image-lite. Starting next month, the Rothschild Pentateuch will be featured in a small Getty exhibition, “Art of Three Faiths: A Torah, a Bible, and a Qur’an,” on view from August 7 through February 3, 2019.

Menorah of the Tabernacle
Menorah of the Tabernacle (Book of Leviticus) from the Rothschild Pentateuch, France and/or Germany, 1296. Leaf: 27.5 × 21 cm (10 7/8 × 8 1/4 in.). Ms. 116 (2018.43), fol. 226v. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

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BLOG SERIES: “Monasticism in Lockdown America” by Chris Hoke, Good Letters: In this nine-part series, prison chaplain Chris Hoke, author of Wanted: A Spiritual Pursuit through Jail, Among Outlaws, and Across Borders (HarperOne, 2015), shares conversations and encounters he’s had with men whose lives are marked by gangs, addiction, violence, and mental illness. He encourages the newly sentenced to use prison as a spiritual retreat center, a monastery, reminding them that “some men choose to live out their days in all-male places wearing the same clothing, eating plain food, growing out their beards, leaving the ‘normal’ world behind, and spending much of their time in rooms called cells, walking deeper into the mystery of God’s heart.” And Hoke walks with them. I am impressed by his ability to reveal the depths of Christian theology in contextually appropriate ways, and to stoke enthusiasm for spiritual practice—praying, reading, fasting. Some of the teachings that have resonated with prisoners are on the darkened mind and the image of God. Revelations abound for both parties.

Christ the Prisoner by Nikolai Tsai
Icon by Nikolai Tsai

My favorite installments are the last two, on the Psalms, a book that Hoke describes as “the mess of our shared condition, in all its forms, being welcomed into God.” Like many contemporary rap lyrics, the Psalms express uncensored emotion, not, necessarily, good, clean theology. And yet they are part of the church’s sacred tradition. “What’s in you? What’s your psalm?” Hoke asks. One of the responses, by a juvenile detainee, made me cry.

Part 1: Cloister
Part 2: Prostration
Part 3: Exercises
Part 4: Asceticism
Part 5: Holy Elders
Part 6: Icons
Part 7: Holy Fool
Part 8: Psalms in the Beginning
Part 9: Psalms, in the End

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EXHIBITION: “Sacred Noise,” June 25–July 21, 2018, Christie’s London (8 King St., St. James’s): I didn’t realize Christie’s auction house also mounts exhibitions! Curated by Cristian Albu, “Sacred Noise” aims to show the impact of the European legacy of Christian painting on postwar and contemporary artists. Each room is anchored by an Old Master painting. For example, a Crucifixion by Francisco de Zurbarán is displayed alongside Marlene Dumas’s Magdalena (one of the biblical characters in the Crucifixion scene) and Gerhard Richter’s Candle (picturing what would have been the Crucifixion’s original illumination source). I love this staged conversation between works and periods! A beautifully designed, 183-page catalog is available for free viewing and download.

I will say that “Modern Art and the Death of God,” the subtitle the catalog’s main essay and of the trailer, is misleading in that it seems to promote a one-sided narrative of modern art history. It appears that the exhibition does try to subvert the notion that God is absent from modern art (and this is just a case of poor titling), but I can’t say for sure, since I haven’t seen it; I have only the catalog and trailer to go on. Religious traditions were indeed “offset” in many ways by twentieth-century artists, some of whom were atheist but others of whom were devoutly Christian. One can still challenge tradition from a place of faith, and of course people of no faith can “open new interpretive horizons” that we would do well to consider. Jonathan Evens, who did see the show, says in some places it lacks nuanced readings of artists and their work; he also reminds us that a different selection of canonical artists would tell a different story, one of how Christianity can weather quite well (and has) the storms of the modern era.

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NEW BOOK + LECTURE: “Encountering the Spiritual in Contemporary Art” by Leesa Fanning: Dr. Leesa Fanning is Curator of Contemporary Art at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, and this week a new major book she edited, Encountering the Spiritual Contemporary Art, was released by Yale University Press. While books have been published before on the topic, this one

significantly broadens the scope of previous studies to include new media and non-Western and Indigenous art (in addition to that of the West), presents art from diverse cultures with equal status, promotes cultural specificity, and moves beyond notions of “center and periphery,” celebrating the plurality and global nature of contemporary art today.

On June 7 Fanning gave a fifty-minute talk introducing some of the themes and artworks covered in the book. I’m sometimes turned off by discourse about vague, amorphous “spirituality,” but I found myself grabbed the whole way through. Though doctrinal specificity is avoided, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and various indigenous belief systems are represented, and as with the book, the reach is unprecedentedly global. Below the video is a breakdown of the artworks Fanning discusses.

I. SOURCES OF INSPIRATION
Johanna Bresnick and Michael Cloud Hirschfeld, From Mouth to Mouth
Bill Viola, Ascension
Anselm Kiefer, Maria
Thomas Struth, San Zaccaria
Y. Z. Kami, Daya’s Hands; White Dome IV; Konya
Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, Ordibebesht (Convertible Series)
Yelimane Fall, Ocean of Generosity
Jim Chuchu, Pagans XII
Mariko Mori, Tom Na H-iu
Abie Loy Kemarre, Bush Hen Dreaming A12933
Maringka Baker, Ngura Kamanti
Kathleen Petyarr, Mountain Devil Lizard Dreaming—Winter Storm
David Ruben Piqtoukun, Bear in shamanic transformation
Monty Claw, We Pray for Rain
Christi Belcourt, Water Song
Calvin Hunt, Thunderbird Mask and Regalia
Marianne Nicolson, The House of Ghosts
Aaron Taylor Kuffner, Gamelatron Empat Bunga (4 Flowers)

II. ARTIST’S BODY AS SIGNIFIER OF SPIRITUAL CONTENT
Kimsooja, A Needle Woman—Kitakyushu
Anselm Kiefer, Falling Stars
Ana Mendieta, Corazón de Roca con Sangre (Rock Heart with Blood)
Marina Abramović, The Artist Is Present
James Lee Byars, Autobiography alla veneziana; The Holy Ghost

III. MATERIALS/FORM/COLOR
James Lee Byars, Is; The Chair for the Philosophy of Question; The Rose Table of Perfect
Mierle Ukeles and Stephen Handel, I’m Talking to You: A Scent Garden
Sonam Dolma, My Father’s Death
Natvar Bhavsar, KETAK
Anish Kapoor, Shelter
Martin Puryear, A Distant Place
Anish Kapoor, Ascension

IV. ART MAKING AS SPIRITUAL PROCESS
Spinifex Women’s Collective, Minyma Tjuta
Meghann O’Brien, Sky Blanket
Lonnie Vigil, Jar
Shirazeh Houshiary, Echo
Wolfgang Laib, Pollen from Hazelnut; Milkstone; Ziggurat

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