Roundup: Sacred poetry, “Shifting the Gaze,” the Birchwood Painters, new films, and more

TGC ARTICLE: “18 Paintings Christians Should See”: The Gospel Coalition Arts & Culture editor Brett McCracken has rounded up fourteen arts professionals to each choose an artistically and theologically significant painting and write about it in 200 words or less—and I’m one of them! I chose Caravaggio’s The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, which shows that famous encounter between the “doubting” disciple and the risen Christ. Here Thomas literally puts his finger on the flesh-and-blood reality of the resurrection, and you can see the marvel in his face.

Caravaggio_Incredulity of Thomas
Caravaggio (Italian, 1571–1610), The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, 1601–2. Oil on canvas, 107 × 146 cm (42 × 57 in.). Sanssouci Picture Gallery, Potsdam, Germany.

Other selections in the article range from medieval manuscript illuminations and Dutch Golden Age portraits to pop art and abstract minimalism. You might recognize the names of some of the contributors whom I’ve featured before on Art & Theology, like Jonathan A. Anderson, Matthew J. Milliner, W. David O. Taylor, and Terry Glaspey—they have all been influential to me. I’m very encouraged to see this major evangelical website engaging with visual art.

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POEMS: “Featured Poet: Laurie Klein”: In this post from Abbey of the Arts, poet Laurie Klein introduces herself, discussing the sacred themes in her work and her approach to writing poetry, as well as sharing three of her poems: “How to Live Like a Backyard Psalmist,” “I Dream You Ask, But Where Do I Start,” and “Poem for Epiphany.” All three are wonderfully evocative, and I’m definitely going to check out her collection, Where the Sky Opens. The first poem references St. Kevin of Glendalough, a sixth-century Celtic monk whose hand outstretched in prayer once became a nesting place for a blackbird. The poem is about how to live a life of joy, wonder, and praise, and it begins,

Wear shoes with soles like meringue
and pale blue stitching so that
every day you feel ten years old.
Befriend what crawls.

Drink rain, hatless, laughing.

Sit on your heels before anything plush
or vaguely kinetic:
hazel-green kneelers of moss
waving their little parcels
of spores, on hair-trigger stems.

[Read more]

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ARTISTS GROUP AT BIRCHWOOD: The Birchwood Painters, founded in 2009, is a group of painters with disabilities who live at Birchwood care home in Chesham, Buckinghamshire, in England, exhibiting locally and in an annual art show at Birchwood. One of the members is Mark Urwin, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. Mark loves studying art history, especially the impressionists. Landscapes are his favorite genre to paint, but he also interprets religious works by the Old Masters—like Simone Martini and Lippo Memmi’s Annunciation, or Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper—in his own semiabstract style, using bright swaths of color. In 2016 Mark gave a lecture on his work at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.

Urwin, Mark_Annunciation (after Martini)
Mark Urwin (British), Annunciation (after Martini and Memmi), 2013. Painting on canvas, 30 × 25 cm.
Urwin, Mark_Last Supper (after Leonardo)
Mark Urwin (British), Last Supper (after Leonardo), 2013. Painting on canvas, 25 × 75 cm.

Mark uses an easel that was specially designed for him by DEMAND (Design and Manufacture for Disability) to enable greater freedom and control in his creations. Whereas before, an art class volunteer had to hold Mark’s canvas, making certain angles to paint more awkward, the DEMAND easel improves canvas access, as the canvas can be positioned in any orientation to Mark, with the bulk of his electric wheelchair no longer posing a problem. Furthermore, he can keep his talk board on his lap so that he doesn’t lose his voice while painting.

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EXHIBITION-IN-PROGRESS: “Exhibition to Examine Balthazar, a Black African King in Medieval and Renaissance European Art”: “Early medieval written legends report that one of the three kings who paid homage to the Christ Child in Bethlehem was from Africa. But it would take nearly 1,000 years for European artists to begin representing Balthazar, the youngest of the three kings, as a black man. Why? . . .

“Delving into the Getty’s collections, we are at work on the exhibition Balthazar: A Black African King in Medieval and Renaissance Art (November 19, 2019–February 17, 2020). We are examining how Balthazar’s depiction coincided with and was furthered by the rise of the slave trade—and we invite your input to inform the exhibition. What questions or ideas do you have about this topic? What stories or themes would you like to see explored? We are eager to incorporate your views into our process.”

Balthazar detail
Detail of The Adoration of the Magi from a French Book of Hours (Ms. 48, fol. 59) showing the magus Balthazar (right), ca. 1480–90, by Georges Trubert. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

In this post from the Getty’s blog, The Iris, in addition to finding out how to relay feedback, learn about who the Magi were, what tradition says about them, and the development of Balthazar’s image over time.

(Further reading: “Carol of the Brown King” by Langston Hughes)

I appreciate the Getty’s efforts to be more inclusive in the visual histories they highlight and to solicit input from the general public to assist them in this task. They did the same for their 2018 exhibition Outcasts: Prejudice and Persecution in the Medieval World.

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TED TALK / LIVE PAINTING: “Can Art Amend History?” by Titus Kaphar: American artist Titus Kaphar reconfigures historical artworks—through cutting, bending, overpainting, stitching, tarring, and tearing—to include African American subjects. In this thirteen-minute presentation before a live audience, Kaphar opens by sharing the words his young son spoke upon seeing the famous equestrian statue outside the Natural History Museum in Manhattan, which has Teddy Roosevelt up high on a horse, flanked by a Native American and an African lower down, on foot—which can easily be read as establishing a racial hierarchy.

Kaphar goes on to discuss some of his own encounters with Western art history and his mission to bring black figures out of the shadows of that tradition. He demonstrates this with a reproduction of Family Group in a Landscape by the Dutch master Frans Hals, which shows a wealthy white family of four with their young black servant.* More has been written, Kaphar laments, about the lace the wife is wearing and the dog at the right of the picture than about the black youth who stares straight out at us. This claim did surprise me somewhat—and then I visited the museum website, only to find that their six-paragraph description of the painting doesn’t mention the boy at all! By strategically applying white paint across this canvas, Kaphar forces us to “shift our gaze” and to notice the one who has typically gone unnoticed.

* “Were Those Black ‘Servants’ in Dutch Old Master Paintings Actually Slaves?”

Teddy Roosevelt equestrian statue
James Earle Fraser (American, 1876–1953), Equestrian Statue of Theodore Roosevelt, 1939. Bronze, 300 × 218 × 450 cm (10 × 7 1/6 × 14 3/4 ft.). Museum of Natural History, New York.
Kaphar, Titus_Shifting the Gaze
Titus Kaphar (American, 1976–), Shifting the Gaze, 2017. Oil on canvas, 210.8 × 262.3 cm (83 × 103 1/4 in.). Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York.

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IN THEATERS: Currently showing in theaters are two historical drama films featuring main characters whose work (in art and in activism) was famously inspired by their Christian faith: Tolkien, about the author of Lord of the Rings, and The Best of Enemies, about civil rights leader Ann Atwater from Durham, North Carolina. Both movies have received lukewarm to not-so-great critical reviews but fairly high audience ratings, and I intend to see them. I found out about the latter one through Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, one of the mentees of “Grandma Ann,” who prepared a group study guide to accompany the film.

Also in theaters, with rave reviews all around, is Amazing Grace, a documentary about the creation of Aretha Franklin’s best-selling gospel album of the same title, recorded over two nights in 1972 at New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. The footage was recently unearthed and reassembled after almost fifty years. The resultant film has been called “wonderfully intimate,” “a raw, sensory, reverent experience,” “a transcendent joy,” “the new gold standard of filmed music concerts,” and “one of the finest music documentaries ever.”

It’s been interesting to hear secular reviewers expressing how moved they were by the film, a film that is prayer (e.g., “Precious Lord, Take My Hand”), proclamation and praise (“God Will Take Care of You”), testimony (“Amazing Grace,” “How I Got Over”), and invitation (“Give Yourself to Jesus”).

Roundup: Imagination; inclusive dance; art theft; singing through divorce; and more

JOHN PIPER ON IMAGINATION: “Obey God with Your Creativity: The Christian Duty of Imagination”: Within evangelicalism (the tradition I belong to), the imagination is often deemed more of a liability than a virtue, something to be distrusted, at the very least, and at most, to be rejected as evil. So I was thrilled earlier this month to hear John Piper, one of America’s leading evangelicals, speak out in strong affirmation of imagination, which he calls “one of the great duties of the Christian mind.” It can be used destructively, he cautions, but it’s a God-given capacity that God wants us to exercise and strengthen, like a muscle, so that we can see more clearly what is and what could or what will be.

“The imagination,” Piper writes, “calls up new words, new images, new analogies, new metaphors, new illustrations, new connections to say old, glorious truth—whether from the world or from the word of God. Imagination is the faculty of the mind that God has given us to make the communication of his beauty beautiful.” To communicate breathtaking truth in a boring way is “probably a sin,” he says, for God is “infinitely worthy of ever-new verbal, musical, and visual expressions.”

“A college—or a church, or a family—which is committed to the supremacy of God in the life of the mind will cultivate many fertile, and a few great, imaginations. And oh, how the world needs God-besotted minds that can say the great things of God and sing the great things of God and play the great things of God in ways that have never been said or sung or played before.”

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Wheelchair dancing (Infinite Flow)

INCLUSIVE DANCE: Founded by Marisa Hamamoto in 2015, Infinite Flow is a professional dance company and nonprofit whose mission is “to use dance as a vehicle to create an inclusive world and eliminate the stigma and inequality associated with disability,” especially wheelchair use. Artistic excellence, social innovation, empowerment, community, and integration are among its values, which are played out through dance classes, workshops, and outreach events that incorporate people with and without disabilities. You can view snippets from classes and rehearsals as well as polished, artfully filmed choreographed routines on their Facebook page—like this most recent one, in which Hamamoto dances with Piotr Iwanicki, a multiple wheelchair World Latin Champion.

After twenty years of training in ballet and contemporary dance, Hamamoto suffered a spinal cord infarction, which left her temporarily paralyzed from the neck down. Upon recovery, she developed an interest in and pursued ballroom dancing, which led her to imagine what an inclusive form of the genre might look like. To learn more about Infinite Flow, see these two promo videos, and follow them on Facebook. You’ll also want to check out “Gravity.”

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PODCAST: Speaking with Joy: Lately I’ve been devouring this podcast by Joy Clarkson, a doctoral candidate at the Institute for Theology, Imagination, and the Arts at St. Andrew’s University in Scotland (she’s studying the role of the affections and the arts in moral formation). Though it was launched last November, I first discovered it in July at the tail-end of her summer book series on The Great Divorce, an allegorical tale by C. S. Lewis, in which she discusses themes such as desire, grace, the real, incurvatus in se (St. Augustine), self-choice, being seen and known, and need-love versus gift-love. I was hooked! Now I’m a Patreon supporter.

Speaking with Joy

Speaking with Joy is such a bright corner of the Internet, full of hope, wisdom, and delight. The standard episode format is an exploration of a given theme through three pieces of art: one literary, one visual, and one musical. I really enjoyed the last three I listened to: “The Army of Emotions,” featuring St. Macrina, Mister Rogers’s ditty “What Do You Do with the Mad That You Feel?,” and the Irish animated film The Song of the Sea; “The Wisdom of Whimsy,” featuring Manalive by G. K. Chesterton, the illustrations of Beatrix Potter and Breezy Brookshire, and “On the Radio” by singer-songwriter Regina Spektor; and “Decent Men in Indecent Times,” which explores why and how we tell stories of the two world wars by looking at the contrasting poetry of Wilfred Owen and Laurence Binyon, the movie Dunkirk, and John Williams’s score for Schindler’s List.

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NEW IMAGE STAFF: Last week Image journal announced that James K. A. Smith, a professor of philosophy at Calvin College, will be taking the helm of Image as the journal’s new editor in chief. What a perfect choice! I’ve been hearing a lot of Smith since the publication of his book You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit in 2016 and have appreciated his recognition of the important role of artists. “If you want to change how the world thinks, you first have to change how they imagine,” he once said. “That’s why, today, artists are our apologists.” More recently, in a letter to the Image search committee, he wrote,

The arts speak to aspects of human nature ignored or denied by a culture captivated by brutal notions of “efficiency” or quasi-scientific narratives that reduce us to animality. It’s in literature, poetry, film, and so many other art forms that we hear echoes of a biblical understanding of humanity—that we are created in God’s image, animated by hungers and hopes, made to delight and play. In other words, the arts are evidence of what I’ve called “cracks in the secular”—the recalcitrant mystery at the heart of the human that refuses to be eviscerated. Art continues to shout Nein! to our disenchantment.

I’m looking forward to this next chapter of Image.

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ART HEIST: “Police back on the trail of ‘world’s most wanted’ stolen Caravaggio painting”: On October 15, nearly fifty years after Caravaggio’s Nativity with San Lorenzo and San Francesco was stolen from the Oratory of San Lorenzo in Palermo, Sicily, experts met at the Vatican to discuss reinstating an active search. Speculation of mafia collusion and espionage have circulated around the case, which ranks second on the FBI’s list of top ten unsolved art crimes.

Nativity by Caravaggio
Caravaggio (Italian, 1571–1610), Nativity with San Lorenzo and San Francesco, 1609. Oil on canvas. The angel’s banderole reads, “Gloria in eccelsis Deo.”

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NEW ALBUM: Yesterday Moda Spira (the stage name of Latifah Alattas) released Divorce, an intimate musical chronicle of the unexpected end of her marriage and the journey of grief she’s been on since. “I hope it helps those of you that might feel alienated or lost in the throes of divorce or disconnection from someone you love,” she says. In response to a request, Alattas released a series of podcast episodes that discuss each song on the album in depth; listen here. I first learned about the project back in July when Stephen Roach interviewed Alattas on the Makers & Mystics podcast—such a rich and memorable conversation that deepened my empathy for the loved ones of mine who have had to endure the pain of divorce.

Below is a video promo Alattas made for the album’s Kickstarter campaign. Click here to view the variety of streaming and purchase options.

Roundup: “Art as Mission,” Ken Myers on culture care, Quadri Plastici, heavy-metal hymn, cultural liturgies

— “Translate: Art as Mission” symposium, February 25, 9 a.m.–3:30 p.m.: This Saturday, Third Church of Richmond, Virginia, is bringing together twenty practitioners, advocates, and theorists of the arts as front-line missions (both local and abroad) for a series of presentations and discussions that is free and open to the public. “Our aim is to demonstrate that ‘art as mission’ is not about using people and objects merely as ‘tools’ for missions or proselytization, but is about recognizing that generative, creative practices can and should be intrinsically, inherently ‘missional’ because they put on display and draw people towards the rich, abundant life we were made to experience and have together as God’s children, renewed as the Body of Christ. Together we’ll explore how the arts are a distinctively integrative, incarnational way to be human, and to bear the image of our creator God.” Click on the link to see the schedule and to find out more about the speakers.

“Charged with the Grandeur of God: Faithful Imaginations in a Meaningful Creation” lecture, February 25, 7–9 p.m.: Also on Saturday, Ken Myers, founder and host of Mars Hill Audio and author of All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes: Christians and Popular Culture, will be speaking at Wallace Presbyterian Church in College Park, Maryland, on how alert imaginations enable us to receive the meaning in Creation and to rearticulate Creation’s meaning in works of art. A former arts and humanities editor for NPR, Myers writes of the mission of Mars Hill’s bimonthly “audio journal”: “We explore the various factors that have given modern Western culture its distinctive character. We also try to describe what cultural life — its practices, beliefs, and artifacts — might look like if it was the product of thoughtful Christian imaginations.” Each issue features guests from a variety of disciplines (poets, visual artists, scientists, philosophers, musicians and musicologists, social commentators, etc.); you can listen to back issues here, and read a 2013 profile on Myers from the Weekly Standard here. This event is sponsored by the Eliot Society, a new nonprofit in Washington, DC, that aims to “draw Christian faith and artistic culture back together, by promoting the thoughtful exploration of the work of creative men and women from both the past and the present.” Click here to RSVP.

— Last season’s Italia’s Got Talent featured a group called Quadri Plastici (“Living Paintings,” or “Tableaux”), which uses actors in period costumes and special lighting effects to recreate famous religious paintings in the flesh. According to the group’s website, the tradition of staging live reproductions of paintings originated in Avigliano in southern Italy in the 1920s: the participants, frozen in position, would be rolled into the town square on mule-drawn carts as part of the celebration of Saint Vitus’s feast day on June 15. In their television performance last year, Quadri Plastici recreated three Caravaggio paintings: The Crucifixion of Saint Peter, The Calling of Saint Matthew, and The Death of the Virgin. Gabriele Finaldi, director of London’s National Gallery, was impressed, and he commissioned the group to perform two of the paintings from the museum’s “Beyond Caravaggio” exhibition in October: The Taking of Christ and Salome Receives the Head of John the Baptist. To better engage the public, these stagings took place outside in Trafalgar Square.

— Through Paul Neeley’s Global Christian Worship blog, I discovered a gem of a song: a heavy-metal arrangement of the nineteenth-century Swedish hymn “Bred dina vida vingar” (Thy Holy Wings) by the Finnish worship band Metallmässa (Metal Mass). Unlike its marginal status in most countries, heavy metal music is mainstream in Finland, which has the most heavy metal bands per capita in the world. “Metal masses”—church services performed in a heavy-metal style—became a trend in 2006; into this current stepped the group Metallmässa, whose lead singer, Christer Romberg, was a contestant on the 2007 Finnish Idols. Their headbanging rendition of “Bred dina vida vingar,” performed in the music video below, is from their 2012 EP Sanctus. The words are by Lina Sandell, “the Fanny Crosby of Sweden”; the tune—which I think is just beautiful (and quite catchy!)—is a traditional Swedish folk tune. Metallmässa is no longer active, but Romberg can be found performing a cappella with his four siblings as part of Vokalgruppen Romberg.

— Recently I enjoyed listening online to James K. A. Smith’s lecture “A Postmodern Saint? Augustine in France,” given at Wheaton College on August 31, 2016. Because I’m interested in how culture shapes our longings (in particular, visual culture), the bit that starts at 19:57 jumped out at me:

Augustine is a remarkable exegete of cultural liturgies that beset us—the rites and rituals of ambition, consumption, privilege, that aren’t just things that we do but do things to us. The frat house, the football stadium, the rituals of Wall Street finance—these are quasi-religious sites in late modern culture, not because they purvey a message but because they are incubators of love that are rife with rituals that train and direct our hearts and our desires. And conversion is no magical panacea for that; belief doesn’t inoculate our loves from their immersion in those cultural liturgies. So we need to constantly take stock of the formation of our loves and longings, all the subtle ways that secular liturgies bend our desires toward earth rather than heaven.

Consider, too, the act of looking as a cultural liturgy: at our phones and computer screens; at the staged displays in store windows, and the staged photos on social media; at the thirty-second commercial the network forces us to watch before we get back to our show, or the billboard we can’t help but notice when we’re stuck in traffic. Sometime around the year 600, Pope Gregory I insightfully wrote that pictures teach us what to adore, what to imitate. What pictures do you see throughout the day? Is Christ one of them?

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”