Roundup: Merton on art; psalms of ascent; Oscar-nominated “Loving Vincent”; and more

BOOK EXCERPT: “Reality, Art, and Prayer” by Thomas Merton: In this excerpt from No Man Is an Island (1955), Merton talks about “aesthetic formation,” about how “music and art and poetry attune the soul to God”—art that doesn’t perform that function, he says, isn’t worthy of the name! Some might think that the spiritual solution to overstimulated senses (so many images, so much noise) is to close our eyes and ears. But that’s not necessarily so, as Merton explains: “The first step in the interior life, nowadays, is not, as some might imagine, learning not to see and taste and hear and feel things. On the contrary, what we must do is begin by unlearning our wrong ways of seeing, tasting, feeling, and so forth, and acquire a few of the right ones.” Yes! This is what I was trying to get at in my essay “Disciplining our eyes with holy images.”

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KICKSTARTER CAMPAIGN: Songs for the Sojourn by Bellwether Arts: The same liturgical arts initiative that brought you this Advent/Christmas package is now poised to release  a set of songs, visual art, and prose devotions inspired by the Bible’s “psalms of ascent,” which were likely sung by Jewish pilgrims as they ascended the road to Jerusalem for their three major annual festivals. At the head of the project is Bruce Benedict, founder of Cardiphonia, who in 2010 received a grant from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship to commission songwriters and visual artists to help his congregation explore, through their respective disciplines, these fifteen psalms (read his application here). The project was so enriching to those involved that he recently decided to expand it to include even more songwriters, painters, and writers—the fruits of which are being made available to the public as a double-disc album, songbook, and art-filled devotional book.

While the songs have been recorded, Bellwether needs your help to finance the mixing, mastering, and disc pressing and the printing of the other two products, as well as to pay the new artists involved. Pledging money in exchange for a reward (essentially, placing a preorder) is a tangible way to support the project. Visit their Kickstarter page for more information or to make a pledge. Campaign ends March 23.

Help Higher Than the Hills by Aaron Collier
Help Higher Than the Hills (Psalm 123) by Aaron Collier. Photo courtesy Bellwether Arts/Cardiphonia.
Psalm 133 by Kyle Ragsdale
Psalm 133 by Kyle Ragsdale. Photo courtesy Bellwether Arts/Cardiphonia.

(For other artistic responses to Psalm 133, see this artful devotion featuring the Psalter Project and a William Walker mural, and the poem “Aaron’s Beard” by Eugene Peterson.)

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SONG: “Refuse the Bait” by Liturgical Folk: Fr. Nelson Koscheski, Ryan Flanigan, and David Moffitt wrote this song last year about Christ overcoming Satan’s temptations in the wilderness. I’m always blessed by these men’s collaborations. To stay apprised of their latest, follow Liturgical Folk on Facebook, and see also https://liturgicalfolk.bandcamp.com/.

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POEM CYCLE: “A Small Psalter” by Pádraig J. Daly: I really love this contribution in the current issue of Image journal—twenty-two modern-day psalms by Irish poet-priest Pádraig J. Daly. Like the biblical psalms, these poems express a range of emotions and postures before God, from sorrow and frustration to joy and awe. Here’s #12:

We are numbed, Lord, by number;
But you, being Other, know
Each single form that kneels at night,
Each heart enchanted by a meadow;
And hear our joys and heed our sighs.
And all we have and are, as we come naked here—
The very self of us!—
Comes from no thing in us
But from you, who make in us an emptiness
That you alone suffice.

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FILM: Loving Vincent, dir. Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman: The Oscars are the only occasion of the year that I watch live TV, and I’m really looking forward to the show this Sunday. One of the nominations for Best Animated Feature is the world’s first fully oil-painted feature film, Loving Vincent, a biographical drama about the mysterious Vincent van Gogh. While most reviewers say the narrative content is forgettable, they hail the film’s innovative production methods and visual achievement as nothing short of amazing. Funded by Kickstarter, a team of 125 classically trained artists from various countries painted 65,000 frames in the style of the Dutch master (many of the final canvas paintings were exhibited at the Noordbrabants Museum last year), and actors were cast who had a physical resemblance to van Gogh’s portrait subjects (e.g., Chris O’Dowd as Postman Roulin!). To view the paintings and learn more about the filmmaking process, visit LovingVincent.com, and see the trailer below.

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VISUAL MEDITATION: “Behold the Broken, the Bruised” by Victoria Emily Jones: Speaking of van Gogh . . . Last week I wrote a reflection for ArtWay on the mixed-media sculpture After Van Gogh by Mad River Wiyot artist Rick Bartow (1946–2016). The primal wail of the figure expresses the artist’s psychological wounds, as a person with PTSD, and the communal wounds of his people, as well as invokes the famously troubled postimpressionist of its title. To me it also evokes Jesus’s cry of dereliction on the cross: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

After Van Gogh by Rick Bartow
Rick Bartow (Wiyot, 1946–2016), After Van Gogh, 1992. Lead, wood, nails, crab claw, copper, and acrylic, 23 × 12 × 7 in. Private collection. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

Also, I’ve been writing Lenten art reflections for GiftofLent.org, one for each Monday of the season (through March 25). This week’s is on Kris Martin’s Altar, a steel replica of the Ghent Altarpiece framework, installed on a Belgian beach. Click on the link to read more.

Altar by Kris Martin
Kris Martin (Dutch, 1972–), Altar, 2014. Steel, 17′4″ × 17′3″ × 6′7″. Temporary installation in Ostend, Belgium.

Interacting with artworks online: A few new(ish) resources

The global push to make art more accessible to the public has led to some impressive digital creations in the past year. The following are ones I’ve really enjoyed exploring, some released as recently as this month. They all focus on a particular artwork or era or (in the case of the Jewish art database) faith tradition. I will cover the more all-encompassing digital art initiatives/databases and commendable museum websites in a future series of posts, where I will give them more individualized attention. Some of the creations below represent single projects within those broader initiatives.

“The Audacity of Christian Art”: Written and presented by Dr. Chloë Reddaway, this series of seven short films looks at paintings from the (London) National Gallery’s Renaissance collection and explores some ingenious artistic responses to the challenge of painting Christ.

As curator of art and religion at the museum, Reddaway’s role is to understand more about the paintings’ religious content and context. (Her main academic background is theology.) She also lectures for the MA in Christianity and the Arts at King’s College London. I love how she defines her primary research interest: “visual theology, especially the recovery of historic works of art as a resource for contemporary theology.”

The trailer for “The Audacity of Christian Art” is below, followed by links to all seven episodes. All are shot in ultra-high resolution and feature stunning details.

Episode 1: “The Problem with Christ”
Episode 2: “Christ Is Not Like a Snail: Signs and Symbols”
Episode 3: “Putting God in His Place: Here, Everywhere, and Nowhere”
Episode 4: “Time and Eternity: Yesterday, Today, and Always”
Episode 5: “This World and the Next: Christ on Earth, Christ in Heaven”
Episode 6: “So Near and Yet So Far: Visions and Thresholds”
Episode 7: “Unspeakable Images: When Words Fail”

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The Census at Bethlehem by Pieter Bruegel: “Online exhibitions” are something I’ve seen more and more of recently—that is, the presentation of artworks in a digital rather than physical space, using tools unique to that medium to enhance the viewing experience. Last year Google Arts and Culture launched one in conjunction with the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, centered around Pieter Bruegel’s The Census at Bethlehem (1566), which sets Mary and Joseph’s census registration within the hustle and bustle of a Brabant village. The interface guides you through a sequence of bite-size commentaries, sometimes presented as text alongside an image detail, sometimes as a short video. What makes it an “exhibition” is that other works are shown alongside it to locate it within a larger tradition of Netherlandish painting. One frame, for example, shows how Bruegel furthered the innovative “alla prima” technique introduced by Hieronymus Bosch.

Census at Bethlehem by Pieter Bruegel
Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Dutch, 1525/30–1569), The Census at Bethlehem, 1566. Oil on panel, 116 × 164.5 cm (46 × 64.8 in.). Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels.

I studied this painting in college (through slides and textbook reproductions) but have never seen it in this much detail and am now all the more in awe of it. Bruegel’s paintings, which almost always depict a flurry of activity, lend themselves particularly well to this viewing format: it’s helpful to be guided through the various vignettes, each one a window into sixteenth-century Dutch life. Up close, you can see kids blowing up pig-bladder balloons and running across the ice pushing cow jaws they got from the butcher; you can see adults patronizing a tavern in the hollow of a tree, called “In De Swaen”; and much more.

Census at Bethlehem (detail)

Census at Bethlehem detail

Census at Bethlehem detail

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“Jheronimus Bosch, the Garden of Earthly Delights”: Created in 2016 by a thirty-four-person team, this “interactive documentary” provides an in-depth audiovisual tour though the Dutch artist’s most famous—and, arguably, most bizarre—painting. The interior of the triptych shows, in the central panel, life before the Flood—a depraved orgy in which humans cavort shamelessly with a whole host of beastly creatures conjured from the artist’s imagination.   Continue reading “Interacting with artworks online: A few new(ish) resources”