Roundup: Too much religion; the single story; fore-edge paintings; choral evensong; and more

EXHIBITION REVIEW: “Overstating the religious?” by Christopher Knight, Los Angeles Times: Michael Wright brought to my attention an old review of the 2003 LACMA exhibition “The Circle of Bliss: Buddhist Meditational Art,” in which art critic Christopher Knight harshly faults the curators for using religion as the organizing principle . . . of an exhibition of religious art. He says it’s “bizarre” and “inappropriate” that

traditional artistic concerns of art museum exhibitions – style, historical context, connoisseurship, artist biography, etc. – play no part in [the objects’] presentation. Instead, LACMA’s galleries unfold as the articulation and embodiment of a religious philosophy. . . . You will leave this exhibition having not a clue who these artists were . . . and how (or if) their imagery evolved. Instead, the reason for the art’s inclusion is to instruct us in various aspects of the embodiment of perfect compassion – that is, to provide experience with critical theological nuances of “the Middle Way.”

Mandala of the Buddhist Deity Chakrasamvara
Mandala of the Buddhist deity Chakrasamvara, Nepal, 1490. Mineral pigments on cotton cloth, 46 × 34 5/8 in. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, California.

The review itself struck me as bizarre—that Knight decries the exhibition’s focus on the religious meaning of these Tantric paintings, which he considers secondary to their aesthetic qualities and altogether outside the purview of an art institution to comment on. I was glad to see that several readers responded in letters, such as Andy Serrano, who wrote that “up until recent centuries, people did not make art for art’s sake. People who made religious art made it in order to enhance the religious experience in one way or another. Separating religious art without the context of religion is like trying to swim without getting wet.” Phil Cooke chimed in, “The fact that Knight sees no legitimate connection between art and the religious faith that inspired it is at once outrageous and yet sadly typical of current critical assumptions.” [HT: Still Life]

A decade and a half after this exhibition closed, I’ve observed that curators, critics, and art historians oftentimes still struggle to discern or articulate (or else they simply neglect) the theological content and/or devotional purposes of religious art, as they preoccupy themselves instead with the “traditional artistic concerns” Knight mentions. But I do feel that the situation is improving overall, with wider-spread recognition that evaluating certain works of art through the primary lens of religion—if that’s the context in and for which they were created—is not only permissible but essential.

+++

TED TALK: “The Danger of a Single Story” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: The single story, says Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, is when one story (about a person, place, or ethnicity) becomes the only story, creating stereotypes, or a flattened perspective. Adichie admits to having had a single story of her household servant growing up (“poverty”), and later on, of Mexicans (“the abject immigrant”). Many Americans have a single story of Africa. But the problem is, we are all formed by many stories, no single one more definitive than another—and we need to talk about them all. [HT: Sarah Quezada]

+++

ESSAY: “And God Said to Pastors: Use More Sermon Puns and Plan More Parties” by W. David O. Taylor, Christianity Today: Taylor gives three reasons to practice levity and humor in public worship, quoting Augustine, Chesterton, Lewis, Barth, Capon, Buechner, Ratzinger, and Eugene Peterson along the way. I especially like his first point about grace and hyper-abundance.

+++

ESSAY: “In Defense of Owning Too Many Books” by Daniel Melvill Jones, The Curator: I relate to this author’s tottering stacks of books throughout his house—having exhausted my shelf space, I also have them in closets, hutches, and chests. I’m a bibliophile, what can I say. Probably about a third of the books in my personal library I haven’t read yet, which, I affirm with Daniel M. Jones, is both humbling and tantalizing, a “promise of ideas to explore.”

Potential is not in the books you’ve read but in those that remain unread. Therefore, you ought to expand the rows of what you do not know as much as your resources allow, and expect them to keep growing as you get older and accumulate more knowledge.

The books you surround yourself with “will feed [your] life and output in unseen ways.” So stock up!

+++

FORE-EDGE PAINTINGS: The Boston Public Library has one of the world’s finest collections of fore-edge paintings, an art form originating around the tenth century but popularized in the eighteenth, utilizing as a surface the edge of a book opposite its spine. Over time, the content of these paintings evolved from decorative or heraldic designs to landscapes and narrative scenes, like these two from volumes 1 and 2 of a Bible printed in Edinburgh in 1803. [HT: Public Domain Review]

Annunciation (fore-edge painting)
The Annunciation after Fra Lippo Lippi, painted on the fore-edge of a Bible (vol. 1 of 2) printed in Edinburgh in 1803. Collection of Boston Public Library.
Last Supper (fore-edge painting)
The Last Supper after Leonardo da Vinci, painted on the fore-edge of a Bible (vol. 2 of 2) printed in Edinburgh in 1803. Collection of Boston Public Library.

Great Big Story recently featured contemporary fore-edge painter Martin Frost, who specializes in the vanishing variety. Cool!

+++

MUSIC DOCUMENTARY: “Elizabeth I’s Battle for God’s Music,” presented by Lucy Worsley: Aired in October 2017 on BBC Four, this hourlong program presents a history of choral evensong, the Protestant church service of music and prayer born out of the English Reformation and still performed today. Worsley moves through the Tudor monarchs, discussing their relationship to sacred music—from Henry VIII, who broke away from the Catholic Church but didn’t want to abandon the Latin mass, and who thus hired Thomas Tallis to compose in a more austere style in which the words of the liturgy could be more easily understood; to his son Edward VI, who, in his dislike of elaborate music, ordered the disbanding of choirs and the destruction of organs, but also supported the creation of the first complete English prayer-book (Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer) and John Marbeck’s musical guide to it; to Mary I, who returned England to Catholicism, with its high-church music, all in Latin; and finally Elizabeth I, a moderate Protestant whose compromising spirit led to the reinstatement of English evensong but with much leeway given as to how it is set, whether in monophony, homophony, or polyphony. Elizabeth’s patronage and legal protections of church music made possible the glorious compositions of, among others, William Byrd, and ensured the survival of choral evensong. [HT: Global Christian Worship]

Choral evensong is a continuing tradition, and Worsley concludes by highlighting its new possibilities, such as the Oxford Blues Service by Roderick Williams. Listen to an excerpt on the SoundCloud player below.

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.

+++

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]

+++

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.

+++

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.

+++

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.

+++

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”).

Album Review: Last Days by the Brothers of Abriem Harp

Released in 2015, the album Last Days by the Brothers of Abriem Harp features twelve original indie-folk songs for Holy Week that tell the story of Christ’s passion, from the thundering voice of the Father affirming the Son but also presaging judgment, to the glorification of Christ in the Resurrection. One of its major draws is its quiet, understated conveyance of the week’s drama through several different voices: Jesus, of course, but also Mary, Peter, Judas, and other unnamed disciples who reflect on the events they witness, especially in light of their past histories with Christ.

Last Days album cover

Approaching Jesus’s last days primarily through the lens of story—plot, character, mood, etc.—rather than the lens of doctrine makes the listening experience more immersive. That’s not to say theology is absent from the album; it’s very much there. But it is not heavy-handed or abstruse, and neither is it reduced to clichés.

The songs are written and sung by Joe Kurtz (pseudonym: Abriem Harp) and Josh Compton (Josh Harp), with Matt Kurtz (Matthew Harp) on percussion and John Finley (Hezekiah Harp) playing many of the other instruments. On the band’s Facebook page they describe themselves as “Gospel-shoutin’ melody makers from the Rust Belt,” and among their musical influences are field recordings, the Sacred Harp tradition, and mountain music.

In the video below, the Brothers have set the entire album to altered footage from Vie et Passion du Christ (Life and Passion of the Christ), a forty-four-minute silent film released in France in 1903. The album is also available for streaming and purchase at https://harpfamilyrecordings.bandcamp.com/album/last-days.

Here’s a rundown of the songs.

1. “Glorify”

 

A voice arose, a voice arose
A voice arose, a voice
It sounded like thunder, pounded like thunder (×4)

It said, “I’ve glorified it, and again I’ll glorify it”
Yeah, “I’ve glorified it, and again I’ll glorify it” (×3)

This is an unconventional starting point for the passion narrative, which typically begins with Christ’s entry into Jerusalem. Instead, the Brothers have chosen a lesser-known episode from John’s Gospel, which occurs just after the triumphal entry—and what a beautiful passage to highlight. (I actually was not familiar with the references in the song and had to look them up—a great example of how the arts can stimulate renewed engagement with the Bible!)

“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. . . .

“Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.”

Then a voice came from heaven: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd that stood there and heard it said that it had thundered. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.”

Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die.

John 12:23–24, 27–33

“It’s time.” That’s essentially what Jesus is saying. And then in the middle of this discourse with the disciples, Jesus gets real with the Father. “I’m scared! But what can I do? This is my destiny; I can’t avoid it.” And then, his words of acceptance, of surrender: “Father, glorify your name.” It’s unclear whether this prayer was audible to the disciples or was expressed merely internally. Whatever the case, the Father’s response was heard by all—though some attributed it to natural phenomena, or to an angel.

As this passage clarifies, the “it” in the song is the Father’s name: God says that he has glorified it in the past, and he will glorify it again, when Christ is lifted up for the salvation of the world.

John uses the words glory and glorified a lot in his Gospel, especially in relation to Christ’s passion. In John 13:31, after the Last Supper, where Jesus has just identified Judas as his future betrayer, Jesus says, “Now is the Son of man glorified, and God is glorified in him.” Later that night, in Gethsemane, Jesus prays, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you. . . . I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed” (John 17:1, 4–5).

The opening song on Last Days, therefore, though just three allusive lines, repeated, is packed with meaning, much of it concentrated in that dense word glorify, a word that orients the whole album. Much like the opening sequence of a movie sets the movie’s tone and hints at what you’re in for, so do opening songs on albums, and this one is somewhat portentous, leaving us wondering, “How will God’s name be glorified?”; it also gives the Father a speaking role and thus situates him as a main character in the story.   Continue reading “Album Review: Last Days by the Brothers of Abriem Harp”

Jesus comes to Singapore: The New Testament imagery of Eugene Soh

In 2010 Eugene Soh was enrolled in Nanyang Technological University’s School of Art, Design, and Media, on track to becoming a game programmer, when Campus magazine, aware of his photography hobby, asked him if he’d like to contribute a centerfold to an upcoming issue. He said yes but, after combing through his photos, realized he had nothing great to offer—he’d have to shoot something new, something epic. He chose to restage Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper at Maxwell Road Hawker Centre (a “hawker center,” or kopitiam, is what Singaporeans call their open-air food courts), using vendors as models for Christ and his disciples.

The Last Kopitiam by Eugene Soh
Eugene Soh (Singaporean, 1987–), The Last Kopitiam, 2010. Photograph, 140 × 230 cm.

The photo was published but went without much notice until two years later in 2012, when it went viral online. Galleries started contacting him to do shows, not realizing that The Last Kopitiam was a one-off thing. Soh decided to finish out his concentration in interactive media, graduating in 2013, and then to pursue fine art photography as a career.

Encouraged by the interest in his Leonardo adaptation, Soh translated more Western art masterpieces into a contemporary Singaporean idiom, among them the Mona Lisa (renamed Moh Lee Sha), The School of Athens (Food for Thought), The Birth of Venus (Arrival of Venus), Saturn Devouring His Son (Saturn Devouring His Naan), A Sunday on La Grande Jatte (Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Singapore), Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 (Arrangement in Grey, Black and Yellow), and American Gothic (Singapore Gothic).

His Creation of Ah Dam, after Michelangelo’s famous Sistine Chapel ceiling fresco, shows a wet-market grocer transferring the spark of life to “Ah Dam” via carrot.

Creation of Ah Dam by Eugene Soh
Eugene Soh (Singaporean, 1987–), Creation of Ah Dam, 2015. Photograph, 80 × 120 cm.

It is Soh’s process, as demonstrated in these photos, to shoot his human subjects separately and then stitch them together digitally to create a single composite image. The hawkers in The Last Kopitiam, for example, couldn’t all get away from their stalls at the same time, so this sort of cut-and-paste manipulation was born out of necessity. At first Soh was resistant to using Photoshop in this way, thinking of it as “cheating,” but he quickly became convinced of its legitimacy and artistic potential.

Earlier this year Soh developed a new series called The Second Coming, which reenvisions the life of Christ on Singaporean soil (much like David LaChapelle did, for America, in his 2003 series Jesus Is My Homeboy). Mounted as a solo show in February and March at Chan Hampe Galleries, The Second Coming draws on familiar devotional image types, like the Madonna and Child, the Crucifixion, and the Pietà, as well as invents some new ones, like Jesus answering his cell (Hold Up, Dad’s Calling) or helping one of his hosts prepare dinner (What’s Cooking, Jesus?).

In Happy Birthday & Merry Christmas, Jesus, Jesus blows out the candles on his cake. The mise-en-scène includes a foam crown, maracas, and an umbrella drink.

Happy Birthday & Merry Christmas, Jesus by Eugene Soh
Eugene Soh (Singaporean, 1987–), Happy Birthday & Merry Christmas, Jesus, 2016. Photograph, 140 × 140 cm.

In contrast, the mood of The Last Christmas is gloom and doom. According to the artist, Jesus has just announced that he is going to destroy the world, putting a damper on the birthday festivities (though one attendee chooses to make light of the news). Staged like a Last Supper, this imagined scene takes place immediately preceding Armageddon. It’s everyone’s last Christmas. Continue reading “Jesus comes to Singapore: The New Testament imagery of Eugene Soh”

Praying with pretzels

The salty, twisted treats that we call pretzels have their origin, it is thought, in a seventh-century European monastery—according to lore, either in southern France, northern Italy, or Germany. Allegedly a monk invented them by shaping scraps of leftover bread dough to resemble arms crossed in prayer over the chest. (Think upside-down pretzel.)

During the Middle Ages the church’s fasting requirements for Lent were stricter than they are today, forbidding the intake of all nonaquatic animal by-products, including eggs, lard, milk, and butter. Because pretzels could be made with a simple recipe that avoided these banned ingredients, they soon became associated with the season.

Lady Lent with pretzels
Detail from The Battle between Carnival and Lent by Pieter Bruegel, 1559, showing the gaunt Lady Lent (a man cross-dressed as a nun) riding a cart bearing traditional Lenten fare: pretzels, waffles, and mussels. He holds, like a lance, a baker’s peel topped with two herring.

The pretzel’s Lenten link, not to mention its popularity as a year-round snack both inside and outside monastic communities, led artists to sometimes paint pretzels into Last Supper images.

Pretzel at the Last Supper
The Last Supper, from a bishop’s benedictional made in Bavaria, Germany, ca. 1030–40. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles: MS Ludwig VII 1, fol. 38.

Continue reading “Praying with pretzels”