What might the effect of seeing modern interpretations of New Testament material be firstly, to a 21st century audience and secondly, to an audience visiting Florence, the great centre of Renaissance religious art? Surprise? Disapproval? Bemusement? One might rightfully ask, do serious artists still paint or sculpt works based on Christian themes or biblical events? If so, can they ever be anything but ironic?
An intelligent and serious exhibition of late 19th century to mid 20th century Christian art is on display at the Strozzi Palace in Florence. It is brilliant. The curators, working with a half dozen themes, choose works that interrogate the theology, competing ideologies and aesthetic questions that captured the imaginations of a century of European artists. Paintings, sculptures, models of church decorations and a video displaying modern church architecture are assembled in dedicated rooms, each of which treats a separate theme or New Testament event. Artistic styles and interpretations of a single event vary, sometimes significantly, but all the juxtapositions produce largely positive responses.
Take Adolfo De Carolis’s Madonna, Praise be to You for the Light You Shed on Earth (1900) and Edvard Munch’s Madonna II (1895-1902). They couldn’t be more different: Carolis’s blond Madonna, angels and baby are decorated in gold leaf, draped in rose and beige tunics, and a gold brocaded blanket is suspended behind the holy couple. Ethereal, serene, saccharine sweet. Munch’s work comes from a completely different psychic place: his Christ child, foetus-like and unsettling, appears at the corner of the canvas looking at his mother, her eyes closed, nude, in a dream-state while all around her at the edge of the painting swim a dozen sperm. Who, then, is the Madonna? Is she a sexless embodiment of beauty and purity or a Freudian neurotic?
In the Crucifixion paintings, opposing styles and meaning are displayed, also to great effect.
Emilio Vedova’s Contemporary Crucifixion: Cycle of Protest no.4 (1953), while completely abstract, performs a kind of magic by transforming a beige canvas painted over with black vertical and diagonal strokes which occasionally intersect and smudge, particularly at the centre, where rough white lines also intersect, into a kind of crucifixion scene. The small smear of red paint at the foot of the “cross” is not accidental. In its way, this painting may suggest the “death to life” gift that Christians believe resulted from Christ’s Passion. It may also radicalize the meaning of the Passion, exhorting the viewer to “shout to action in this world” — Vedova did not dissociate art from politics. Perhaps Jesus was a revolutionary.
In the same room hangs White Crucifixion (1938) by Marc Chagall, a painting that art historians describe as a Jewish work of art despite the fact that the central figure is Jesus Christ. Jesus the Jew, depicted in prayer shawl and head cloth (note, not a loincloth and crown of thorns) is a martyr, a holy man but not the Christian redeemer. His hanging body is surrounded by scenes representing the persecution and flight of Jews from Eastern Europe between the two world wars. Is this the other side of the story, the original Abrahamic faith dialoguing with its two successors and world history?
Divine Beauty represents a positive trend in cultural studies, art history circles and curatorial practices: their new and bold efforts are helping us reinterpret form, function and meaning in art in the 21st century.