Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Contemporary Representational Sacred Art: Some Proposed Issues and Solutions (1 of 2)

[This article is part a collaborative venture between myself and David Clayton, artist-in-residence of Thomas More College in New Hampshire. It is the fruit of a conversation that occurred between David and myself in the past month or so in the course of discussing the topic of the revival of sacred art today. It will be comprised of two sections. The first section being my own thoughts on what I perceive as the issue and possible solution -- with my own examples -- followed by David's response and his own reflection on the matter -- which will be posted separately to keep the size down.

Some caveats:

Some terms being used here are being used in a "lay" capacity, rather than how they might be used technically within the terms of art history. I have attempted to define a couple of these at the bottom of this section.

The intent here is not to level any particular criticism of an individual artist or group of artists, nor to discourage any of our artists today; artists who often demonstrate extraordinarily great skill. Instead, our intent is rather to engage in a more general and principled proposal and consideration that might be helpful going forward.

The final caveat which I would make is that while the focus here is on contemporary representational sacred art, this is not to suggest that this matter is utterly absent from other periods. -- SRT]

Part I

by Shawn Tribe

Ever more frequently, we are witnessing various revivals in the realm of the sacred arts today, be it within architecture, textile work, composition, painting or so on. In these various domains we are seeing various classical* forms and styles being re-explored and used as inspiration in today's artistic pursuits and developments. What I wish to specifically focus on for the moment, however, is the domain of painting, and in that domain, specifically contemporary painting of a naturalistic, representational style -- which can of course include various stylistic expressions. (And let it be noted again that our concern here is specifically as this relates to sacred art.)

The reason for this very particular focus is simply that in this particular domain and in that particular idiom, one cannot help be struck by the fact that we see examples of work being done today which are more or less successful than others (which isn't to imply anything whatsoever about the skill of particular artists; quite the opposite in fact) -- either in relation to other contemporary examples, or certainly as it relates to a significant number of historical examples. One can see contemporary secular works of excellent naturalistic and representational skill which eminently show the skill of the artist and which produce rather realistic portraiture for instance, but when it comes to sacred art, somehow fall short, leaving us with a feeling of dissatisfaction, even discomfort. One can ask the question therefore, why does one succeed and the other not, and what marks the difference?

In approaching a possible answer I believe it is necessary to consult our tradition of sacred art and art generally. One possible conclusion at which I arrive, and which I wish to propose for consideration. is simply this: there can be an important difference between a secular approach to portraiture or figurative art and that of sacred art. Or perhaps one could say that sacred art is of a particular kind or manifestation of portraiture and figurative art. Whatever the case, generally speaking I believe naturalistic, or representational, art can have two forms or manifestations. One is more literally naturalistic or representational, intent on capturing the particular physical features and characteristics of the person or model in question; what matters in this instance a more literal realism.** (And in the contemporary era, one has the sense of this being particularly influenced by photographic imagery.) The second approach, in which I believe we would categorize sacred art, is also representational but by contrast does not so much aim for this type of realism or naturalism as it intends to convey something deeper, something slightly idealized and in a certain sense, something slightly more abstracted. It's intent is not so much to present an utterly realistic representation of a particular figure or person as it is to additionally represent an idea one might say; in a way, one might even say that it precisely avoids being too realistic, too naturalistic or too personal for this reason. In point of fact, we see this expression manifest not only in sacred art, but also in examples of secular art, such as some portraits of great state or historical figures for instance. (This is possibly a manifestation of secular art taking on the vocabulary of sacred art. Whether this is or is not the case, and, further, whether this is or is not desireable, are points worthy of discussion but beyond our purposes today.)

What I am surmising here is that in this latter approach there is an iconographic (or iconic) sort of representationalism; it is "realistic" but one which is tempered by an iconographic aspect or quality. While we tend to think of "iconography" in very particular, much more abstracted terms -- such as the case of Byzantine icons for instance -- I believe it is accurate to say that more representational forms of sacred art do have an iconic quality to them -- or should. The issue then, in my estimation, that lends to the dissatisfaction or discomfort we sometimes feel in the face of some sacred art of the contemporary-naturalist idiom, is related to the (probably unconscious) attempt to approach sacred art by means of the former manifestation rather than the latter. Accordingly, it approaches it more in a realist or naturalist form that, today, has something of a spontaneous photographic quality and lacks the iconographic quality that is arguably the language of sacred art, and further presents a kind of over-familiarity or undue level of intimacy with the subject.

By taking the former approach I believe that what one ends up with is the following. In the majority of instances -- historical saints before the modern media era -- we have a sense, not of coming into contact with the saintly or divine figures portrayed -- not only their "physical" presence but also as an incarnation of their particular (or generic) theological virtues or heavenly qualities -- but instead a sense of particular earthly actors dressed in the part (primarily the period clothing) of the figures depicted. To use the example of the Blessed Virgin Mary, by this approach, one can have a perfectly exquisite bit of portraiture, executed with immense skill, and yet have an experience less of coming into contact with the Blessed Virgin as the Theotokos, the immaculate ark of the new covenant, and more likely that of a person wearing the period clothing of the Blessed Virgin. In short, it is the experience one often seems to be faced with if watching a bit of theatre surrounding famous personages -- or for that matter, watching a famous person act the part of another person. One experiences people who are simply playing these parts, but one has trouble suspending disbelief and actually coming into some sense of contact with the sacred subjects which are intended to be represented. In that regard, one might say it becomes difficult to be raised above the earthly particularities in the same way that certain kinds of operatic liturgical music can hinder us from moving beyond the particular music and cantor and into the liturgy and liturgical worship itself. In the second instance -- that of contemporary saints from the 20th century -- this "theatre" or "actor" aspect is not necessarily present since the model is often the saint themselves, taken from photographs of which we are often already aware; in that regard, we clearly do recognize them as the saint themselves. The issue as it arises here seems to be more particularly tied to the stylistic, or photographic qualities already mentioned, or in other words, the manner in which the subject is approached -- which is also a part of the issue as it relates to historical saints it should be noted. By this, we are often presented with something of an overly familiar, informal, sentimental, even commercial quality that lacks the iconographic aspect that draws sacred art out from the solely worldly and into the heavenly.

In our approach to a contemporary, representational, sacred art then, I would propose that it seems that it may be important to more consciously move away from the particular human model; from a specific concern with particular naturalism or realism, and instead to a representationalism that bears this iconographic aspect more consciously in mind -- not to mention our tradition of sacred art. In so doing, we are less likely to be kept grounded here on earth and more likely to be brought into contact with the sacred subject and, ultimately, inspired, uplifted and led toward God.

Stylistic Examples

The following examples, coming in the context of secular forms of portraiture, may help to illustrate the stylistic difference I am speaking to further and should be considered as it can apply to sacred art.

Secular Portrait in a More Idealized Style

Emperor Franz I of Austria in his Coronation Robes, by Friedrich von Amerling, 1832
(This is an example of a state portrait which takes on the more idealized qualities that are particularly found in the tradition of sacred art. One is presented here not only with a particular monarch, but also the generic idea of the monarch and what one might term monarchical qualities that go beyond the everyday.)

Two Examples of Secular Portraits in the More Contemporary Realist Style

(These two examples show forth the emphasis on a strongly naturalistic and realistic approach which works perfectly fine for secular portraiture of course, but which when applied to sacred art, seem to present us with the difficulties described above. To clarify, this is not simply due to the lack of formal posturing.)


* This is used not strictly in the sense that "classicism" can be used, but more broadly in the sense of traditional forms and expressions of various periods of sacred art history.

** I am not using "realism" here in the technical sense of the "Realist" school of art, but simply to speak about an unqualified, non-idealized form of representation.

In Part II, David Clayton, artist-in-residence at Thomas More College, will respond to these considerations with his own.

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