Friday, June 20, 2014

Saint Wandrille and a Brief Note on Catholic Art Deco

As some of our readers may remember from days past, Art Deco, particularly in its more obscure ecclesiastical manifestations, is an area of particular interest to me. It frequently cropped up in our explorations of what Shawn Tribe and I termed "The Other Modern," as an example of how traditional styles could be pushed in new directions without losing their theological and symbolic integrity. An exploration of the movement's merits and problems is too large to attempt here, though arguments can be made that the period represents both the last of the great traditional styles, while at the same time being in some respects the first "modernistic" style, while not succumbing to the symbolic inarticulateness of Le Corbusier and his machine-aesthetic. I mean modernist in this case not in the theological sense but rather to refer to the early twentieth century design philosophy exemplified by Gropius, the abovementioned Corbu, and Mies van der Rohe, with its mock-primitivism, cold futurism, and obsession with empty space.

Art Deco, Art Nouveau, and the various "Other Moderns" show that there are ways to be modern without succumbing to modernism, and not to the exclusion of more traditional interpretations of styles such as Gothic or Romanesque, either. In any case, as we reverse-engineer many much more explicitly "modernistic" churches back to traditional art and architecture, such transitional styles become worthy of careful scrutiny. As anyone who has paged through copies of Liturgical Arts Quarterly, the work of the period can range from the stunningly beautiful and monastically refined to the rather outré and crude, so a certain degree of aesthetic discernment is required. There are nonetheless some absolute giants who did some stupendous work during that time, such as the brilliant Dom Bellot (not strictly art deco, but certainly influenced) and America's own Hildreth Meière, who is now beginning to get the attention she deserves. In any case, the style presents quite a few intelligent ways of creating a clarity of line and simplicity of form, inevitably necessary today due to budgetary requirements, without sacrificing beauty, elegance, and a sense of aesthetic wholeness. It may not be the only solution, but it offers food for thought.

I recently picked up a copy of the excellent A Time to Keep Silence, a slim volume by the great travel writer and adventurer Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915-2011) detailing his time at the abbey of Saint Wandrille, and was equally pleased to read this piece over at the Society of St. Hugh of Cluny detailing an exhibition of the abbey's Art Deco church plate. Sadly, few photographs accompany the article, but I pass it on to interested readers, as well as a link to the exhibition catalog. Stuart Chessman extracts the following from the book in his piece:

The first thirty years of the twentieth century were marked by a spectacular rise in conversions among intellectuals and artists. The best known is that of Claudel but there were others who would contribute to giving a particular impetus to sacred art, such as those of Henri Charlier, Max Jacob, Pierre Reverdy, Alex Rzewuski and finally Jacques Maritain. These were caught in a dilemma between a world of unbelief and anti-Christianity with which they nevertheless maintained ties and the Roman Church, which multiplied its warnings. Paul Claudel fought for the beautiful and manifested his alarm regarding the future of a religion, which would cut itself off from the tradition and the art, upon which its rites had been founded. The question of the beauty of rite thus was full of meaning for man and the writer shared this preoccupation. According to Pie Régamey, ”his intervention in the realm of Christian art is without a doubt the most decisive which took place between the two world wars.” He stigmatized the “ugly” gestures of devotion and didn’t hesitate to write: “For those who dare to look at them, modern churches have the interest and the pathos of a burdened confession. Their ugliness is the external manifestation of all our sins and defects.”
Stuart adds:
I wonder what Claudel would think now?

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: