Tuesday, August 20, 2019

J. Kirk Richards: Sacred Art in the Naturalistic Style

One heartening trend today is the growing number of young artists who are rejecting the ethos of our mainstream art schools, and choosing instead to learn to draw and paint in the classical naturalistic styles. We have moved from a situation 50 years ago in which there was barely anywhere still teaching traditional methods, to one today where there are many. In US cities today there are dozens - perhaps hundreds - of small independent ateliers offering training in what is called the academic method, which originated in the art academies of the High Renaissance period.

For Christians who are interested in contributing to an improvement in sacred art, the ability to draw and paint naturalistically with great skill is not enough. Christians must strike a balance between naturalism and idealism. They must modify naturalistic appearances by partial abstraction to reveal invisible truths. The Baroque masters, for example, used stylistic elements with great skill to suggest that a person has a soul, or that the beauty of creation points to a Creator.

Pope Pius XII summed up the necessary balance of naturalism and idealism in his 1947 encyclical, Mediator Dei (195). He uses the words “realism” and “symbolism” to denote what I refer to as naturalism and idealism, respectively.
Recent works of art which lend themselves to the materials of modern composition, should not be universally despised and rejected through prejudice. Modern art should be given free scope in the due and reverent service of the church and the sacred rites, provided that they preserve a correct balance between styles tending neither to extreme realism nor to excessive “symbolism,” and that the needs of the Christian community are taken into consideration rather than the particular taste or talent of the individual artist. Thus modern art will be able to join its voice to that wonderful choir of praise to which have contributed, in honor of the Catholic faith, the greatest artists throughout the centuries. 
It is not an easy task for artists to do this, even assuming they have the necessary drawing and painting skill. The tendency of those who try is to make the art too naturalistic on the one hand - which lacks a sense of the sacred; or to make it too abstract on the other - which creates bad expressionistic art.

Here is the approach to striking that balance taken by one contemporary art called J. Kirk Richards (h/t to reader Kathryn Cardenas, who is a highly skilled artist herself, for bringing his work to my notice).

First, here are examples of mundane art by the artist. His style in these reminds me of the work of Gustav Klimpt of the Vienna Successionist school from the turn of the last century.

Here are examples of his sacred art.
The Resurrection
The woman at the well
The commissioning of the women

The Nativity
Suffer the Children
Interestingly, Kirk is a Mormon. I do not know anything about the tradition of art in the Church of Latter-Day Saints and so cannot say if this is typical. Certainly, I think that Catholics should consider, at least, his approach. I am not suggesting necessarily that you adopt an identical form of idealization (I happen to like it very much), but I would say that you need some coherent departure from natural appearances if you are serious about creating sacred art for the Church today. 

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