Page 6, 12th June 1953

12th June 1953
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Page 6, 12th June 1953 — Unrelieved grief is almost a pagan conception
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Unrelieved grief is almost a pagan conception

By

Fr. CONRAD PEPLER, O.P. THE two recent articles in THE CATHOLIC HERALD on "Art as a Means to Worship" have shown that there exists a sharp cleavage between the Christian faith and modern art which cannot seemingly be bridged either by the genuine faith of the artist or by the artistic aspirations of the priest.

Fr. Crichton has claimed that until the modern artist forgets that his art is an end in itself and is ready to turn it into a means of worship there is little chance of a

living art in our churches.

Mr. Reytiens, from the layman's point of view, stresses the lack of understanding shown by many of the clergy in respect to the men who are anxious to make their churches and their church furnishings. Both are agreed that the separation has been effected and both from differing points of view are seeking a reconciliation.

The exhibition of "The Christian Theme in Contemporary Art," now showing in Park Lane, reveals this divorce between the Christian revelation and the living art of today more forcibly than any words. The paintings, sculpture and stained glass designed for the modern church by our young artists there represented show that the work coming from the studios today is not lacking in vital-, ity; it reveals a sense of rhythm, form and colour that has perhaps not existed for some time.

The men who make these things are alive and aware of the possibilities of their own medium. Though many of them show a considerable skill, they are not merely technicians; they bring inspiration to their technique.

But, in spite of all their enthusiasm, that inspiration is not Christian. The general movement that underlies the making of things is no longer a Christian movement.

Unknown Bible

Ithe ages of faith men thought land lived in terms of the Bible and the liturgy, Even until quite recently, as was shown in a leading article in the Times Literary Supplement last December, the English language and poetry was moulded by the biblical cadences learnt at school and university. And before the Reformation the craftsmen were very largely employed in making works of art for the Church.

But today they do not know the words of the Bible and they are. for ever making secular furnishings, secular figures and pictures.

For long the Church has depended for its supplies of ecclesiastical commodities upon specialised and commercialised church decorators; the individual artist has not as a rule been encouraged to work for such firms. Nor indeed has he had the inclination so to work. His mind has been set on other.things.

Colour is Dark

NOW'when a contemporary artist is asked to undertake a work which must embody the Christian theme, he has to search about outside himself for some sort of inspiration. That is to say, this particular inspiration no longer comes to him from within or from the social atmosphere in which he lives.

The Christian theme stands outside

his normal existence. He selects and chooses what seems most suitable to himself from a vast mass'of material which comes to him as belonging to the past. He spotlights a particular aspect of the Faith far more selfconsciously than when he selects a theme for the building or furnishing of a block of flats or a municipal centre. It seems that he has to think up something in an elaborate and cerebral manner.

Naturally what he concocts will be something that seems to connect with his own experience; and it is strange that his own private experience of his religion should be still so remote from his artistic experience.

Here, in the exhibition, the overriding colour is dark, hues of purple

and deep blue merging into murkiness

which contrasts occasionally with somc pallid human face.

The theme is almost unrelieved agony and the sorrow of Christ's sufferings. Quite a proportion of the pictures show Our Lord carrying the cross. Sometimes Christ appears under the cross as a Negro to give the contemporary touch; but it is always the same pain. One picture of the Nativity shines with brilliant light— out in the desert where sun and sand vie with one another to dazzle the beholder; but even here the mushroom cloud of the atom bomb rises in the background.

A Sign of Joy

Ts this the Christian theme? Surely

it is a one-sided selection of a single point in the story of the Redemption?

When the Gospel ran in men's blood the crucifix was a sign of joy, Christ reigning from its height in peace, breathing forth the hope of the good news of the new life, The agony of Christ was to bring meaning to our own grief.

But here is grief and pain unalloyed, almost a pagan conception of the tragedy of the cross.

These artists have certainly spotted something real in modern life, and it has come through their work with a vividness which showi that we have once again true artists in our midst.

But what they have, spotted is the absence of Christianity. not its presence.

This is the grim, hard gloom of the "Christianity" that arose from the decay of the ages of Faith, when by the 15th century the crucifix was made a writhing facsimile of human misery. But that is not the Christian theme of joy and redemption in Christ.

Liturgy Absent

WHAT is so astonishing is the lack of the living symbolism of the Church.

Fr. Crichton asked that there should be a return to an appreciation of the liturgy among those who make things for the Church. And surely he is right there. But they need not be merely an appreciation of certain costumes and actions that are seen surrounding the Christian altar in the apparently restricted view of Mr. Reytiens. The sense of the liturgy is absent in its widest connotation—that of the whole worship of the Christian, who is living and praying all the day long as another Christ.

The contemporary artist, as I say. may be a very good Christian, but he does not appear to have the sense of the Mystery of Christ, the mystery of Christ in His body and in the Scriptures that feed the imagination as well as the intellect of man.

These artists see Christianity merely as a cerebral thing. a system; and all they can draw out of that system is agony and death, not life.

In the earlier ages of the Church, stress was laid upon the "spiritual sense" of the Gospel and of the Church's worship. The spiritual sense

revealed the living meaning of what the words conveyed. Rut for long the spiritual sense has been buried beneath the literalism of man's reason divorced from his poetic sense.

The Living Word

THE Christian theme in reality is full of the great living symbols that have appeared from the most primitive times in every religion that took account of God's nature, but which have been perfected by the two testaments of the revelation of God's Truth, David Jones's Anathemata shows us that.

Yet when people first began to try to re-establish the liturgy in its true fulness of poetry and dogma they hardly realised the nature of the great stream that they had tapped.

It is only in the last few years with the encouragement of great theological encyclicals on the Mystical Body, the Bible, the Liturgy, that theologians have begun to return to the source of that stream and to find their theology in the living Word of God rather than in the ratiocinations of man.

it is, then, little wonder that the Christian artist still tries to work on the other plane where the truth is argued and defended, for that is still the only conscious plane for the majority of men. Christianity has for too long been an object of "interest" and discussion.

An Invitation

T"Egreat work of re-introducing Christians to the Mystery of Christ-on-earth has yet to be done. We are only just beginning to recover from a three-century silence on the doctrine of the Mystical Body.

But now the Christian artist should he brought to relish the poetry of the living Word of God. to enter once more into the treasures of the Faith and bring forth things of beauty both new and old.

What is surely required is for the priest and theologian to meet and talk and pray together as well as live together for a while. In this way perhaps the meaning behind the stereotyped words like "liturgy" or "Mystical Body" might begin to emerge from the misconceptions into which they have fallen.

With this sort of meeting in view. therefore, it is hoped to institute a series of "weeks" when priest and

artist can live togethsr. And the spot selected is Spode House, which is situated in the heart of England next door to a Dominican Priory where the liturgy proceeds as a matter of course.

Under a common roof, sharing a common table both sacred and domestic, with the prayer of the Mass as the centre of the day, it should he possible to rescue the discussions from running into merely interesting topics and occasion for wit and brilliance; they could he kept close to the earth.

Double Purpose

AS it would be difficult to deal with all the arts at once, it has been suggested that there be weeks on Theology and Music, 'theology and Painting, Sculpture, Writing and the rest. Then at the end as many as possible of the various artists could be brought together in one General Week. As Mr. Reytiens says, the work of reintegration will take years, and these meetings could perhaps continue as regular features of the Christian life today in England.

It can only be through meetings of some such nature as this described that the cross purposes of the modem artist and the modern Christian "consumer" can he overcome. And since the whole Church is concerned in this matter these meetings should not be reserved *exclusively for clergy and artist.

We have been told in these articles that there is a great need to educate the normal man in his tastes. It is very doubtful that such an artificial way of reviving inspiration and appreciation can be at all effective; but the presence of the ordinary Christian at such meetings would serve the double purpose of giving him the grounds for entering into the full Christian life of art and morals and of keeping the discussions on a realistic basis.

Should anyone he interested in this proposal they might write to Spode House, Hawkesyard Priory, Rugeley, Staffs.




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