Page 7, 2nd December 1955

2nd December 1955
Page 7
Page 7, 2nd December 1955 — It seems as if the tradition of modern Western painting

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It seems as if the tradition of modern Western painting

has beeome at least temporarily sabater,led in a burst of experiment


By Lawrence Toynbee WHEN you search for Christmas cards this year you will probably discover that not only is it extremely difficult to find any which have any real connection with Christmas as the greatest feast of the year, but also that those which have a suitable subject tend to be either sentimental, or coy. or banal, or simply ugly. Probably, if you are interested in painting, you will eventually buy cards which are reproductions

of pictures by old masters, and give up the search for contem. porary designs altogether.

Similarly. if you visit picture galleries you will find very few modern religious paintings. In the National Gallery almost all the satisfactory religious paintings are over 400 years old. In the Tate Gallery, where the works are much more recent, there are hardly any religious ones. And if you visit the exhibitions of contemporary paintings and sculpture in the private galleries in London the absense of religious pictures .is most marked.


CATHOLIC churches in country are almost this cou a by-word for ugliness and over-elaborate and repulsive decoration, with sentimental

and meaningless statues, crude

ow Stations of the s, and Sta

Cross which fail completely

to express the momentous importance of their subject.

The most beautiful English churches and cathedrals have been Anglican since the Reformation; the Catholic ones have mostly been built during the last 100 years.

Of course, generalisations of this sort are dangerous, and 1 well know that examples could he quoted which would appear in certain cases to contradict what I have said, but I believe that very few people who are, at all interested in such matters would disagree with me.

Many Christians feel that the present lack of good religious art is extremely serious, and many people are, and have been, trying to make good this lack in various ways and with varying success. One can call to mind a few examples: Eric Gill, Maurice Denis and his followers, and more recently the experiments of Fr. Couturier in commissioning contemporary artists such as Leger and Lurcat to decorate a new church in the French Alps.

But I do not feel that any of these has been entirely successful or given birth to a new and strong school of religious painting.

It is important, I think. to consider some of the reasons for the great difficulties which face the contemporary painter of religious pictures.


TT seems clear that one of the most important reasons is the contemporary decline in religious practice. An artist of any sort is bound by his environment. He cannot alter the date of his birth, the work and the opinions of his contemporaries, his race. nor in most cases even his country.

He may react against his environment or he may embrace it enthusiastically, but he cannot ignore it or escape from it. and to *t.5C.2C.2%Ctr

try to do either of these things is to cut himself off from his raw material and starve himself as a painter.

So the artist working to-day, however fervent a Christian he may be, is going to find it far more difficult to paint satisfactory religious subjects than would a far less fervent man or even a sceptic working in an entirely religious community.

When the windows of Chartres were made, and when Giotto painted the Scrovegni Chapel at Padua, and when Fla Angelico decorated the cells and corridors of the convent of San Marco in Florence, the environment in which the artists lived and worked was Christian, "[he Church was the greatest patron of the arts and at any rate up to the 14th century, painting and carving were regarded as basically religious activities, and almost all art was religious in content and feeling. Everyone accepted the importance of spiritual things and religious works of art were part of normal life and needed no special explanation.


N". however, the painter or sculptor has to introduce any religious work most carefully. It is no longer part of normal life. There is no traditional idiom in which express himself fully he can expr and yet be understood by everybody.

So the tendency Is to turn hack towards some tradition of the past, of a different environment, which is no longer alive for the artist, and which leads to the statues, cards and pictures of the Catholic repository, or to try and adapt some contemporary idiom to express things which it was never intended to express.

suspect, In that lies, I suct, the partial failure of Mr. Graham Sutherland's Crucifixion at Northampton. viewed at any rate as a religious painting.


IT would be as well here to make the point that to regard some work specifically as religious art is different from regarding it purely as art. To be successful it must not only be a considerable work of art in its own right but also an expression of intense religious feeling; an act of worship by the artist which can he convey:d to and shared in by those who see the picture or statue.

There have been many great works of art with religious subject matter which when regarded from this particular viewpoint cannot be considered very satisfactory— as I write this I think of some of the enormous paintings by Ruhens at Brussels.

The converse cannot really happen.

Bad art conveys little or nothing. and however great the religious intensity of the artist, unless he expresses himself with the clarity of real art, his feelings will remain private.

If, then, contemporary materialkm makes it difficult to express intensity of religious feeling naturally in paintings or sculpture, so too does the contemporary crisis in art make it difficult to paint pictures or carve statues which are in themselves good art.

The old masters learned their trade in the workshops of other more mature artists, and there

they not only learned the technical side of their calling but also imbibed the tradition of their time.

This tradition was a live one, altering and developing as new creative figures left their impact on it, but nonetheless a continuous thread running through and connecting the work of different artists in spite of the various revolutions and changes of thought which broke into it from time to time and changed its direction.


THEHE work of our own can only be seen at such close quarters that it is impossible to make categorical statements about it as a whole, but all the same it seems as if great the gre tradition of modern Western painting has become at any rate temporarily submerged in a somewhat uncontrolled burst of experiment and search for new ideas and new sensations.

So the young artist to-day has little to cling to to guide him during his very immature years, little on which to base himself as he starts to venture out to make his own discoveries.

The advice he receives is vio

lently contradictory. ranging from the reactionary assertions of some who talk with more verve and conviction than they paint, to a recent appraisal of a contemporary painter in which it was stated that to be non-representational was to him an achievement in itself (though in fairness it must he stated that this was not a general advice .to all artists).

Meanwhile. the young painters, bewildered and excited, try to express themselves in some new and exciting way, often ignoring even the need to learn the basic means of self-expression in the art they practise. This artistic uncertainty. a reflection presumably of the general insecurity of the world, does not provide a very good climate for the making of great works of art. least of all those whose whole approach and purpose is contrary to the environment in which the painters find themselves.


WHILE it may be comparatively simple to state one's requirements in a art, an

religious work of ad even to suggest reasons why these

mnt notably

lacking are so

requirements lacking in works done during the last few generations, it is,

of course, far more difficult to be constructive and to suggest how the difficulties could be overcome.

As a painter myself I have so far found them insurmountable. The avant-garde painting of our day is too divorced from subject matter to be of much help. The Pre-Raphaelites and some contemporaries who have tried to adopt the methods of the primitives attempted to turn back the clock and the similarities they achieved with' their models were only superficial.

The retirement of some artists from normal life—the denial of our environment because it is distasteful—leads to a highly unsatisfactory, lifeless and selfconscious product. The selfstyled traditional painters, whose connection with the great tradition is in fact superficial, arc too dead to deal with anything except glossy portraits.


THE hope lies in works like Mr. Henry Moorc's Madonna and Mr. Sutherland's Crucifixion at Northampton, or Mr. Stanley Spencer's " Resurrection in Macedonia" at the Burghclere Memorial Chapel. None of these may he entirely satisfactory (that is asking a great deal, and I have already quoted Mr. Sutherland's picture as, in part. a failure) but it is in their intensity and their use of modern methods of expression, controlled and strengthened by traditional ideas, that one must look for the modern renaissance that is so desperately needed in the field of religious art. It should not be too much to hope that, building on the start already made by such artists as these, there might not grow up a new school of religious art to reward the efforts of so many who have been working to this end.

and meaningless statues, crude

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