Katy Hounsell-Robert meets Mark Cazalet, the contemporary painter who shows Christ in the everyday bustle of the modern city ark Cazalet, a leading contemporary artist, believes that art is a revelation that makes outwardly visible the inward and invisible transformation of grace.
Before reaching this philosophical conclusion Cazalet, now in his mid40s, has had to go through many years of soul-searching and frustration. Happily, this has led to a strengthening of his own confidence in his style of artistic expression and its relationship to his faith.
In his almost monastically simple white-walled studio in west London we discussed over spinach and nutmeg soup and dry rye bread his career and philosophy.
Cazalet was born in London of a family descended from Huguenots who had fled France during the St Bartholomew massacre. His education was broadly Christian, tending towards anti-Catholic. But in the same way he searched as an art student for his own particular “voice” he searched for a faith with which he could feel at one. How the one could inspire the other he was yet to find out.
While at Chelsea Art School he attended Anglican and Methodist churches with an occasional visit to the Greek Orthodox, and became increasingly drawn to Catholicism. He attended Brompton Oratory but felt that questions were not encouraged and there was a big power structure there. “And I did not get an answer as to how contemporary visual art might fit with theology,” he said.
Later, in Paris, when studying at École des Beaux-Arts, he found many more forms of Catholicism and was deeply impressed with the Jerusalem Community.
“Their vision is that the city is a desert and they are called to serve in it,” he said. “Their worship is almost medieval with plainsong and meditation and the outcome is working to help the poor and unhappy. Unfortunately my French was not good enough for indepth communication and then after a year I went to India to take up a scholarship.” There, he was able to explore the richness, colour, shape and way of expressing faith in the Hindu and Muslim shrines, temples and works of art and to develop his own beliefs by attending the Catholic Church of the Rosary. This was not too popular with the British Christian complex where he stayed, who were convinced that the Empire had brought true Christianity to India (despite the fact that the south west coast had received it from St Thomas in the early days of Christianity) and that acknowledging other faiths was idolatry.
Back in London in 1990 with no job or money he felt very drawn to painting urban scenes and the everyday activities of people in the London streets and also to fulfil his spiritual realisation. But within a week, through a friend’s second cousin, Sister Frances Makower contacted him. She was writing a book on Stations of the Cross for a private press edition to be exhibited in cathedrals around Britain. She wanted an ambitious and creative artist to work with her and was happy to show some of his work at the same time. “That really got my name out as an ecclesiastical artist and commissions began to come in,” he said.
A third of Mark’s time is now spent on ecclesiastical commissions, a third teaching and the rest on his own self-directed work.
His work ranges from seven roundels painted in gold leaf on the Life of Mary, at Our Lady of Lourdes, Wanstead, to a simple hanging cross at Our Lady of Grace, Chingford, to a triptych on women of the Bible for Frances Bardsley School in Romford, the most recent work, to a 20-ft high window in Chelmsford Cathedral called The Tree of Life in which Eve and Adam as children are running through a field while St Cedd, whose altar is nearby, sits offering comfort to people. Judas hangs as a skeleton on one side but higher up he is forgiven and restored. A lady whose son had sadly committed suicide a year before told Cazalet it gave her great comfort to sit and look at the tree and feel he might be forgiven and restored to grace.
“Ecclesiastical commissions can be very wearisome in some ways,” he admitted. “You have to formulate a brief which then goes through endless committee discussions and you lose contact with the emotion you felt at the beginning. But when you get a mother speaking from the heart like this it’s very rewarding.” He admires the art sacré movement in France in the early 20th century. “They believed that artists should interpret the scriptures in their own way and that the Church deserved only the finest artists whatever their belief or lack of it. Chagall and Picasso were both commissioned in this way.” He is strongly averse to the term “religious or Christian” artist. “It’s like saying someone is a ‘Christian chef’. You can be a chef and a Christian but because you are both it doesn’t mean your cooking is better. The criterion must be the pursuit of excellence and if you are a Christian this will be in some way reflected. Also art is not a place for Christian or any other propaganda. It’s a place of listening, looking – a prayerful place – trying to get in touch with your faith. Faith is the medium in which I exist so everything I look at reflects this, and allowing people to understand and ‘possess’ the work in their own way is essential. But perhaps that is a 20th-century approach.” He feels too that the Church could do more listening. People are expected to accept the rules without questioning and it is not always a prayerful, listening place.
“This is why the Samaritans was founded: to listen and allow people to find their way through terrible problems rather than take their own lives,” he said.
His work is usually oils on canvas or wood. His style is full of life and movement, partly narrative and reminiscent of the naive school. He loves the rawness, simplicity and lack of inhibition of early medieval painting although it is technically inferior to Renaissance art. He admires Rouault and Cecil Collins who expressed their beliefs in very different but refreshingly pure ways. He is not afraid to paint what he sees if it makes a political statement, as in To Bethlehem when on a painting pilgrimage to the Holy Land he painted a heavily pregnant Mary sitting uncomfortably on a donkey and a weary Joseph holding a passport going through a checkpoint in the 25-foothigh Bethlehem wall cutting the little town off from Jerusalem. In his West London Stations of the Cross, originally painted in 2000 and recently shown during Lent at Sunfields Methodist Church, Blackheath, he portrayed Christ’s journey not in Jerusalem but through some of the most crowded or depressing places in west London where the world-shattering event is ignored in the everyday bustle of urban life, so that Christ falls in the Notting Hill Gate Tube station and is trampled underfoot in the rush hour pressure and hardly noticed.
He loves drawing in the woods in Suffolk where he shares a cottage with his brother, Roger, and has no problems taking inspiration from Martin Heidegger, a known Nazi sympathiser in his early days, who wrote of walking through the woods without knowing where one is going and suddenly finding a clearing where the sun filters in. One walks on again until there may be another clearing. This is the process of the creative mind – always moving with moments of clarity and depth which are not constant and come and go.
For more information visit Markcazalet.co.uk