Thursday, 21 January 2010

The Sacred Made Real

It was the Counter-Reformation that produced Baroque Art, or rather - since ideology does not produce art it can only encourage what it considers to be appropriate art - it nurtured it and gave it a role. The corruption of the Catholic church, that led to the rebellion of Luther and Calvin, had to be addressed, its energies redirected.

The classic text on the subject of the Baroque in visual art is Heinrich Wölfflin's Principles of Art History, where Wölfflin sets out the five main points of difference between Classical Renaissance and anti-Classical Baroque art. I am not about to set those differences out here - see the link for them - because it is the product, the emotional effect of those points of difference, that I am interested in.

The emotional effect of the changes is intended to be dramatic and overwhelming. Rather than conceiving of an idea made formally clear, beautiful and organised into a hierarchy of concepts, it offers dramatic presence, unity and sensation.

In classical art a tree is all we know about trees. The tree rises from the ground and comprises a trunk with roots, branches, twigs, leaf and blossom of some kind. The ground on which the tree stands is comprised of a finite number of blades of grass. It presents us with a stable, eternal world because the image it presents is composed of timeless ideas, not changing things.

In anti-classical art a tree is the impression of weight and the sense of mass and shift in the boughs. You are not thinking the tree - you are there looking at it. It is less clear, but it does position you at touching and feeling distance. It is all change and flux. It's mid-state, the emotional heart of the storm.

The Sacred Made Real consists of images of Christ, The Virgin Mary and a few other saints, such as St Francis, St Serapion and St Bernard of Clairvaux. The artists include, among the sculptors, Juan de Mesa, Pedro de Mena, Gregorio Fernández and Juan Martínez Montañés; and, among the painters, Diego Velázquez and Fransico de Zurbarán. It is Spanish art at its most sombre.

The sombre quality, fascinatingly, is comprised of a blend of the deeply emotional, yet severely disciplined. The sculptures often employ mixed materials in an effort to persuade the viewer that he / she is in the presence of a real figure, a real vision. The viewer is, in effect, having some of the religious experience more fully experienced by the subject. The figures are not only polychrome, meaning they are painted to look like life, but they also employ real fabric for loincloth, glass eyes, real hair, wicker and nails. The blood and scars - of which there are plenty - are worked to within a millimetre of realism. There is a fetishistic air about the work.

The hyper-reality should lead to hyper-emotion.

And it does, but not to melodrama or hysteria. There is a purity and severity of form about it that is not only characteristic of all sculptural process (the form is either there or not there, you can't have hints of form, as in painting) but also a specific insistence on restraint of gesture. This restraint is the fascinating thing, because it seems to humanise the subject while at the same time distancing it, giving it a double aspect. This is particularly noticeable with the images of Christ.

With paintings of Christ we are generally given the suffering man, set about with elements, attributes, and appurtenances of Christian divinity. We are encouraged to think of the figure as man first, and divinity second. We proceed from one to the other. That leads to a curious division in the mind, as if we had to switch man off before we could get to God. Rembrandt's Christs, Rubens's Christs, all the products of Baroque Humanism, are human beings in costume. But in this period and mood of Spanish art, both aspects come at you at once. The figure is both human and divine. Maybe only Zurbaran among the painters has this quality. Though Velazquez is the greater artist, his greatness is partly about range, and partly about a kind of liberal-aristocratic view of human dignity. Zurbaran's is focused entirely on the dual-aspect of the image.

This simultaneity has a smack of magic about it - how, after all, can a figure be in two places at once except by magic?

The artist about whose work I wrote an entire monograph, the Brazilian Ana Maria Pacheco, returns us precisely to this ground. Her work too is strongest when most restrained, when least explained. Essentially she substitutes politics - the politics of oppression, of gender and of desire - for Christianity. In her early work, and right into the '90s, she exercised something of that formal restraint by withholding gesture and dehumanising proportion. The restraint bit hard but remained sombre. Later, when the work became more dramatically articulated, more symbolically explicit, I felt it lost something important. That early work is remarkable - it brings us something like this Spanish take on the sacred, something double, simultaneous and troubling, as indeed all magic must be, because it opens the mind to the possibility of powers beyond us. In the case of this exhibition that possibility includes those bloody hands, that stillness, that real-artificial eye in the carved face.


Jeremy Millar said...

I saw this on Tuesday morning, also, and found it absolutely wonderful, perhaps the best exhibition I've seen in years. Incredibly moving.

Interestingly, I saw 'The Road' the next day, which seems to draw upon many of these visual forms and yet comes across as simply bleak and sentimental, without bringing them together into something actually affecting.

George S said...

I have yet to see The Road, Jeremy - that is if I get round to seeing it. I want to read the book first, if I can find the spare five hours or so.

Do you think there is a line between the works in this exhibition and someone like, say, Ron Mueck?

Jeremy Millar said...

I'd rather not have to think about Mueck, if it's all the same to you; not one of my favourite artists at all. I think of his work as being coolly effective, rather than truly affecting.