Why are we still arguing over the crucifixion as a subject in art without attending to the aesthetic and stylistic qualities of different renderings of the subject, not to mention technique? This is the point made by a commenter on an article about the current Cross Purposes: Shock and Contemplation in Images of the Crucifixion exhibition at the Ben Uri Gallery in London. I can't help echoing this individual's viewpoint, especially when we're dealing with the crucifixion as painted by modern artists like Marc Chagall, Graham Sutherland (above) and, ahem, Tracey Emin.
There exists a modern art tradition within which the subject matter of the crucifixion is not of primary importance; what counts is the way the crucifixion can be worked through aesthetically and formally in the artistic process. You won't find such luminaries as Bill Viola, who's done more than most to incorporate a religious dimension into modern art, directly referencing the crucifixion or the resurrection within a specific historical or cultural context. His video of a man swimming in water only evoked Christ because it was situated in Durham Cathedral. Although he utilizes many examples of religious art from the renaissance and early modern periods, the message of the crucifixion and other such religious happenings are meant to be absorbed subliminally, outside a recognizable iconographic framework. Viola believes that the image of the resurrection and crucifixion belong to the whole world, not specific sects or denominations.
In the case of an earlier modernist figure, Francis Bacon, whose paintings of the 1950s and 60s were called 'Crucifixion', or 'Fragment of a Crucifixion'- above-this artist used the crucifixion in order to work through themes and problems in his paintings. This is a minority view, namely that despite the absence of religious tradition of representation in modern artists like Bacon, these religious themes eventually emerge through painting itself; some would even argue that the act of painting in the modern or postmodern condition renders art atheistic rather than spiritual. Perhaps we could see Bacon's crucifixion themes in this manner, an intriguing idea put forward by the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze who actually met Bacon and wrote a highly original book about his art in 1981. Deleuze proposed that Bacon, and by implication those modern artists who followed his example, could be completely indifferent to the subject matter of the crucifixion.
However, Deleuze had in mind Bacon's predecessors as well as followers since he observed,
"What is at stake here is no longer just Bacon, but undoubtedly the whole history of Western painting. If we attempted to define this western painting, we could take Christianity as our first point of reference. For Christianity subjected the form, or rather the Figure, to a fundamental deformation. Insofar as God was incarnated, crucified, descended, ascended to heaven, and so on, the form or the Figure was no longer rigorously linked to essence, but to what, in principle, is its opposite: the event, or even the changeable, the accident. Christianity contains a germ of tranquil atheism that will nurture painting; the painter can easily be indifferent to the religious subject he is asked to represent. Nothing prevents him from realizing that, because of its now-essential relation with the accident, the form can become, not a God on the cross, but more simply a "napkin or a rug on the point of unrolling, the handle of a knife ready to be detached, a little loaf of bread falling into slices as if of its own volition, an overturned cup, all sorts of vases or fruits tumbled into a heap, and overhanging plates." All of this can be put on Christ himself, or close by him: Christ is besieged, and even replaced by accidents. Modern painting begins when man no longer experiences himself as an essence, but as an accident."
Christ as the victim of the "accidents of painting?" A tragic vision in which painting is used to define humankind in relation to a fall of some kind? Maybe, but I'm more interested in what Deleuze is saying about the way the crucifixion is metamorphosed into still-life and the rendering of everyday objects- the things that the artist positions and paints in the studio. Deleuze is obviously thinking of Cézanne's apples and napkins here, but I can't help thinking of Courbet's famous visual statement, The Painter's Studio, in which a man in the pose of Christ on the Cross hangs limply at the side of the artist's easel. Courbet seems to be saying that the crucifixion is now a studio prop completely subservient to art itself. Christ has literally gone out of the picture here; he has been decentered, crossed out, painted out by the act of painting itself. Courbet's brush hovers over a passage in the painting he is working on, but Christ is absent- it's a landscape.
Isn't that the sort of debate that this so-called controversial exhibition should be provoking, the relationship between the crucifixion and the act of painting itself, played out in the evolution of modern art, not denouncements about the "unsuitability" of the cross for a Jewish museum? It's not about Jewish or Christian theology; it's about the mysterious processes of art. That's the true religious issue. Deal with it.
Artists in the exhibition: Graham Sutherland, Stanley Spencer, Duncan Grant, Eric Gill, Craigie Aitchison, Emmanuel Levy, Lee Miller, Tracey Emin, Francis Souza, Marc Chagall, Norman Adams, Betty Swanwick, John Armstrong, Samuel Bak, Robert Henderson Blyth, Gilbert Spencer, Michael Rothenstein, Sybil Andrews, Maggi Hambling, Roy de Maistre and David Jones.