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Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Sabbatical art pilgrimage: Westminster Cathedral

Westminster Cathedral is modelled on Byzantine styles and was intended to be filled with mosaic and marble. However when John Bentley, the Cathedral's architect, died in 1902 he left no finished mosaics and very little in the way of drawings or designs. The time since has been a voyage of discovery for the Cathedral staff with false starts, controversies and solid achievements along the way.

Commissioning on any scale involves risk, as the commissioner is negotiating  a combination of individual inspiration, church tradition, personal taste, and current fashions. To commission on the scale of a Cathedral and over considerable time with significant financial constraints is no mean undertaking. As with Antonio Guadi's Sagrada Familia, the scale of ambition here is such that the task is never fully complete.

The style and feel of Westminster Cathedral is the reverse of of the open, light expanses found in many Cathedrals - the contrast in my mind on this visit was with St Paul's which I had revisited earlier in the day. Despite its size and scale there is a sense at Westminster Cathedral of being in a subterranean, cavernous expanse; a dark catacomb like space which in some areas seems to absorb the glitter of the gold mosaics into itself while, in others, darkness provides focus to what is central to the life of this place - the sanctuaries and the Eucharist.

The decision to use mosaic as the principal form raised a debate between the arts and the crafts; what is the appropriate balance between technique and inspiration? The history of the mosaics here includes work which is traditional but high quality as well as work which was artistically interesting but was judged inadequate technically and was eventually removed. Use has been made of artists, most recently  Leonard McComb RA and Tom Phillips RA, as well as mosaicists like Boris Anrep who have created work with an artistic sensibility.

Other media do also feature, including painting and sculpture, and it is here that some of those who played a prominent role in the revival of religious art during the twentieth century can be found - Roy de Maistre, Eric Gill and Giacomo Manzù. De Maistre painted Stations of the Cross and a Crucifixion displayed in areas of the Cathedral to which the public do not have access. The altarpiece in St George's Chapel is by Eric Gill, as are the Stations of the Cross in the main body of the Cathedral. A bronze by Manzù can be found in the North Transpet and is of St Theresa.

A continuing source of controversy has come not so much with the mosaics but with the Stations of the Cross and their creator, Eric Gill. Gill was a controversial choice for Cathedral authorities as he was then a radical young sculptor who, together with Jacob Epstein and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, was among the first to create modern art in Britain. In additional to his emerging and radical reputation, Gill was a very new convert to Catholicism. Although the initiator of the original approach to Gill, the architect at the time, John Marshall thought that the initial Stations produced by Gill showed that his style was 'neither suitable for the peculiar light of the Cathedral nor the Catholic public.' These Stations were variously described as 'grotesque and undevotional', as 'cold as the mind that produced them' and as hideous, primitive and pagan. To these letter writers Gill was, like Epstein and Gaudier-Brzeska, a 'wild thing' (as was suggested by a relatively recent exhibition at the Royal Academy on the three sculptors).

Yet despite these factors which seem to have made him a surprising choice, Gill's designs for these Stations, which were directly carved in low relief in Hopton Wood limestone, are seen today as respectful and restrained. Other letter writers at the time argued that they should be seen as 'dignified in conception, superb in outline and restrained in feeling' and as showing 'admirable breadth and simplicity of design.' Fortunately, as Gill wrote, 'there were sufficient people to tell (Cardinal Bourne) the things were good to outweigh those who said they were bad.'

In more recent years a different controversy has developed around these Stations,one which has nothing to do with the Stations themselves but everything to do with the man who made them. His biographer, Fiona McCarthy notes that Gill accused Epstein of being "quite mad on sex" and comments that, if so, Gill himself was even madder, "taking to stone carving as the medium for expressing his most secret thoughts and longings." His sexual proclivities included incest and paedophilia and, within our own day and time, would surely have seen him behind bars. As a result, there have been public protests at the Cathedral from those who argue that Gill is an inappropriate role model for Catholics and that the continued showing of his Stations in the Cathedral is a source of distress to victims of sexual abuse.

This controversy over these Stations, unanticipated by those who commissioned them, raises the issue of the extent to which art, once created, exists independently of the artist. The argument that the artwork should be understood in its own right and as its own entity has been a significant strand within modern art criticism. It has been used to defend the continued use of the Stations at the Cathedral - i.e. that the Stations themselves contain no hint of Gill's sexual preferences or appetites and, as artworks, are now something separate from him - while also being used to generally disparage art commissioned by the Church, as art which conforms to a message in contrast to art which is its own entity.  

For me, this is an argument built on the individualism of modernism which ignores the relational insights of post-modernity. Identity is found and formed in relationship - no one and no artwork is an island entire unto itself - and so the uniqueness of an individual artwork is formed in part by the ideas and practices of the artist, the context in which it was created and the developing viewer reaction and response to it. None of these by themselves, however, form the whole that is the artwork and, for that reason, Gill's sexual appetites should not become the primary lens through which these Stations are viewed while, inevitably, being part of the picture.

All artworks, as post-modern thought has demonstrated, are part of, or become part of, multiple layers of meaning. The controversies over Gill's Stations are now a part of what they are. Yet looking at these Stations now, without this background, one would be hard pressed to identify them as a source of controversy. Those letter writers who saw these Stations as 'dignified in conception, superb in outline and restrained in feeling' and as showing 'admirable breadth and simplicity of design' would seem to have been discerning viewers.


Gene Clark - Life's Greatest Fool.

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