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Saturday, 22 October 2016

Modern Art and the Life of a Culture: The Religious Impulses of Modernism

As Jonathan A. Anderson and William A. Dyrness note in Modern Art and the Life of a Culture: The Religious Impulses of Modernism, I have for some time been arguing that, as Daniel A. Siedell suggested in God in the Gallery, "an alternative history and theory of the development of modern art" is needed, "revealing that Christianity has always been present with modern art, nourishing as well as haunting it, and that modern art cannot be understood without understanding its religious and spiritual components and aspirations." In my Airbrushed from Art History and Sabbatical Art Pilgrimage series of posts I have highlighted some of the artists and movements (together with the books that tell their stories) that should feature in that alternative history when it comes to be written.

In Modern Art and the Life of a Culture Anderson and Dyrness, part of IVP's Studies in Theology and the Arts, also argue that there were strong religious impulses that positively shaped modern visual art. Instead of affirming a pattern of decline and growing antipathy towards faith, the authors contend that theological engagement and inquiry can be perceived across a wide range of modern art—French, British, German, Dutch, Russian and North American—and through particular works by artists such as Gauguin, Picasso, David Jones, Caspar David Friedrich, van Gogh, Kandinsky, Warhol and many others.

Gregory Wolfe writes that this book provides a 'nuanced and sympathetic view of the religious aspects that truly did haunt modernism in the visual arts' noting that, after a couple of introductory chapters, 'the book moves into a sequence of historical surveys ranging from Van Gogh to Andy Warhol, with many stops in between.'

Dryness notes: 'Van Gogh is often recognized as a deeply spiritual artist, but usually he is pictured as having given up his childhood (Reformed) Christian faith. But closer examination shows this not to have been the case. Others, like Gauguin, who are largely regarded as irreligious, turn out to have had deep and formative experiences with (in this case) the Catholic faith. Still others, like Malevich, inherited sensibilities from their religious contexts which made deep inroads into their art. So there is no single story to be told.' 

Anderson says: 'The research for this book was full of surprises for me. The religious backgrounds of these artists, as well as the ongoing theological content of their work, are sometimes buried deep in the academic literature and primary sources, but once you begin to dig you find extraordinary things. Van Gogh was actually a fascinating theologian, and his paintings were theologically oriented all the way to the end. Mondrian completed his art training in the thick of the best neo-Calvinist thinking of the day. Until researching for this book, I hadn’t realized just how deeply Kandinsky was preoccupied with the book of Revelation. Warhol’s sharp social commentaries were oriented by his lifelong Catholicism. And so on: the surprises abound.'


Van Morrison - In The Garden.

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