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Saturday, 16 August 2014

Sabbatical art pilgrimage: Notre-Dame de Toute Grâce du Plateau d'Assy

William S. Rubin writes in ‘Modern Sacred Art and the Church of Assy’ (Columbia University Press, New York & London, 1961) that, 'In August 1950, the Dominican-inspired church of Notre-Damede Toute Grâce at Assy was consecrated amid great jubilation and even greater hope that it represented the commencement of a "Renaissance" of sacred art. The appearance there of religious works which, in power and purity, recalled those of the great ages of faith, certainly seemed symptomatic of a genuine religious revival.’

Yet, as my sabbatical art pilgrimage has been demonstrating, a renaissance of sacred art had been underway from the beginning of the century. The decoration of St. Paul Grange-Canal in Geneva by Maurice Denis, Alexandre Cingria and others in 1913 – 1915 had served as a manifesto for this renaissance and led on to the founding in 1919 of the Ateliers d’Art Sacré by Denis and Georges Desvallières as well the Group of St Luke and St Maurice by François Baud, Cingria, Marcel Feuillat, Marcel Poncet and Georges de Traz. Both groups produced significant work for a significant number of churches in subsequent years.

In 1935 the Group of St Luke secured the decoration of the new church of Notre-Dame-des-Alpes Le Fayet in the French Alps by means a tender process assessed by a panel which included the philosopher Jacques Maritain, the Catholic art critic Maurice Brillant and the director of the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Geneva Adrien Bovy. The process and the resulting work was therefore set up to be a showcase for the renaissance of sacred art in France and Switzerland during the first half of the twentieth century in which Denis, Maritain and Cingria had played key roles. It was this stage of the revival that was challenged by the commissions for Notre-Dame-de-Toute-Grâce.

Rubin continues, ‘For the first time in centuries, great artists had directed their efforts towards church art. Bonnard, Chagall, Léger, Lipchitz, Lurçat, Matisse, and Rouault had all contributed significantly.’ The Dominican Friars Marie-Alain Couturier and Pie-Raymond Régamey had argued in the journal ‘L’Art sacré’ that they edited that ‘each generation must appeal to the masters of living art, and today those masters come first from secular art.’ Couturier worked with the parish priest at Assy, Canon Jean Devémy, to commission those modern masters who contributed work to the church of Assy.

Interestingly, Couturier himself and the commissions at Assy had begun within the earlier phase of the renaissance of sacred art. On the basis of his work at Le Fayet, Devémy selected Maurice Novarina as architect. Novarina used his regional style at Assy with a chalet-style pitched roof and locally sourced materials. The chalet style is intimate and warm while the wooden carved beams suggest a Nordic hall. The interior is dark, as a result, but this tends to sets off the work well. While appropriate to Alpine setting in terms of aesthetics and practicalities, Novarina was not, at this stage of his career, working in the modernist style first exemplified by Alberto Sartoris’ design for the church at Lourtier and subsequently further developed by Le Corbusier at Ronchamp, La Tourette and Firminiy. Couturier had trained at the Ateliers d’Art Sacré and had worked on schemes of stained glass with artists at the Atelier and others, such as the L’Arche artists. Several of these artists, included Couturier himself, received commissions for the nave windows. Rubin comments that this was Couturier allocating some commissions to the ‘family’ of artists ‘active in modernist circles of Church decoration before the war’ before he then moved on to ‘the more radical aspect of the decorative plan for Assy.’

This ‘radical aspect’ of Couturier’s plan was to prove deeply controversial as commissioning modern ‘masters … from secular art’ meant that ‘Side by side with works of the pious Catholic Rouault one saw those of Jews, atheists, and even Communists - a revolutionary situation that struck the keynote of a new evangelical spirit ...’ As a result: ‘Even before its dedication in 1950, the church had become the center of an increasingly bitter dispute which was to cause a marked rupture between the liberal and conservative wings of the clergy and laity during the following years. The violent polemics on both sides involved not only the French Church, but also the Vatican, usually through the voice of the Congregation of the Holy Office. As its destiny was linked to the fortunes of the entire liberal religious movement in France, the Church at Assy and its decorations were vehemently attacked and defended by an army of critics, most of whom had seen only a few photographs of the works in question.'

The polemic against the Assy commissions was centered on the crucifix created by Germaine Richier but this was used as a focus for a wide-ranging attack by traditionalists on the desire of French Dominicans for a Christianity that was engaged with the secular world. As a result, they argued that priests should not live in ‘Christian ghettos’ but should join with the citizenry ‘to establish a new, spiritually inspired system of social justice’ - the worker-priest movement – and, with artists, to preach a ‘new gospel of sacred art’ that could help these artists come to ‘Christian awareness.’ These initiatives were representative of ‘a new evangelical spirit’ which was concerned with contextualized mission.

Richier’s bronze crucifix resembles ‘craggy and weathered wood’ in its surface and the undefined figure has a cruciform shape, the combination conveying a ‘tortured and sacrificial appearance.’ It is a stunning image of the effect which suffering has on human beings by reducing a person to mere flesh and bone. Couturier related the image to the ‘root out of dry ground’ of Isaiah 53. Richier’s crucifix therefore connects with the strand in modern sacred art, exemplified by Albert Servaes and Graham Sutherland, which viewed Christ’s sacrifice as emblematic of human suffering in conflict and persecution. Works in this vein were often controversial as they challenged sentimental images of Christ and deliberately introduced ugliness into beautiful buildings. The crucifix was described by those who opposed its inclusion in the church as a caricature of a crucifix in which it was no longer possible to ‘recognise the adorable humanity of Christ’ making it ‘an insult to the majesty of God’ and ‘a scandal for the piety of the faithful.’

Servaes and Richier were both affected by decrees from the holy office and saw their artworks removed from the churches for which they had been commissioned. The instruction on sacred art issued by the Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office in 1952 was the beginning of two year iniatiatve by the Vatican which severely constrained the modernizing programme of the French Dominicans and represented a victory for the traditionalists within the Church.

Richier’s crucifix has, though, subsequently been returned to its place in the sanctuary at Assy and the church, like many other art sacré churches, is classed by the French Government as a national monument becoming a significant tourist location – the secular state recognizing the value of sacred commissions. As a similar level of acceptance and understanding has also evolved in relation to other controversial commissions, including those by Servaes and Sutherland, it would seem that scandals of modern church commissions, whether the reception of the works themselves or that of their challenging content, are, with time, resolved as congregations and communities live with the works and learn to value the challenge of what initially seemed to be scandalous.

Notre-Dame de Toute Grâce was planned as a showcase for the value of contemporary church commissions with Couturier taking on the primary role of curator but, as most of the commissions included were on the basis of his friendships with the artists involved, the decisions he made or did not make illustrate the tricky balance required to succeed in commissioning. Couturier criticized the Ateliers d'Art Sacré for being a 'world closed in on itself, where reciprocal indulgence, or else mutual admiration, quickly becomes the ransom paid to work as a team and maintain friendship.' Yet Couturier's scheme of work at Assy suffers from the opposite problem, as work by individual masters produced in isolation from each other, with work assigned on the basis of what they could with integrity contribute, results in a decorative scheme with no cohesiveness or focus. Couturier, here, fails to be sufficiently decisive as a curator. As Rubin states, 'the subject was almost as often picked for the man as the man for the subject.'

Too much work was commissioned for Assy from too many artists making the resulting iconographic scheme muddled and esoteric. There are inappropriate clashes of style (e.g. the Lipchitz sculpture dominating the Rouault windows or the different styles used in each of the nave windows), inappropriate positioning of some works (e.g. stained glass by Bazaine and reliefs by Chagall which can barely be seen), commissions which do not work in the space (e.g. the intimiste style of Bonnard is not suited to being viewed from a distance) and central commissions with esoteric symbolism (e.g. the Lurçat tapestry). Couturier, presumably to sustain his friendships with the artists involved, seems not to have exercised sufficient control regarding the overall scheme which therefore means that the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts.

The overall lesson of Assy would seem to be that simplicity is of the essence. The most effective works are those which are simplest, clearest and most pared back i.e. the work by Léger, Matisse, Richier and Rouault. The Rouault windows, in particular, are luminous, effective translations of his paintings into stained glass combining beauty and sorrow. The floral windows seem a strange choice initially but function as memento mori. Chagall created a wonderful 'Exodus' mural on ceramic tiles which was an inspired choice for the baptistery. He depicts a crucifixion in the top right hand corner; the act of Exodus for Christians which is symbolised by baptism. Although he was uncertain about undertaking this first commission for a church, his work here shows clearly the suitability of his vision and practice for churches and led to many subsequent commissions.

The Lurçat tapestry, by contrast, seems particularly ineffective both in itself and as a central focus. Its imagery is undeniably personal and esoteric. It provides visual focus through its size but, although intended as an apocalyptic evocation of the conflict between good and evil, fails to convey menace or threat. The beast seems funny and friendly in a way which could suit it to a walk on part in Teletubbies or In the Night Garden, while the female figure that opposes it is a non-entity as a realized, dynamic creation. The work of Adam Kossowski at St Benet Mile End and St Mary Leyland provide much stronger examples of apocalyptic imagery put to devotional rather than esoteric use. That said, Lurçat’s work is by no means fundamentally unsuited to an ecclesiastical context as his vibrant ‘Creation’ tapestry for the Chapel at Bishop Otter College ably demonstrates.

The artists Couturier commissioned were his friends but the work of his friends was not always suited to this particular sacred environment and scheme as some were clearly working outside their comfort zones and were not able to solve the inherent issues either of engaging with the space i.e. Bonnard’s intimiste style lost in the space and Lurçat’s esoteric apocalyptic imagery.

As noted earlier, Couturier and Régamey argued that "each generation must appeal to the masters of living art, and today those masters come first from secular art." However fashions and reputations in the art world (as elsewhere) change considerably with time. In their own day and time Pablo Picasso and Matisse were considered unassailable as the giants of twentieth century art while now, in terms of continuing influence on contemporary artists, Marcel Duchamp is generally considered to be the most influential twentieth century artist. Lurçat’s tapestry provides the central focus for the Church at Assy, where those artists commissioned were considered current masters, but his reputation has not been sustained into the current day, and the same is also true of Lipchitz.

The reputations of many of those who were commissioned by the Church in the twentieth century (e.g. Bazaine, Denis, Gleizes, Lurcat, Manessier, Sutherland, Piper, Rouault, Severini) have declined following their deaths. The same is likely to be so for those receiving contemporary commissions (i.e. Clarke, Cox, Emin, Le Brun, Wisniewski). The pace with which modern art moved from one movement to next in the twentieth century quickly and, often unfairly, condemned as passé what had previously been avant garde.

The Church cannot, and probably should not, seek to keep up with the fickle nature of fashion and instead should value both those artists with significant mainstream reputations wishing to receive occasional commissions and artists with less significant mainstream reputations who receive commissions which form a more significant part of their practice. In practice, that combination is what we find at Assy and it also there in the contrast between the commissioning practices at Assy and Le Fayet.

As a result, in my view, setting up dichotomies between artists with significant mainstream reputations versus those without and between secular artists and artists who are Christians represents an unnecessary division often advocated on the basis of subjective quality criteria. The reality is that both have happened simultaneously in the story of modern and contemporary church commissions and both have resulted in successes and failures. What is warranted and rewarded is sustained and prayerful attention to each and every artwork in order to discern what is good and of God in and through it.


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