DELACROIX AND THE RISE OF MODERN ART
National Gallery until 22 May
This show is an argument, and is ideal for people who go to art galleries to argue. The argument is that Delacroix – through his subjective use of paint, his choice of clashing colour schemes, and wide open range of subject matter – gave birth to the 150-year-old phenomenon known as Modern Art.
As arguments go, it is historically persuasive. The nineteenth-century Avant-garde did follow on from the French Romanticism that Delacroix led; and Delacroix showed in himself how artists influence each other. He reacted against the grey, classicising French Academicism; and didn’t learn from the contemporary Schools but instead from studying the work of painters like Rubens. In turn, the next wave of artists learnt from Delacroix. His work was bought or copied by Manet, Cézanne, Degas, Van Gogh, and Gauguin; and his theories of colour were transmitted by Signac to Matisse. The Avant-garde hailed him as one of their own – notably in Fantin-Latour’s ‘Homage to Delacroix’, a copy of which is at the entrance to the show.
Artistic influence is not a tidy concept, however, and is not always easy to demonstrate. Here the exhibition hits trouble. First, the show – with one exception – gives us very few of the paintings that influenced the Moderns. Delacroix was a painter in the Grand Manner, and his best works are large: ‘Liberty leading the people’, ‘The Young Orphan at the cemetery’, ‘Entry of the Crusaders into Constantinople, 1204’, ‘Massacre at Chios’, and ‘The Death of Sardanapalus’. These are very big paintings, and size matters: the impact of colour is greatest when the picture is measured in feet, not inches. Sadly, none of these are at the National Gallery. Some are represented by copies, either by Delacroix himself or by other artists, but they make it hard to empathise with those the pictures originally influenced.
Then there is the matter of colour. Delacroix was a colourist as Rubens had been before him, and his early work has clear, strong colours. Over time these colours became duller: strong, certainly, but slightly unfocussed and less persuasive. Delacroix the colourist doesn’t look good besides Cézanne or Gauguin. Of course, Delacroix was famous for the way he put his colour to emotional or dramatic use. He wasn’t the first to do so. Poussin, an artist much admired by Delacroix, did as much. But Poussin’s restrained stoic Classicism was the antithesis of Delacroix the Romantic who burst that old restraint with the imagined feelings of his characters and their setting.
It is Delacroix’s imagination that dates him. He liked painting old stories – they gave him the freedom that he needed for his imagination. But it is difficult for us to be much affected by Ovid amongst the Scythians, or to share Delacroix’s love of the history paintings of Bonnington. Even though Delacroix found what he called living antiquity in Northern Africa, too often there is an underlying worthiness when he tells old stories. Compare, for example, his ‘Crucifixion’ with Van Gogh’s ‘Pietà’ next to it. There are great dramatic Crucifixions, notably by Rubens, and Delacroix’s swirls and whirls like the best of them – but it lacks drama and pathos. The painting is in his dull colour scheme, and there’s a lot of empty scenery. By contrast Van Gogh has taken and reworked a corner of the Delacroix with clear, bright colour, and a real sense of drama and suffering. The ‘Pietà’ is influenced by Delacroix, but it is a much better picture than the one that inspired it.
It was Van Gogh who said that modern subject matter had to differ from Delacroix’s. We can see how he came to this in one of the clearest examples of influence in the show. Van Gogh was drawn to Delacroix by his flower painting (of all things) with its clash of colours, outside location, and bursting-at-the-seams flowers. In the exhibition we see side-by-side Delacroix flowers, early Van Gogh flowers, and then a Van Gogh olive grove. We see how Modern Art makes a decisive break from Romanticism in terms of the simplicity of colour, the application of paint, and the expression of feeling and trauma.
We also see that Van Gogh is much the finer artist. Those late olive trees that he saw as capturing Delacroix’s sense of living antiquity are entirely modern, and they blaze out from the wall. The picture is odd – the shadows of the trees look like little Dalí-esque wine glasses – but the strength of feeling and love of paint are gripping.
In terms of pure artistry, this show is at its best with the artists Delacroix influenced. To find out why they might have been influenced by him, you will have to go to the Louvre.
CHRIST IN ALL THINGS
william Temple and his writings
Stephen Spencer (ed.)
Canterbury Press Norwich, 263pp, pbk
ISBN 978 1848257283 £30
Most people would judge William Temple to have been one of the most outstanding Archbishops of Canterbury of the last few centuries. Certainly he had an impact beyond the Church of England, which has not been usual for men in that job over the last two hundred years. Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s there were not a lot of books in our home; but my parents did, I remember, have a copy of Temple’s Christianity and Social Order. He is clearly distinguishable in a photograph that hangs in the choir vestry of one of the churches in my current parish, taken when he came to bless the lych-gate that is a First World War memorial; and it seems that the first ordination at which he presided was held here.
This is a useful and interesting collection drawn from Temple’s writings. Inevitably it draws most on several key works, but it draws also on unpublished material. The excerpts are, I am glad to say, often substantial and extended enough for one to get a sense of his writing and a sense of the way he constructed a discussion and an argument. We explore all the fields of
Temple’s particular interests: philosophical theology (and how dated the idealism he learned at Oxford now seems); his theological investigations (I found what he says about the atonement – pp.57f – particularly thought-provoking); his preaching; his reading of St John’s gospel; political and social theology; his part in the ecumenical movement; and much else besides. I was reminded, reading Temple, of a point that the late John Macquarrie made from time to time – that much of the language nowadays associated with Catholic continental theology in the 1950s and 1960s about ‘Christ the sacrament’ and ‘the Church as sacrament’ can in fact be found prefigured and foreshadowed in many late-nineteenth- and twentieth-century Anglican writers of a Catholic mindset and stamp. I did find myself wondering whether the generally chronological arrangement was the best to use – working through Temple’s career and focusing chapters on a particular work or works – and whether an attempt at a thematic arrangement might have been better. But then I am not sure that Temple’s writing and thinking would lend itself to thematic arrangement.
In his introduction, Stephen Spencer regrets that he has not been able to find a source for Temple’s frequently quoted saying that the Church is the only society on earth that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members (p. ix). Personally, I am rather heartened by that, and do not at all mind if Temple never committed that thought to paper, because it has always struck me as less helpful and illuminating than many think. Spencer says that ‘some of his most famous statements are not within these pages’, and that gave me concern that my own particular favourite quotation from Temple might not be there, but there it is, I am glad to say, on p. 130: Christianity ‘is the most avowedly materialistic of all the great religions’.
I enjoyed reading this collection and – especially for those who would find access to Temple’s works difficult, with most of them long out of print, and with public libraries less attentive to theology and religious studies – it will facilitate an encounter and engagement with one of the great figures of twentieth-century English Christian life.
LIFE’S GREAT QUESTIONS
SPCK, 172pp, pbk
ISBN 978 0281075959 £10
A video recently resurfaced on the internet that contained two documentaries about Fr Quintin Montgomery Wright, a Lefebvrist priest who spent the post-war years in Normandy, ministering in the old way to his parish, and appearing on the regressive circuit in northern France. It is very entertaining. Montgomery Wright is filmed making an omelette, shopping for cod, and arriving at an aristocratic holiday-home to say mass. The star of both programmes, however, is not the priest but his sacristan. Christian is a man in middle-age, with what are now called learning difficulties. He lived with Montgomery Wright, answered his telephone, prepared his vestments, and carried the cross when the priest took the Sacrament to the housebound. He was sent from his family in Paris to Montgomery Wright because his parents hoped that work could be found for him on a farm. It could not; and so Christian remained with Montgomery Wright, and shared his life.
I saw this video at the same time as I was reading this book. The author is the founder and, though he would deny it, the hero of L’Arche: a federation of communities in which people with learning difficulties live a common life with their carers. The founder’s original intention had been to make the Church and the Christian life available to two men, at that time shut away in institutions. Very soon after this first community was founded the purpose of L’Arche changed. Rather than merely allowing the disabled to receive the gifts of the Church, through L’Arche the Church would receive the gifts of the disabled. Jean Vanier has spent half a century distributing these gifts to anyone prepared to receive them. His appearance at the recent meeting of Primates at Canterbury is just one example.
It must be admitted that L’Arche has drunk deeply the spirit of a particular interpretation of Vatican II. In my year as an assistant I never saw mass celebrated on anything other than a coffee table, by anyone wearing more than an alb and a knitted stole. What Montgomery Wright would have made of these liturgies can well be imagined. Yet he, like Jean Vanier, had the same vocation: to live with a person with particular needs not as a carer; but as a friend. ‘Father needs me,’ Christian would say to his family when he was anxious to leave at the end of a holiday with them.
This book seeks to answer ‘life’s big questions’ using the experience of the disabled and despised, and the teachings of Jesus. The fifth chapter is a good example: It tries to answer the question ‘what is reality?’ Vanier tells the story of Brenda, a woman who lives in his community. Most of what she says is incomprehensible, apart from ‘time is it?’ and ‘when Annik?’ Annik is Brenda’s sister, whose visits she longs for from the moment the last one ends. Brenda’s phrases, though formulaic, show her need for dialogue. Once, at prayers in the community, ‘with great composure … focussed on the candle, she said “Thank you.”‘ It reminded Vanier that she ‘does not exist within the cosy structures of habitual phrases. She is much more complex … to know Brenda is to be continually surprised and opened up to the mystery of her being and therefore to our shared reality’.
The book is full of such insights from people with disabilities, and it shows how much we have to learn from people like Brenda about our vocations. The ‘shared reality’ that is necessary for us to learn from them is threatened by prejudice; but also, it must be said, by abortion. My only criticism of this book is that more is not made of this threat to the dignity of human life. In a country in which the vast majority of unborn children found to have Down’s Syndrome are aborted, this ‘reality’ is being shared by too few of God’s children, and the Church and the world are learning less of Christ as a result.
THE HOLY EUCHARIST – THE
Joseph de Sainte-Marie, OCD
Gracewing, 557pp, pbk
ISBN 978 0852443011 £25
Catholic Anglicans fell in love with concelebration in the 1970s and 1980s. There are many reasons for this – some good, some bad. No doubt it influenced us that some bishops were rather against it – I remember being part of a conversation with Hugh Montefiore, when he was Bishop of Birmingham, about whether the diocesan celebration for the 150th anniversary of the Oxford Movement could be concelebrated. And, of course, organizing concelebration could very easily sort out the liturgical sheep from the liturgical goats. All of that left us rather hoist with our own petard as we tried to work through the practice of concelebration in the light of the consequences of the ordination of women to the priesthood in 1994, to which all those who can remember the early Forward in Faith National Assemblies can bear witness.
This extensive (and, to be honest, at times rather over-exhaustive) review of concelebration in the Roman Catholic Church after the Second Vatican Council deals with a very different set of issues and problems from a very different perspective. The claim is that an over-emphasis on concelebration has damaged priestly spirituality, restricted lay access to the celebration of the Eucharist at times and occasions most convenient to hugely busy lay men and women, and led to undignified and irreverent liturgy. The accuracy of those claims I am not competent to assess. But the Carmelite professor and author (this work has been translated and published posthumously, for he died in 1985) moves from the results to a historical, theological and canonical examination of the revival of concelebration in the Eucharist after the Second Vatican Council’s decrees.
I would have found it helpful to have either more bibliographical information in the footnotes or to have had a bibliography before or after the text. As it was, there were some quotations in the text that I could not track down through the notes, even after spending some time in the effort. And although the translation and text are mostly clear there are a good number of slips in either translation or proof-reading – I wondered from the fact that no single translator is credited whether the work was in fact done by a team, and whether this could be the reason for the slips.
I digress for a moment to discuss a theological detail. The author is particularly concerned that the limitation of ‘the multiplication of masses’ (p.297) will fetter the economy of grace. Further, he argues that in a concelebrated mass there is one Eucharistic celebration, not as many as there are celebrants. That was a position contested in the 1950s and 1960s, but it now seems to me, at least, straightforward. Roman Catholic canon law accepted that nonetheless each concelebrant could licitly receive a mass stipend, and I had always understood that this ruling was made chiefly for pragmatic and practical reasons. The justification the author gives for this is that ‘the value of each Mass being infinite (since it is the very sacrifice of Christ that is immolated and offered), there is no opposition to the multiplication of particular intentions for which the Mass is applied’ (p.107). But if this is the case and the value is infinite, then what damage, at the level of the economy of grace, can a limitation on the multiplication of masses possibly bring? Of course, there remain the important points that the author makes about restriction of the access of lay people to the celebration of the Eucharist.
This rather specialized and recondite read needs a persevering reader.