America after the Fall:
Painting in the 1930s
until 4th June 2017
If you know very little about American art in the 1930s, this show explains why. Like many things in the American century, American art didn’t get going until after the Second World War with the great abstract expressionists. After 1945 the money had well and truly attracted the art, and the great American collectors no longer had to buy up the stately homes of England or continental Europe. In the twenties and thirties it was a different matter, and there were simply not the artists of a calibre to compare with Picasso or Matisse. This exhibition shows us what the American scene looked like before Pollock and Rothko and Rauschenberg (there is an early Pollock which shows how far he later travelled). As the catalogue implies, it is best to take the show as an illustration of American history rather than an aesthetic experience.
And on the purely historical level the show is interesting. The fact of industrialization and the fact of racial prejudice and the fact of agricultural depression: each is brought home. Industrialization features in the finest work on show, Charles Sheeler’s ‘American Landscape’ of 1930. This painting celebrates Ford’s new Red River plant, then the largest industrial complex in the world. There is one tiny human figure, the rest is river, sky and the plant – the plant takes the place of woods and fields in a traditional landscape. And so rail tracks provide the horizontals, a huge smoking chimney an elegant vertical. The muted colours suggest calm and clean and order. Man has not so much as conquered or harnessed nature but made nature part of manufacturing. It is a beautiful picture, but one with the false charm of an advertisement.
A real ad is Charles Green Shaw’s ‘Wrigley’s’ of 1937, a mock up for a proposed advertising campaign. This picture anticipates the later pop art of Warhol, and plays with a dynamic gum packet set against a shorthand cubistic New York skyline. It’s no more than an experiment but the ideas are interesting.
In apparently direct contrast to Sheeler’s work is the pin-up of the show, Grant Wood’s ‘American Gothic’ of 1930. The Academy shows two other works by Wood which help understand why only this work is widely known. Grant was a sly painter and it is not obvious what his take is on this apparently upstanding, puritanical, hardworking, white farming couple. But the couple weren’t farmers. In real life they were Grant’s dentist and Grant’s own sister and possibly they are meant to be father and daughter. They were added only after the farmhouse was painted in what is now the background, and the American Gothic of the title refers to the architecture of the farmhouse, not the people. Nevertheless, the people of Iowa – where the work was painted – protested against it as a satire on farming folk. Grant himself later sided with poor farmers ruined by the Depression and suggested this work was a celebration of frontier spirit. Well, however we understand it, this is a weird and hallucinatory work, the more so because of the strands which have escaped from the female sitter’s tightly drawn back hair. The Grand Guignol of ‘Twin Peaks’ isn’t far away.
The contrast with Sheeler is only apparent since both have an essentially urban eye and treat the same historical theme: the transformation of America and its landscape by industry. Grant’s farmers are the losers in this, but then so are Americans as a whole. The show has a number of works which demonstrate human degradation in the face of industry, usually with references to drink, dancing and coloured Americans (seen either as victims or as little better than savages, dragging down the white trash). The most renowned artist of the reality of the American dream is Edward Hopper, but both the pictures exhibited here are better in the catalogue than in real life. The paintwork is sub-Renoir and the compositions are essentially the same – a lonely figure in a pool of light set off by horizontal lines. It is hard not to think that Hopper was reworking a worn-out formula. A comparison with Jacob van Ruisdael who could be equally formulaic – or JMW Turner with his red dots as popularized by Mike Leigh’s film – shows how much Hopper’s flat painting style prevents variety. That might be a subtle comment on the USA, but I doubt it. If you see this show, try also to see the American prints exhibition at the British Museum, which shows how radically art in the USA changed after 1945.
EXPERIENCING CHRIST’S LOVE
BRF 96pp £6.99
Experiencing Christ’s Love takes a fresh look at what it means to keep a rule of life with the aim of living effective Christian lives.
Traditionally, a rule of life means following a rule of worship, prayer, study, service and reflection. For many, though, after setting out with high intentions, the keeping of a rule in these five ways falls away. Life’s many distractions – and boredom, as well as spiritual sloth – often take over and undermine our best plans. Our love for Christ can then grow cold.
John Twisleton encourages us to takes a fresh look at the above five commitments, and he suggests that we can think of these five as ‘a hand that can grasp the hand of God which reaches down to me in Jesus Christ to raise into his service and praise with all the saints’.
He declares himself an Anglo-Catholic, but his style of writing comes from a heart full of positive evangelical zeal and love of Christ!
His aim is to re-invigorate that original commitment to keep a rule of life so as to become more effective disciples of Jesus. The prime purpose of keeping a rule is not for its own sake, but to grow in the experience of what it means to love and be loved by God. To do this he takes us back to the foundations of our faith in the Scriptures, the Creeds, and the teaching of the spiritual teachers of the Church.
The heading to each of the five chapters of the book is based on the Law as summarized by Jesus in the Gospel – the command to love God with our whole being and to love our neighbour as ourselves. Each chapter then opens with a reflection on the experience of Christ’s love, followed by how we need to deal with self-deception, and concludes with how Christ gives us ‘a hand in hand’ to help us to keep our rule of life.
Twisleton gives many examples of how he has experienced Christ’s love. Some of these are drawn from his earlier life and the personal crises he has had to face, others from his later pastoral experiences as a priest working in various settings.
He describes how in the process of learning the experience of Christ’s love, we have often to go through periods of self-deception. But by persevering in faith we can come to a fresh understanding that Christ’s love transcends all our human frailties, failures, sins and our spiritual death. We are to turn to Jesus in repentance and faith, again and again, by prayer – notably by the use of the Jesus Prayer. I was reminded of St. Benedict’s words ‘Always we begin again’, and that we ascend by humility. Twisleton underscores the importance of how the sacraments of the Eucharist and Reconciliation are essential for meeting Jesus and for the restoration of our life in Christ and the Church.
The author draws on a wide range of writers and theologians, past and present, that he has read and found helpful to widen his vision. A bibliography is provided at the end of the book for further reading. He also describes the guidance he has received from people who have influenced him during his long ministry. His mentors have been from a variety of Christian backgrounds and spiritual traditions, and these experiences have been profitably integrated into his own spiritual life and enriched his own worship and prayer life.
As is appropriate for a Bible Reading Fellowship publication, we are given a good number of passages of Scripture. These are presented to help us to deepen our understanding of why we read the Bible and why must always use it as the foundation of our prayer life and praise as well as our study and inspiration to serve God in others.
I found the introduction of bullet points in various places in the text useful, particularly in the last two chapters on service of others and self-reflection.
The autobiographical material made me aware that I was reading the spiritual and pastoral struggles of a modern priest, who has found that keeping his rule of life has brought him through the ups and downs of his ministry in the present Church. Much of this material is put to good effect to offer helpful advice and guidance. I am sure many will find reading the wisdom distilled from an experienced priest’s diary and spiritual journal an encouragement to make their own spiritual journal and review their rule of life.
Although published at the end of Lent on Palm Sunday (see the Palm fronds on the cover), I think this book could be put to good use as a Lenten study for discussion with some leading questions at the end of each chapter.
Book of the month
and the Conversion of England
Bloomsbury 448pp £26.99
‘But Wales, Richard?’ We all have our own S Thomas More. The More of Richard Bolton’s A Man for all Seasons was perhaps a More for the season of 1966 – dry, ironic, sophisticated. Hilary Mantel’s more recent and very profitable More suits the fiercer, narrower Zeitgeist of this millennium: it has now become dangerous to admire a saint of a Christian church which dares to question the shibboleths of these days: abortion, gender fluidity, and (almost) unlimited sexual licence. Perhaps, too, there are personal undertones in Mantel’s portrait of More. There seems to be something of a tendency for lapsed Catholics to resent the faith from which they have fallen – as if they need to spend their lives convincing themselves that their apostasy was justified. But where shall we find More’s More?
C S Lewis suggested that, before we read a new book, we should read or re-read two old ones. Not because the truth resides more reliably in the past than in the present, but because the characteristic errors and virtues of each age are different; by such reading, we stand a chance of keeping the clean wind of Truth blowing through our culture. Eamonn Duffy has made an industry of reading from the original Tudor texts rather than into them. The Stripping of the Altars convinced us of the vibrancy of late medieval Catholicism; Fires of Faith demonstrated that the ‘Marian reaction’ was no reaction but the cruelly extinguished beginning of a dynamic and principled Counter-Reformation. In Reformation Divided, he now presents us with a series of papers, most of which have already appeared in academic journals but are here revised and re-issued to mark 500 years since Martin Luther discovered that Papists were just as bad (and for exactly the same reasons) as the Jews whom he so detested. But this cobbler sticks to his own last, and Duffy’s book concentrates on aspects of an English Reformation which, to be pedantic, was, in 1517, not just years but decades away. And he begins by revisiting More. He includes detailed accounts of recent academic discussion of More. But his own enquiries emerge from engagement with More’s own texts. Duffy understands the dangers of creating a More in the image or counter-image of our own day, and succeeds in presenting a fresh account of the Erasmian humanist who became a discoverer and persecutor of heretics. In a characteristically Duffian twist which faithful Duffians will recognize and relish, Duffy concludes by recollecting that in 1533 Erasmus himself wrote to the King of Scots urging that Tyndale’s New Testament be suppressed. ‘It seems that by the early 1530s, in face of the Protestant challenge, even for Erasmus himself the Erasmian moment may have passed.’
Although Reformation Divided is presented as a book, the origin of its ‘chapters’ in periodical literature gives it a certain unevenness. The towering, dynamic, charismatic figure of William Cardinal Allen receives only a fairly slight piece analysing the motives which lay behind the original foundation of his College at Douai. It was, we gather, a ‘holding’ operation at a time when the Elizabethan Settlement was still unsettled. Frankly, I found this ‘chapter’ a trifle dry. And occasionally there are repetitious overlaps. But there is plenty in this volume to engage us. There are unexpected facts which subvert the facile expectations of Protestant (and Whig) historiography: Cardinal Pole sent a Spanish Dominican, Carranza, to liberate Oxford from heresy … of course he did, we think; a fierce Spanish Inquisitor whom we might have met type-cast in the pages of Charles Kingsley. But Carranza was an Erasmian, a liberal, who spent the last seventeen years of his life imprisoned by… the Inquisition! And there are vivid, vibrant worlds which may be unknown to some readers.
One such world is that of the English ‘Recusant’ community. You might have thought that the Church of the English Martyrs (see 4 May in your Ordo!) would have been a heroic tight-knit body. In Duffy’s pages you will make the acquaintance of a church so violently divided that, clearly, at some points the factions loath each other more than they do the common, Protestant, enemy. The division was between the secular clergy and their adherents, and the Jesuits. There was dogma involved; the seculars were accused of Jansenism; they were unenthusiastic about papal infallibility, indulgences, cults of the saints, and all that ‘Mediterranean’ religiosity. In the 1860s, a (mad) ultramontane called Mgr George Talbot characterised this culture as ‘National, Anglican, Jansenistic’. Mark Tierney, Chaplain to the Duke of Norfolk, was no admirer of the restoration of the hierarchy in 1850: the Roman Catholic cause had been ‘thrown back at least a century’ by ‘the appearance of so obnoxious a person as a cardinal, the pomp and style of an archbishop, and above all, the lordly tone of power and domination by which … the new cardinal [Wiseman] announced his elevation and proclaimed his authority’. Going back to 1715 (a year when the more bellicose recusants might have had other preoccupations), an anti-Jesuit writer opined that the aim of the Society of Jesus, in all its doings, was to ‘cut the [secular] Clergies Throats’. A generation before, we can listen to a secular priest who had worked at the Lime Street Roman Catholic Chapel until he was turned out by the Jesuits; and who then became one of James II’s Roman Catholic fellows at Magdalen College. On the eve of the Dutch Invasion of 1688 the poor chap was turned out of Magdalen too so that the dispossessed Anglican fellows could return; and his comment was that the ‘Protestant Parsons’ had thrown him out with much greater ‘civility’ than had his own Jesuit co-religionists!
Page after page of Duffy is sheer fun; and this volume is to be unambiguously commended. Some readers might relish one final, bizarre, detail. In the 1930s, an attempt was made (‘the Dutch Touch’) to circumvent papal condemnation of Anglican Orders by involving bishops of the Dutch Old Catholic Church in Anglican episcopal consecrations. That body had started when jansenistic Dutch Catholics broke from Rome in 1702 after the Vicar Apostolic of Holland had been suspended. Relations between the English secular clergy, and the jansenist clergy of Holland, were close and warm. So close, so warm, that in 1714, the Dutch schismatics asked Bishop Bonaventure Giffard, Vicar Apostolic of the London District, to… ordain priests for them! Of course, he had to say no, but, as Duffy comments, ‘That the English vicars apostolic could be considered a possible source of ordinations for the schismatic church is itself, however, significant!’