Tate Britain until 26 August
This is a large show of about sixty paintings. And many of the paintings are very large. Only David Hockney amongst living British artists has had so big a show at Tate Britain. Bowling and Hockney were contemporaries at the Royal College of Art, part of a brilliant young generation along with Patrick Caulfield and R.B. Kitaj. Bowling was awarded the College’s Silver Medal (Hockney took Gold, but he left early because of his relationship with the College’s assistant registrar.) In 2005 he became the first black Royal Academician, and though he early on refused the label of black artist, his work does reflect the colour and light and traumatic history of his native Guiana.
Today Bowling’s works are bought straight from the studio by national museums and galleries, but in this country Bowling is barely on the public radar. This may be because he divides his time between New York and London, but also, sad to say, because of his colour, and above all, because his best work is abstract expressionist in the American mould, and that work was produced when abstract expressionism was no longer fashionable. Tate Britain’s retrospective is a gallant attempt to bring Frank Bowling to public attention, though when I went there couldn’t have been more than twenty of the public present. That is a shame, but it gives those who don’t know Bowling’s art a wonderful opportunity to see a representative selection without jostling crowds.
The show is hung chronologically and the first two rooms feature juvenilia. Though Bowling might be unjustly undervalued today, the work on show from the pre-1970s isn’t that special. Indeed, much from that time has been lost or thrown away. Unlike Hockney, Bowling’s early work took a long time to settle. It shows a hodgepodge of influences such as Francis Bacon, Bridget Riley and Jackson Pollock which don’t quite come together.
A move to New York at the start of the Seventies and the support and advice of Clement Greenberg helped Bowling to settle as a colourist—he is a great colourist—and as what he himself describes as being a ‘formalist.’ In other words, his first concern is with the relationship between colour and paint and space rather than the content of the picture, and how the materials of a picture and the way they are used engage the emotions rather than any (political) message.
It is often difficult to describe a Bowling painting. Many are very large—several yards in length in some cases—though there are also very personal small white canvasses of recent years and these are especially lovely. Bowling has experimented with different painting methods (including the introduction of foam and small found objects into his work) throughout his career, but his basic method has been to pour paint from a height onto a canvas which may also be tilted. Of course, this sounds like the worst form of modernist charlatanry. Proverbially a child could do it. Except a child couldn’t. Bowling’s method yields a carefully considered combination of the random and the controlled. If it wasn’t, the paintings wouldn’t look anything like the way they do, and that is as a warm and enticing and endlessly intriguing canvasses.
So, what’s it all about, other than the colour and light and our reaction to them? Some of the works, especially the later ones, have a title given to them. This is because the painting has a particular association with someone or some place, an association which is not figured in the painting, but may be a reference to something which happened when the picture was being painted. Sometimes the title and the work are gently humorous—another reason perhaps for Bowling’s lack of success in the UK art world—the preeminent example being ‘Who’s afraid of Barney Newman’, a rasterised version of a Barnet Newman zip which is both homage to Newman, a fine picture in itself and a bit of a giggle. Other pictures have a political element, especially reflections on the slave trade. These are not figurative depictions of that blot on British history (and not just on British history as the show forgets to say) but are great swathes of colour out of which emerge outlines of the continents, above all Africa. It is a mark of Frank Bowling’s stature that in a painting like ‘Middle Passage’ he can combine traumatic history and political concerns with beauty and technical experimentation and joy in paint.
Sensing the Divine
John’s word made flesh
BRF 2019 £10.99
ISBN 9780857466587 207pp
I’ve been puzzling over John’s Gospel all my life, so I approached Andrew Mayes’s new book with hesitancy. I was rewarded by a commentary starting away from the spiritual and theological in space, time and the senses that somewhat disarmed my questioning. Andrew’s experience of the Holy Land coupled to that of the spiritual direction network equips him to approach John’s account of Christ from a novel perspective helpful to those who struggle with the literal. ‘Sensing the Divine’ has the sub-title ‘John’s word made flesh’. It starts with an imaginative entry into the apostle John’s putting pen to scroll in Ephesus where ‘the very word ‘flesh’ took on a meaning that was visceral, earthy, full of passion’. It’s a great asset to this book that its author knows the ground John knew as well as ‘the intimacy and ultimacy of Jesus, his transcendence and tenderness’.
John’s symbol is the eagle on account of the perceived sublimity of his Gospel. Augustine saw in it ‘teaching soar(ing) to heights far loftier than those attained by the other three evangelists, and it was his wish to carry our hearts with him on his flight… for John spoke of the divinity of our Lord as no other has ever spoken’. The author has a refreshingly different vantagepoint. ‘It is the contention of this book that the fourth gospel is rooted in the dust, dirt and beauty of the earth. It brims with sensuality, alerting and activating our senses, both bodily and spiritual… pervaded by a physicality, a materiality, shot through with transcendence, teeming with divine life’. To Mayes, Irenaeus rather than Augustine captures the heart of John when he says ‘the glory of God is a human being fully alive’. Jesus Christ, Word made flesh, makes God real to our senses through vulnerability, word and sacrament and helps us into life in all its exuberance (John 10:10).
For John knowledge of God comes from relationship with Jesus Christ which goes beyond the contemporary intellectualism of Plato or the Gnostic acquisition of secret ideas. The book starts by celebrating the gospel of John’s emphasis on space and time and goes on to consider how it uses touch, sight, hearing, taste, and smell to communicate the reawakening of life in all its fullness which comes through knowing Jesus (John 17:3). Drawing on Ephrem (d.373) we are called to see Jesus: ‘Let our prayer be a mirror, Lord, placed before your face; then your fair beauty will be imprinted on its luminous surface’. Teresa of Avila is the commentator who listens in the ‘subversive silence’ invited by John. Building from the Cana miracle Mayes invites us with John to taste eternity at the eucharist with a pithy, evocative summary of this rite at the heart of Christianity. The chapter on smell draws on Johannine scholar Raymond Brown’s observation that the use of myrrh ‘and aloes’ at Christ’s tomb evokes the eroticism of Song of Songs 4:9-16. In the last chapter we are reminded how John’s call to mission has three visceral images of washing one another’s feet, bearing fruit and the breath of the Spirit. The disciples mission ‘is communicated and received in the feel of cold water on sweaty feet, the visualisation of dangling succulent grapes, the experience of breath upon their faces’.
I appreciated the weaving in of concise summaries on different schools of Christian spirituality like Ignatian meditation, Teresa of Avila, Benedictine tradition, lectio divina as well as the questions for reflection and prayer exercises provided after each chapter. ‘Sensing the Divine’ attempts and seems to succeed in earthing John’s gospel in contemporary human reality, for, to repeat one of its Merton quotes: ‘let the reality of what’s real sink into you… for through real things we can reach him who is infinitely real’. Why? Because ‘the word was made flesh’ (John 1:14).
THE PROFESSOR & THE PARSON
A Story of Desire, Deceit &
Profile Books £12.99 232pp
My tutor in 17th century History, dead tragically young, told me that Christopher Hill was a lovely man but his history was wrong: Hugh Trevor-Roper’s history was excellent but he was a s***. Until he flew too near the sun, rashly authenticating the bogus Hitler Diaries as genuine, as a result of which his reputation was scorched, if not destroyed, Trevor-Roper was undoubtedly pre-eminent in his profession. Adam Sisman wrote a first-rate biography of him. From material found during his research he has now produced this miniature gem of a book. Trevor-Roper had a penchant for rogues, fraudsters and imposters. He wrote an entertaining biography of one eminent example, Sir Edward Backhouse, which rivals A. J. A. Symons’ classic of the genre, the search for Frederick William Rolfe (aka Baron Corvo).
Robert Peters, sometimes Robert Michael Parkins, or variants of those names, was the subject of that quest. From 1958, their only personal encounter, Trevor-Roper tracked his peregrinations, myriad occupations, several wives (some bigamously married) and assembled a substantial dossier of crimes, lies, misdemeanours, misrepresentations, forgeries, deportations, imprisonments, and deceptions. Peters alights in Switzerland, Canada, U. S. A., South Africa, Australia, Scotland, Ireland plus in a gazetteer of cities, towns and villages in England. In each he perpetrated offences.
His two spheres of activity were the Church and academia. Of high-church persuasion, he trained at St Aidan’s Theological College, Birkenhead, and was ordained by the Bishop of Wakefield in 1941 to serve his title in All Hallows, Almondbury, West Yorkshire. Priested in 1942, the following year found him as curate in St Mary’s, Somers Town. Before and after 1955, when he was defrocked, having been inhibited for some years, he touched down in several parishes including St Alban’s, Holborn, St Barnabas, Oxford, St Mary Magdalen, Oxford (he duped Fr Colin Stephenson), St Paul’s, Covent Garden, St Paul’s Cathedral, and the Annunciation, Marble Arch where Fr Gervase Benett commented that he had given “every semblance of piety” when he requested a Nuptial Mass. This wedding (probably third of seven) was not bigamous but was after divorce: Fr Bennett would not have performed it had he known. Peters also had excursions into the Old Catholic Church and the Old Polish Catholic Church.
He told Magdalen College, Oxford that he had a first class degree from London University, and London that he had a First from Magdalen. A whirligig of jobs, teaching or lecturing, eventually found him under the wing of Professor Gordon Rupp at Manchester where Peters eventually gained a degree, MA, but subsequently passed himself off with a doctorate. With forged testimonials or the promise they would arrive after some glitch or postal delay, he taught in schools, colleges, crammers, universities, seminaries.
At some his tenure lasted more than a few days before the deception was uncovered, often by Trevor-Roper or others who formed a nexus of informants tracking his rackety career. A parade of distinguished historians and ecclesiastics pass through the pages: Tom Boase, Bishop Harry Carpenter, Henry Chadwick, Richard Cobb, Patrick Collinson, (“I have been taken for a ride”), G. R. Elton, Geoffrey Fisher and more.
While this harum scarum raises smiles and eyebrows, he was not a loveable rogue. Beastly to his wives, predatory in the company of young women, blustering and bullying in his teaching, Peters, Sisman concludes, was a textbook case for “narcissistic personality disorder.”
One of Peters’ more perceptive students once commented that one of his lectures was reminiscent of a book he had recently read by E. L. Mascall. Unabashed, Peters retorted, “It was vewy naughty of Ewic to use my lectures … without acknowledgement.”
GRACE AND TRUTH
Twenty Steps to Embracing Virtue and Saving Civilization
ISBN 978 1 682780930
EWTN Publishing, Inc. £11.54, 145pp
Your reviewer, not really a great fan of any television programme which post dates Kenneth Clark’s “Civilisation”, had not, before being asked to review this book, heard of EWTN, whose publishing arm has produced this volume. The acronym stands for The Eternal Word Television Network, a well-established American basic cable television network which presents around-the-clock Catholic themed programming. Despite its American antecedents, it has an international profile in a number of countries, a presence on satellite and shortwave radio, and seems to be available in the United Kingdom on Sky on Channel 588.
Fr Rutler has broadcast programmes on EWTN since the early 1980s, and has been a priest in a number of Roman Catholic parishes in the heart of New York City. The twenty essays in this collection originated as television scripts for the EWTN service. His is, it would be fair to say, a conservative temperament, and his no nonsense approach to some of the wilful excesses of the modern world and the Catholic Church is refreshing, reminiscent of some of his heroes, especially Newman, Chesterton, and Abraham Lincoln, from whom he plentifully quotes in these essays, originating as talks on EWTN. He also quotes Churchill, singing the music hall song “Keep right on till the end of the road” in the garden of 10 Downing Street during the darkest days of the war, to keep his spirits up as a stirring example of the spirit of fortitude. Guided perhaps by these literary models, it is a mark of his distinction as a shaper of the English language that the essays do not betray their origin and nothing in them could be further removed from the popular notion of American Christian television as tub thumping aggressive evangelism. They are scholarly, careful, orthodox, and take no prisoners.
The first of his essays, “The Golden Mean” is the one which sets the tone for the rest of the collection of essays, bearing (as all his essays do) a bracing sub title, “How to Avoid Mediocrity and Embrace Virtue”. “We are, I think, the first culture that has made mediocrity into a virtue. We have confused mediocrity and the golden mean”- that “golden mean” concept, which he sums up in the person of Jesus Christ: “Jesus Christ not only showed the world the golden mean; He was the golden mean. This is why He confused so many people: some thought He was too rigid about the law while others thought He was too lax; some thought He was too worldly while others thought he was too supernatural. This balance is the content of perfection.” This seems to be the essay which his publishers have alighted on in choosing a sub title for the book, which is no doubt intended to reach out to the massive “self-help” market, as setting the tone for the rest of his collection.
The headings of the three parts of the collection perhaps sum up the contents of the book rather better: “Virtues and Abominations”, “Jesus and the Gospels” and “Truth and Civilization”. The readers of this magazine will appreciate Fr Rutler’s unapologetic lack of hesitation in ascribing the perils of modern day living to the flawed natures we inhabit by virtue of our common inheritance of Original Sin, and the rôle that the Church and the Sacraments (yes, he mentions Confirmation) play in thwarting the world, the flesh and the devil, and the lies that all three tell to gain their ends. “There are voices in our society today, that want the Church – the Body of Christ – to lie. They want the Church to water down the truths about God, how He has made the world, how He has saved the world, and how He moves through the Holy Spirit in His Holy Church. There are those who want to refashion the Church according to the Adam in them. But honest souls see through that.” Such direct speaking is not common among the leaders of any denomination of the Church today. That is not to say that Fr Rutler rejects the present – the moving accounts of his direct experience of the horrors of 9/11 are proof of that. But his vision of the apostolic tradition of the Church, in which “the Church passes on the memories of the tribe – the tribe of Christ”, in the heart of which is the memorial of the Mass, is to be celebrated according to tradition, not fashion.
There is therefore a lot here upon which to reflect and from which readers of this magazine might well take encouragement. There is sadly one error, which your reviewer feels bound to point out, in the hope that a second edition of this volume might correct it. One of Fr Rutler’s essays “The Crossroads of Life” considers the importance of crossroads in lives and civilisations: “Consider that the Crucifixion of Christ happened almost equidistant between the capture of Rome by the general Pompey and the destruction of Rome by the emperor Titus.” The city referred to here is surely Jerusalem?
Spirit and Sacrament
An invitation to eucharismatic worship
Zondervan 2018 £9.99
ISBN 978-0310536475 128pp
Rediscovery of the sacraments amongst evangelicals, like a renewed focus on scripture amongst catholics, is a work of the Holy Spirit in our age. Both link to re-engagement with God’s grace across the church and more especially in seeking to more fully understand the gifts or ‘charisms’ of the Holy Spirit. Andrew Wilson ‘dismantles dichotomies that pit the good gifts of God against each other and invites us instead to feast on the whole… drawing from the richness of the Pentecostal-charismatic and sacramental streams… offers a theologically rich and pastorally wise way of holding the best of both worlds together’.
This is a convincing, well-written book imagining a church that captures the best of both worlds, charismatic and sacramental, through placing God’s grace at the centre. Wilson coins the amalgam ‘eucharismatic’, playing on the Greek ‘gracious’ origin of both ‘eucharist’ and ‘charism’, to counter and bid expansion of narrowness in both traditions. The more liturgical churches resonate with the worship of the church through the ages but can lack exuberant praise whereas a focus on exuberance can shrink away from sacraments through unease with their age-old formality. The author is theologian, pastor and prophet of the ‘eucharismatic’ church of the future in which ‘the triune God is experienced… through the physical symbols of bread, wine and water, through the Word read and proclaimed, and the presence of the Holy Spirit among us’.
The book starts with a study on joy centring on Christ quoting G.K.Chesterton: ‘Man is more himself when joy is the fundamental thing in him, and grief the superficial. Melancholy should be an innocent interlude, a tender and fugitive frame of mind; praise should be the permanent pulsation of the soul… the tremendous figure which fills the Gospels towers in that respect’. Divine joy and intimacy with Christ has been inseparable from participation in the Eucharist through the ages, a fact that is well illustrated by numerous quotations from the Saints. They often speak in a similar language to those who in our own age write about experiencing baptism or being filled with the Holy Spirit.
‘What do you have that you did not receive?’ is the provocative title of a chapter on the eucharist followed by another chapter providing biblical defence of charismatic practice in the face of both evangelical and catholic detractors. The Corinthian church is charismatic, sacramental – and sinful! Despite shortcomings in the use of the charisms there is no question that when it comes to their pursuit Paul says ‘zealously desire spiritual gifts’ (1 Corinthians 14:1). Wilson traces use of these supernatural gifts through church history providing a fine apologetic for the charismatic movement.
The book ends with a chapter on how churches might become more ‘eucharismatic’ bearing in mind ‘we are adding practices that some in the church may associate with legalism, lunacy, or both’! The pastor’s opportunist eye to helping shape up church vitality is evident, serving liturgical churches as they introduce the ministry of prayer to individuals as well as charismatic churches incorporating the Creed, commending musical settings or background music as the text is recited together. To become ‘eucharismatic’ is an aspiration to make the most of God’s gifts of Word, Sacrament and Spirit which ‘could make some churches louder, some churches quieter, and some churches both’. In its aspiration to increase joy and deepen worship in churches across traditions ‘Spirit and Sacrament’ is a gift of a book.