Jasper Johns

‘Something resembling truth’

Royal Academy

until 11th December, 2017


Jasper Johns (b. 1930) was a great artist in New York in the 1950s and 60s. Along with Robert Rauschenberg, Merce Cunningham and John Cage he was part of a new direction in post-Jackson Pollock American art. Despite the simplicity of his work Johns became a progenitor of Pop Art and Conceptualism and Minimalism. To some he is also Neo-Dadaist. And there are nods to Duchamp in his work, and to Picasso and Degas and Grünewald.

Johns’ early paintings look like something a child might do – except no child ever does – yet Johns is a thinking painter. He drew on Freud and Wittgenstein to develop his ideas about sex and death, and the meaning of symbols in context. But he is a painter who loves to paint, often in thick, fast-drying encaustic. He also sculpts and makes prints, and uses collage and found objects. There is little of Johns’ work on show in this country and this is the first retrospective in the U.K. for forty years. It’s very good the Royal Academy has given us this opportunity to get to know some of his output.

The not very big elephant-in-the-room, disguised by the show’s thematic emphasis, is that John’s later works do not have the same energy and zest and intellectual rightness of his earlier ones. His core idea that meaning is created by context, and that symbols therefore have a different, fluid presence outside of context, is a little thin-stretched over fifty years. The much larger elephant-in-the-room is that that idea misses the point. Just as Freud thought repression was a good and necessary thing, only for people to think repression got in the way of authenticity, so the point about symbols is that they have to exist in a context. Outside of context they don’t exist.

Of course, we don’t go to artists for philosophy, we go to them for a vision and whether they are able to transmit that vision. On that score Jasper Johns is worth a good look: which is what he wanted. Apart from art works dreamt up in the bath – they represent a distinct topos in his œuvre – an important element in Johns’ painting is the transmission of vision, what he described as a moment of grace which helps us see beyond what we usually see in an object. The defining example of that grace for Johns was a momentary sight of the colours and pattern of a passing automobile. That became the seed of some of his abstract patterns. And these patterns serve the classic and inspiring aspect of Johns’ work – they make us see afresh.

Yet for all the thought and intention behind his work it’s very easy to glance at a Johns’ painting and think ‘There’s nothing much here.’ But that would be shallow looking. The pieces in this exhibition need time or they don’t make sense. It helps to have an understanding of some of Johns’ private mythology to get the references and to confirm what we might sense he is trying to achieve. Anything else is art gallery flim-flam, and the curators at the Academy have mercifully avoided that — they even repeat one introductory piece in three different rooms. But once we have the confidence to trust that what we see does fit in with what Johns is trying to achieve then the works help us catch a glimpse of the world in a new light.

The simplicity of Johns’ (early) subject matter helps. The point is to help people to see, not by putting them through a series of complex optical hoops which only the initiated and the leisured can grasp, like, say, a visual equivalent of Radical Orthodoxy. Instead, by taking everyday objects and making painted or sculpted versions of them, the objects and their painting/sculpting can be seen afresh.

So, Johns has repeatedly painted targets, maps, numbers and the American flag. Each target or flag could be used as a target or flag, the signifying being the signified and all very semiotic, or quasi-sacramental. But the ten bronzes ‘0-9’ are very satisfying to look at. Yes, you can have a sense of the symbols aside from their use as numbers. More to the point, the balance and the different shades of the metal and the figuration are pleasing and harmonious.

It is possible that Johns lacks the technical ability to paint figures — as did JMW Turner — but that doesn’t matter when you look at one of his flag paintings. These are pictures of the Stars and Stripes, some on an orange background, some in white and collage, and all usable as flags. That utility is hardly the point. The paint and its application are the thing. These markings can’t be imagined and reproductions are particularly unhelpful.     

Owen Higgs




Celebrating with Our Lady Every Day of the Year

Paul Haffner

Gracewing  619pp £20

ISBN  978 0852448960


Written as his personal contribution for the hundredth anniversary of the apparitions of Our Lady at Fatima, Paul Haffner brings his impressive credentials as a professor of theology at Rome’s esteemed Gregorian University to bear upon this contemporary Marian calendar.  Although looking like a weighty tome due to its length of more than six hundred pages, readers should not be daunted by tackling this text which gives historical explanations of a great many places and feasts associated with the Blessed Virgin Mary. Written in an easily understandable style, this book is not a theological treatise on the place of Mary within the Church.  Instead it follows in the devotional lineage of traditional Marian calendars and is a useful prayer guide for calling to our attention the actions that the Mother of God has undertaken on behalf of people throughout the ages.

The author endeavoured to list each Marian festival on the actual date of its celebration, but rather than doubling up the feasts when several fall on the same date, he has moved some to nearby dates.  This was done with the deliberate intention of providing a Marian feast for every day of the year, and by this action Haffner has succeeded in creating a book consisting of 365 chapters whereby the entire year is dedicated to the Virgin Mary’s honour.  Every one of these chapters is able to stand alone, for although the entire book is focused upon Our Lady yet the individual chapters each form a complete account of the particular Marian shrine and feast described for that day of the year.

The cosmopolitan nature of the global faith of Christianity is conveyed by the expansive breadth of the locations that are featured in this book, and Marian festivals from around the world provide vivid examples of the benevolent influence that Our Lady has had not only upon traditional Christian nations but also in non-Christian lands.  With current wars and terrorist events graphically illustrating behaviours of animosity and violent aggression between Islam and Christianity, it is heartening to read in several of the chapters the shared love that people in both of these faiths have for Mary.

Although written from the perspective of Roman Catholic teaching about the Mother of God, none the less this book is accessible to people in other ecclesial traditions because the author has striven to include only those apparitions, revelations and miracles which are not contrary to Scripture or the historical traditions of the Church.  Organised by the calendar year, there is a chapter for every day from 1st January to 31st December.  However, since some Marian feasts have been moved from their traditional date of celebration when multiple festivals fall on the same day, readers may not always find a specific feast on the day when they are accustomed to keeping it.  Another challenge to the ease of searching for a specific topic in this book is the lack of an index listing the locations of the Marian shrines by their geographical positions. Yet aside from that small inconvenience, Haffner’s book is worthy of your exploration as it conveys the value of the Virgin Mary’s influence and mediation on our behalf from the earliest centuries of the Church to the present day.  

Dennis Berk CR



Victorian Mythmaker


John Murray 438 pp. £25

ISBN 978-1444794885


This is a book about the changing of minds: the changing of the author’s mind about Charles Darwin’s significance, the slow development of Charles Darwin’s own theories, and the changing of the Victorian mind about the origins of life. So this is a brave book, because any historical figure who gets his or her portrait on the British ten pound note is deemed to be a national treasure beyond criticism. The book’s adverse reviews have revealed the sensitivity of the scientific establishment towards any challenge to the intellectual supremacy of the bearded sage whose two ton statue dominates the Natural History Museum (with its new steel and glass “Darwin Centre”) he did not found. For readers of New Directions, enslaved as we are in our generation by the religion of neo-Darwinism, this book is a joy.  Into the Victorian world which Wilson is so good at populating come the clergy scientists (Darwin himself, while sailing in HMS Beagle, faced the prospect of life as a clergyman) who were not Creationist bigots, but eager and expert enquirers into the latest fossil discoveries and their scientific value. They wanted to know how and why the natural world changed. From the way the neo-Darwinians describe their hero today, and as a result of Darwin’s own genius for self-promotion, we might think that Darwin was the one and only pioneer of Evolution, resisted along the way by the Christian establishment. The truth is otherwise. Wilson guides us through the stacks of publications, the reception of the discoveries of explorers such as Humboldt, the correspondence with others on the very same evolution track such as Alfred Russel Wallace, the public disputes (with a fine account of the nerve wracking British Association meeting in Oxford in 1860, when Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford and son of the abolitionist, met his match with T.H.Huxley), and Wilson even finds a part for John Henry Newman, as the author of The Development of Christian Doctrine. “[The] idea of mutation, development, evolution, was central to the Victorian mind-set.” Charles Lyell’s magisterial Principles of Geology (published 1830-33; Darwin read the first volume when not being seasick on the Beagle) was in every country house library.

As Wilson says, “A biography of Darwin must, chiefly, be the biography of an idea … Darwin’s idea, first published to the world in 1859, of what we now call evolution.” Nevertheless, Wilson does a great job with the Life. He explores Darwin’s antecedents, including Erasmus Darwin, Charles Darwin’s grandfather, who was well on the way to an account of evolutionary theory himself. There is a riveting narrative of the famous Voyage of HMS Beagle, with descriptions of the constant hardships on board, the close encounters with the Fuegians, and the temperamental clashes with the bipolar Captain Robert FitzRoy. How young those heroes were! Darwin was twenty-two when the Beagle sailed. Captain FitzRoy was twenty-six. It is at this stage that we begin to understand where Darwin’s fame should lie. He was the greatest naturalist of his generation, an indefatigable cataloguer, the master of many scientific disciplines, geology, palaeontology, zoology. We are then removed from the open seas to the lock down of Victorian upper middle class family life, the debilitating illness, the deaths of children, the paralysing domesticity. No wonder Darwin wanted to stay in and ahead of the game in the intense scientific debates in the 1850s.  As if to prove his own theory of natural selection, be began by elbowing aside all worthy competitors, such as Sir Richard Owen, who was the true creator of the Natural History Museum.

It is Wilson’s contention that the principle of Natural Selection, as defined by Darwin (influenced by Thomas Robert Malthus, the economist), is a struggle for existence, and that this spoke to the Victorian gentry, the top dogs of their day, as “a consoling myth”, presupposing their natural superiority. The struggle for existence and dominance among human beings is not always so benign, as the conflicts of the twentieth century have shown us. Here Wilson sees the influence of Darwin (as enforced by the neo-Darwinian myrmidons) as malign. From the Darwinian angle, there is no place in nature, even in human nature, for compassion, unselfishness, forgiveness, nor for anything preached by Christ. That is the prevailing view today. This book should give us the nerve to challenge this exclusion of Christian values from any world view. In the Darwinian religion the meek shall not inherit the earth.

Darwin came to disbelieve in Christianity. But the readers of his great work, On the Origin of Species, did not necessarily reach that conclusion. The opposition to Darwin came not from the Christians, but from his fellow scientists. The Victorians learnt to live with their doubts, as we do now. It is, after all, possible to believe two things at once. So take a walk with me in London in late 1859. We enter the new-fangled church of All Saints, Margaret Street (opened 1859), and kneel at the altar rail. Beneath our knees swim the vegetal shapes of the very visible fossil life of 330 million years ago, preserved for us in polished Derbyshire limestone. A short amble takes us down Regent Street, where we purchase Mr. Darwin’s new book, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (John Murray, first edition 1859). An uncontroversial walk and a profitable one, because, thanks to the Darwinian mythmaking which Wilson so ably exposes, the First Edition now sells for over £60,000. For a gripping explanation of this phenomenon, you can buy A.N.Wilson’s illustrated biography of Darwin. They share the same reliable publisher.

Julian Browning



Iraqi Christian Martyrs

Robert Ewan

Gracewing 256pp 11.99

ISBN- 978-0852449127

The history of Iraq is truly remarkable and quite exceptional. As a land it has been the setting for biblical accounts stretching back to the start of the Old Testament and can also proudly declare that it was one of the first locations the disciples and apostles of our Lord ventured out into during those early missionary journeys. Yet for all of this Christian history and heritage, the soil in Iraq has for too long been soaked in the blood of martyrs.

I was fortunate enough to spend a week in Iraq working alongside Canon Andrew White, the Vicar of Baghdad, during the summer of 2011 whilst I was a seminarian at the College of the Resurrection, Mirfield. I will never forget how inspirational Iraqi Christians truly are. At that time in 2011, as throughout the vast majority of Iraqi history, Christians in the country were suffering horrendous persecution. Canon White and I could only leave our secure Anglican compound with the protection of twenty armed guards in a convoy of bullet proof trucks. Whilst we as Westerners were awarded such protection, every Iraqi Christian had to walk to the church, completely unarmed; a ridiculously easy target for the murderous extremists on the lookout for Christians they could kill. How many of us could genuinely say we would attend church each Sunday if we knew that there was a high chance that we would be abducted, tortured and then brutally murdered? Yet the Christians in Iraq do this week after week, fearless in their faith.

Robert Ewan’s excellent book takes us on a journey through 2000 years that allows us to delve much deeper into the life of the Christian community in Iraq and the pain that it has suffered from generation to generation. After a brief introduction into the history of Christianity in Iraq the book continues with an overview of the persecution that the Church in this land has habitually faced. The core of the book is the stories of many different martyrs throughout the centuries concluding with a massacre from 2010. I wish I could say that this was the conclusion of Christian persecution in Iraq, but sadly as is well documented, the modern development of ISIS has meant a new and even more brutal chapter in the history of Christianity in Iraq has begun.

The accounts recorded in this book cannot but help to inspire all Christians. Each chapter contains heroic and fearless reports of faith in Jesus Christ to the point of martyrdom. However, this book does not allow the reader to fall into the romantic notion of martyrdom which we can all too easily slip into. Robert Ewan does not hold back on the details and at times the accounts of brutal massacres can be distressing, but these are the stories that need to be told and have to be heard; we cannot fall into the sin of ignoring the plight of our brothers and sisters in Iraq. This book is an account of some incredibly brave Christian martyrs, some heroically chose such a path; others were murdered simply because they lived in Iraq and chose to be a Christian. Either way, their collective testimony has the power to inspire us; both in our own commitment to the faith but also to energise us to pray fervently for peace and religious freedom for the courageous and defiant Iraqi people.

Ben Bradshaw