Royal Academy

until 3rd January, 2018


Degas from the Burrell

National Gallery

until 7th May, 2018   


These two shows ask questions about the nature of art and what makes an innovative artist. There are also some beautiful paintings for those who like that sort of thing.

If you’ve ever gone into an art show and thought ‘a child could do that’ blame Duchamp. As a young artist he wasn’t accepted into any of the -isms of the early twentieth century. He thought the art market was a bit of a racket. And he believed that art is whatever an artist says is art. Or as Humpty Dumpty put it, ‘When I use a word … it means what I choose it to mean.’

Duchamp’s choice of a urinal as a found object (a version is in the show) was the beginnings of Conceptual Art, one of the dominant strains in western art in the last hundred years, and the enfleshment of the systemic doubt engendered by Freud, Darwin and Einstein.

The show has good examples/copies of Duchamp’s work including his bicycle wheel, ‘The king and queen surrounded by swift nudes’, ‘The bride stripped bare by her bachelors’, and some early Mona Lisas with moustaches. These works are often more playful than the philosophising about them would let on. And they are art because the holy triad of curators and dealers and collectors say they are. For as Humpty Dumpty wisely went on to say, the question is, not what do words mean but who will be master?

The Academy provides a perspective on Duchamp’s conceptual work with early paintings of people and places and later sketches based on Old Masters such as Lucas Cranach and Ingres. The paintings are dull but the drawings show a love of the western tradition, and suggest there was more to Duchamp than intellectual kicking over the traces.

Salvador Dalí, the groundbreaking showman and celebrity artist, was a good friend of Duchamp and like him never quite fitted into the -isms of his day. He was a very fine painter at a technical level and the show has a number of his extremely detailed works. The most famous of these is the ‘Christ of St John of the Cross’. This painting has been very popular with religiously-minded folk, though the critics have said it is kitsch. At the very least it is a cultural phenomenon and a highlight of this exhibition.

Dalí’s use of religion in art, and his acquiescence to Franco’s Spain, and his financial success, made him a hate figure to the Dadaists and Surrealists. But he became one of the most accessible of modern artists, partly because his work is so highly finished and partly because it hints at subconscious depths without actually plumbing them. As Freud shrewdly said, Dalí’s ideas are not hidden, they’re there on the surface. And like the jokes in Duchamp that was the point.

The Academy is showing a small but representative number of important Dalí paintings: ‘The Spectre of Sex Appeal’, ‘Morte Nature Vivante’, ‘The First Days of Spring’. There is also the lobster telephone, films of Dalí the proto-performance artist, and lots of sex and death.

There’s lots of the female body too in Degas but not much sex. Degas didn’t look at the female body with affection or lust, but his eye was constant and unflinching and he painted many, many pictures of women. In his day, simply to show women in private having a wash or combing their hair was to go too far. Today Degas shocks because of his (deserved) reputation for misogyny. But what is gripping, in any age, is that constant eye. Degas was not a man to fit in, any more than Duchamp and Dalí were, but he saw clearly and painted what he saw with a tremendous élan. His technical sophistication arises from a love and manipulation of different media. That is what makes a great artist, not ‘philosophy’.

The National Gallery’s exhibition of the Burrell’s Degas collection – the Burrell is currently closed for renovation – is enhanced by a number of its own works. Most of the exhibits are in crayon and the hang expertly shows how Degas’ technique and style changed over time.

There are two stand-out works from the Burrell. One is of a woman on her own looking out at the observer through opera/field glasses. To contemporaries the unattached female observer was a new and disturbing feature of Parisian life. In Degas’ picture the shock is compounded since the woman’s eyes are hidden by her glasses. She holds our attention even while we hope we have caught hers. The effect is disconcerting but created within the classic conventions of brown background, modulated tones and balanced shapes and brushwork.

The second important work from the Burrell is of a naked woman bending at 90 degrees in a tub. This is an even more radical piece. The work is in crayon, with swathes of vermillion carpet/wall/background set against the warm, greenish flesh tones of the woman, and the blue circle of the bath, itself set on a circle of white bath mat. The abstract design of background/ mat/bath is saved from crudity by the stroke work of the crayon and the angular curves of the woman. It is a mesmeric work. And free to visit.

Owen Higgs





Shaping the World to Come

Patrick Whitworth

Sacristy Press 462pp pbk

ISBN: 978-191051947 £20


Catholic faith today is not primarily about opposing the ordination of women, or resisting the redefinition of marriage. Nor is it largely centred on lace albs and exotic Latin vestments, though one may sometimes wonder about that from the photographs in some of our publications. Catholic faith is a living river with its source in the New Testament. It flowed through the first centuries acquiring substance, shape and a life which has remained vigorous till today. This is the faith which many in our church want now to re-shape, water down and make more acceptable to modern people. It is, apparently, people today (some of them!) who must decide what the Church should believe, and God, being nice and good, will always agree with them.

I do not know what view Patrick Whitworth has on these issues but he has done us all a service by writing this clear and readable account of the crucial years between 381 and 451. This period concerned the definitions of Christ some of which turned on the acceptance of Mary as Mother of God. Most of us today find it hard to understand these issues, as we struggle with the Nicene definitions, too. The language is hard and the definitions complex, yet they are worth grappling with as they help us to appreciate what a remarkable work God did in the Incarnation and how deeply he needed to work in us in order to bring about our salvation. That is the thing to remember: trinitarian and christological definitions are not complicated mathematical equations describing a complex reality, but actual descriptions of how we come to be saved. So they describe the mercy, the love and the painstaking patience of God.

What complicated these issues at the time was the relationship between church and state. After Constantine had legitimised the Christian church the Emperors had a huge influence on the development of doctrine. Getting the right definition established usually meant getting the right emperor on your side. Those who are unhappy with the current relationship of church and state in England would be appalled by the bullying and chicanery of the church leaders in the early centuries. What is so confusing for us is that really good, saintly people engaged in outright thuggery. Chrysostom was a wonderful preacher, a compassionate priest, and one who devoted all the money he could find to the care of the poor, yet he racheted up the persecution of the Jews. Cyril of Alexandria was a fine theologian yet obsessed with his power and he took part in persecuting Chrysostom to his death. Augustine was the greatest theologian the church has ever had (after Paul), but he used the powers of the state to destroy the Donatists. So the unhappy story goes on. The Church still needs to engage with the secular powers; working out how to do so is a deeply catholic thing to do.

Whitworth separates out the main characters – Ambrose, Augustine, Chrysostom, Jerome, Cyril and describes both their lives and their theological or biblical contributions. Mostly he does this in a clear and readable way, though it is hard to keep track of the secular events going on at the same time. The weakness of the book, apart from a certain degree of repetition which a bit of tighter editing could have sorted out, is the lack of a really robust idea of the Church. We are presented with a very human church, full of strong but often flawed characters. What we do not get is a sense of the mystical Body of Christ which embraced all these characters and gradually, through the Holy Spirit, brought a stronger form of Christianity into existence.

In our own struggles today, not just the ecclesiological ones which divide us from each other, but with the large issues if environment, Islam, and our relationism with secularism we need the vision of a living body of the Church which has (to change the imagery) flowed down the ages and has not actually dried up into a lot of little pools. With all our divisions and confusions we are still part of this Church. Thanks be to God!

Nicolas Stebbing CR



The Bible in the Eucharist

Paula Gooder and Michael Perham

SPCK 128pp £10.99

ISBN 9780281069132


All of our services are liturgical, the real question is whether the liturgy is good or bad; whether it offers a hot meal or a tepid snack; and most crucially whether it presents the truths of the Scriptures or merely regurgitates worldly concerns. Across the spectrum of the Church of England, a whole variety of liturgical forms are on display. Some prefer the hymn-sandwich, others the poetry of the 1662 BCP, whilst some brave souls have worked through the options provided in Common Worship (CW). As an Ordinand sent from a large evangelical church which preferred the hymn-sandwich approach, I expected to be taught about liturgy, and in particular the BCP and CW options available, whilst at college and yet very little formal teaching was provided. As I arrived in parish, with a middle-of-the-road tradition, one of the big steps from college to parish was learning and understanding the Common Worship liturgy, whilst at the same time leading it. I had been well taught, both by my sending church, and by my college how to preach, but formal liturgy was alien to me. On being ordained presbyter the confusion only increased with the variety of Eucharistic Prayers available, and if it wasn’t for the kind and gentle oversight of my Training Incumbent I would have been lost.

What I didn’t know was that there was a short, easy-to-read book, which explained not only what Propers, Prefaces, and Collects were, but more importantly for me what each part of the liturgy, and in particular each CW Eucharist Prayer, was trying to achieve. Better later than never, a friend gave me a copy of Echoing the Word. This book assumes you know virtually nothing about formal liturgy and works its way through the English CW Communion service introducing and explaining as it goes. Gooder and Perham explain the back drop of Cranmer’s Prayer Book, the Roman and ancient rites, and the influence it they have had on Common Worship; whilst at each point connecting what is being said to the biblical allusions behind the words (an index of biblical references is provided at the back). Something of the process and rationale for changes is explained, as well as for each of the Eucharistic Prayers which were created. The explanations are clearly stated without obvious bias either for or against each decision, and the reader is left to decide for themselves which options they prefer. My background had instilled in me a natural suspicion for Common Worship, and thus it was a surprise for me to learn how with a basic understanding of the CW options a gospel-soaked formal liturgy could be offered which was completely legal. I could have done with this in my deacon year, and I will certainly be encouraging friends who are about to be ordained to have a read. Whether engaging with the wider Church, taking a post in a middle-of-the-road church, or are merely seeking to improve the quality of the formal liturgy that they offer, this book is a valuable first step.

Mike Print