National Portrait Gallery
until 11th February, 2018
The National Portrait Gallery is showing one third of Cézanne’s extant portraits, five per cent of the total of all his paintings. It is a niche show, but the curators argue that the portraits were often made at important turning points in Cézanne’s career. In this way they help us understand an artist who was more opaque than his modern popularity suggests.
Cézanne was an unusual painter. For much of his career he was as deliberatively provocative as any YBA bad boy or girl. He also hated to be watched while he was painting which meant the process of painting people was difficult. Indeed, Cézanne’s subjects were rarely people who asked for a portrait or who were part of the world of Parisian critics. Most often it was his mistress/wife Hortense, locals from Aix and occasional family members who were able to put up with the large number of sittings he demanded (over a hundred for the dealer Paul Vollard who made Cézanne’s reputation (and his own fortune)).
And the paintings were often unfinished which was not a good selling point to potential sitters. The choice not to complete, and the destruction of works which dissatisfied him, reflect Cézanne’s extreme sensitivity to balance within the total picture. It was fortunate that his father’s wealth allowed him to work without selling many paintings, at least until the end of his life when he became highly successful. The main casualty of this dependence on his father was Hortense who was kept away from Cézanne’s family for most of the time his father was alive. The beneficiary was Cézanne. Limited financial independence allowed him to experiment with series of works on a particular topic. He would have liked to sell his work earlier in his career, but it helped his development that he didn’t.
In this exhibition we see how Cézanne‘s character and circumstances were the background to the repeated portraits he made of the same people. It also shows how awkward and difficult he set out to be. He despised the Paris Salon. He despised most contemporary portraiture. And he despised smooth painting. His early work was deliberately provincial (i.e., superficially crude) and laid on with a knife rather than brushes. The canvases are laden with great welts of (once) luminous, viscous paint. Quite what Cézanne actually saw and felt in these early paintings is not clear – his mythological works of the period depict gross sexual violence – but there is no doubting the depth of the feeling.
That depth of feeling is there also in the later works but it is harder to fathom. Add to that his comment that cylinders and circles were the form of painting, and it is easy to see why critics have suggested his later portraits, especially of his wife, are expressionless or unfeeling. This exhibition suggests a subtler understanding of his vision. The curators argue that Cézanne was moved by a reaction against the traditional portrait’s expression of character or extreme emotion (think Rembrandt). Rather than capture a fleeting moment Cézanne wanted to show the longue durée of human character. In this he was picking up from Manet, whom he greatly admired, and the painting of modern life. It also explains the numerous sittings he required and even his preference for painting the peasants who represented for him La France profonde (like all true radicals, Cézanne was deeply conservative).
If that particular treatment of character was a continuum in Cézanne’s portraits, his methods changed radically with the switch from painting with knives to painting with brushes. A large number of the paintings in the show are knife paintings and they quite simply lack the interest of the later works – it’s not hard to see why people didn’t buy them. The change to brushes made Cézanne. There is some crossover in technique, for instance in the application of visible strips of paint. There is also the same grasp of the all the elements of picture combining together rather than just a focus on the central figure. But the anger of the knife work had played itself out. It was a protest with nowhere to go. With brushes Cézanne could work with new types of feeling and delicacy. He still made dark paintings and in the show the dark works outnumber those in the light, airy style made famous by the great landscape paintings of Mt Ventoux. Fortunately, the National Portrait Gallery has been able to borrow a number of the finest lighter works. Chief is the Boston ‘Madame Cézanne in a Red Armchair,’ a turning point not only in Cézanne’s work but in Western Art. There is the Orangerie’s ‘The Artist’s Son’ of 1881-2 and a series of his wife in a blue dress and in a red dress. The show has other highlights but bringing together the pictures of Hortense is a curatorial triumph. They need time and a bit of understanding just to get into what Cézanne has done.
Terror and Faith in Elizabethan England
Vintage Books 443pp
ISBN: 9781847921567 £12.99
Amongst the busyness and travel of the post-Christmas Day holiday I am developing a tradition of reading a historical biography. Last year was John Guy’s excellent Thomas Becket, but this year I ventured forward some four hundred years to the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, and the Roman Catholic Vaux family (pronounced “Vorx”). After conversion I joined an evangelical church, and consequently some of my earliest readings of this period were Protestant favourites such as Ryle’s Five English Reformers and Foxe’s Book of Martyrs with their focus upon the bloody five-year reign of Mary I. However, as a keen, if amateur, historian I was aware I knew next to nothing about the history of those who had remained loyal to Rome under Mary’s half-sister Elizabeth, other than the Gun Power plot. I wanted to read a book which moved past the propaganda and hagiography of the period to a historically grounded, and yet readable account; after all this was meant to be my holiday! Childs’ God’s Traitors was exactly what I was looking for; informed, balanced (often giving quotations from the writing of both sides whilst keeping the reader to the facts), and told in a compelling way. Childs’ focus upon one family allows us to see what life was like for upper-class Catholics whilst saving us from endless names and details which might cause the holiday reader to give up.
The truth is as stark as it is relevant for today. The recusant community was caught between a rock and a hard place, between a state who saw religious faith as a test of political loyalty, and the Roman church hierarchy who were interested solely in restoring a Catholic monarch to the English throne. Upon Elizabeth’s accession to the throne Catholics were deprived of participation in public life – for fear of them being a fifth column – whilst receiving considerable fines for failure to attend the national Church; for refusing to conform. Whilst life was difficult, it was as nothing, once the Pope Pius V excommunicated the English queen in his papal bull Regnans in Excelsis promulgated in 1570, which forbade any Catholic to obey her or her laws. Now Protestant suspicions were given weight and the recusant community was caught in the middle; the political was religious, and the religious political. The Vauxes, along with the vast majority of the Catholic community attempted the seemingly impossible, loyalty to the Crown and loyalty to their faith, and consequently faced criticism and persecution from both sides. They tried appealing to the Queen:
“Suffer us not to be the only outcasts and refuse of the world […]. Let us not, your Catholic native and obedient subjects, stand in more peril for exercising the Catholic religion (and that most secretly) than do the Catholic subjects to the Turk most publicly, […] than do the Protestants enjoying their public assemblies under diverse Catholic kings and princes quietly.”
The authorities with one eye on Rome, and another on Catholic Spain, simply wouldn’t or couldn’t listen. Pressure increased as did the plots, and failed Spanish invasions only caused greater hardship for the Catholic non-conformists. With the death of Elizabeth in 1603 it was hoped that toleration might be close at hand, and indeed Rome banned any actions by Catholics which might push James I to continue the policies of the former queen. However, one group of Catholics, whom today we would call “terrorists,” simply wouldn’t listen. The Gun Powder Plot failed, to the joy not only of Protestants but also to the majority of the loyal Catholic community, and in its aftermath any thoughts of toleration was shelved in a brutal, if understandable, crack down. As Childs comments “combatants and weapons may change, but in its ambition for mass destruction, the powder conspiracy was a precursor for the callous and calculated plots of our own time.”
Childs’ book is first rate, both in its research and in its storytelling. God’s Traitors deserves to be read by Catholic Anglicans and evangelical Anglicans alike. Protestant Christians may find to their surprise in the stories of the English Roman community, much similarity to the stories recorded by Ryle and Foxe of their own Protestant martyrs.
EDMUND BURKE’S BATTLE WITH LIBERALISM
His Christian philosophy and why it matters today
Wilberforce Publications 177pp
ISBN 978-0-9956832-3-5 £9.99
Sometimes it’s a voice from the past that chimes in with contemporary disorders and offers clarity and focus. The displacement of religion from the public square is nothing new, though the current promotion of the autonomy of human beings to the detriment of tested wisdom is seen by many to threaten public order and freedom in western society. In Edmund Burke’s Battle with Liberalism Samuel Burgess connects the thinking and politics of the 17th and 18th century which included the French and American revolutions to our own day’s populist rejection of the political establishment and its challenge to liberalism. The latter might include ‘rejection of patriotism… belief in cosmopolitanism, self-determination and multiculturalism, an emphasis on rights above duties and the restructuring of society around a discourse of equality and human rights’.
Liberalism’s failure to engage with the best aspirations of religion for the stability and common good of the community is nothing new. Irish statesman, political theorist, and philosopher Edmund Burke (1729-1797) wrote to advocate conservatism of the best kind i.e. resistant to ideologies counter to faith. As Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali writes in his commendation of the book, ‘for Burke, there can be no true conservatism without religion as a basis for social obligation and no religion is true if it abdicates its responsibilities in the public square’.
Burke held a transcendent view of society connecting visible and invisible worlds true to the Christian vision of God’s kingdom as something here and now and yet to come. He said Britain’s history was ‘a clause in the great primeaval contract of eternal society’. He opposed lesser understandings ready to cut away traditional aspects of national identity including God’s moral law as part of that contract of ‘eternal society’. In this book we have a lucid explanation of Burke’s counter to the thought of 17th century radical John Locke and optimism about human reasoning which underlay some of the thinking and process behind the French Revolution of his day. The definition of liberty as a ‘freedom to do everything which injures no one else’ is the big philosophical issue behind this book, behind Burke’s contribution and behind the contemporary struggle with authority.
Many aspects of life ‘do not easily render themselves transparent to reason [yet are] a critical cohesive’ essential to civil society. Equality and the autonomy of the individual seem so mainstream within Britain nowadays people are growing blind to the silencing of Britain’s Christian culture in its perceived awkwardness. Indeed ‘the liberal tendency to emphasise the absolute equality of all religions makes it impossible to make claims as to the primacy of truthfulness in any one religion’.
The book has a number of contemporary stories of liberal church folk evidencing ‘slavish acquiescence to contemporary trends’ which animate it as the highly readable study it is. Is multiculturalism really an attempt ‘to rub the right’s nose in diversity and render their arguments out of date’? In this treatise representing the contribution of a great Christian thinker to the common good of our nation Samuel Burgess issues a wake up call for authenticity and integrity in society and its stakeholders, including those of us who see the common good as inseparable from eternal reality, from ‘the kingdom of our God and of his Christ’ (Revelation 11v15).
REFLECTIONS FOR THE UNFOLDING YEAR
Lutterworth Press 171pp
ISBN 978-0718894986 £15
‘I was appalled by the depth and profundity of Christian thinking, and by the cogency of the Gospel’ wrote a Christian convert going on to say what swayed him: ‘it was something about [a Christian community’s] quality of being which left me feeling like a thirsty man in the desert… a lovingness and peacefulness, a sense of shared and accepted purpose, a humbleness before facts which made me feel singularly small and lost’. This is one of several illustrations in Alan Wilkinson’s sermon collection that heartened me as a word picture of the power of lived out Christianity to draw folk in.
Reflections for the Unfolding Year spans Advent to Christ the King Sundays with additional topics and distils spiritual wisdom over 50 years from a priest mainly based at Portsmouth Cathedral who served in my own Chichester Diocese as Principal of the Theological College. I say ‘distils’. The relentless liturgical cycle challenges priests to address Advent, Easter etc again and again. Sometimes you feel you’ve struck something rich that’s worth broadcasting and Fr Wilkinson’s selection from his files contains such gifts which have very often been handed on to him from others.
The enclosed Roman Catholic nuns at Dachau struggled with the cursing verses in the Psalms because they were aware of visitors leaving the concentration camp fuelled with the desire for revenge. They illustrate a typical sermon on use of the Bible and how Christians read it ‘in the light of the character of Jesus’ which is behind the issue of the bracketing of Psalm verses now abandoned in Common Worship. Author Henri Nouwen’s fascination with trapeze artists led him to have a go himself and gain understanding that trust is their secret, making this analogy. ‘I can only fly freely when I know there’s a catcher… dying is trusting in the catcher’.
Inscribed on the frontispiece we read ‘in gratitude for the Church of England, Catholic, Reformed, Liberal’. Wilkinson’s sermons reflect all three aspects. There are references to the evangelical power of sacramental confession and to Christ’s presence and sacrifice in the eucharist as well as to the right honouring of Mary. A major theme of inclusion couples with his contesting RC and Anglican opposition to remarriage of divorcees, female ordination and same-sex unions. His reflection on Anglican-RC relations sets forth though the ultimate inclusion of the resurrection in Cardinal Hume’s sermon in Westminster Abbey. ‘We have been, I think, like two sisters – estranged, not on speaking terms, quarrelsome, misunderstanding each other’ like Queens Elizabeth 1 and Mary’ buried there together yet ‘in hope of resurrection’.
This book is a resource for preachers and any who seek illustration of the faith of the Church through the ages and its transforming power