What if art is our new religion? An American religion. If so, has any sacred beauty survived the profane corruption of modernity in its treacherous journey to 2012?
These, it might be said, are the difficult questions answered by English luminary William Blake’s “The Raising of Jairus’ Daughter,” which is on display at Amherst College’s Mead Art Museum through June, alongside many of other early 20th-century pieces of artwork. Blake’s mix of paint and animal glue, circa 1799-1800, is a bravely anti-modern chunk of Romantic theatre.
Blake lived in the First Industrial Revolution’s epicenter: London. Surrounded by smoky factory ideas, Blake rebelled against modernity’s utilitarianism, writing from within his shuttered home, “I … carry on my visionary studies in London unannoy’d … that I may converse with my friends in Eternity, See Visions, Dream Dreams & prophecy & speak Parables unobserv’d & at liberty from the Doubts of other Mortals.”
He then took those daunting abstractions and tasked himself with translating them visually. The result is gorgeous and complex. The sublime litheness of the forms in “The Raising of Jairus’ Daughter” is as unearthly as it is human, and likewise the composition’s huge yet intimate scope has to be seen to be believed.
Artistic rebellion is why Blake matters to us today. Whether one dislikes factories or laments their defunctness, and whether one subscribes to Christian symbolism, it is undeniable that Blake was brave – and complex, too. He was a vociferous proponent of the American Revolution, which he saw as an individualistic struggle for freedom. Blake challenges us, like up-streaming salmon, to follow our own muse, on our own terms.
Parenthetically, the painting’s unassuming frame pulls us to the Gilded Age. The 1920s Manhattan frame maker George Of is credited on the obverse, hinting at the relationships haunting the walls of the Mead. An avant-garde painter in his own right, a friend of Gertrude Stein and a collector of Matisse, Of circulated with the likes of the Mead’s architectural forefathers.
Blake and the Mead seem to have been destined for one another. In 1949, the Amherst College board dismantled its Stearns Chapel due to changing worship patterns and commissioned lingering Gilded Age architectural firm McKim, Mead and White to build at its site the Mead Art Museum.
The national narrative bound up in this replacement is mostly suggestive but provocative nonetheless – bright-faced Americans in the early 1900s looked less to a church structure and more to a collection of art objects to experience transcendence. To stand before the thickness of oil and glue and hidden charcoal, to bore into a painting in silence, engaging with swiftly-unfolding, numinous tableaus – art appreciation can be as spiritually refreshing as deep prayer.
During a recent visit, Mead Museum Director and Chief Curator Elizabeth E. Barker said, “one of the pleasures of working in a museum is experiencing, through daily encounters with original works, an almost living connection to history.”
That living connection with history – made all the more urgent by a prized new acquisition – makes visiting the Mead a time-sensitive necessity for art enthusiasts.
The works currently on display are international in origin. We make them American in that we collect them and we gather before them. To hear the Mead tell it (with ears halfway subtle), modernity and the great wars shattered classical canon into an insane, exploded form in the 20th century. The resultant shards, however, have embedded themselves stubbornly into the culture, giving us a new canon.
Pavel Filonov’s 1918 “The Flight into Egypt (The Refugees)” gets down to brass tacks. We usually think of the 1913 Armory Show as modern art’s challenge to the classical canon. Manet, Duchamp and Picasso come to mind. We think of wistfulness and stylized composition. “The Flight” takes a more insistent stance. It forces the viewer to grapple with the howling desert that the World War I was making of the world at the time of its creation.
The scene is morbidly blue – frigid and stony. Three iconic remnants of Christianity (or, alternatively, Jewish refugees) seek escape from Europe’s ongoing suicide and concomitant anti-Semitic madness. A vaguely native man, perhaps African or perhaps Native American, has come to guide. Lungs massive, staff high, he is ready to go the distance. Defying convention, he has dropped into the scene in extra-biblical Malki-Tzedek fashion – like some parachuting, problem-solving, fantasy commando.
The “Indian guide” trope Filonov invokes was a common one in his time, but this stuff matters today. The European canon delimited beauty: Academy-approved, bound to a Greco-Roman ideal. Filonov saw the world blown to pieces. It’s historically compelling that more than 12,000 Native American men and women volunteered for overseas combat and supporting efforts in the World War I. Filonov poses a question that would have drawn blood in his time: Perhaps the Americas (native and otherwise) have wisdom for Europe.
While Filonov gives us the explosion, Zinaida Serebriakova gives us traditional beauty’s response with “Portrait of Ekaterina Serebriakova, Daughter of the Artist.” Of aristocratic birth, in 1917 Bolsheviks imprisoned her husband in a cellar. He died of infection. Serebriakova escaped to France. Her plan to get her children out failed. Not until 1928 did the artist succeed in getting two of four children into Paris. After a decade’s separation the artist painted her daughter, no longer a child but a woman. The exuberant “Daughter of the Artist” tells this story.
Through the eyes of both of the Serebriakovas, we get stripped-down beauty composed with an economy of jagged lines, colors and mere suggestions at the edges. Are these scraps at the periphery post-war rubble or the jettisoned debris of an over-encumbered culture? Perhaps both. In modernity we do feel the rush of biological endurance, of viewing what came through to the other side. This is “Portrait” in a nutshell.
Serebriakova’s work is a pleasure for us. Its nudity is surgical but warm. Whatever the pedigree or history, we find in unashamed breasts, a penetrating gaze and lack of surrounding accouterment a perfect modern beauty – form, traveling motionless in time. This negotiation suggests our modern cognitive dissonance; while we need religion, science, art and technology, we also desire simplicity.
In larger scope, we comprehend through this work the fact of the Mead Museum itself. Beauty – form, proportion, posture, the human look – has fared well in its journey to us today. Is art our new American religion? Who knows, but war, science, technology, even international travel shook religious thought – and religiously canonical artistic thought – in the 20th century. The art museum where a chapel once stood attests this.
Abbott Thayer can be reached at email@example.com.