1000 Words – The Return of Narrative Art

As an aspiring artist, I’m well aware that in some of my pieces, the only hint of meaning comes through the title. I suspect that my secret isn’t unique and that I’m not the only one who occasionally produces work for it’s aesthetic (or commercial) value alone.

Chessboard Admirals | J Marlow | 2004

Chessboard Admirals – J Marlow – 2014

It’s a common criticism of contemporary art that it is meaningless, or that the supposed meaning bears no real relation to what is on the canvas or plinth. But to think this is to ignore the direction of travel which the art world has been collectively making away from the totally abstract shapes, splashes and slashes of ‘Modern Art’.

In a gross simplification we might see the following as marker posts on this journey:

  • In 1991, Damien Hirst’s shark in formaldehyde The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living was at once feted and maligned by the public for its simplicity and nuance.
  • In 1998, Tracey Emin’s My Bed told a story more clearly, but with an ambiguity that allowed art pseuds across the globe to claim a unique insight into the work.
  • Then in 2003, the prestigious Turner prize for the arts was won by Grayson Perry for his decorated ceramic pots and vases, many of which narrated accounts of Perry’s real and imaginary life.

A decade later, Perry has been catapulted into the national consciousness by his lecture series explaining and exploding the contemporary art scene as Radio 4’s Reith lecturer in 2013. The series was called Playing to the Gallery and can be downloaded from iTunes and BBC iPlayer. As one columnist wrote following the lectures, Perry has transformed seamlessly from controversial artist into “national treasure”. [Lisa Jardine, Guardian, 21/11/2013]

Having loved and re-listened to these lectures last year, one of the exhibitions which I’d resigned myself to not seeing this summer was Grayson Perry’s series of six tapestries, The Vanity of Small Differences.

The internet was fairly confused about how many sets of these tapestries existed and whether any of them were reachable in a day-trip from the South of England. Thanks to a tip-off in Art Quarterly, however, I caught up with one of the sets as part of an exhibition called Progress at the Foundling Museum in Brunswick Square, London, where Perry was a trustee. Progress marked the 250th anniversary of the death of William Hogarth, himself a major contributor to the Foundling Hospital Collection and this event brought together four contemporary works responding to Hogarth’s famous series of paintings A Rake’s Progress.

I was keen to spend as much time with the tapestries as possible, so (given the absolute 45 minute limit imposed by the Boy), we skipped the rest of the museum and then spent almost as long in the coffee shop afterwards.

Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress follows the life of Tom Rakewell, a merchant’s son who inherits a fortune and blows it on all ‘women, wine and song’ in vice-ridden London. Hogarth’s protagonist ends his life in Bedlam lunatic asylum, having been driven insane by drink, debt and prison. In his modern take on the rise and fall of the rake, Perry chronicles the life of Tim Rakewell as he moves though the social strata and taste tribes of contemporary Britain. Tim’s life starts surrounded by the ornaments and icons of working class taste and it ends ignominiously as he is thrown from the Ferrari he bought with the spoils from the sale of his technology company.

#Lamentation | Grayson Perry#Lamentation, Tapestry by Grayson Perry. Photo by thornypup. )The Hastag is deliberate, and in the scene passers by can be seen photographing the wreckage and uploading their images from their phones.) 

The basement room in the foundling museum which was displaying the tapestries was only just big enough to accommodate the exhibition, but this gave us the chance to get up close and personal with the work. I’m an advocate of taking the trouble to see an original work rather a copy and these tapestries are filled with so many details that they would be difficult to take in at anything less than two meters high.

One such detail that I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to spot, was the little figure with the camera, reflected in a convex mirror, recording the scene in The Annunciation of the Virgin Deal. The mirror itself gives us an alternative viewpoint on the scene in the same way as Jan van Eyck reflects the room and figures in The Arnolfini Portrait. What we see in this mirror, however, is surely a self-portrait of Perry, as observer and chronicler of British taste tribes.

Tapestry Detail

Detail from The Annunciation of the Virgin Deal by Grayson Perry. Photo by failing_angel. Inset image of Grayson Perry from ‘In the best possible taste’ on Channel 4.

We looked at each of the tapestries in turn and, as we sat on the bench in front of #Lamentation, the Boy asked “is that Jesus?” In doing so he had picked up on the visual homage which Perry is paying to the genre of religious paintings and sculptures depicting the dying Christ in the arms of His mother Mary.

Christ in the Arms of Mary.Sculpture in the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence. Photo Jon Marlow

In fact, each of the tapestries has similar allusions to well known art works and genres which is one of the reasons that these art works will enjoy a place on the art curriculum for some time to come. The third image in the series is The Expulsion from Number 8 Eden Close which includes the reference to the most well-known work, Adam and Eve banished from Paradise, a renaissance fresco painted high on the wall of the Brancacci Chapel in the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence by Tomasso Masacchio.

The Expulsion for Number 8 Eden Close | Grayson Perry

#The Expulsion from Number 8 Eden Close by Grayson Perry. Photo by thornypup

The Expulsion for the Garden of edenAdam and Eve banished from Paradise by Masacchio – Brancacci Chapel, Church of Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence. Photo by Jon Marlow 

Masacchio was among the first of the renaissance painters to use perspective and create figures which seemed to inhabit a physical space rather than a two dimensional canvas or wall. In this regard, he stood in contrast to his collaborator on the frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel, Tomasso Masolino. When seen side by side in the chapel, the work of the two men appears to be from different eras, even though they were only 20 years apart in age.

In his physical space, Masacchio has captured the tragedy and agony of Adam and Eve, who have been permanently banished from the place where they could approach God. An angel looks down on them wielding a sword, not in anger, but as a reminder that they could never return. In contrast, Tim and his girlfriend hurry away from the forced conformity of the aspirational middle classes into “the sunlit uplands of the middle classes”, those whose taste is defined by what they know and appreciate rather than what they own.

By way of explanation why it is Jamie Oliver looking down from the thundery sky, the text on the windowsill has Tim’s girlfriend say of his mum and step-dad: “Their house was so clean and Tidy, not a speck of dust… or a book, apart from her god, Jamie.”.

These works tell a story and come with a written commentary. Could it be then, that the journey away from abstract art is complete?

Grayson Perry certainly thinks that art must have a meaning. In his interview with Simon Hattenstone in last week’s Guardian Weekend Magazine he says that the problem with many art students is that they are too anxious to create stuff they simply like. “You have to know the impact of everything you’re making, because that is the nature of contemporary art. It is very self-conscious: it knows, or should be seen to know.” [Simon Hattenstone, Guardian Weekend, 4/10/14] 

Things can appear abstract, but they are not allowed to be. Abstraction must be ironic because, in Perry’s words “Britain has the toad of irony sitting on it.”

So the next time someone asks me about my ‘process’ I need to come up with something more self aware than “I smushed a lot of paint around”. Even though that was my process this time around.

In the meantime, I’d love another opportunity to get close to these tapestries again. Maybe we could even lobby for them, to visit Plymouth.

 

Iconoclasm and Dictator Chic

No-one would seriously disagree that art is political.

'Judith beheading Holofernes', a bronze sculpture group made by Donatello and located in the Piazza della Signoria, Florence Italy. Picture: J Marlow

‘Judith beheading Holofernes’, a bronze sculpture group made by Donatello and located in the Piazza della Signoria, Florence, Italy. Picture: J Marlow

As you wander around the streets of any city, the art and architecture will give a powerful message about the last regime to hold real power in that place. Nelson’s column and the bronze lions of Britannia in London’s Trafalgar Square remind us of the once-powerful empire and the feeling of superiority which still infuse the city and its leaders. The People’s Palace in Bucharest and the surrounding boulevards are a lasting monument to the destructive power of communist president Nicolae Ceausescu, who ordered the razing of the surrounding churches and apartments in order to create a capital city which spoke of the unassailable power of the communist regime. Similarly, the streets and piazzas of Florence are filled with marble and bronze statues preserving the legacy of the Medici dynasty, who ruled the city for nearly four centuries.

IMG_1717

 The People’s Palace, Bucharest, Romania.

All influential people, from despotic dictators to advertising executives, know that their message and ideals can be hidden in the arts. As we are entertained and enthralled, our inbuilt cynicism and resistance can be circumvented and we imbibe the message with the medium.

Often the ideas and theories which start circulating among academics, are picked up and popularised by the arts. Even abstract art which claims to be devoid of all meaning carries with it the unsubtle message of postmodernism, that all objective meaning is elusive.

So what should any self-respecting dictator, despot, Pope or CEO do upon seizing power? The obvious answer is to stamp their authority on the arts and the resulting iconoclasm can be very hard to stomach.

In 2001 the Taliban destroyed two enormous statues of the Buddha, carved into a cliff in Afghanistan in the 6th Century, having declared them as idols and not permitted by under their extreme form of Islamic law. The niches where the statues stood can be seen towering above the Bamiyan Valley, which was added to UNESCO’s list of world heritage in danger in 2003. In a similar way the French Revolutionaries of the 18th Century took pains to decapitate the statues of bishops and kings that adorned their cathedrals and basilicas. Further back in history, in Florence in 1497, the followers of the preacher Girolamo Savonarola set fire to many works of art and books in what became know as The Bonfire of the Vanities. The art historian of the period, Giorgio Vasari reports that Botticelli was a follower of Savonarolo and may have put some of his own painting onto the pyre. It is certainly clear that Botticelli’s exuberant style become more muted in works painted after this event.

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 Empty niches in the Bamiyan Valley in Afghanistan, Photo taken in 2005 by Hadi Zaher

But as we begin to tut under our breath at the waste and the cultural barbarism, we might recall our reaction to this images on the news.

US soldiers and Iraqi citizens topple a statue of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Dictator Chic has not always been tacky statues and brutalist concrete palaces – what we celebrate in Florence is no less the result of a dynasty intent on displaying its dominance through the arts. The principal difference, it seems, between artistic iconoclasm that attracts our ire and that which gains our approval is the tricky matter of personal taste. Did we like what was pulled down?

An alternative approach to iconoclasm is to change the message without destroying the medium, as the citizens of Florence did in 1494 after the expulsion of the Medici family. In the 1460s the sculptor Donatello had made a pair of bronze sculptures from biblical stories which would stand in the private garden of the Medici Palace in Florence. One was of David, the shepherd boy from Bethlehem standing nonchalantly above the severed head of the giant Goliath. The other was a more visceral and disturbing scene as the apocryphal Jewish heroine Judith raises a sword to deliver a fatal blow to the neck of Holofernes, the general of the mighty Assyrian Army.

Judith Beheading Holofernes, Florence

 Detail from Donatello’s ‘Judith beheading Holofernes’ – Picture: J Marlow

In keeping with much of the art of the period and with the narrative of the scene, this sculpture group is infused sexual intensity. The account in the Jewish Apocrypha records that Judith, a noble widow among the Jewish people had entered the Assyrian commander’s camp and surrendered to him. On the night she will murder him we read that “Holofernes’ heart was ravished with her and his passion was aroused, for he had been waiting for an opportunity to seduce her from the day he first saw her” (Judith 12:16). To this end they drink and feast together until Holofernes had “drank a great quantity of wine, much more than he had ever drunk in any one day since he was born.” (v20). Later that night, as Holofernes lies unconscious on his bed, Judith reaches for his own sword and, in two strokes, hacks his head from his half-naked body. She then runs into the night having saved her city from the marauding army marshalled outside its gate.

Donatello has chosen to evoke that particular moment between blows, as Judith holds up Holofernes by the hair, raises the sword above her head and prays for strength as she completes her deadly mission. Despite his desires, Holofernes is impotent to resist and, as if to emphasise his incapacity, Judith’s foot presses down on Holofernes’ limp and useless sword hand.

Detail from Judith beheading Holofernes, Florence

The message given to this work by its Medici patrons was that Judith stood as an example of the victory of virtue and diligence. This was made explicit by a Latin inscription on the pedestal which read “Kingdoms fall through luxury; cities rise though virtues; behold the neck of pride severed by the hand of humility”. (Judith Testa, An Art Lover’s Guide to Florence, 2012, page 83)

When the Medici family were expelled from the city in 1494, the statue was taken down but, far from being destroyed, it was set up on the steps of the Palazzo Vecchio, the Florentine town hall in the central Piazza della Signoria.

Removed from the garden pedestal with its inscription, the Florentines were ready to reclaim this delicate work of art and imbue it with a new meaning. The new (and slightly mismatched looking) column upon which the work still stands reads “The Citizens set up this exemplar for the welfare of the public, 1495”. (Testa, p85).

Detail from Judith Beheading Holofernes, Florence

This reminder of a virtuous city throwing off the tyranny of a powerful and ruthless ruler, now stood to celebrate the victory of the Florentine citizens as they saw off the overbearing Medici.

The group has since been moved one more time, in 1504. It was shifted into a less prominent position ten meters to the left, displaced by the more masculine edifice of Michelangelo’s David.

This seemingly small act of jostling the position of the art works in the square reflected another change in the perceived message of the sculpture group. By 1504, observers could no longer see political overtones, seeing instead the fearful prospect of a man at the mercy of a woman intent on murder. By moving it to a less prominent location, the group would be preserved, but overshadowed by David, a statue which was considered to be more appropriate than one where a woman held such control over a man.

IMG_3908

Detail from the replica of Michaelangelo’s marble sculpture David (Il Gigante) located at the entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio in the Piazza della Signoria, Florence Italy.
Picture: J Marlow

If there is a lesson for the artist in all of this it is surely that art with a degree of ambiguity has a better chance of surviving the winds of political change. If there is an opportunity to read different meanings into a work, then everyone can claim your art carries their message.

But is such ambiguity an abdication of responsibility? Should artists be content to let their work be appropriated and defined by their patron, or by any subsequent owners? Can art really be said to be political if its meaning can be modified to suit the whims of the viewing public?

If we are comfortable with the paradigm that the ultimate act of artistic expression was the creation of the universe, then there is comfort to be drawn from God’s infinitely complex sculpture group.

Detail from Patchwork Sea - J Marlow

 Detail from ‘Patchwork Sea’ by J Marlow, 2014

Creation is embedded with a message and in Psalm 19, a song written by David and almost certainly sung regularly by Judith, we read that their purpose is to reveal their creator.

“The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.”
(Psalm 19:1–4)

In terms of communication, however, the world is impressionist at best, and people are free to suffuse it with their own meaning or even to see it as a pure abstract.

If we want to understand the message we need to accept the artists’ description, but if God seems content to allow such a degree of ambiguity in his art, then we could be content to let others interpret our work, whether we meant it to be political or not.


An Art Lover’s Guide to Florence (Judith Testa, 2012, NUI Press) is available in the UK from Amazon via this Affiliate Link. 

 

The Limits of Limited Editions – Modern Masters in Print

 

Limited Edition

I like to think that I’m getting a bargain and this also applies when I’m shopping for art. At Christmas I bought myself a limited edition print of a canvas and rather than angling for a discount I asked the artist if he could limit the number of prints of this picture to ten instead of his usual 25.

The original canvas is in private hands and I’ve got the only print, so does it make any difference whatsoever to the value (financial or artistic) what the theoretical maximum print run of this picture is?

 Le Cirque, 1945 print by Pablo Picasso. Part of the Modern Masters in Print Exhibition © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

I was thinking about limited editions and reprints this weekend when I visited the “Modern Masters in Print” exhibition at the Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery. This exhibition is ‘on tour’ from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and includes over 50 works by Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí and Andy Warhol. It seems that I’m not the only one to be confused about the relationship between prints and originals. Gill Saunders, Senior Curator (Prints) at the V&A reports that in some venues the feedback she’s received is that the exhibition should have included more of the ‘good stuff’. What people mean is that they want to see original paintings rather than prints.

With four exceptions, however, these works are not copies of paintings but works of art in their own right. All of the artists in the show were using different methods of printing as a means of experimentation and original expression.

The prints in the exhibition were original works conceived by the artist for the particular print method they had chosen. They didn’t see them as a commercially more productive technique, but as a way to develop their artistry.

Matisse described preparing plates for printing as “drawing with new tools” and Picasso also found that the printmaking was feeding his creative process in other media.

Andy Warhol, when asked in 1971 about the difference between his paintings and his prints, famous answered “the difference is that paintings are on canvas”. The acid-test of authenticity in print seems to be whether the work was conceived for the medium you’re looking at or if it is a copy of a work in another.

 The Frugal Repast, 1904 print by Pablo Picasso. Part of the Modern Masters in Print Exhibition © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Picasso’s powerful study in poverty and alcoholism ‘The Frugal Repast’ was only his second foray into print. It was made during his blue period in 1904 and used a zinc etching plate which had previously been used for a landscape print by his friend Joan Gonzales. In fact, the faint remainder of Gonzales’ image can be seen in the first impressions to come off the press.

The original print run of The Frugal Repast was very short due to the fragility of the zinc plate. In 1913, however, the plate was steel-faced by the art dealer Ambroise Vollard and the resulting run of 250 prints were widely distributed and helped to build Picasso’s reputation as a print maker. While we don’t expect Vollard to have had truly altruistic motives, this is a good example of the use of technology to broaden the impact of a work of art, rather than restricting it to preserve the value of the limited edition.

Print and reproduction technology has moved on considerably from the early 20th Century and our digital age has introduced questions about limited editions which are not confined to the two-dimensional paper printing which Matisse, Picasso, Dalí and Warhol perfected.

Earlier in the year I listened to the BCC 2013 Reith lectures given by Tuner Prize wining artist Grason Perry. Grayson’s current exhibition is a series of six tapestries, each four meters long, which echo William Hogarth’s 1730s morality tale A Rake’s Progress and pay visual homage to several classical paintings in the process. It’s called The Vanity of Small Differences. Each of the tapestries in the exhibition was woven in Belgium using a computer-controlled digital loom which produced the six works on display and two sets of artist’s proofs.

Digital-Loom-and-PerryArtist Grayson Perry watches a digital loom weaving one of his tapestries. Image from the Channel 4 series ‘All In the best possible taste – with Grayson Perry’

Although the works in The Vanity of Small Differences are unique originals, it would be possible (although costly) to produce an identical second set at the click of a mouse. These are unique only due to the decision of the artist, something which Gill Saunders calls “The artificiality of the limited edition”.

Thomas Cronenberg, a member of the European Tapestry Forum Standing Committee takes this criticism of the tapestries as original art works even further. Writing in trade magazine Textile Forum (issue 2/2103) he says that these works have “very little to do with crafts and much more in common with commercial art or, said in an extreme way, colour photocopying.” Because the production of the tapestry is a step removed, he does not see the hand of the artist in the finished work.

A short stroll around the V&A reveals that this question of authorship, design and reproduction has been around far longer than mechanical looms. The largest works in the V&A are a series of paper drawings known as the Raphael Cartoons. These paper paintings are full scale designs for tapestries which were commissioned by Pope Leo X in 1515. The finished products were hung in the Sistine Chapel and show scenes from the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles.

The Raphael Cartoons are housed in Room 48 of the Victoria and Albert Museum, South Kensington.

In Renaissance Art, the term cartoon refers to the design for an artwork in another medium, usually full size and usually on paper rather than canvas. Closer inspection of these cartons show that they have been cut into vertical strips which were the width of the looms used by the weavers who would copy the design. The cartoon was a mirror image of the finished tapestry as the weavers would work the fabric from behind.

Despite being among ‘the greatest treasures of the high renaissance’, the cartoons on show in the V&A are the 16th Century equivalent of the digital files generated by Grayson Perry. With a pleasing symmetry both artists sent their designs off to Belgium to be rendered in thread, albeit with The Vanity of Small Differences enjoying a more exclusive print run than the Raphaels.

conversionoftheprocunsul

Detail from ‘The Conversion of the Proconsul’ – Raphael Cartoons © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

One detail of the Rahpael Cartoons did raise a question in my mind about the acid-test of authenticity. Did Raphael intend the cartoons to be works of art in their own right, rather than simply designs for the tapestries? The detail in question is the Latin inscription shown below the throne of Sergius Paulus in ‘The Conversion of the Proconsul’ (above). If this was purely a template for the weaver then the text would be expected to be a mirror image, but the text in the cartoon has been written to be read from the front. This does seem to add fuel to the fire of those who would say the designs are are more genuine and unique expression of the artist’s work than the finished product.

But even here we run into problems about authorship and authenticity. Matisse began his experimentation in print using woodblock printing, but producing the plates was so time consuming that once he had drawn the image he gave the task of carving the hard wooden block to his wife. His signature might have been on the final print, but is it any better than a photocopy of his drawing?

Woodblock used to print Matisse’s ‘Nude in profile on a chaise longue’ Part of the Modern Masters in Print Exhibition © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.


Laying aside the cost and projected value of the work, there are three questions which will help you decide whether to buy a print, a limited edition or hold out for an ‘original’.

  • Are you looking at a copy of an original, or a work of art conceived in the medium you are buying?
  • How accurately does the print reflect the original? (Is it a good copy?)
  • In your enjoyment of art more about what you can see or about the uniqueness of the piece you own?

I’m looking at my limited edition print as I write. To be honest, it isn’t the number at the bottom which grabs my attention.


Modern Masters in Print is on display at the Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery until 23rd August. Entry to the museum and exhibition is free – don’t miss it. (The four exceptions mentioned above were a series of striking railway destination posters for SNCF designed by Dalí and commercially printed.)

 

Art for Under 5s – Turner and the Sea

fishermen upon a lee-shore in squally weather

Impression of ‘Fishermen upon a Lee-Shore, in Squally Weather’ by Joseph Mallord William Turner. 2014. 

A couple of months ago I took the Boy to the “Turner and the Sea” exhibition at the Royal Maritime Museum as a dry-run for gallery visits during my sabbatical. The experience was a good one and so, in the first art-related post of my sabbatical, I’m going to share my five tips for visiting exhibitions with under 5s.

1) Keep it simple, but don’t patronise.

Small children tend to be taken to art galleries for one of two reasons. Either a parent wants to go and can’t find a babysitter, or they see it as important to their child’s education that they have a good grounding in art history before they go to school. In the case of the Boy, it’s a bit of both and our trips tend to be a mixture of keeping him engaged and keeping him amused.

Now, I’ll admit that my expectations are probably higher than they should be for the level of engagement a three year old can have with an Old Master, but we’ve always tried to encourage the Boy to have opinions about things, especially art and music. And the questions we should all be asking ourselves about art and culture are fairly easy for children to answer. Do you like it? How does it make you feel? What’s happening? What does it remind you of?

Philip James de Loutherbourg - The Shipwreck 1793 - detail Painting

The Boy picked out this detail as his favourite part of the exhibition. The wreckers in Philip James de Loutherbourg’s ‘The Shipwreck’ look like pirates. Apparently.

What I’m not such a great fan of are activities for children which have nothing to do with the art, like trails to find stuffed toys hidden around stately homes. These do seem to suggest that visits are more about keeping children amused while you look around than helping them engage with what you’re looking at.

When faced with a 2 meter wide canvas there is a limit to how much discussion you can have about technique or the historical importance of the work. But you can talk about the action and the colour. How do the different parts of the painting elicit different responses? The Turner and the Sea exhibition included works by other artists so we tried to guess whether each one was a similar style to the rest of the exhibition or if it looked different.

Of course, it was a particular high-point of the visit when the Boy correctly identified which painting was a Turner and which wasn’t ‘because of the sea’. I’m not sure it was a repeatable exercise, so I didn’t ruin the illusion by trying it again.

A First rate Man-of-War driven onto a reef of rocks, floundering in a gale

‘A First rate Man-of-War driven onto a reef of rocks, floundering in a gale’ by George Philip Reinagle. Not a Turner!

2) Find non-marking ways of sketching.

Making sketches of what you’re looking at is arguably the best way to appreciate what is in front of you. Add this to children’s natural love of drawing and you have a great way to encourage their inner artist while being able to look yourself. Having said this, gallery staff tend to look very worried if a small child is wandering around priceless works of art with a crayon, so I’ve loaded up my iPad mini with a drawing pad app which cost about £2.50 but has saved hundreds of pounds of babysitting fees over the past two years. It also makes the whole process of moving around a gallery much easier if you don’t have to worry about collecting up all the pencils.

Be prepared for adoring comments though. If you have a small child sitting sketching in front of a early Turner then expect comments about “a young Turner”. Not all comments are straightforward though. One lady looked at the Boy’s screen and asked “Are you drawing a sunflower?” “No” came the reply, “I’m copying this Turner”. And this was his interpretation of “Wreck of a Transport Ship”. You can see her confusion, but then he’s always preferred more abstract art than me.

Wreck of a Transport Ship

Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘The Wreck of a Transport Ship’ c.1810Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘The Wreck of a Transport Ship’ c.1810

3) See the good stuff first.

Exhibitions are usually arranged in a linear order, often beginning with an artist’s earlier and less developed work. You want to see the good stuff before children get impatient, so don’t feel bad about missing out the first few rooms.

I find that impatience comes in three phases:

  • Stage one: I’m enjoying this.
  • Stage two: I’m bored with art but happy to do something else while you look around.
  • Stage three: We have to leave right now!

With Turner we had about forty minutes of stage one (with drawing on the iPad), fifteen minutes of stage two (with world map puzzles, again on the iPad) and it took five minutes of stage three to get out of the exhibition. Strangely, as soon as we got into the gift shop we reset to stage one.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘The Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805’ 1823-4

Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘The Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805’ which I was enjoying as we moved from stage one to stage two.

Joseph Mallord William Turner – ‘The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up’. Formerly the nation’s favourite painting, which I had to go back to the National Gallery and see alone, as we had entered stage three before we found it in Turner and the Sea.

If you do some research before you leave home, you can generally find out what’s going to be where in the exhibition. This also gives you the opportunity to familiarise your child with the most well-known works in advance, so finding them is part of the discovery.

4) Queue-jump if possible.

I’m not suggesting pushing in but, if you book in advance, many places offer timed tickets which reduce the amount of queuing at the door. Standing in a queue to get into the exhibition cuts into your stage one time, as I found at the Natural History Museum to my cost.

5) Don’t worry about other people.

Some artists seem to inspire a muted awe in their viewers, and Turner is the apotheosis of this reverential appreciation. But people who visit art galleries, and especially those who pay for exhibitions, are generally keen that young people learn to appreciate art for themselves, so they would rather see children engaged and talking than absent or silent. Other visitors to a gallery will be using the audio-guide headphones, so can’t hear you anyway.

If you’re at stage one of a visit then most other visitors are going to be charmed, rather then annoyed by a small person commenting on the exhibition. If you’re at stage two then you may need to have headphones on the iPad. If you’re at stage three then the person who is most likely to be disturbed by your child is you, so cut your losses and head for the gift shop.

  • What have you learnt from your own trips out with small children?
  • What have you seen working and not working when you’ve encountered other people’s children in galleries?

Sun Rising Through Vapour

Impression of ‘Sun Rising Through Vapour’ by Joseph Mallord William Turner.

Evening harbour scene with boats being unloaded and spectators

Impression of ‘Habour Scene with Boats being unloaded and Spectators’ by Claude-Joseph Vernet.

The Summer of Art

NTDeckchair

This summer I’m going to be taking a three-month sabbatical. This is a period when I’m released from my duties in the parish to allow “time for rest, renewal and re-creation so as to return refreshed for ministry”.

I’m hoping to do a few different things this summer, so I thought I’d share my plans with you.

1) Research

The first part of the sabbatical will be spent visiting several Church of England training colleges and meeting with their Principals. I’m planing to ask them questions about what makes their college distinctive and how the selection process impacts on the training they offer. I’m doing this part of the sabbatical wearing my ‘Dean of Studies’ and ‘Diocesan Director of Ordinands’ hats. Depending on what happens in these interviews, I might put together a research degree proposal from my findings.

2) Renewal

I’m going to be spending five nights away on a personal retreat in Spain. I’ve got a couple of books lined up to read, but am open to suggestions about what to take, what to read and what to pray.

3) Recreation

I’m planning to spend the largest chunk of my time away taking up a new hobby. I’m going to be studying a bit of Art History and visiting galleries. With only six weeks I’ll be limited in what I can see, but I’ve got my ArtFund pass at the ready and I’ll hopefully be able to fit in a trip to the Louvre.

I’ll be taking The Boy with me on some of these trips and I’ll be blogging about what I’ve seen and learnt (which called for a new look on the blog). The boy will be taking my iPad with him, so I’ll post his interpretations of what he’s seen too.

4) Rest

As well as catching up with friends while I’m on my travels in the UK, we’re also looking forward to visiting Tuscany for a holiday with our Godchildren and their parents. As part of this we’re going be spending three nights in Florence, so I’m really looking forward to educating (boring to tears) everyone with my newly acquired art knowledge. There will be lots of photos.

5) Refreshed for Ministry

I’ll be back at St. Pancras just in time for the ordination service in Exeter Cathedral. This is particularly exciting as one of the new deacons will be Wendy Bray, who is going to join the staff of St. Pancras as Curate in September. I’m really looking forward to this new phase in our ministry to the people of Pennycross and Plymouth. Please do pray for my time away.

Resolution

2361057568_00795a66e6_oI don’t often find myself asked a question which I can’t answer, but I really didn’t know what I thought when Tanya asked:

“Looking at your papers now, would you have put yourself through?”

The papers in question were all the forms and reports from my selection and training for ordination, stretching back fourteen years and now neatly bound and filed away in my study. When I received two sets of application forms from ordination candidates who I’m working with, something prompted me to get out my own reports and this prompted Tanya to ask me the question.

The question stumped me because I’m sure I’m in the right job and it was right for me to be ordained into the Church of England, but it was only the seven years of theological college and curacy that allowed me to iron out those issues which, at the time of my selection, nearly put an end to the process.

One thing which the assessors thought might be a problem (or an indicator of a deeper issue) was that I’d written on some form or other that I didn’t really get angry. This translated into the following line in my selection conference report:

“Jon was unable to provide any evidence of how he would deal with anger.”

Eleven years on from that report I still don’t get angry. By which I mean I don’t lose my temper and shout when people upset me or I don’t get my way. I can control myself in heated meetings and debates and I can show immense patience with difficult or obtuse people. I don’t even write forthright letters of complaint or reply in haste to tweets and I certainly try to avoid replying in kind to moaning e-mails.

What I’m coming to realise is that maybe the report was right.

I don’t know how to deal with anger because I’m not getting angry when I should be. And that anger has to come out somewhere.

I don’t know how to deal with anger because I get angry about stupid stuff. Like when my neighbours won’t park in their own drive or when people use Sellotape on painted surfaces in the church hall or when motorists abuse disabled parking bays or when I’m subjected to bad PowerPoint.

I don’t know how to deal with anger because my anger is in the wrong place. So I’ll let stupid stuff upset me instead of doing something about the things that should make me angry. 

Things like when my MP voted against an investigation into the causes of the rising need for food banks or when I find myself in Child Protection meetings when I’m the only one (of the 20+ social workers, teachers and police) around the table offering any support to the parents. Or when I read about how disability benefit claimants are treated by the private company who run assessment centres or when I see magazines and newspapers which objectify women and excuse violence and abuse or when my hairdresser tells me about city centre shops forced to close because of the greed and lack of compassion of the management company.

These are all the result of public policy, government outsourcing (local and national), unrealistic targets, companies putting profit before people and public office-holders putting personal interest before the needs of those they purport to represent. As one of those represented people, I’m going to start by making my voice heard and calling elected representatives to account. In 2014 I’m going to deal with anger. I’m going to do it by getting angry. Angry at the right things. I’ve even got myself some nice new printer paper, because well written polite letters are so much more effective.

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What Would We Have Done? – A Midnight Meditation for Christmas Eve

Bible Readings: Matthew 1:18-25, Luke 2:8-17 and Matthew 2:1-12.

Lord of grace and truth,
we confess our unworthiness
to stand in your presence as your children.
We have sinned:
forgive and heal us.


Mary

What would we have done, if we had heard that God was doing something new and unique deep within us?

Would we lay claim to our flesh, our biology, our reputation, our safety?

Or would we surrender ourselves saying “not my will, but yours be done”?

Joseph

What would we have done if we had listened to the gossip and found we were the butt of the joke? We’d been lied to, taken for a fool.

Would we clamour for justice, for the world to see the lies for what they were, for our name to be vindicated and our path clear to start again?

Or would we remember our place in history, the earthly link to a heavenly king? Would we trust that what was conceived in her was from God, as unlikely as that sounded? Would we care for these helpless ones as if they were our own flesh and blood?

The People of Bethlehem

What would we have done if we had been woken in the night by travellers filthy from the road? Would we have closed the shutters of our hearts to the pain and the desperation of those far from home?

Or would we have made room for the mess and the chaos of birth, going without to feed another mouth, risking the unknown but opening ourselves up to this holy mystery.

Unto us a Child is Born
Unto us a Son is Given

The Virgin Mary accepted your call
to be the mother of Jesus.
Forgive our disobedience to your will.
We have sinned:
forgive and heal us.


Hearing the Angels

What would he have done if God had broken into our world, calling us to attention and exposing our weakness with the light of His glory?

Would we have hidden away, desperate to keep our hearts hidden from the gaze of the one who sees and knows?

Or would we have listened to the words of welcome – “Don’t be afraid, this is good news” – and been the first to feel the joy of heaven as it rushed across the earth?

The Shepherds

What would we have done if we had to choose between guarding our assets and proving the words from heaven?

Would we have huddled more closely to the light of the fire, warding off the terrors of the night and preferring to ignore the words of invitation?

Or would we have set out into the unknown to see this thing which had happened, this thing which would amaze all they told and would turn the scum of the earth into the heralds of the kingdom of God.

Unto us a Child is Born
Unto us a Son is Given

The shepherds left their flocks
to go to Bethlehem.
Forgive our self-interest and lack of vision.
We have sinned:
forgive and heal us.


The Magi

What would we have done if the moment we had been waiting our whole lives for finally came?

Would we search for an explanation, a rationalisation an reason to stay put where we are the masters of our own destiny?

Would we be swayed by the trappings of power and the veiled threats, and betray this undefended child into the hands of violent men?

Or would we search for the one who calls out the stars by name and lay down whatever we can in his service?

Herod

What would we have done, if we had heard that the promised king had been born and his star had risen in the sky?

Would we take counsel together and discuss this threat to national security, this pretender to the throne who had been born in Bethlehem.

Would we allow our own pride and desires to be unseated before this king who has no equal and who wants our hearts for his own?

Would our hearts be filled with gladness that God had heard the cries of his people, that the silence had been filled with a baby’s cry?

Unto us a Child is Born
Unto us a Son is Given

The wise men followed the star
to find Jesus the King.
Forgive our reluctance to seek you.
We have sinned:
forgive and heal us.


You and I

What will we do as we come to his table? As we hear again of the night he was abandoned, in the garden and on the tree? As he broke himself for us and poured himself out that we may be filled.

Will we stay into the darkness, or will we come into the light, daring to believe that this was for us.

Will we receive the gift of God?

Will we receive Him?

Unto Us a Child is Born
Unto us a Son is Given
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Unto Us a Son is Born
Unto us a Child is Given

The Peace of the Lord be always with you
And also with you.


Common Worship: Services and Prayers for the Church of England, material from which is included in this post, is copyright © The Archbishops’ Council 2000.

Learning about Church – from the Atheists.

I don’t think I’ll be going to the mission meeting in Plymouth tonight. It isn’t that I’m not interested, it’s just a bit tricky to find the time to squeeze it in.

Anyone who has tried to drum up enthusiasm for church will be familiar with this sort of response. There doesn’t seem to be any less interest in spiritual matters, but with regular church attendance now defined as going once a month, there are just too many other attractive alternatives.

After decades in denial, both national denominations and local congregations have now woken up to the fact that we ought to be doing something about dwindling numbers, and this has led to a great diversification in the way we do church. The manta for most of these fresh expressions has been – “it’s the format which is broken, so let’s do church differently”.

Which is why its something of a surprise that tonight’s mission meeting is promoting the ‘Sunday Assembly Everywhere’ organisation who hope to see “a godless congregation in every town, city and village that wants one.”

And despite their rejection of any sort of divine mandate, these atheist gatherings are surprising rigid in what they do and don’t allow – in essence it’s trendy Church of England, on a Sunday, but without God.

Hang on, I thought that Sunday wasn’t a good day for church anymore – the kids have got sports clubs and anyone sensible will be hung-over from the night before. And what about the singing, which people find strange? And the sermon, which people find boring? And the sitting in silence – which people can’t cope with?

But all these elements are essential parts of a Sunday Assembly. In fact, this is part of the attraction. One participant was quoted in the Guardian as saying:

“there was just something that clicked … It’s unashamedly copying a familiar Church of England format, so it’s part of the collective consciousness.”

If this is true of the wider population then this present a serious challenge to some of our own assumptions about fresh expressions. Maybe it isn’t the format which people are rejecting. 

The Church needs to stop telling husbands to lead, and start teaching them how to love.

It’s been 13 years since our wedding day, a day when Tanya promised to ‘love, honour and submit’ to me, and where we started our Bible reading with Ephesians 5:21 to remind us that submission in marriage is a two-way street.

But to this day, the blank line in many translations between verses 21 and 22 of Ephesians chapter 5 seems to remain an insurmountable barrier in much of the teaching on submission in marriage. Why do we so often start with verse 22 “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord” and not with verse 21 “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ”?

This week a number of bloggers are posting syncro-blogs exploring the Bible Texts which mention submission in marriage and my contribution to the debate is to ask just what problem these New Testament ‘household codes’ are trying to address. The answer to this question makes a big difference to our application of these passages and what I want to suggest is that these instructions are intended to help Christian families live in the freedom which Christ alone offers to men and women. In other words, they are part of the overthrow of the effects of the fall.

There is a powerful and popular school of thought that teaches that female submission and male leadership are the antidote to the sins of the fall. in this schema, Adam’s sin was his failure to take the lead (“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife…” 3:17) and Eve’s sin was her disastrous delusion that she could make decisions on behalf of her husband (“she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate” 3:6). The application is worked out in the common-place teaching that husbands should exercise leadership more explicitly in their homes, and wives should actively submit, whether or not their husbands temper their leading with love.

And this is really important because as a result of this teaching, men, even Christian men, who have a tendency to abuse women are given theological justification for doing so. Even more horrifically, I keep hearing accounts of how some churches are complicit in this abuse as they tell women who complain to go back and do a better job of submitting.

When I hear about these stories of abuse, what I can’t get to grips with is how we got to this teaching in the first place. The passages in the New Testament which talk about wives or slaves submitting never use leadership as the male counterpoint, they always talk about love. In any case, leadership in the New Testament is always modelled on the pattern of Christ, who led by his total self-giving sacrificial love.

It is much more consistent with the overall witness of the Bible to see these codes as written to deal with the effects of the fall. In them God himself demonstrates how the curses of the fall will be undone.

It is Jesus who is the second Adam, succeeding where humanity has failed. These codes are not written to show us how to correct the sins of Adam and Eve, but to teach us how to live, throwing off the curses which their sin laid upon us.  

Much of the discussion about women submitting will draw on the context of the patriarchal nature of Jewish and Greco-Roman society. But it’s worth reminding ourselves that patriarchy too is a result of God’s curse and not part of God’s design. In Genesis 3:16 God says to Eve:

“I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing;
in pain you shall bring forth children,
yet your desire shall be for your husband,
and he shall rule over you.”

Genesis 3:16 (NRSV)

Until this point the relationship between Husband and Wife had been one of mutuality and co-operation – that was the intention of the one-flesh union described in Genesis 2:24. But as a result of the fall man would rule over woman, which is what we have seen perpetuated in patriarchal society in every generation since.

But Peter and Paul in the New Testament are writing to Christians about how to live Christ-empowered lives which challenge the dominion of sin and challenge the effects of the fall. And I want to suggest that these household codes have nothing to do with maintaining patriachal society, instead, we see submission and love as the counterpoint to the sinful tendencies pronounced over women and men at the fall. This will now be their default mode of operation.

“yet your desire shall be for your husband,
and he shall rule over you.”

To see the full semantic range of the words in bold, we can look ahead one chapter in the Genesis narrative to see how the author deliberately puts the Hebrew words together again. God is speaking following the exposure of the sin of Adam and Eve’s firstborn son Cain, who has begun to plot to kill his own brother.

“If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”

Genesis 4:7 (NRSV)

Here the words present a power struggle, sin desires to have you under its control, but you must exert your rule over it. And this is the same struggle which is seen in ‘the battle of the sexes’. The wife desires to control her husband, but he will use his superior strength and power to dominate.

All the Bible’s teaching about men and women is built on the foundation of Genesis chapters one to three. So when we come to its teaching about submission and love in marriage, it makes sense to see submission as the antidote to the desire to control, and love as the antidote to domination.

Submission then, cannot be the blind acceptance of a Husband’s decisions, however benign. Neither can love be construed to be taking control, however well intentioned.

We (and I say ‘we’ as a church pastor and Bible teacher’) do both husbands and wives a serious disservice when we tell husbands to ‘man up’ and lead their families. What men need is to be taught how to overcome their fall-driven impulses to use their strength position and power to  dominate. They need to be taught to “love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25) and nowhere is that love expounded more clearly than in Paul’s letter to the Philippians:

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.

And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

The love of Christ for His church is a love which gives up all superiority (however much it was deserved) and takes the position of a slave. No wonder we men find it hard to love – we need Christ to teach us how to love like this, and the church to celebrate that love, not tell us to put down our cross and exert our authority.