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. 

 

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.

Is it OK to disagree with the Artist?

Looking out of the window at the chilly rain this Monday morning, the weekend’s sunshine seems to belong to another season rather than being just a day ago. On those days when the sun does shine, I’m increasingly spending time down at Plymouth’s Royal William Yard enjoying the coffee, freshly made pastries, local cheeses from the deli, the passage to the beach and the art.

On most of our visits we pop in to see what’s new in the gallery of local abstract artist Martin Bush. That might be because my son insists on going in and peeking tentatively around the labyrinth of paintings until he finds an impressive three metre high sculpture of the minataur. But on the wall facing the minataur is what I’m going in to see, a 1.5 metre wide abstract painting called “In the Element”.

In the Element - Martin Bush 2011

In the Element – Martin Bush 2011

This picture is part of a series of works inspired by the America’s Cup sailing competition, which came to Plymouth last summer. Almost effortlessly, Martin manages to capture the movement and the energy of that competition, the constant action and attention needed to harness the elements and keep ahead of the competition. Discussing the picture, Martin wants the viewer to imagine themselves looking back from the bow of a racing yacht, the folds of the sails forming an expectant concertina of canvas on the deck as they are hauled down out of the wind.

When I first saw this picture, there was something disturbing about it, which didn’t sit easily with the adrenaline rush of having the sun on your back, the wind in your hair (and sails) and the spray of salt water in your face. For me the picture seemed more foreboding, and the title conveyed a sense of menace. For me this was not a picture of elements being harnessed for sport, but a darker vision of elements being fought back as they threaten to engulf the onlooker and dislodge them from their precarious perch above the waves.

Eventually I realised why I saw such a hostile scene. It was because there was another image lurking in the back of my mind, which Martin’s work evokes in its composition and in the positioning of the flashes and swirls. The scene which I now see when I look at “In the Element” is this one, Théodore Géricault’s 1819 paining of the Raft of the Medusa.

The Raft of the Medusa - Théodore Géricault (1791–1824)

The Raft of the Medusa – Théodore Géricault (1791–1824)

At over seven metres wide, the Raft of the Medusa towers over the viewer from its permanent home on the walls of the Louvre. In contrast to the Mona Lisa, which always appears smaller than expected, this massive work of art overpowers rather than charms those who stand before it. It tells the horrific story of the survivors of the Shipwreck of the Medusa, who clung to this hastily constructed vessel as they awaited rescue. A rescue which eventually came to just fifteen of the 147 passengers in the form of the French ship the Argus. This ship can just be seen as a hopeful speck on the horizon in the top right of the picture.

Once you’ve seen the similarity, the composition of “In the Element” makes it impossible to disassociate it (for me at least) from the Raft of the Medusa. In the top left corner the dark patch of the towering waves and the brooding clouds sit beside the flash of light of a hopeful dawn. The only bright colour in Géricault’s vision are the red flashes of garments, one of which is being waved in hope of being sighted. These are mirrored by the bursts of red in the abstract work which infuse the canvas with hope. The diagonal ropes holding the mast are evident in both works and, most powerfully, where the Argus sits on the horizon as a beacon of hope to the stricken souls on the raft, in the corresponding spot there is a blue cross – a symbol of salvation above the tumultuous waves.

In my dark vision of In the Element, instead of folds of canvas, lifeless as they wait to be hoisted into the wind, the swirls become the wasted and inert forms of those for whom the deliverance of the Argus would not come in time.

But which of us is right?

As I look at In the Element, I can see both the sporting scene Martin describes, and also the despair and hope of the dying passengers of the Medusa. But should it be possible to see both? Should the artist be able to dictate what we see, or is it OK to disagree with the artist?

As I reflect on this question, it seems that the answer to this question is bound up with the level of abstraction in the work itself. If this was a photo-realistic image of the bow of a modern racing yacht then we wouldn’t be discussing the similarities with the two hundred year old representation of a maritime tragedy. But because the work is abstract, because it leaves room for interpretation by the viewer, we are free to see more in here than what the artist intended. And once we’ve seen a bigger picture, the abstract often becomes clearer.

Now I’m no expert when it comes to art, so let’s move this discussion into a field with which I’m more familiar – making sense of the Bible.

I often hear people accuse the Bible of being incomprehensible and unconnected, but the Bible too has different levels of abstraction. Some parts of the Bible are meant to be photo-realistic: Histories, Letters, Gospels and all those parts which have the voice of a narrator showing us clearly what God wants us to think. We can’t read these bits and argue with the author about what they meant.  But there are some parts of the Bible which are more abstracted: Poems, dialogues, visions and proverbs all leave room for us to see layers of meaning, and are often the bits that leave us confused. But there is a bigger picture, an overarching story which once we’ve seen it will shape our understanding of even the most abstract sections.

Like the Raft of the Medusa, the big picture of the Bible has at its centre a scene of despair and hope where at first glance we cannot see whether the darkness of the clouds or the light of the dawn will triumph.  But like the Argus, like the cross on the horizon, the Cross of Jesus is the beacon of hope which makes sense of the whole picture. And once we’ve seen that the Bible is about one man, we can’t help but see Him across the whole canvas of scripture.

So what do you see?

If you want to make up your own mind about In the Element, then its on show at Martin’s Gallery in the Brewhouse in Plymouth’s Royal William Yard. Martin’s current show includes his current projects and older works. You can also book the gallery for private events and functions.  

VIsit Martin Bush's Website