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Altarpiece in the burning fiery furnace

by
10 August 2010

Nicholas Cranfield sees a contemporary work in St Paul’s,and wonders about its interpretation

MARK ALEXANDER is a con­temporary British artist who came late to his craft; he gained his BFA from Oxford University at the age of 30 in 1996 as a self-taught artist. He is notorious as much for the paucity of his work as for its painstaking detail, as it replaces classicism of an earlier era with virtual photographic real­ism.

So, for instance, in his 2005 London show (Haunch of Venison gallery), he used a heavy black pigment to en­fold van Gogh’s friendly Doctor Gachet, so that what might once have been a colourful icon of Southern light, coming after the artist’s so­journ in Arles, was wrapped in the darkness of an impending suicide.

Dr Kelly Grovier at Haunch of Venison has observed that Alex­ander’s work “reveals a mystical space where history compresses and the soul endures. These are pain­s­takingly executed works, plotted along the axes of individual triumph and the fragility of cultural achieve­ment, mapping a twilit world where transience and permanence blur.” Ho, hum.

With this in mind, I set off to see two of his most recent works, dis­played on the nave columns in St Paul’s Cathedral just west of the central dome as part of an arts and faith project. The encounter is as­tonishingly successful, although, as I sat in front of them at a busy Monday lunchtime, no one else seemed to give any attention to them, which is remarkable, given their size, colour, and subject.

Comprising nine panels each, and assembled to a height of some four metres, these virtually identical oil paintings are painted in blood-red and black. They purport to show what is left of a wall where a once famous rococo altarpiece stood in Mannheim Cathedral rather as if a giant photographic negative has been projected on to the wall and its silhouette has been shadowed.

As I was about to leave, a cathedral tour-guide turned up with a group and had them stop between the paintings. I tagged on as he ex­plained that just as London and Coventry had suffered in the Blitz, so, too, the Allies had destroyed Berlin, Mann­heim, and Cologne. He explained how the artist had taken this as his cue, and therefore had painted the altarpiece as if it was engulfed in the flames of a burning cathedral.

It was made to sound remarkably sad, as if Alexander had provocat­ively but deliberately brought back into the heart of the English Estab­lishment a reminder of lost in­nocence for things past by way of censuring the war effort. It certainly made the tourists gasp to think that the Allies would cause such equal destruction.

But it would seem that this is not really the case at all. The famous sculptor Paul Egell (1691-1752) had carved a dramatic altarpiece group for Mannheim Cathedral. It soon fell out of fashion and was sold to the Kaiser Friedrich Museum in Berlin. For safe keeping during the Second World War, it was removed from there to a bunker, which later burned out. The fragmentary remains of the former altarpiece are now in the Bode Museum on Museum Island in Berlin, which is where Alexander first saw them when he was living in Berlin.

He has taken the central cross, with the figures of Mary and Mary Magdalene, and a tree growing beside it, with Adam and Eve below, and projected them in outline against a fiery red background. They stand out as if silhouetted against an open-arched window frame, which seems to be the clue to how we are meant to approach the works; for the com­position invites the eye to go beyond the darkened and brooding familiar shapes of Calvary to seek the source of Life’s Blood itself.

He has taken the central cross, with the figures of Mary and Mary Magdalene, and a tree growing beside it, with Adam and Eve below, and projected them in outline against a fiery red background. They stand out as if silhouetted against an open-arched window frame, which seems to be the clue to how we are meant to approach the works; for the com­position invites the eye to go beyond the darkened and brooding familiar shapes of Calvary to seek the source of Life’s Blood itself.

What emerges, far from being a hymn to carnage of a past that has been destroyed, is a powerful re­flection that “what you thought you came for Is only a shell, a husk of meaning From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled If at all,” as T. S. Eliot has it in Little Gid­ding.

In our post-modernist, late de­con­structionist world, it may be worth noticing that Alexander him­self is an Anglican communicant; whether that means he sees himself as a religious painter is not the issue. What counts (and finding out will cost you the £12.50 entry charge or the virger’s displeasure if you pre­tend you have gone for a service) is that an artist of such quality can be taken seriously both by the con­temporary arts scene and by the Church.

As I left, I spotted the Dean looking balefully into the bottom of his coffee cup as he sat at a table on his own in the undercroft refectory. I almost interrupted his thoughts to remind him that upstairs, amid the noise of tour groups and the chink of money at the turnstiles, at least one person was still preaching the Good News.

Mark Alexander’s Red Mannheim is at St Paul’s Cathedral until the end of the summer.

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