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Gospel according to Epstein

20 December 2013

Nicholas Cranfield assesses a survey of Christ in modern art


Hope for the present and future: Nicholas Mynheer's The Flight to Egypt, one of the illustrations in the book under review

Hope for the present and future: Nicholas Mynheer's The Flight to Egypt, one of the illustrations in the book under review

The Image of Christ in Modern Art
Richard Harries
Ashgate £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £18 (Use code CT853 )

LORD HARRIES proved a popular Gresham lecturer. His theological insight, poetic cast of mind, and wide range of images, from the catacombs to the present day, kept lunchtime audiences alert and excitable.

The last series concentrated on the explosion of Modernism in Western art, and now forms the background to this book, which is much more detailed than any lantern-slide lecture allows.

At the end of the 2012 lecture series, Harries was asked why he had omitted female artists. He provoked mild outrage when he wondered whether there were any who were any good. Mindful of Barbara Hepworth and Elisabeth Frink, this volume does proper justice to both.

Nevertheless, even in his address at the book launch, he never once mentioned women artists, although Helen Meyer was in the audience. It was left to Laura Moffatt, in her response, to speak for, and with, the voice of women.

Evidently I failed to convince him of Vanessa Bell, when we had a day out in the South Downs, walking to the church at Berwick which she decorated with the Bloomsbury Group. I have stopped short of suggesting that we go to St Cosmas and St Damian, Challock, to view the 1953 murals of Rosemary Aldridge and Doreen Lister.

But his literary imagination and discerning mind help us to travel through a century of suffering and pain. Indeed, the conflicts of two world wars may well explain the preponderance of a certain type of "masculine" art. In this, it is a pity that he has not given space to Henry Moore's experience, and com­mented on the great drawings of the Crucified from the end of his life in 1982, much as in the case of Michel­angelo.

Harries has his favourites, as any art critic surely must: history will decide whether the contemporary poet and painter Roger Wagner really deserves nine pages, more than Harries accords Graham Sutherland, John Piper, or even his favoured Ceri Richards.

He is surely right to emphasise that much of the impetus for reli­gious art comes from outside the Christian tradition and outside Britain; Epstein and Chagall are appropriately central to the discus­sion. Georges Rouault is included, although his presence in England is sadly minimal.

Discovering and uncovering artists is very much the author'smétier. For those who do not know the Swedish mosaicist Hildegart Nicholas, the wife of an Oxford don; Sophie Hacker, whose low relief sculptures in Winchester Cathedral are so adroit; or the religious paint­ings - and now sculpture - of Maggi Hambling, this book will provide an invaluable introduction.

More than anything else, the book offers hope in the contemp­orary world. Norman Adams, Albert Herbert, and John Reilly have all died in the past decade, but the likes of Mark Cazalet, Peter Howson, Nicholas Mynheer, and Shirazeh Houshiary offer an adventure in seeing art and faith in our day.

It is disappointing that Ashgate still provides images that are sub-standard: the photograph of the celebrated 1953 Supper at Emmaus by Ceri Richards looks as if it has been photographed from a screen­saver, and the blurry illustration of Eric Gill's Christ Crowned, 1931, for the Golden Cockerel Press, makes a travesty of Gill's careful insistence on line and calligraphy.

The Revd Dr Nicholas Cranfield is the Vicar of All Saints', Blackheath, in south London.


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