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Sculpting the mystery in teak and mahogany

by
08 March 2013

Nicholas Cranfield sees a retrospective show 'come home'

Adept with the chisel: Edward Armitage Robinson's mahogany triptych Resurrection XXIII, 1986

Adept with the chisel: Edward Armitage Robinson's mahogany triptych Resurrection XXIII, 1986

THE venerable sculptor Edward Robinson (b. 1921) is no stranger to collegiate churches and cathedrals. Fifty years ago, his brother, Bishop John Robinson, published Honest to God, which brought public excoriation and ridicule from many. The Bishop of Woolwich was found a teaching post in the University of Cambridge as the Church of England dithered in its response to Modernism.

Controversy was not unknown to the family. Their uncle Armitage Robinson (1858-1933) had become Dean of Westminster at the age of 44, but was discreetly moved on to Wells in 1911 before the coronation of King George V, after what some thought inappropriate remarks. The relative freedom of a western cathedral allowed him time to be a leading Anglican voice in the Malines Conversations.

Edward Robinson himself was destined for a life of school-mastering, in England and in Zambia, where he became a headmaster. Later, he became Director of the Religious Experience Research Unit that Sir Alister Hardy had set up at Manchester College, Oxford, in 1969. Twenty-five years ago, Robinson published The Language of Mystery, in which he wrote of the apophatic element in religious art, and argued that mystery itself demanded silence.

But he had become adept at wielding the chisel, as well as the pen: carving shapes and forms that remind us of the origins of mystery. In Greek, the mysterion derives from the verb muo, to close, to be silent. God's generosity lies in the invitation to understand something of the plan that he has for us (Ephesians 1.9), and which Christians are privileged to bear to the world (1 Corinthians 4.1). At its heart is the ability to open and to disclose.

In an interview ten years ago with Bishop John D. Davies, Edward Robinson spoke of the "coincidence of opposites" informing his works with an ambiguity that would have been well known to the German thinker Nicholas of Cusa (1401-64). A retrospective exhibition of some 30 works, which was first seen in Exeter Cathedral in 2007, and then in the chapter house at Canterbury in 2009, has now come home to Westminster, where Armitage Robinson was a century ago.

The south aisle of St Margaret's, Westminster, is darkened by the forbidding Abbey next door. It is not helped by the least satisfactory of John Piper's great stained-glass commissions: eight windows with silver-grey and green lozenges set askew and awry in an abstract design, unfurled like the tent flaps of so many army bivouacs.

But it is here that Robinson has set out his stall. Temporary panels and glass cabinets display his works here, wooden sculptures at arm height so that they can be touched and opened, and only the bronzes locked away, imprisoned in glass.

 

Robinson has used a wide vocabulary of hardwoods for his sculptures. Mahogany and the South American Parana pine and native elm are next to African teak (iroko) and coastal sapele. The repertory suggests something of the botanist in this artist, too: there are several plants named after him.

To many, the murals that Mark Rothko designed for the Four Seasons' dining-room in New York (now shown at the Tate) are full of foreboding, as if the lines across them are the bars of windows. Others see them as if they are openings to a wider world beyond. Robinson consciously acknowledges his debt to Rothko in his remarkable series of sculptures, Resurrection, in which we are invited to go beyond the death and resurrection of Christ into Life.

"The simplest figuration drawn from our everyday world often can before the doors are opened be seen as fragmentary and apparently meaningless. But then, after the opening, they may be understood quite differently as parts, and necessary parts, of a single harmonious whole."

Several of his sculptures have been used as tabernacles for the consecrated elements of the eucharist, while at Tarnawce, in Poland, a typical triptych sculpture is mounted on a wall next to a confessional, allowing the penitent to reflect on opening up to God.

Even the humble MÖbius strip, rendered into bronze, suggests an infinity of approach in which the sculptor teases out the meaning of God's indwelling Spirit.

"Forms of Silence" is in St Margaret's, Westminster, until 25 March, and can be viewed Monday to Friday, 9.30 a.m. to 3.30 p.m.; Saturdays, 9.30 a.m. to 1.30 p.m.; and Sundays, 2 to 4.30 p.m.
www.formsofsilence.co.uk

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