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Beauty, but without Pollyanna escapism

11 April 2014

Richard Harries admires the mix of joy and sorrow in the paintings of Norman Adams


Jesus pouring himself out:The Last Supperby Dieric Bouts (c.1415-75)

Jesus pouring himself out:The Last Supperby Dieric Bouts (c.1415-75)

THE dominant Christian image in the 20th century was the cross of Christ. This was not just because it had been so prominent in Western art since the Middle Ages, but because it resonated with the unspeakable horrors of two World Wars and the Holocaust. The cross became a symbol of universal human suffering.

During that century, and indeed in our time, artists have shied away from the resurrection of Christ. This is not only because suffering is to the fore of our minds, but for other reasons as well. First, how on earth do you depict the resurrection in the first place, without falling into unbelievable literalism?

The Orthodox Church is wiser and truer than the Western tradition in expressing its faith in the Anastasis (which in the West is called the Descent into Hell), in which the resurrection is depicted symbolically.

Then, in a century so soaked in Freud, it is easy to dismiss the resurrection of Christ and the associated hope of our future with Christ beyond death as so much wishful thinking. Finally, even if one believes in the resurrection of Christ, and think it can be depicted artistically in some way, how can this be done without cheapening the suffering which comes before? Suffering is real. How can the resurrection be shown in a way that comes across as no less real, and equally authentic?

In the earliest Christian art, for example on the Passion sarcophagus in the Catacomb of Domitilla from the mid-fourth century, the cross and resurrection are shown as integrally linked together as part of one saving event. In recent times, two paintings thatI know of try to convey that same truth. One is by John Reilly and shows Christ on the cross, but Christ almost dancing off the cross into the circle of eternal life.

The other one is The Golden Crucifixion by Norman Adams (above), painted in 1993. This shows Jesus on the cross andother figures associated with the crucifixion, such as soldiers with their helmets on the bottom right-hand side, wailing women with their arms outstretched, and a woman kneeling in grief on the left.

At the same time, however, the painting is dominated by resplendent butterfly wings. The butterfly is an image of great beauty, and, not surprisingly, it was sometimes seen as a symbol of the soul. Here, filling and permeating the whole scene, it conveys resurrection hope; not a hope apart from the cross, but a hope that takes the cross into account, and includes it.

Norman Adams (1927-2005) was associated during his lifetime with semi-impressionistic scenes drawn from the countryside of Yorkshire and, above all, from the sea and landscape round Scarp in the Outer Hebrides, where he had a croft. He also taught, and had a prestigious career, ending up as Keeper of the Royal Academy.

At the same time, he did a number of paintings on religious themes, which have become much more widely known since his death. Especially impressive are some of the large watercolours he did towards the end of his life, when the encroaching Parkinson's disease which afflicted him made it difficult to work in oils. There was recently an exhibition of some of these in Guildford Cathedral (Arts, 11 October). Tragically, a fire a few weeks ago destroyed some of them, together with a great cache of other religious works, at his studio in Yorkshire.

The religious work which meant more than any other to Adams himself was the set of Stations ofthe Cross which he executed forthe small church of St Mary's, Mulberry Street, in Manchester. When my wife and I first saw them at the Royal Academy, before they were taken to the church, we were both knocked over by the anguish that the artist had managed to convey.

Colour, so powerful in that set of Stations, was fundamental to the world of Adams as a whole. He agreed with Ruskin, who said: "If the artist has to choose between form and colour, go for colour," although he did not in the endthink that there was any final tension between them. Certainly, in The Golden Crucifixion, while the form is essential, it is the colour that gives the painting its emotional impact.

The black on Christ's face andon the butterfly wings, together with the khaki of the soldiers gathered in a sinister huddle, make it clear that this is no Pollyanna escapism. Indeed, the novelist A. S. Byatt emphasised the lack of sentimentality in Adams's paintings, and the art critic Peter Fuller saw a thread of sadness running through them.

Yet the yellow gold, which fills the painting, and the blocks of red give it a joyful exuberance which transform that darkness. It is not surprising to learn that Adams had once experienced a moment of revelation when he had looked at a butterfly, and realised that it existed just for its own sake - and that whatever else there might be in a picture, beauty needed to be part of it.

Although not a conventional churchgoer, Adams described himself as a "compulsive believer", and saw his paintings in terms of the human journey though joy and sorrow, conveyed in forms of colour. As he said in one interview: "I discovered art before I discovered religion. . . What art . . . did for me was to open a new way. It showed that religion was not all about death, but about life. I think art is about life - about people - about living."

The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is the former Bishop of Oxford, and the author of The Image of Christ in Modern Art (Ashgate, £19.99 (CT Bookshop £18); 978-1-4094-6382-5) (Books,20 December). This Lent series is based on the book.

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