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Paint, faith, and the everyday

13 February 2015

Jonathan Evens finds common ground between Victorians and Pop Artists

courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London Corporation

Faith:Frank Holl's The Lord Gave and the Lord Taketh Away, Blessed Be the Name of the Lord, 1868, one of the paintings now displayed as as result of the Guildhall's rehang

Faith:Frank Holl's The Lord Gave and the Lord Taketh Away, Blessed Be the Name of the Lord, 1868, one of the paintings now displayed as as result of...

MORE than half a century of change separates the Victorian age from the beginnings of Pop Art in the 1950s. In the 1950s, after years of austerity, people were increasingly energised by mass communication in new forms, affluence, advertising, and consumerism. Yet, as two thematic exhibitions focusing on Victoriana and Pop Art respectively reveal, fundamental concerns were broadly similar in both eras.

In the 19th century, many painters turned from the established focus on history paintings, with their biblical, historical, and literary themes, to the reality of contemporary life around them. Romanticism also stimulated a preoccupation with imagined visions and idealised beauty.

The recent rehang of the Victorian Collection at the Guildhall Art Gallery in London, for which many previously unseen or rarely seen paintings have been brought out of storage, is structured around these dichotomies to provoke debate about a creative and dynamic period of artistic development sometimes known as the "long" 19th century.

The Saatchi Gallery's exhibition "Post Pop: East meets West" defines Pop Art as looking "closely at the way we lived, at the environment we shaped for ourselves, at the artefacts by which we defined ourselves and with which we decorated our homes or made them more practical and efficient".

The framework of six themes for this review of Western Pop Art and its lesser-known Eastern counterparts - "Sots Art" in the Soviet Union and "Political-Pop" or "Cynical Realism" in Greater China - has parallels with the themes found in the Guildhall rehang. Habitat, advertising and consumerism, ideology and religion, sex and the body, and art history and mass media in "Post Pop" equate broadly to home, work, faith, beauty and love, and imagination and leisure at the Guildhall.

The Guildhall rehang also compares and contrasts these themes in terms of dualities: materiality (beauty and home) v. spirituality (faith); and imagined realities (imagination & love) v. realities of life (leisure and work).

While, as William Temple argued, Christianity is the most material of religions, it is, nevertheless, hugely encouraging to find curators who understand that religion has featured as a significant theme in art and culture, not only in the Victorian period, but also in the popular culture of the modern and contemporary eras.

While, in the mid-19th century there was considerable debate about the place of religion, the practice of faith, church reforms, and the implications of new scientific developments, most people continued to consider personal spirituality as a key component of everyday life. Victorian painters revived religious art in Britain, depicting biblical scenes, representing contemporary scenes from biblical lands, and examining issues of faith and doubt in a domestic context.

Often later accused of sentimentality, artists such as John Everett Millais and Frank Holl documented the centrality of faith in everyday Victorian life, and enjoyed huge popularity. Millais's paired paintings My First Sermon and My Second Sermon, featuring his daughter Effie in All Saints', Kingston-upon-Thames, were used by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Charles Longley, as a warning against "the evil of lengthy sermons and drowsy discourses". Images such as Holl's The Lord Gave and the Lord Taketh Away represented a new Protestant sensibility in art, and attracted the attention of Queen Victoria herself.

Pop Art reversed the earnestness of much Victorian art with its use of playfulness, irony, and cynicism; and yet faith remained a powerful reference point for Pop artists, particularly those from Russia and China, testifying to the continuing relevance of belief as a means of negotiating everyday life.

In May 1979, having bought several hundred American souls (Andy Warhol donated his for free), the artistic team of Komar and Melamid parodied consumerism by holding a simultaneous auction of bought souls in Moscow and New York; Warhol's soul was sold for thirty roubles.

Icons and iconostasis feature in several works that offer critiques of capitalism and communism as contemporary religions. Alexander Kosolapov is among the artists using icons in this way. His Hero, Leader, God juxtaposes Lenin, Mickey Mouse, and Christ. Victoria Emily Jones has rightly responded by encouraging reflection on what such artworks say "about (religious and/or national) 'brands' or icons?About reproducibility? About consumption? About worship?Are they criticizing the historical Jesus, or only what we've made of him?"

Alexander Savko, whose banned work is not included here, has said that the purpose of such paintings "is not abuse of Christ and not abuse of Christians". Instead, they are about displaying current reality: "the substitution of human spiritual, moral values with mass-cultural values". Similarly, Andres Serrano, whose Piss Christ (included here) has been physically defaced previously by those who perceive it to be blasphemous, has said that the reason that this work upsets people may be that, as a Christian artist making a religious work based on his relationship with Christ and the Church, he is bringing a symbol that has lost its true meaning - the horror of crucifixion - closer to its original meaning. With David Mach's use of protruding coat hangers in Die Harder (also shown here), there is no doubting the violence, pain, and anguish of the act.

Chris Orr, whose work features in an exhibition at the Guildhall Art Gallery celebrating the 120th anniversary of Tower Bridge, loves narratives such as Bible stories "which are culturally ingrained in us . . . because they give a golden opportunity to the artist to directly open a dialogue with the viewer". In his commentary on a panorama of the City of London,City of Holy Dreams, Orr states: "a large number of churches in the City of London are now being choked and outgrown by the new temples of commerce and finance."

As someone shortly to become priest-in-charge of one of those City churches, I am hoping that Orr's words about the choking of churches are not prophetic. The inclusion of faith in these exhibitions does give confidence that these ingrained narratives will continue to open a dialogue between churches, creative people, and commerce.

Guildhall Art Gallery is in Guildhall Yard (off Gresham Street), London EC2. It is open daily (phone 020 7332 3700 to check for any closures). The exhibition "120 Years of Tower Bridge" runs until 26 April. www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/things-to-do/visiting-the-city/

"Post Pop: East meets West" is at the Saatchi Gallery, Duke of York's HQ, King's Road, London SW3, until 3 March. Phone 020 7811 3085 (to reserve disabled parking bay).


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