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
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
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
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,
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.
"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).