THE Palazzo Strozzi, Florence, has no permanent collection to show, but mounts special exhibitions instead. The curators bring together top-quality — often iconic — works in a sophisticated and sometimes surprising conceptual framework. “Divine Beauty from Van Gogh to Chagall and Fontana” carries on that approach.
The time span implied in “from Van Gogh to Chagall and Fontana” is a challenge in itself. This period, from the 1850s to the 1950s, was one of unprecedented change in Italy, where most of the works originate; in the papacy, in relation to the new Italian State; in the geo-politics of Europe; and in the rise of secular ideologies, and the flight from faith, when, as Adrian Hastings once put it, “the atheism of the leadership mellowed into the agnosticism of the led.”
The works are presented according to seven themes; and, in each themed section, the viewer can grasp the diversity, continuities, and discontinuities through the period. The overall effect is to make us aware of profound inspiration and innovation in handling the received sacred subjects of Christian Europe, at a time when, as is commonly thought, artists fled the Church and began, as Pope Paul VI once said, to drink “at other fountains”.
I say “sacred subject” advisedly. The first room of the exhibition, “From Salon to Altar”, presents an altar panel, The Maccabees (1857-63), by Antonio Ciseri. Together with other large-scale works, such as William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s Flagellation of Christ, it marks the start of the journey that other rooms explore.
Quite apart from the subject’s usefulness as a call to Catholic defiance in the face of the new “secular” Italian State, Ciseri’s work presents a sacred subject, but not canonically regulated sacred art. Instead, the subject is rendered with aesthetic dynamics and values derived from the secular salon culture; likewise, Domenico Morelli’s gasping, blinded figure in The Fall of St Paul (1876).
Once sacred subject and sacred art were detached, the floodgates were opened. The remaining six themed rooms plot the diverse trajectories pursued by artists, muralists, sculptors, and architects — largely Italian, but with nods in a pan-European direction — as they worked with the claims of sacred subjects on the one hand, and developments in style and aesthetic theory on the other.
Although the century included the emergence of Cubism and abstraction, the works exhibited are wholly figural, even if some of the artists had ventured into non-figural spheres at earlier points in their careers. The human body and face — so stricken by the advent of mechanised warfare — and, by implication, humanity’s existential plight seem to have exerted an inescapable allure, as these artists responded to the Christian spiritual world and the historical record of the life of Christ.
The second theme, the Virgin Mary — “Rosa Mystica” — gives scope for the viewer to grasp the range of figural treatment. Morelli’s Mater Purissima (1879-83) etherealises the young mother and child in quasi-Mannerist tenderness, whereas Edvard Munch’s rarely shown hand-coloured lithograph of the turn of the century, Madonna II, whose bare-breasted Virgin scandalised contemporaries, emphasises the carnality of the incarnation.
The largest and most diverse theme of the exhibition is “Life of Christ”, and takes the viewer from the annunciation to the supper at Emmaus. In every way, we travel far: in styles, media, temporal sequence, geography, and aim. Galileo Chini’s Divisionist painting Annunciation (1906) takes intentional inspiration from Jean-François Millet’s Angelus (1857-58).
Glyn Philpot’s arresting Angel of the Annunciation (1925) (his work chiefly as a portraitist is clear) typifies the freedom with which a sacred subject could now be handled. Philpot dispenses with the Virgin altogether; instead, the viewer stands in her place, and is confronted with the challenge of “yes” or “no” to the divine offer.
The British contribution continues with Stanley Spencer’s Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem and The Last Supper (both 1920) (Arts, 17 July), while his sturdy figural style leads on to Graham Sutherland’s dissected Study for Crucifixion (1947).
Indeed, the paintings, murals, reliefs, and sculptures of the crucifixion seem to bear the full weight of experimentation, daring, and spiritual seriousness among the works on show. We are exposed to its catholic — in the sense of all-embracing — expressive potential, especially for generations involved in the world wars. At a glance — though who could only glance? — we see Pablo Picasso’s youthful interpretation hearkening back to Spanish predecessors, Max Ernst’s Expressionist Crucifix of 1914, Renato Guttuso’s anti-Fascist interpretation (1940-1), and — this treasure lures the viewer along the rooms’ sight-lines — Marc Chagall’s White Crucifixion (1938), rendered as a protest against the fate of European Jewry. So the “divine beauty” is also an emphatic call and plea to the artists’ contemporaries.
Rooms dedicated to Gino Severini’s church designs and mural decorations, undergirded by the neo-Thomist Jacques Maritain’s aesthetics, point up the strong Franco-Italian axis in this exhibition. “Spaces of Sacredness” carries that forward in architecture, while the final theme of “Prayer” allows eyes to rest on Millet’s Angelus.
So what is this exhibition really about? Divine beauty? That metaphysical title is coy, and intended, I suspect, to capture the interest of museum-goers who might shy away from an overtly “Christian” exhibition of “sacred art”. But this exhibition indeed testifies to the irrepressible power of the Christian sacred story to enchant and challenge artists of much, little, or no faith at all.
However unclear visitors may remain as they leave, the exhibition confirms Marie-Alain Couturier’s judgement that “this modern art . . . is one of the most spiritual that history has ever known.”
The exhibition runs at Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi, Piazza Strozzi, Florence, until 24 January 2016. Phone 00 39 055 2645155.
The Revd Dr Charles Miller is the Team Rector of Abingdon-on-Thames, Oxfordshire.