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A theme in Cheltenham

24 April 2015

Jonathan Evens sees an exhibition of art on biblical subjects

Wide-ranging:a general view of the exhibition at The Wilson, in Cheltenham.

Wide-ranging:a general view of the exhibition at The Wilson, in Cheltenham.

IN KEEPING with its title, "Still Small Voice"at the recently renovated gallery The Wilson, in Cheltenham, has rather crept under the radar despite its significance as an exhibition and a well-subscribed associated lecture series.

Opening before the plethora of Lent exhibitions, which demonstrate the health of the engagement between the Church and art, but continuing beyond them, itilluminates both past and present practice in this engagement.

Ben Quash of King's College, London, a contributor to the catalogue and lecture programme, provides one frame through which to view this exhibition. That is art in Christianity - i.e. the 20th-century revival in ecclesiastical commissions, represented here by two Graham Sutherland studies for his Coventry Cathedral tapestry - and Christianity in art - i.e. notable artists such as Stanley Spencer and Edward Burra who consistently "do" or "did" theology in works created for the mainstream art market.

One of Quash's initiatives has involved education and research partnerships with the National Gallery which have received support from the Ahmansons, Howard and Roberta, from whose collection of modern British art this exhibition is drawn. The Ahmansons, listed by Time magazine in 2005 as being among the 25 most influential US Evangelicals, have been prominent patrons of the arts in both the US and the UK. They have encouraged Christians to engage artists with whom they wouldn't agree theologically or morally, and to look at a lot of contemporary art.

Roberta Green Ahmanson has suggested that central to the vision of the artists in their collection "is a kind of spareness, a bleakness born of the suffering of two world wars".

Quash speaks of this as a "chastened pastoral sense" combined with a modest acknowledgement of the "broken". Ahmanson states that this can be seen in the muted colours and restrained vision of the artists included, and yet, she says, "they turn to biblical images to understand their grief."

The collection begins with the Nazarene and Pre-Raphaelite styles of William Dobson and William Bell Scott, and continues, with Eric Gill as the bridge between Modernism and the earlier Arts and Crafts movement, through the inter-war period of the 1920s and 1930s, the Second World War, the post-war era, and the later 20th century, into the early 21st century. Its closest equivalent in the UK is the Methodist Art Collection, which, while broader in the range of artists collected, has less depth, particularly in the focus that the Ahmanson Collection has on the middle years of the 20th century, with its renewed interest in religious art.

This, as the exhibition curator Lyrica Taylor notes, was "brought about by the horrors of the First World War and the demand for new churches following the widespread destruction of the Second World War". The focus and heart of this collection is located there in works by Burra, Jacob Epstein, Eric Gill, Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, Spencer, and Sutherland. If the Ahmanson and Methodist collections were exhibited together with a judicious choice of contemporary work, this would offer a relatively comprehensive review of modern British religious art.

Here the contemporary element is provided by Angus Pryor's atrium installation, God's Wrath, which takes for its inspiration a key work in the collection, Spencer's Angels of the Apocalypse. Pryor, who also contributed to the rectangles, cross shapes, and primary colours of the exhibition hang, which frame the works in the modernist concrete spaces of The Wilson, translates a religious narrative into a secular framework in order to "understand the original narrative in a way that is not stale or merely pious".

Conceptual art, from Paul Thek to Damien Hirst and beyond, tends to use religious narratives in this way, and one of the weaknesses of the Ahmanson Collection is that, in the collection itself, does not engage with this development.

A second frame for understanding this collection is to see the mid-20th century renewal of interest in religious art as having two approaches to ecclesiastical commissions.

The first includes artists, such as Eric Gill, who formed societies or schools for the creation and promotion of religious art. The exhibition features a comprehensive range of work from Gill's Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic (mirrored in France by the Ateliers d'art Sacré and in Switzerland by the Groupe de Saint-Luc et Saint-Maurice), through the inclusion of a book of engravings for the St Dominic's Press, and a design for St Peter the Apostle, Gorleston-on-Sea, which was the summation of Gill's radical ideas and work.

The second approach focused on commissioning, as Canon Walter Hussey put it, "the very best artists I could". In the UK, this was the approach of Bishop George Bell and Hussey, while on mainland Europe the Dominicans Marie-Alain Couturier and Pie-Raymond Régamey made this the focus of their work.

Here we see this approach in works commissioned from Epstein, Hepworth, Christopher Le Brun, Moore, and Sutherland. In France, this approach led to a predominance of abstract art. Here, however, the focus remains primarily on figurative work. The only abstract images included are strong works by Peter Lanyon and Joe Tilson for the Tate Gallery's 1958 exhibition "The Religious Theme".

The poster image for the current exhibition is a pink Craigie Aitchison crucifixion, but, if you are not already convinced that this is an exhibition to visit before these British works return to the US, this painting's companion is an absolute gem. Completed just a year before his death, Body of Christ (Red Background) is an example of the spiritual depths of modern art, with its full-on expressive use of colour combined with the stripped-back minimalism of its imagery. Christ is the cross, the cross is the wound at the heart of the canvas, and this gash in the blood-red background is the point at which light enters the space.

As Ahmanson says, this is art that creates sacred space by taking you "somewhere beyond yourself and outside of your own little world".

"Still Small Voice: British Biblical Art in a Secular Age (1850 - 2014)"is at The Wilson, Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum, Clarence Street, Cheltenham, until 3 May. Phone 01242 237431.


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