AT THE entrance to an exhibition at the Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art in London is a near life-size wooden sculpture of a seated cardinal glistening from its golden gilding.
Giacomo Manzù created more than 300 versions of this image, also using alabaster, bronze, and marble. Six versions are included in this show, spanning a period from 1958 to 1983, and they express his vexed relationship with the Roman Catholic Church.
Perhaps more than any other modern artist, Manzù experienced both sides of the debate within the Church in relation to modern art — a debate that has revolved around the extent to which the best artists of the day should be commissioned regardless of faith commitment.
The Dominican friars Marie-Alain Couturier and Pie-Raymond Régamey famously argued in the pages of L’art Sacré, that “each generation must appeal to the masters of living art, and today those masters come first from secular art.” Their work resulted in challenging and exciting commissions by artists such as Pierre Bonnard, Marc Chagall, Le Corbusier, Fernand Léger, and Henri Matisse, among others.
Violently polemical reactions against such approaches criticised the commissioning of work for churches by Jewish, atheist, and communist artists, caused work by Albert Servaes and Germaine Richier to be removed from churches for which it had been commissioned, and led to a censure from Pope Pius XI of the “Manifesto of Futurist Sacred Art”.
Under Pius XII, the Vatican Office also censured Manzù’s work; and yet, under Pope John XXIII, despite being a secular master and communist sympathiser, he nevertheless received the support and friendship that enabled him to create, after 12 years of frustrating gestation, the masterful Doors of Death for St Peter’s Basilica.
Manzù’s father was the sacristan of Sant’Alessandro, Colonna, when 25-year-old Fr Angelo Roncalli, later the saintly John XXIII, gave an early homily. With his church upbringing, the artist quickly gained religious commissions, but increasingly lost his faith while creating work that challenged the Church through its expressionistic focus on the violence of crucifixion, and its setting of the Passion in the context of the Nazi-fascist threat.
This strand of his work is represented here by the bronze bas-relief Crucifixion with General and Cardinal, with its incised, scuffed, scratched, and scraped surfaces, which mirror the violence of the torture scene depicted.
Manzù’s work, like that of Servaes and Richier, was censured because it viewed Christ’s sacrifice as emblematic of human suffering in conflict and persecution, thereby challenging sentimental images of Christ, and, where commissioned by churches, deliberately introducing ugliness into beautiful buildings. His work is a passionate indictment of violence and of Nazi and Fascist violence in particular.
Passion also features here in sensual drawings and sculptures characterised in both their form and content by unconstrained movement when the constricting cover of clothing is removed and the human form is freed. Contrast these with the cover-up inherent in the series of seated cardinals, in which personality is eclipsed by function — the figure indivisible from its garments — and facial features are often undefined — blank and empty. This exhibition, therefore, sets up significant contrasts within Manzù’s work between freedom and constraint, movement and stillness, secular and sacred, which are predominantly weighted towards that which is unconstrained.
Manzù said that what attracted him to the image of the seated cardinals was the “majesty of their form”. He was struck by their “rigid masses” and “aligned cubes”, meaning that on one level they are exercises in abstract conical forms. Yet they are also images of men who have been enveloped by their robes and clerical position to the extent that, when this is combined with the blankness of their features, they exude no sense of distinct personality.
The loss of his personal faith seems, to some extent, to have gone hand in hand with the censuring of his Crucifixions, and conflicts generated with cardinals as he undertook his church commissions. When his indictments of contemporary violence and of the violence that resulted in Christ’s death drew condemnation from those who should have had the greatest insight into the reality of crucifixion and the response of love, it is entirely conceivable that he came to see their position in the Church as one that robbed them of their humanity.
For Manzù, this response was tempered by his friendship with Mgr Giuseppe De Luca and Pope John XXIII. De Luca was a priest and publisher with a ministry among intellectuals and artists who had become detached from the Church and were increasingly impervious to its call. He introduced Manzù to Roncalli, when Archbishop of Venice, who then, as Pope, invited Manzù to sculpt his portrait. He formed a strong friendship with the artist, which eventually resulted in a revised brief for the commissioned doors at St Peter’s. This revised brief, which was proposed by Manzù and accepted in trust by Pope John, enabled Manzù to regain his inspiration for the commission.
This exhibition includes Death of Gregory VII, a marvellous example of the drawing in clay which resulted in the bronze bas-reliefs forming the panels on the completed Doors of Death at St Peter’s.
These touching and positive relationships, which lasted till death, inevitably nuanced and altered Manzù’s view of the clergy, as may be apparent from the gilded Large Seated Cardinal, 1983, where the features are defined and, although hieratic, with perhaps a touch of arrogance, they also, nevertheless, have a real sense of still and serene spirituality.
“Giacomo Manzù: Sculptor and Draughtsman” is at the Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art, 39a Canonbury Square, London N1, until 3 April. Phone 020 7704 9522.