PASSING under the Gothic arches into the north transept of Chichester Cathedral, one comes face to face with a dramatic and disturbing tableau.
A young man with tight dark hair, stripped to the waist in light-coloured jeans, struggles towards us, straining under the heavy load of a bald-headed elderly man on his back, also bare-breasted. Behind them stand ten tall figures, six women and four men, half again the size of a human form. Darkly cloaked from head to foot, with different hairstyles and features, each stands in his or her own space, but seeming to share thoughts and reactions to figures near by.
A bald-headed man at the back is making angry comments to a man on his right, who holds his cloak over his mouth so as not to show his feelings, while the man on his left is quietly agreeing, and his female companion is politely indifferent. Three women at the front express shock and disapproval, but one with long auburn hair also indicates a rather gleeful horror.
Another woman on the right looks out at you anxiously, while one elderly woman, her hair swept back in the traditional Spanish bun, bears a look of sad resignation, like someone who has lost all her family and is now devoid of emotion.
The devastation of cities and the burning of oil-fields in the Iraq war suddenly brought home to the sculptor Ana Maria Pacheco the unbelievable horror of having to flee from one’s home with nowhere to go. As she is deeply steeped in Classical mythology, it inspired her to create a tableau, Shadows of the Wanderer, portraying Aeneas carrying his father Anchises from the burning ruins of Troy — a far cry from the Romantic renderings with them both in Roman armour and Anchises still recognisable as the handsome youth whom Venus chose to father her son Aeneas.
Aeneas carries nothing material with him but it is good to know he possesses integrity of purpose and obedience to the will of the gods (pietas) which will eventually bring him to found Rome. The “shadows” seem to be onlookers unable or unwilling to relieve the suffering, not unlike the Greek Chorus, always present to offer philosophical comments and prophecy doom. The dense collection of branches, like a fossilised forest, covered with wooden planks on which they stand, is the “subterranean world of the mind which bypasses the consciousness”.
Since medieval times, life-sized painted wooden biblical individual figures and tableaux have been carried through the streets during Holy Week and placed before the altars at Christmas in the Roman Catholic countries of Europe and Latin America. Pacheco comes from Brazil, and saw these images in church all the time as a child. But, though her father was Catholic, her mother was not. Pacheco developed a detached view of religion, and put this art-form behind her
She became very successful, making models and life drawings, and teaching art at the Pontifical Catholic University of Goiás, but felt that her ideas were not appreciated or understood in the Brazilian culture of the 1960s and 1970s, and was delighted when, in 1973, she won a British Council scholarship to come to the Slade School of Fine Art. Here, again, she felt inhibited; for although her tutor Reg Butler (renowned for his internationally acclaimed maquette to the “unknown political prisoner” in 1953) took her and another student under his wing, she felt that he was trying to push them into copying his methods and approach.
Looking at slides of his nude figures under bright artificial light, she says, “it suddenly triggered a flood of images, memories buried deep in me of wooden figures, saints in churches, their fleshiness, their vivid presence.” She knew she wanted to reinterpret them with her own attitude to spirituality.
The Slade did not teach carving, and Pacheco wanted to carve; so when the “great storm” felled quantities of trees in 1987, she was able to buy wood cheaply and experiment with ideas and develop her craftsmanship, which has always been vital to her work. She does not claim that her figures are totally realistic (like Mme Tussaud’s waxworks), but she aims for the underlying theme to be real and powerful, and to shed light on the human condition.
All the figures are carved from lime wood: Aeneas and Anchises are taken skilfully from one piece.
”The grain is very compact and good to work with,” Pacheco told me. “Luckily, it’s easy to get logs shipped over from France, because almost every town has avenues of lime trees, which tend to rot quickly and have to be cut down from time to time.”
The first stage is carving the basic shape, including the folds of the garments, with a chainsaw, and letting the wood dry out in a warm place for a few months. She then uses a blow torch to burn fragile crevices, and does further carving and sanding down. To achieve a natural texture for the flesh, she seals the wood with a primer, and then mixes gesso with emulsion and applies it. As she likes to be very close to her work, she uses cotton buds, not a brush, to apply paint to delicate areas: the eyes are from onyx and the teeth from a dental supplier.
The piece is then polished, using her own mixture of beeswax and turpentine, applied with a nylon stocking, which leaves no fluff. Each time the installation is taken down, packed in cases, and re-shown, the figures are polished again.
Pacheco’s sculpture, prints, and paintings have been shown in great cities all over the world: she is recognised as a profound artist, and has also held high-level positions in the art world. Shadows of the Wanderer was first shown at the 61st Aldeburgh Festival of Music and Arts in 2008. Then, in 2010, at St John’s, Waterloo, London, it was exhibited alongside an Advent programme of sermons on “Faith, Justice and the City”.
Chichester Cathedral has long been known for its willingness to exhibit challenging pieces of modern art, including the Marc Chagall stained-glass window and the John Piper tapestry, and a touching black carved bust by Diana Brandenburg in the north aisle: it depicts an old woman, bent over, trying to cover her head and body to keep warm, was bought in 2010, and is called simply The Refugee. Because of the topicality of the refugee problem Shadows of the Wanderer in this case is supported by Amnesty International UK, together with a series of talks.
The piece seems to have had considerable effect on visitors. One child asked if the dark figures were real refugees. Others thought they were “spooky”, and that the shiny cloaks were like carrion crows. Many local people were grateful that entry to the cathedral was free, as the piece needed to be seen many times to appreciate the detail and what it was saying. Most visitors were deeply impressed.
The refugee problem to most seemed insoluble, as it had gone on for thousands of years, but they observed that, in a way, the wandering of Aeneas did in the end bring a great result.
At Chichester Cathedral until 14 November. This exhibition has been curated by the cathedral in collaboration with Jacquiline Cresswell and Pratt Contemporary, who have worked together with Pacheco for nearly 40 years.