Hunting the spiritual

"The Spiritual in Twentieth Century Art" by Roger Lipsey is a magnificent book that has done much to shift my understanding of, and appreciation for, 'abstraction' and has illuminated the spiritual exploration that, he admirably argues, underpinned the discoveries of many key twentieth century artists.

Beginning with Kandinsky's own manifesto, 'On the Spiritual in Art', Lipsey shows us time and again that artists have been seeking new languages for expressing the human in a landscape where traditional forms have been, and seen to be, worn thin. They have not only confronted the painter, David Jones' question: what is the language for our effective signs? A question grounded in Jones' commitment to a given tradition of sign making - Roman Catholicism.  They being, predominantly, spiritually alive but of no fixed address, with no tradition of sign-making to renew, have been asking a two-fold question: what is an authentic spirituality and if this is 'it' how do I share it through the language(s) of my material?

It is no wonder, argues Lipsey, that in this context, artists have been thrown into manifold explorations around the quality and nature of their materials in themselves, freed of past formal languages that to them no longer appear to give accurate forming to a shared human, spiritual perspective or experience. The lure to abstraction and to materiality was inevitable accompanied by the oft repeated view that art was beginning ( for the first time or again).

But there is a curious flaw at the heart of the book, revealed in the book's original title: 'An Art for Our Time: The Spiritual in Twentieth Century Art'. For the art problem that Lipsey so effectively diagnoses, and for whose particular solutions he gives generous and appreciative space, are problematic only for a strand, no doubt highly significant, within contemporary art. If they resolve them satisfactorily then the art will be no longer 'for our time' but be a showing forth that can be meaningfully appropriated at 'any time' (however differently modulated that appreciation is by the fluxes of history).

This flaw is most compellingly revealed in a fleeting reference to Georges Rouault who is described as an "artist of considerable poetic power" but who has not been drawn into the book because, "his work relies on a painterly evocation of medieval stained glass and is, for all its warm beauty, retrospective in orientation - not a leap toward an art of our own but an extraordinarily comforting remembrance."

This would be news to Rouault (not least the notion that painters should be 'leaping' anywhere) whose penetrating paintings were, and are, profound meditations on the human condition. No one, for example, could look at his 'Judges' without recognizing the ways in which 'human justice' has and is often held sway to our baser emotions and predilection for corruption. An Arab activist bearing the brunt of an authoritarian regime is more likely to be comforted by this searing recognition of the evil that he or she faces than any of Lipsey's selected refined and complex works.

Lipsey falls into the strange belief that only an 'elite' western art world's figuring of what matters, is what actually matters, and that 'our' perceived problems are the most important of problems. And that critically we are beings without 'imagination' as Edwin Muir defined it - that faculty of ourselves that allows us to understand a T'ang dynasty poem or a Hans Memling Madonna and Child - that allows ourselves and the art we behold to step out of time and remember truths that are eternally present (however differently presented or presenced). He is, in short, sadly in the grip of that malady that is post-modernism that prioritizes theoretically views of how things should be seen over any quiet account of how they are actually seen. This is all the more surprising given he real spiritual intelligence and discerning criticism of actual, particular works.

To return to Rouault: I vividly remember watching people walk around an exhibition of his work at the Royal Academy, where one of the paintings turned out to be especially arresting. This was a life size portrait, entitled, 'Behold the Man' - the 'Man' - Christ - at the moment of his trail - looks out of the picture as if the person in a mirror. You see it as yourself, you are mirrored by the man who mirrored humanity. The number of people who paused at that moment, longer than usual, lost in thought, adjusting their body language into better carried versions of themselves, was astonishing. This was art that was timeless, because true, and carried itself in a language that people recognized because rooted in the reality of things not because they were consciously aware of its 'signs'.

What matters is always where is the spiritual, what may matter is how is that conveyed. Lipsey's book brilliantly explores the latter but at the risk of neglecting the former, deeper question. That said it is a remarkable fertile book and I have learnt much and will see much 'abstract art' with new and more sympathetic eyes.

Circus Manager with a Circus girl by Georges Rouault - a picture at once human, political and of spiritual sadness.


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