Archive for October, 2012

PRB – The Great British Art Innovators: 29 October

October 29, 2012

In this year of celebrating ‘Nation-Team GB,’ Tate Britain bring us an absorbing collection of the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites, ‘Victorian Avant-Garde.’ This exhibition is a must-see, especially for proud Brits and Christians.

The Tate claim that here in Britain we had a major innovative school of art which paved the way for much modern European art. For a nation that is used to celebrating our writers, inventors, sportsmen, pop stars and, sometimes, generals and statesmen, it is welcome news that we can also celebrate world-class, influential painters. 

William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rosetti were the founding and leading members of the ‘Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’, begun in 1848. Ford Maddox Brown was associated, but never formally joined. The name was chosen to show their inspiration from painters before Raphael, with their bright colours, flat surfaces and imitation of nature. The name gives the impression of a backward-looking movement. The exhibition stresses instead their rebellion against the culture of ‘high art’ of their day, their insistence on painting true to nature, their bold pioneering use of colour and symbol. They were the first to set up their easels not in a studio but in a field. The Impressionists copied them, and Turner’s evocative studio-painted depictions of what it was like to be in the thick of a storm, or watching the changing sea and sky. Modernists chose to work entirely with colour and symbol, leaving nature for the photographers, but it was the Pre-Raphaelites who drew their attention to the possibilities of colour and symbol. For people who find Modernist painting leaves them cold, the Pre-Raphaelites can be a way in or a bridge to understanding, even empathy.

The exhibition begins with sketch portraits of the Brotherhood members drawn by each other. Their ‘Brotherhood’ was as remarkable as their style. Instead of a ‘School’ in which pupils followed ‘Masters’ while aspiring and hoping to be counted ‘Masters’ themselves, they deliberately chose a family fellowship in which they could encourage and stimulate each other. The Impressionists copied this too. As with any family, there are clear likenesses and clear individuality. The combination of the two gave the Brotherhood, and gives the exhibition, wonderful coherence and depth.

‘Brotherhood’ was also a self-consciously Christian title. This element may be a reason why they are seldom now referred to by their full chosen name but rather only as ‘the Pre-Raphaelites.’ The full name is also more cumbersome. The Brotherhood had a fascination and respect for Jesus and, to a lesser extent, for Jesus’ Church. They were part of a Church that saw Jesus as ‘the Master’, although they chose to call themselves not pupils or disciples but brothers. Both Hunt and Millais painted wonderful significant paintings of young Jesus at home in the Nazareth carpenter’s workshop, paintings which show Jesus more as Brother than Master. The Brotherhood centred on Jesus was an inclusive brotherhood, inspiring also the Christian Socialism of William Morris, the brotherhood of all working men.

Paintings of Jesus dominate the largest room in the exhibition, a room entitled ‘Salvation.’ Here is ‘The Light of the World’, Holman Hunt’s famous painting of Jesus holding a lantern, standing by a wooden door. Extraordinarily popular in Victorian Britain, thousands flocked to see it wherever it was exhibited. Among other paintings by Hunt and the Brotherhood, it stands out as unusual. Hunt’s normal style is bold and muscular, bright colours, powerful men and sensuous women in large canvases. His depiction of the Nazareth workshop has Jesus’ strong, fit, naked upper torso, casting a cross-shaped shadow, boldly in the centre, with Mary showing, frankly, a sensually full attractively clothed bottom as she turns to gasp at the shadow. The Jesus of the Light of the World is a smaller canvas, in twilight, robed. Jesus is a slight figure with a gentle, almost hesitant manner. He does not rat-a-tat firmly on the door.

Millais’ rendering of the Nazareth workshop is less heroic than Hunt’s, with a younger, robed Jesus showing Mary his hand where he has just wounded himself, while Joseph reaches out to touch his shoulder. Jesus’ slightly older cousin John the Baptist carries in a bowl of water with wonderful concentration, showing the child’s worry about spilling. together with joy at being given the privilege. Here, and in many other paintings, we see Millais genius for painting both luminous settings and unheroic people with wonderful complex expressions in their faces and bodies. Even the sheep clustered in the left background, looking in, each have their distinctive expression. (Hunt also painted flocks of sheep with highly individual faces – maybe a Brotherhood theme.)

Brown painted Peter, with a wonderful expression of wariness and awe, having his feet washed by Jesus. Also included in the ‘Salvation’ room is his painting of workmen digging in a street while aristocrats and scholars look on. The workmen are in the centre, in the light. Their role is the noble one, despite others being called ‘the nobility.’ The most poignant painting is of Brown’s wife holding out to him their young baby. The mother’s face is gentle, proud, inviting. The baby’s body is bright, strong, delightful. But the painting is unfinished. Around the baby is a void of bare canvas. When Brown’s son was a few months old, he died.

Before the Salvation room are rooms on the themes of History and Nature. We see the same likeness and individuality between painters – beautiful detail of ‘ordinary’ nature, Hunt’s brightly clothed heroes, Millais’ expressive, mostly younger, faces. A highlight for me is Millais’ picture of two beggar girls sitting by a sunlit grass field with a double rainbow behind them. One is turned to look at the rainbow, the other, facing us, is basking gloriously in the sensation of the sunshine. She is blind.

After the Salvation room come Beauty, Paradise and Mythologies. . First in the last room is Hunt’s extraordinary ‘The Triumph of the Innocents’ – Mary, Joseph and Jesus fleeing to Egypt accompanied by the cherubic spirits of the innocents. The expressive, individual faces of the innocents probably owe something to the influence of Millais. Influence on and cooperation with the design of William Morris is also shown, as well as Rosetti’s concentration on beautiful, androgenous symbolic figures. His lack of interest in both nature and the historical Jesus mark him off from Hunt and Millais. Paintings by other members of the Brotherhood are also included throughout.

The exhibition notes concentrate on the artistic innovation. The artists’ focus on and inspiration from Jesus and Christian faith cannot be ignored, but the notes do not give it the place a Christian viewer would. Titling the large room ‘Salvation’ makes abstract what the artists themselves clearly wanted people to see as the real, historical, Jesus. Hunt, and others, travelled to Palestine to paint the real background. Hunt’s painting of a Celtic British family sheltering a Christian missionary while another missionary is chased by a lethal mob commanded by a Druid, is remarkably un-pluralistic for our age. Millais’ paints a woman standing by a window, her face and body basking in the light coming through stained glass with Christian symbols. In the dark background is a small Catholic altar. The notes tell us that this is a woman expressing her sexuality, having found no comfort in faith. This confuses sensuality with sexuality (the two overlap but are distinct) and ignores the obvious non-Catholic Christian symbolism to which she is turned and through which the light soaks into her body.

‘The Pre-Raphaelites brought a new beauty and intensity of vision to British art’ claim the notes. It should also be added that this was a beauty and vision inspired by Jesus and His Father’s world, a gift not only to Britain but to the world.

 Roger Harper

‘Hell’ in the US Cinema: 19 October

October 19, 2012

‘Is there much interest in hell at the moment?’ asked an old friend I met on a train on Monday. ‘Well… in North America there’s a new film, Hellbound?, showing in some regular cinemas. It’s a documentary interviewing people with differing views of hell. (www.hellboundthemovie.com) And Hell and Mr Fudge will soon be shown in cinemas in some American cities. Hell and Mr Fudge is a biographical drama about Edward Fudge the great American re-thinker on hell. (www.hellandmrfudge.org)

Hellbound? ‘s publicity explains:

PREPARE TO HAVE YOUR BUTTONS PUSHED

Does hell exist? If so, who ends up there, and why? Featuring an eclectic group of authors, theologians, pastors, social commentators and musicians, “Hellbound?” is a provocative, feature-length documentary that will ensure you never look at hell the same way again!

Looking at Hellbound?’s publicity and reviews gives some idea of the movie. On one side are the traditionalists who confidently, stridently, warn of excruciating pain forever for those who do not believe in Jesus. On the other side are the revisionists who gently say that the God of Jesus is nicer than that, so we’ll all probably be OK in the end. It seems that those of us who recognize the final end of the unrepentant wicked to be their utter extinction aren’t included much. And no-one makes Jesus’ words Hades and Gehenna the foundation and cornerstone of our thinking. (One extreme relativist expert says that we should just accept that people’s views are formed by impressions and prejudices from childhood, culture and personality and not engage in rational argument.) For the truth of Hades and Gehenna see The Lie of Hell (www.laddermedia.co.uk)

Hellbound? gives the impression that it has covered the whole debate by focusing on two widely opposing views. The ‘annihilationist’ view of an increasing number of Bible teachers needs also to be included – see www.rethinkinghell.com. Most annihilationists, however pay scant attention to what Jesus said about Hades. If everyone concerned looked more calmly and carefully at the words of Jesus, we should be able to agree: ‘Hell’, the combination of Hades and Gehenna is indeed a fabrication. Hades and Gehenna, clearly distinct, describe the truth as Jesus brought it to us. (More detail in ‘The Lie of Hell.’)

In America hell is fiercely debated. One of Hellbound?’s contributors says that those who reject the traditional view of hell have ‘crossed a national boundary’ – they can no longer be accepted as Christians. In the UK, thank God, the Evangelical Alliance in 2000 decided that members could hold different views (Traditional and Annihilation) and stay in fellowship. John Stott was instrumental in this agreement. (See The Nature of Hell ed D. Hilborn)

Hell and Mr Fudge is also classically American in a different way. The brave loner discovers a remarkable truth. He is pilloried, persecuted and pushed out, before prevailing in the end. This time the story is no All American myth, but the life story of Edward Fudge, now living in Houston, Texas, one of Jesus’ most gracious and most determined followers.

The movies show considerable interest in the issue of ‘hell’ in North America, and will probably stimulate more interest. The Lie Of Hell  has sold to individuals in California and Wisconsin as well as in the UK. Will the movies ever cross the Atlantic?

Roger Harper