Artists of Faith is a unique exhibition of works from the Methodist Church Collection of Modern Art placed within the resplendent and historical setting of the Brontë Parsonage in Haworth, the place where the Brontë sisters lived and worked on such classics as Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.
Curator Nick Cass explains:
“Museums shouldn’t be thought of as places where we go to look at history. They are places where we engage with the very deep fabric of how we understand the world around us. To me, that’s an inordinately spiritual engagement. In all my work in museums, I’ve always said I’m not interested in people going away remembering facts and dates; I want them to feel differently about their place in the world.”
Cass’ curating ties in with the current fascination with commissioning artists to make work which intervenes with heritage sites:
“I’m really curious about this idea that artists are able to reveal hidden stories,” he states, “or provoke new ways of thinking.” The Brontë Parsonage’s Contemporary Art Programme is an innovative example of this practice and forms the central case study for his PhD at the University of Leeds.
There are two small intimate works by Mark Cazalet that Cass describes as “a very personal choice. They have a beautiful tactile quality which, I think, makes them deeply engaging objects.”
Cazalet’s Nathaniel sees the Biblical character in a fetal position beneath a fig tree that almost appears to be bending to protect him, offer shelter or treats. In his commentary, artist, Francis Hoyland, asks if this is the tree from Eden or the Cross, temptation or salvation, or even a curse from God upon the Israelites. Jesus said: ‘I saw you under the fig tree, (John 1:48)‘ so it also infers God’s omnipotence, too.
In Fool of God, the colours are stunning: the Christ’s hands and feet are blood red and his robe has ox blood hue highlighting the garden’s place as a foreboding of the ultimate sacrifice to come. The landscape’s aquamarine emphasises the spiritual intensity of the scene.
There is, of course, a direct link between the Brontës and the landscape. Most obviously in Wuthering Heights, but also in Jane Eyre where the protagonist Jane observes: “We know that God is everywhere but certainly we feel the presence when His works are on the grandest scale spread before us.” And certainly, there is no doubting the ‘grand scale’ of the moorlands minutes walk from the Brontë Parsonage.
The golden cross background dominates Ceri Richards’ Supper at Emmaus with great effect and the sense of Holy Communion is dealt with in a contemporary way. The jug could almost be out of a Picasso and the bread from his Pauper’s Repast. The depiction of Christ is such as to reveal his identity despite this being hidden from the disciples as if he could disappear into the light at any moment.
Picasso’s influence returns in Graham Sutherland’s The Deposition which reminds us of the Guernica figures but also relates to Holocaust imagery, a modern re-crucifying of the innocent. Cass comments:
“I chose to site this in Patrick Brontë’s bedroom, the room where both he and his son, Branwell died. Sutherland’s image allows us to meditate upon broader ideas of death and sacrifice; returning to the idea that a museum experience itself is a reflective process, which doesn’t end when visitors walk out of the door.”
Maggi Hambling’s Good Friday (Walking on Water) is almost abstract with her brush strokes conjuring up the stormy Galilean sea that the Christ in the distance traverses as if unaware of the tempest. She explains:
“For many years I have tackled the subject of the Crucifixion each Good Friday. By the time of this painting, the North Sea off the Suffolk coast had become my major subject. In Good Friday (walking on water), the vastness of the sea is in contrast with the tiny vulnerable figure of Christ as he walks upon it. Great art breathes life and death simultaneously. Artists, therefore, are in conversation with God when they work.”
Elizabeth Frink’s drawing of the Pieta omits the Virgin Mary and concentrates instead on the upper torso of the seemingly defeated Christ. The marking is wild and frantic, and the overall impression is dark and foreboding, none of the serenity of death here. The face could have been down in a coal pit – the tar of Hades? – and the angle of the arms resonate the crucifix once more.
John Brokenshire’s Pentecost is the most abstract work on display but still conveys this quest for spirituality throughout. A dove flutters against a dark blue sky, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit incarnate.
Francis Hoyland’s Holy communion prepella consists of five domestic images of the artist’s family related to the Christ’s birth, baptism, consecration and the Holy Communion. This is a contemporary altar piece with almost photographic clarity, that like the rest of the exhibits reveals how modern art can convey the holy message just as powerfully as the classics. Hoyland was influenced by the cycles of frescoes in churches he encountered during his Italian scholarship and comments now:
“St Teresa ‘saw’ the whole of creation as a many faceted crystal held in the mind of God. I aspire to the same vision – painting is an attempt to share it.”
Artists of Faith runs at the Brontë Parsonage, Haworth, West Yorkshire, UK until the end of July 2014.