Monday, March 28, 2016

Easter art

Everyone in the house has had a dripping nose and spluttering cough (except me, so far.)  Maybe I'll save my annual cold until it's actually cold - the days are still hot, humid and almost devoid of breeze in my part of the world.  (Well, OK, I started this post a couple of days ago now, and it was overcast and somewhat cooler yesterday - though still very humid.  I see we are in for another week of over 30 degree weather...)

In any event, I'm late to the party but it's Easter and I'm pretty devoid of religious commentary of late.

So let's do religious art instead.

Dali was a prime eccentric weirdo who made lots of money from cultivating that image.  Including, it seems, via endorsing an industry in semi-fake artwork.  From an article at The Independent:
According to Lauryssens – who was eventually tracked down by Interpol in the late Eighties and served two years in jail for selling forgeries – the more he indulged in fake Dali works the more he uncovered a world where fake prints, sculptures and lithographs were created by some of the people closest to Dali, even with the painter’s alleged approval. “From the 1960s everyone knew that Dali needed close to half a million dollars a month to fund his lavish lifestyle” he said. “He was living like a mini-maharajah.”

Dali himself frequently admitted he had made enormous sums of money by signing hundreds of quick sketches and lithographs which would then sell for thousands of pounds. He once famously remarked: “Each morning after breakfast I like to start the day by earning $20,000.” The existence of several hundred thousand Dali lithographs has encouraged a flourishing, parallel global trade in fakes while by the time Dali died of heart failure in 1989 his estate was left with $87m.
Nevertheless, a technically talented and evocative artist he definitely was, in his prime, and I like most of his religious works, which apparently came after a public return to Catholicism in 1949.  (Mind you, that didn't seem to stop his libertine life, if this story by Cher - yes, Cher has a Salvador Dali story to tell - is anything to go by.)

Anyhow, to get to the point:  Dali's The Sacrament of the Last Supper, this one:

is the subject of an interesting article entitled "Misunderstood Masterpiece" from a few years back in a Catholic magazine, America.

A couple of Protestant theologians really disliked it:
Theologians, like the Protestants Francis Schaeffer and Paul Tillich, have also weighed in. For Schaeffer, Dalí’s image was a clear example of Christian meaning being lost to a vague existentialism: “This intangible Christ which Dalí painted is in sharp contrast to the bodies of the apostles who are physically solid in the picture. Dalí explained in his interviews that he had found a mystical meaning for life in the fact that things are made up of energy rather than solid mass. Because of this, for him there was a reason for a vault into an area of nonreason to give him the hope of meaning.”

Tillich’s view of the painting, conveyed during a lecture on religion and art, was reported by Time magazine: “Tillich deplored Dalí’s work as a sample of the very worst in ‘what is called the religious revival of today.’ The depiction of Jesus did not fool Tillich: ‘A sentimental but very good athlete on an American baseball team... The technique is a beautifying naturalism of the worst kind. I am horrified by it!’ Tillich added it all up: ‘Simply junk!’”
I have to admit, when you look closely at Christ's face (see below), it does seem a tad "Donny Osmond", who especially leaps to my mind because I was watching him in long wig in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat a few days ago.  (Osmond was born a couple of years after the painting was completed, incidentally.)

Anyway, according to Michael Novak, the author of the above article, the headless torso is God the Father:
The Christ then directs our eye upward to the figure that would otherwise dominate the painting, a giant torso whose arms span the width of the picture plane. This figure is likely the intended focus because our eye is directed around the canvas to this spot; both figures are transparent. Christ gestures with his left hand toward himself and with his right hand points to the figure above. He looks like a visual representation of Jesus’ reply to his disciple Philip, who asked at the Last Supper, “Lord, show us the Father….” “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time?” Jesus replied, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (Jn 14:8-9).

The Father’s face is appropriately off the canvas; this is the transcendent God who warned Moses, “You cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live” (Ex 33:20). 
I haven't thought about the painting for a long time, but the outstretched arms of the torso tend to remind me instead of Christ's crucified, or perhaps resurrected, body.  Certainly, we're not really used to representations of God the Father with a youthful body, half unclothed, are we?  The Wikipedia entry on God the Father in Western Art made me think for a moment that Michelangelo had gone there, as they show this detail from part of the Sistine Chapel:

But, no, the full picture shows that He's showing off his buff torso with some form fitting gear:

And zoom out further, who exactly is the bare butt exposing figure?:

This is well accepted as being God the Father again from a different perspective.  The matter of why Michelangelo would have painted him as going commando, in the modern parlance, is the matter of some conjecture, but I see that at least one blog writer thinks it's possible to find a scriptural justification, based on God's encounter with Moses: 
“And the Lord continued, ‘See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.’” (Exodus 33:21-23)

The term “my back” poses linguistic and theological challenges.  In the Hebrew, the term rendered by NRSV as “back” is plural (אָחוֹר ‘achowr {aw-khore’}).  The third century B. C. scholars who translated the Hebrew Bible for the Septuagint retained the plural into Greek (τὰ ὀπίσω μου).  In the fourth century A.D., Jerome did the same when he put the text into Latin, posteriora mea.  In 1611, the translators of the King James version followed the prior plurals, “..and thou shalt see my back parts.”  Some nouns in various languages can be grammatically plural though logically singular, such as Los Angeles, which means “The Angels” but refers to a single city.  Perhaps these translators merely intend such an understanding, and the NRSV regularizes that to a grammatical singular.  I don’t think that’s right; I think that those translators were a very well educated group.  The Jewish scholars of the third century B.C. knew Greek and Hebrew equally well (they lived back then); Jerome was no amateur; and James’s scholars went back to the Hebrew for their version.  I think that Michelangelo agreed with the scholars who retained the plural, for he clearly represents the butt-crack of God, with the two globes of the buttocks vividly distinct.  The NRSV is just being prudish for their contemporary audience.
I digress.

I'm happy to accept the interpretation that Dali's torso is the Father, especially as we get the Holy Spirit in the picture, too:
The full presence of the Triune God is made complete by the inclusion of an illusory Holy Spirit dove perched on Christ’s left shoulder, composed of the lines of his hair and jaw.
It took me a while to see this again, but when I spotted it, I remembered that I had seen it before:

Surprisingly, it seems no one on the net has gone to the bother of outlining it.  So I'll try:

Well, I think I've got that right.   Maybe this was shown in an old high school art book of mine, I forget. 

The biggest mystery of the painting, though, may be why the other figures around Christ are almost, but not quite, mirror images of each other.  Novak doesn't really have an explanation:
Assuming traditional symbolism, we would identify those at table as the Twelve Apostles. A second look makes us question that assumption. For these are mirror images of one another: six sets of twins around the table, not the historical followers of Jesus. The figures painted here are not important for their personalities, but for their actions: their reverent prayer and worship.
So it is not meant to be a realistic portrayal of the Last Supper;  I think that is right.

Novak says that the painting is very popular, even though it doesn't take pride of place in its home at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.    I think I actually saw it myself, on one of my trips to Washington in the 80's;  I remember being impressed once with seeing a real live Dali in a gallery, but whether it was this one I can't recall.  

In any event, it's been worth considering.   It also raises to my mind the question of the modern image of God.   Old tribal understandings of Gods as embodied (if shape shifting) superhumans at least gave artists something "solid" to work with.  The more modern feeling of God as a force or pure intelligence or some such (a trend which CS Lewis decried as wrong headed, but then again, he was writing before the computer age),  presents the artist with a difficulty, doesn't it.  How is disembodied, all pervading intelligence best portrayed artistically?   I have no idea, but perhaps should think about it....

1 comment:

Not Trampis said...

Jesus was of middle east appearance ( he was half Jewish) and they were reclining at supper!