God in the Modern Wing:
Viewing Art with Eyes of Faith
Edited by Cameron J. Anderson and G. Walter Hansen
IVP Academic, pp. 216, $29.99
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Review by Ben Lima
What hath Art Basel to do with Jerusalem? Perceiving an aggressive secularism on the part of modern art institutions, many religious believers are quick to dismiss recent art movements entirely, taking comfort instead in more familiar work from the Age of Faith. God in the Modern Wing, which originated in a lecture series sponsored by Christians in the Visual Arts and Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, more than makes its case that this dismissal is too hasty, and that great modern art has much to say about transcendence (even if this is often obscured by curatorial presentation).
The greatest lesson from the book is that although, if absolutely determined to do so, a viewer can interpret modern art in an entirely secular fashion, it is much more rewarding to visit the modern wing while keeping both the Creator and creation in mind. Its most stimulating chapters look at the work of individual modern masters; by contrast, the broader introductory pages, which discuss questions of art and modernity at a more general level, can be easily breezed through by those already persuaded of the topic’s importance.
For readers whose knowledge of the field has been shaped by the wall labels posted by militantly secular museums, each chapter will yield new insight into a part of the modern canon. Constantin Brancusi’s columns were interpreted by Mircea Eliade in terms of the axis mundi that connects earth and heaven, while none other than Jean-Paul Sartre saw Alberto Giacometti’s emaciated figures as “dances, made of the same rarefied substance as the glorious bodies promised to us by Scripture.” The play of presence and absence in Picasso’s cubism is related to apophatic and cataphatic accounts of Being, with reference to Aquinas.
The unforgettably degraded human figures in Philip Guston’s painting are shown to be jeremiads on the “darkness of the human heart,” in a chapter by Guston’s former student Bruce Herman (a brilliant painter himself), who relates that Guston broke down and wept upon encountering Piero della Francesca’s frescoes of the Legend of the True Cross in Arezzo. From an era shadowed by Auschwitz and Hiroshima, there are absorbing discussions of Jackson Pollock’s work in terms of matter and spirit; of Barnett Newman’s published reflections on lema sabachthani (“The unanswerable question of human suffering … this question that has no answer”); and of coming face to face with the abyss in Mark Rothko’s aniconic voids, which “pulverize idols.”
Most ambitiously, Matthew J. Milliner demonstrates that the theological virtues can be used as a matrix to interpret modern art as a whole, via brief discussions of three individual artists: Marc Chagall (love), René Magritte (faith), and Salvador Dalí (hope). Milliner offers a brilliant model for faithful and constructive engagement with all of modern art, and yet the question nags: if all art can be read with eyes of faith, is the issue of the artist’s belief, or lack thereof, entirely irrelevant?
To mildly cavil, I would say that some of the discussion of social-activist art remains too immanent, with not quite as much transcendence as I would have liked. And naturally, any such edited volume will have some gaps in its coverage. Readers interested in the most thorough introduction to this field might look to Jonathan A. Anderson and William Dyrness’s Modern Art and the Life of a Culture: The Religious Impulses of Modernism (IVP, 2016).
TLC readers might be especially interested in the writing of the late E.A. Carmean Jr., a former curator at the National Gallery of Art and later museum director in Fort Worth and Memphis, who retired to become a lay canon in the Diocese of West Tennessee, teaching at St. George’s in Germantown and contributing sensitive and widely read columns on art and religion to The Wall Street Journal.
Most encouraging, however, is that this book is part of a dynamic conversation — several of its contributors and dialogue partners have come out with significant works in the last year alone (including Milliner, Herman, Anderson, and Makoto Fujimura), and there are more to come. Carmean, who died in 2019, would have been pleased to see it.
Ben Lima (@lectionaryart on Twitter) is an art historian and critic, and a parishioner at Church of the Incarnation in Dallas.