Walking down Karl Marx Allee in Berlin, you can feel the moment when Stalin died and the architects of the “German Democratic Republic” abandoned wedding cake architecture and were freed to build in the boxy international style. The street loses the classical columns and decoration that Moscow had decreed, becoming a series of white squares on either side of a still monumental avenue.
These were the apartments the communist bureaucrats wanted. Ironically, they look a lot like the pre-fab social housing Sydney and Melbourne are bothered with.
For a Christian, it is tempting to see East Berlin as a metaphor for a society that has done its best to oust God from society. And to see the architecture of socialism as a symbol of the same.
Until it was realized that the West was way ahead of the game in embracing the grids and selfishness of the International Style of Architecture. Think of it this way, Park Avenue, New York, came before Karl Marx Allee. It is also a monument to a God who is not a god – capitalism – as opposed to communism. (But with George Orwell, when faced with a choice, one chooses the United States, not the USSR.)
2. What evangelicals tried to teach me
But the idea that modernist aesthetics represent a break with Christianity is deeply rooted in evangelical Christianity.
The book “Modern Art and the Death of a Culture”, by Francis Schaeffer’s associate, Hans Rookmaaker, shocked me as an architecture student. For while I found Francis Schaeffer, who wrote about the intellectual movements of what is now the last century, useful, I found Rookmaaker’s idea that modernism should generally be rejected – and post-modernism also – unnecessary.
Rookmaaker sees modern art as a reaction against a technocratic world. “For many reasons, art has been given the role of revealing [an] existential and irrational order, which is above technocracy and outside of technology,” Rookmaaker wrote.
And describing the 20th century in more detail, he writes: “Beneath the search for the absolute in much of modern art, the desire to express what is ‘behind’ the oppressive appearance of n a reality that is almost too naturalistic and too rational, there is an anxiety, a feeling of being lost, of death invading everything. Hence the desperate quest for the real, for the positive that hides in the depths, behind, beyond this world. It is a quest for a mystical truth. But it is a truth without God, without any god.
“Is modernism a less sympathetic artistic dialect for telling the Christian story?”
This analysis carries a mid-century sensibility. One could add that the emergence of desire, of eros as the motor of art, must also be taken into account in the critique of modernism – or more probably of its post-modern echo.
But we must ask ourselves: “Is modernism a less sympathetic artistic dialect for telling the Christian story?” Yes, figurative art is much better suited to storytelling. But we are going to tell the story of an artist who did it well.
I was studying when post-modernism burst through the doors of architecture. He came and went quickly, ahead of his long walk in cultural studies.
That “Modern Art and the Death of a Culture” received the evangelical equivalent of a Catholic imprimatur (a bishop’s approval) by being published by the “theologically correct” IVP press only make things worse.
3. Help from Aotearoa New Zealand
If you choose a good time to visit the National Gallery of Australia, you will notice “Victory Over Death 2” by New Zealand artist Colin McMahon. It is considered the second in the collection after Jackson Pollock’s “Blue Poles” by some critics. This is undoubtedly a second example of the NGA holding the masterpiece of a great artist.
It was the New Zealand government’s gift to Australia when the two nations signed the CER (Closer Economic Relations) treaty.
“Victory Over Death 2” is a more meaningful work with a deeper message.
While “Blue Poles” is an excellent modern painting that communicates joy or exuberance, at least to this observer, “Victory Over Death 2” is a more meaningful work with a deeper message.
The long, thin painting begins in black on the left, with the giant letters “I AM” protruding from the edge of the painting on the right, much like a cross between a billboard and an abstract expressionist painting. The “I” divides the image as something from the New York school of painters McCahon is said to have encountered in 1958 when the Auckland City Art Gallery sent him on a sponsored trip. The “AM” interprets the mountains of New Zealand according to many authors in his work. Between and beyond the giant sans serif letters, the text of John 12 verses 27, 28, 29 and 25 in the New English Bible as Jesus enters into his passion.
This script is painted in rhythm. It’s obvious that McCahon runs out of paint and refills his brush. This may be related to Pollack’s action painting.
4. McCahon and Faith
Rex Butler and Laurence Simmons put a modernist spin on McCahon’s faith in their “Victory Over Death: The Art of Colin McCahon.” They argue that the I AM in Victory over death is ambiguous. They say the painting shows Christ living in McCahon’s life; the spectators of the crucifixion itself and of the image are the resurrection in their eyes.
The “I” in “I AM” intersects with the biblical resurrection texts that McCahon painted. This idea leads Butler and Simmonds to state, “From left to right, as our eyes roam over it, McCahon’s painting changes from near-pristine obscurity to a monumental ‘AM’ and ends in the lower right with the words ‘ my way is known to you. ”
The I AM who conquers death is Jesus.
In this reading of the painting, McCahon seeks immortality, an afterlife, in his painting. An alternative view is that the I AM positioned as the chart reads from left to right is the means to travel towards the light. The I AM who conquers death is Jesus.
The orthodox interpretation of this painting is reinforced by the fact that it is part of a series on the resurrection painted by McCahon in 1969-70.
The title of another important work by McCahon, “Practical Religion: The Raising of Lazarus Showing Mount Martha,” alludes to the painter saying that the resurrection is the essence of practical religion and an answer for our world.
“Young Man, I Say to thee, Arise,” painted at the same time, shows the story of the widow of Nain bringing her son back to life.
In New Zealand Magazine Chrysalis seed – a company that supports Christian artists – Rob Yule puts these paintings in the context of the public attention sparked by the New Zealand Presbyterian Church organizing a debate on the nature of the resurrection. “They are McCahon’s contribution to the debate, contemporary with the affirmation of the resurrection of Jesus by the Presbyterian Church and by two leading New Zealand theologians.”
(Lloyd Geering, the principal of Knox College Theological Hall, had questioned the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ and later said he did not believe in life after death. The Church dissociated itself from its opinions in 1970.)
Yule has a McCahon quote from that time: “I sat down to read the New English Bible and re-read my favorite passages. I rediscovered good old Lazarus…one of the most beautiful and confusing stories in the New Testament. … It hit me, BANG! where I was: questions and answers, faith so simple and beautiful and doubts always pushing elsewhere. It really depressed me with joy and pain.
5. Suffer with Christ.
In 1984, in Sydney for a retrospective exhibition, McCahon disappeared in the Botanic Gardens and was found by police in Centennial Park, miles away the next day. Apparently he had no memory of where he had been. This episode became a novel, “Dark Night: Walking with McCahon” by Martin Edmond. It is described as “not a book written about McCahon, then, so much as one written next to him” by Justin Paton in the NZ Listener.
This dark night foreshadowed the dementia that darkened McCahon’s later years. These were years of painting with pervasive infirmity with his last four years beyond his art.
His infirmity was evident in one of his later series of paintings, “Paul to the Hebrews”, describes Yule. But still painting the Bible with a closing quote “BY you, Lord, the foundations of the earth were once laid, and the heavens are the work of your hands.” They will pass; but you endure: like clothes, they will all age; you will fold them like a cloak; yes, they will be changed like any garment But you are the same, and your years will never end. (Hebrews 1:10-12).
Yule comments in Chrysalis seed“If this is a ‘collapse of faith,’ it shows how far secular society, with its superficial optimism, has strayed from the realism of the biblical view of life, to which McCahon bore witness during the duration of his powers.”
6. Walk with McCahon
McCahon’s resurrection paintings invite us to walk with him, to follow the I AM. There is indeed in the images an invitation to explore the resurrection, not just to admire a great work of art. It is an invitation repeated each time the gospel story is told.
In this way, Butler and Simmonds are partly right when they say that McCahon intends to achieve an artistic afterlife “McCahon aims for his work to endure through his meditation on the afterlife. Christ, that he seeks to achieve an artistic afterlife by identifying with that of Christ.
They see this afterlife happening in every generation that comes to follow Christ on Earth.
But the eyes of faith will see the message of the paintings differently. “And if Christ is not risen, your faith is vain; you are still in your sins. Then also those who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost,” Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15. “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are more to be pitied than all men.
If we were to be painters, would that (the resurrection) feature in our work?
If “Victory over Death 2” is McCahon’s most notable work, which seems to be the critical consensus, resurrection is central to his life and work.
We must ask ourselves if it occupies the center of ours. If we were to be painters, would that be in our work? How could we make it work in the artistic movement of our time?
This column began with a stroll down Karl Marx Allee, Berlin, a street of modernism. We considered the work of an artist who successfully integrated the era of modernist art and his faith. He is not the only one.
Karl Marx Alee points like an arrow to the large TV tower in the center of Alexanderplatz if we walk downtown. It was designed as a symbol of the GDR by the master planners of East Berlin. The tower rises through an ornamental globe – it’s a very smug sixties building. As the sun hits the multi-faceted sphere, a clear symbol that the DDR would never have intended appears, chosen by the reflected sunlight. The cross.
As you gaze from Karl Marx Allee towards the tower, let’s keep in mind that any human aesthetic can take on the Christian message – even those who struggle fiercely against the reality of a creation rooted in its maker.