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Thanks to friend and artist George Wingate for sending me to Jed Perl’s latest essay in The New Republic, “The Spiritual in Art”. Focusing primarily on the works of George Rouault and Marc Chagall (not two of my favorites BTW) Perl brings some salient issues to the fore, raising questions that concern a variety of artistic concerns that are important to me.

Here’s a helpful suggestion for those of you who, like me, have difficulty with the word “religion”: It is more palatable to use some freely applied word substitution, like “transcendence” or “cosmic consciousness” or even the dreaded “spirituality.”

Here are a few excerpts from Perl’s essay:

Chagall and Rouault, more than any other painters, raise the question of the modern artist’s willingness, or ability, to absorb religious experience, or at least some personal experience that is deeply colored by religion. It is a question to which there is no single or simple answer. In Marianne Moore’s contribution to the Partisan Review symposium, she speculated that “one could almost say that each striking literary work is some phase of the desire to resist or affirm ‘religion.'” Perhaps the same can be said for works of art. Moore’s observation is intentionally elliptical, beginning with the speculative “one could almost say” and closing by putting religion in quotation marks. With those quotation marks she is suggesting how vague and broad a word religion is. What do we mean by religion–a form of social observance? a private faith? a philosophy? a set of rules or laws? Religion is all these things to different people in different degrees at different times.

***

If the post-Enlightenment artist has pursued an unconventional relationship with religion, the even more complicating truth is that the more you look at the history of art, the more you can see that there is not, certainly among the great artists, anything like a standard religious view. Leonardo, who created sublime religious works, was by most accounts not an especially pious man. And Michelangelo, who was in his middle and later years a man of deep and fierce piety, can hardly be said to have produced anything like an official religious art, as he saturated even the tragic vision of the Last Judgment in a Hellenistic fascination with physicality that sits strangely with Catholic dogma. Even the artists of the Renaissance had their ways of resisting or affirming religion, to go back to Marianne Moore’s equation.

***

Considering that Rouault and Chagall and so many other avant-garde artists were born in the nineteenth century, when religion dominated European life to a degree we can hardly imagine today, it is not surprising that some of them were tempted to take another look at the old religious art. Yet more than nostalgia was at work. So much of the great art in the Western tradition, so much of the art that the moderns responded to wholeheartedly, was religious art–and this posed a problem for an increasingly secular age. The moderns wanted the old religious intensities without the old religious forms, or so most of them believed. Kandinsky, in 1912 in Concerning the Spiritual in Art, insisted on this shift in the most radical way, arguing that religion, far from being a spiritual realm, was merely a form of materialism, not much different from politics or economics. Religion, in Kandinsky’s thinking, was a matter of externals, while the new art, the new spirituality, was a matter of perfect inwardness, a search for the essence of a man.

Matisse, who Kandinsky believed had taken some of the essential steps toward the new spirituality, observed in one of his later interviews that “all art worthy of the name is religious.” This was in answer to the question, “Do you think … that there is such a thing as religious art?” Matisse, who never spoke glibly, was acknowledging that while art and religion now lived independent lives, they were nevertheless somehow related–that they were parallel directions in which the imagination might move. With Chagall and Rouault–and Matisse in the Vence Chapel and Bonnard in the altarpiece of Saint Francis of Sales in the Church of Assy–the relationship between art and religion becomes dynamic, dialectical. Even when they fail to make this relationship altogether convincing, they carry us to the crux of one of the enigmas of human history, namely how old feelings become new feelings. Are religious spirituality and secular spirituality so very different? That is the question that Rouault asked with such searching eloquence in Miserere, and that Chagall answered with shouts of joy in the Jerusalem Windows.

This subject has had a kind of history that one might call checkered at best. There’s plenty of vitriol and strong disagreement to go around on the topic of how much anyone can assume about the true intentions of an artist. (Including the artist him/herself. While many people have described their experience with Rothko’s paintings as spiritual and his Houston Chapel is one of contemporary art’s most famous places where people are often moved to tears, Rothko himself dismissed any spiritual intention on his part.) Perl acknowledges in his essay that these concerns are constantly morphing in the prevailing cultural context. (He starts his essay with this: “The wheel of fashion, which turned Marc Chagall and Georges Rouault into has-beens a few decades ago, is turning again. These two misunderstood moderns are being taken seriously.”)

My love of the contrary position, and for concepts that have been dismissed but then come back into prominence, makes Perl’s essay provocative on many levels. It goes beyond an evaluation of the current status of Chagall and Rouault has relevant and respected contemporary artists and touches on much deeper concerns.

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