.. I don’t know how many prayers he overheard” – Anita Lane
Years later I was studying film and television in an art college in Dublin. Part of the course involved Art History and we had to write a thesis in our final year.
Quoting from the introduction:
“This thesis is concerned with films made in what is best called the Transcendental Style. Transcenental art exists throughout the history of art and is simply defined as that kind of art, whether it be painting music, literature or film, which is motivated by a sense of the ‘Otherness’ in life. This…may be concerned directly with the divine or with the religious as in the case of medieval Christian icon painting… or it may be concerned with the most ordinary subjects like Japanese Haku poetry.
Whether it be in film or some other art form…Transcendental art uses specific techniques which vary with culture, medium and time, but which all direct the work towards.. that part of the world and human motivation that cannot be explained by psychology, or by medicine, or by history, that part which remains un-captured and inexplicable but which never disappears from the fields of human thought, feeling and art.”
At that time I was watching a lot of Robert Bresson and Andrei Tarkovsky films (Pickpocket and Andrei Rublev had a particular hold on me) and I had fallen under the spell of Russian Orthodox Icon painting and religious art of the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries. I was interested particularly in the ways in which these artefacts drew attention to their own artificiality. They were in a sense flat and two dimensional. My copy of Phaidon’s excellent ‘The Art Book’ talking about the work of Sassetta says: ‘Sienese painters of the early fifteenth century were less interested in perspective and proportion than their Florentine counterparts..’ This is very true and with good reason. They made no pretence of representing reality, rather they allowed the viewer to see through them to something else- a sense of meaning or import. I was attracted to art which was in Paul Schrader’s words:
“..anachronistically nonintuitive, impersonal and iconographic.”
I loved the way that Bresson said that plot was a trick for novelists and that nothing should distract from the relation of image to image in a film. I was lucky enough to see Pickpocket in the cinema. I remember watching the film and being slightly confused as to how to respond to it. I couldn’t get a handle on plot, character, performance, any of the usual hooks but when I tried to stand up at the end it was like I had been punched in the stomach. All of a sudden the whole film hit me all at once. I was clued to my seat, unable to speak and hooked for life. This affect is difficult to explain in terms of filmic technique: “When I was most ‘automatic’ in my work, I was the most moving.” – according to Bresson himself.
I loved the controlled, planned simplicity of Andrei Rublev, highly artificial and formalised like the icons painted by the film’s subject.
The film is incredibly still, as if one could pass right through it at points. Shots of anonymous faces, faces of peasants, soldiers, monks and princes, are frequent. The shots are long and lingering, iconographic in their stillness. There are many groups of figures shown in this same way, arranged like figures at the base of a crucifixion. The treatment of the actors is obviously as concerned with their architectural and compositional presence as with performance.
The scene where the ‘idiot girl’ arrives for the first time is a great example of the power of the film. Andrei has heard of the ambush on the architects who built the white palace for the prince and has thrown mud on a perfect white wall in anger.He asks the boy who is with him to read from anywhere in the Bible. The boy opens and reads from a passage about the relative value of God, Jesus, Man and Woman. At this point the girl wanders in and we watch her as she moves to the wall. We listen to the boy reading as she moves. When she reaches the wall see begins to touch it and to cry. The boy stops reading and all we hear is her crying. It is a scene composed of one image, one sound at a time. It builds up to an abstract purity that is powerfully and strangely moving.
It’s highly noteworthy, I think, that this scene could easily exist as a work of art in its own right. The shots are uninflected but are built into an architecture of meaning by their relative position in regard to the scenes around them. There may perhaps be an influence here from Russian literature which very often proceeds in numbered scenes rather than larger chapters. This is not unique to Russian literature of course, Moby Dick is built in just that same way but it seems to be more common in Russian and Eastern European work and it is a tradition which is used less and less in Western literature but remains usual in books coming form the east. It may say something about me that I find the experience of reading a book structured in this way particularly pleasing.
I had bought a copy of Nick Cave’s lyrics collected as “King Ink” in a beautiful little hardback book that had cost all of my food money for a week. This was at a time when I was struggling to make ends meet and I’m grateful to the people I lived with in Meath Street at that time for keeping me fed while I spent money on books I couldn’t afford. The cover of this book was illustrated with sections of Matthias Grunewald’s Isenhiem altar piece done in oil on panel and that work fixed itself in my mind as something totemic of my own mental landscape. The brutality of this work is breath-taking. The central figure of Christ on the cross is one of the most beautiful images of suffering I’ve ever seen. It reminds me of the paintings of Francis Bacon. The forensic detail in which you see how his body is twisted and pulled apart, it’s almost at the point of snapping, is mesmeric. The way that John the Baptist points you back to that image, past the words ‘Illum opertet crescere, me autem minui (He must increase, I must decrease) so there’s no let up, no relief, intensifies the impact of the panel.
The fact is that the artist was really called Mathis Gothardt Neithardt and was misnamed Grunewald by a later biographer. This means that the name is married forever to the image. It has become ‘The Grunewald’, the artist and the work approach becoming one, at least from the historical perspective.
With the Grunewald altar we are driven back to the idea of human sacrifice as central to religious image and practice. Jesus has his arms stretched and laterally rotated so that his tendons are close to snapping point. The action is actually mirrored by old Chinese Tendon Strengthening exercises. When you practise it as part of a ChiQung set it feels like your ligaments and tendons will break- to be forced beyond that point and nailed into that position..
Christ is a huge but emancipated figure, his body ridiculous marked and torn. It’s a pornography of suffering and John the Baptist forces us not to look away, even if we wanted to.
This, the attentive reader will have guessed, is the second way in which Jesus almost got me: the Image. So much more powerful than the word. I don’t think I would write if I could paint and if I could paint I would do so on wood.
There’s a wing of the National Gallery in London which contains religious art. It is on the left after you pass through the entrance hall. There are so many pieces painted on wood. I love the way that oil on wood seems to be sucked downwards, flattening the images. There are scenes from the life of St. Francis of Assisi done by Sassetta on display there which have a simplicity and power about them which is very compelling. It doesn’t house the altar by Grunewald although I had dreamed that it did, and that I had seen it there, but the art in that wing is perfectly in keeping with the tone of the Isenhiem altar. I live near London now so I spend some time away from the hovel in the park in there and it’s better than any church- at least for me.
I have thought about art which is on a religious theme but clearly by non-believers and commenting on religious repression. Piss Christ, the work by Andres Serrano from 1987 that depicts a crucifixion submerged in urine, is not a piece I have a problem with and I have planned to produce profane stations of the cross to hang around London or to make an artwork of the ashes of the burned holy books of the three Abrahamic faiths in three bowls to be called ‘Spot the difference’ but in the end I think these works have or would have less power because they lack the fierce conviction and insanity of actual religious art. In fact the interesting thing about pieces like this is the reaction they get rather than the works themselves. It feels too much like you’re not making a work for its own sake but rather simply to create a reaction to it.
So in the beginning there was the word and later came the image (and likeness) of God and of ourselves. The God of the Old Testament is inseparable from the words he caused to be written in stone. The God of the New Testament is equally inseparable from the image of himself he causes to go into the world. That’s what my catholic world gave me. I’m sure I could have got those things other places, and maybe easier, but hey, that was that, it was not something else.
You can see the Grunewald altarpiece at http://www.musee-unterlinden.com and big thanks to Colin Kenny for helping me get my art history straight and explaining to me the difference between dreams and reality.
You can find out more about Anita Lane at mute.com