Screening salvation: the National Gallery and YouTube

Along with the last two blog posts, I’ve found myself following a focus on digital technologies for engaging with art: Mat Collishaw’s Thresholds at Lacock Abbey, the Alight app for Chichester and its Cathedral, and today the seven-part YouTube series The Audacity of Christian Art by Dr. Chloë Reddaway for the National Gallery, London. The National Gallery’s landmark exhibition Seeing Salvation in 2000 was also accompanied by a screening, on that occasion with the then director Neil MacGregor presenting four episodes for the BBC. Both then and now, with YouTube’s more bite-sized packaging of reflections on art with biblical subject-matter, the National Gallery have gently prompted the theological discourse behind so much of their collection to emerge centre-stage. More precisely, one third of the artworks in the collection have this Christian ‘agenda’, and it is indeed a mark of renewed interpretative urgency that Reddaway’s position as the Howard and Roberta Ahmanson Curator in Art and Religion assumes this online platform for its extended discussion.

But there are characteristics of this twenty-first century ‘screening of salvation’ that would benefit from more critical understandings. Visual culture’s tendencies of highly packaged information for quick and immediate consumption tends to erode the possibilities for the ‘slow burn’ effect of images viewed over long periods of time, in person. Photographic technology in the films that cuts between head shots of Reddaway, and manifold variation of zoomed, zooming, cropped, angled, wide-angled, out-of-focus and distanced framings of the images employs a language of hybridity and mobility – the better to engage our interest in a two-dimensional object, but which also effects a kind of perceptual distraction and distance. Also, from an art historical perspective, The National Gallery trades on its formal framework of institutional repository for Art. Its remit for engagement is constituted by the rational and cognitive discourses of intellectual enquiry, in which unfortunately the relation of image to theology is treated more-often-than-not as thematically reducible, immersively sterile, and quaintly historical. Despite Reddaway’s best efforts (and elsewhere, she has written on the importance of precisely countering such art historical treatment with a revitalising of contemporary theological situation), her iconographic focus puts biblical meaning in the past, and theology becomes a relic, because that’s where its recovery is concentrated. At times, it is occasionally enlivened with delightful intrigue and questions which resonate with our looking today – of snails on the edge of a painting and shadows on the sky behind a bower of fruit (The Virgin and Child with Saints Francis and Sebastian, 1491, from Episode 3; and The Vision of the Blessed Gabriele, c.1489, from Episode 7; both paintings by Carlo Crivelli) – but the dialogue of hermeneutical exchange nevertheless retains its overall ‘pastness’.

Now here’s the thing: these visual culture / art history platforms aren’t necessarily negative for theology and the arts, but it depends where you put the theology. It would be ungenerous of me to suggest that the National Gallery is operating to consciously exclude contemporary theological horizon by a focus on its symbolic construction in the past. Neil MacGregor continues to broadcast about religious culture precisely to enliven our sense of the enduring and ‘relevant’ human quest for meaning (in his BBC Radio 4 series recently on the British Museum’s Living with Gods exhibition). And it would also be a red herring to critique contemporary technological engagement for its erosion of certain contemplative practices and contexts for theology in such art, however much such engagement has and is undoubtedly changing the field. Let’s say, for the moment, that theology might be better situated in the socially-minded, relational and hermeneutical spaces of viewer interaction and interpretation today. Instead of its recovery, let’s talk about about its return. With those across visual culture studies and art history now discussing it in such terms, I find theology now to be an increasingly ‘live’ issue. In post-9/11 culture, it may well be fragmented, international, diffused, but it is no less potent in its migrating forms – when Bibles and pilgrimages are apps, when Stations of the Cross are city-wide and trans-religious, when churches are art galleries, when vicars are cultural commentators, and above all, when art practitioners are referencing religion, we need theology’s resurrected vocabulary to percolate image criticism with the decentered, deconstructed sympathies it already has. More on that, another time…

‘Seduced by Art’ at the National Gallery

Thomas Struth, 'National Gallery I, London 1989', 1989
Thomas Struth, ‘National Gallery I, London 1989’, 1989

On to the National Gallery’s Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present, where the language of borrowed symbolism from art, or classical and biblical literature opens the door on a style which might be called iconic relating. Here, the influence of the fine art tradition is presented as the “engine for early photographic innovation, and both these precedents inspire present-day photography.”

One of the largest rooms in the genre-divided exhibition is entitled ‘Tableaux’, and features a selection of work identified by their reference to allegorical or narrative themes. Dominant on one wall is Thomas Struth’s National Gallery 1, London, 1989 (1989), which shows gallery goers scrutinizing an early 16th-century altarpiece: a painting of doubting Thomas by Cima da Conegliano, found upstairs in the gallery’s main collection. The zoned spaces of this picture-within-a-picture reveal how, as watching human figures, we invest belief in the physical inhabiting of our environment. The gallery visitors regard the scene with their backs facing us the viewers, and lean in towards it, echoing the figures of the disciples and Thomas himself. In addition, the plane of focus, seen more obviously in the print itself, is horizontal, and at the level of Jesus’ head. In a beautifully realized way, what might be a single trans-spatial line of unbroken, faith-filled sight becomes an embodied searching for the tangible body.

Such tangible bodies are found in Helen Chadwick’s work, particularly her One Flesh (1985), showing a red-cloaked visceral Madonna and Child with a collage of photocopied textures and skin. Seen in proximity to a similar subject represented by Julia Margaret Cameron (Light and Love, 1865), the capacity of photography to reflect the changing place of biblical and Christian iconography in art is apparent: on the one hand the endlessly reflexive mode of a self-conscious postmodernism borrows sign and symbol to cornucopian effect, while on the other, a Victorian sensibility claims an authoritative, if occasionally sentimental, shoring up of moral ideals. Cameron appears elsewhere in the exhibition, in the rooms dedicated to both ‘Portrait’ and ‘Figure’, yet the impact of her more conventional reference to human figure is slight in comparison – here pose and sensibility seem to be the trading cards with art of the past and photography of today (for example with G. F. Watts, and Craigie Horsfield).

Occasionally this linking and labelling of early and contemporary photography with art seems convoluted and tenuous: Jeff Wall is surely under-represented on inclusion of The Destroyed Room (1978, alongside a small copy of Delacroix’s The Death of Sardanapalus) instead of the Tate’s A Sudden Gust of Wind (After Hokusai) (1993). What does succeed overall, perhaps contrary to the lineage-thesis suggested by the curator, is an interdisciplinary examination of subject-treatment. One may well compare, for example, the digitally-constructed Arcadia of Beate Gütschow’s clean landscape LS#13 (2001), with Roger Fenton’s Paradise (1859), a view of an idyllic river scene in Lancashire. Visually, it is a subtle change that distinguishes the “stubborn lyricism” of the former, despite the inclusion of incidental printers’ marks at the edges of the image, from the “spiritual intent” of the latter. Fenton, master of multiple genres in his time (including the stereoscopic still life also seen in this exhibition), embraced a pictorial emphasis in such landscapes that reflected the ideal of the Romantic picturesque. This utopian dream cannot quite be expelled from Gütschow’s image, even as it is riddled with artificiality.

The powerful all-embracing lens of the camera, as so clearly defined in Ansel Adams’ work (see earlier post), turns out to be a distinctively imaginative image-maker. It can leave the trace of cultural turn in nuance or extraneous detail, just as much as it can wield forceful artistic rhetoric in elaborate construction and scene-setting tableaux. It is to be hoped that the spiritual and theological aspects of this capacity become more widely studied in visual culture academia, as a result of the increasing institutional platform offered by such exhibitions as these, for the enrichment of the many postmodern stories of photography.

Quotes from: Hope Kingsley, ‘Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present’ (London: National Gallery Co, 2012), p.9, 180; and Gordon Baldwin’s essay, “In Pursuit of Architecture,” in Sarah Greenough, ‘All the Mighty World: The Photographs of Roger Fenton, 1852-1860’ (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2004), p.59.