Walking down Karl Marx Allee in Berlin, you can feel the moment when Stalin died and the architects of the “German Democratic Republic” threw off the wedding cake architecture and were liberated to build in the boxy international style. Losing the classical columns and decoration Moscow had decreed, the street became a series of white boxes flanking a still monumental avenue.
These were the apartments the communist bureaucrats wanted. Ironically, they resemble the prefabricated social housing Sydney and Melbourne are ashamed of.
For a Christian, it is tempting to see East Berlin as a metaphor for a society that did its best to squeeze God out of the community. And to see the architecture of socialism as a symbol of it.
Until one considers that the West was at the forefront of adopting the grids and egotism of the international architectural style, see it this way, Park Avenue, New York City, came before Karl Marx Allee. It is also a monument to a God who is not a god – capitalism – unlike communism. (But when George Orwell is faced with a choice, they choose the US, not the USSR.)
But the idea that the modernist aesthetic represents a departure from Christianity is deeply entrenched in Evangelical Christianity.
The book “Modern Art and the Death of a Culture”, by Francis Schaeffer’s collaborator Hans Rookmaaker confused me as an architecture student. For a while, I found Francis Schaeffer, who wrote about the intellectual currents of what is now the last century, useful; I found Rookmaaker’s idea that modernism, in general, should be rejected – and postmodernism too – useless.
Rookmaaker sees modern art as a reaction against a technocratic world. “For many reasons, art has been assigned the role of the revelation of [an] existential, irrational order, which stands above technocracy and is separate from technology,” wrote Rookmaaker.
And in further describing the twentieth century, he writes: “In the search for the absolute in much modern art, the desire to express what is ‘behind’ the oppressive appearance of a reality that is almost too naturalistic and too rational, there is a fear, a sense of being lost, of death that permeates all. Hence, the desperate search for the real, the positive that lies in the depths beyond this world. It is a search for a mystical truth. But it is truth without God, without any god.”
“Is modernism a less sympathetic art dialect to tell the Christian story?”
This analysis carries a mid-century sensibility. You might add that the emergence of desire, of eros as a driver for art, should also be considered when critiquing modernism – or, most likely, its postmodern echo.
But we must ask, “Is modernism a less sympathetic art dialect to tell the Christian story?” Yes, figurative art fits much better with narrative. But we tell the story of an artist who did well.
I was studying when postmodernism burst through the doors of architecture. It came and went quickly for its long march to cultural studies.
That ‘modern art and the death of a culture was given the evangelical equivalent of a Catholic imprimatur (an endorsement of a bishop) through publication by the ‘theologically correct’ IVP press only worsened matters.
If you pick a good time to visit the National Gallery of Australia, you’ll see “Victory Over Death 2” by New Zealand artist Colin McMahon. It is considered by some critics to be the second in the collection, only after Jackson Pollock’s “Blue Poles”. It is undoubtedly a second example of the NGA with the leading masterpiece of a great artist.
The New Zealand government’s gift to Australia was when the two countries signed the Closer Economic Relations (CER) treaty.
“Victory Over Death 2” is a more important work with a deeper message.
While “Blue Poles” is an excellent modern painting that communicates joy or vitality, at least to this observer, “Victory Over Death 2” is a more important work with a deeper message.
The long thin painting begins in black on the left, with the giant letters “I AM” breaking out of the edge of the picture on the right, like a cross between a billboard and an abstract expressionist painting. The “I” splits 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 New Zealand’s mountains according to many writers in his work. Between and beyond the gigantic sans serifs, the text of John 12 verses 27, 28, 29, and 25 in the New English Bible as Jesus enters his passion.
This script is painted rhythmically. It’s obvious where McCahon runs out of paint and refills his brush. Perhaps this links to Pollack’s action painting.
Rex Butler and Laurence Simmons put a modernist spin on McCahon’s belief in their “Victory Over Death: The Art of Colin McCahon.” They claim that the I AM in Victory over Death is ambiguous. They say the painting shows Christ living on in McCahon’s life; the spectators of both the crucifixion and the image are the resurrections in their eyes.
The “I” in “I AM” intersects with the resurrection scriptures that McCahon painted. This idea leads Butler and Simmonds to make the following statement: “From left to right as our eyes glide over it, McCahon’s painting shifts from near-empty darkness to monumental ‘AM’ and ends at the bottom right with the words ‘my way is known to you. †
In that reading of the painting, McCahon seeks immortality, an afterlife, in his photograph. An alternative view is that the I AM positioned as the image reads from left to right is the means of traveling to the light. The I AM that overcomes death is Jesus.
The orthodox interpretation of this image is supported by the fact that it is part of a series on the Resurrection that McCahon painted in 1969-70.
The title of another major McCahon work with a lot of text, “Practical Religion: The Resurrection of Lazarus Showing Mount Martha,” refers to the painter who says that the resurrection is the essence of practical religion and an answer for our world.
‘Young man, I tell you, arise’, painted simultaneously, shows the story of the widow of Nain who gives birth to her son.
In the New Zealand magazine Chrysalis Seed – a venture that supports Christian artists – Rob Yule puts these paintings in the context of the public attention generated by the New Zealand Presbyterian Church debating the nature of the resurrection. “They are McCahon’s contribution to the debate, coinciding with the confirmation of Jesus’ resurrection by the Presbyterian Church and two leading New Zealand theologians.”
(Lloyd Geering, the director of Knox College Theological Hall, had questioned the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ and later said he did not believe in an afterlife. The church distanced itself from his views in 1970.)
Yule has a McCahon quote from this time: “I started reading the New English Bible and rereading my favorite passages. I rediscovered good old Lazarus…one of the most beautiful and enigmatic stories in the New Testament…It touched me, BANG! Where I was: questions and answers, faith so simple and beautiful, and doubts still pushed elsewhere. It touched me with joy and pain.”
In 1984, in Sydney for a retrospective, McCahon went missing in the Botanic Gardens and was found the next day by police in Centennial Park, miles away. He reportedly had no memory of where he had been. This episode became a novel, “Dark Night: Walking with McCahon” by Martin Edmond. Justin Paton describes it in the NZ Listener as “not a book written about McCahon, but rather a book was written alongside him”.
This night he foreshadowed dementia that overshadowed McCahon’s final years. These were years of painting with advancing flaws, with his four last years outside his art.
His weakness was evident in one of his last paintings, “Paul to Hebrews,” Yule describes. But still painting the Bible with a final quote: “BY YOU, Lord, were the foundations of the earth laid from of old, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They shall pass away, but you endure: like clothes, they shall all grow old; thou shalt fold them up like a cloak; yea, they shall be changed like every garment. But thou art the same, and thy years shall not end.” (Hebrews 1:10-12).
Yule notes in Chrysalis Seed, “If this is a ‘failure of faith,’ it shows how far secular society has evolved, with its superficial optimism, from the realism of the biblical view of life, which McCahon testified for so long. his power lasted.”
There is an invitation in the photos to explore the resurrection, not just to admire a great work of art. It is an invitation repeated every time the gospel story is told. McCahon’s resurrection paintings invite us to walk with him, to follow the I AM.
In this way, Butler and Simmonds are partially right when they say that McCahon intends to achieve an artistic afterlife. 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 has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then also those who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost,” writes Paul in 1 Corinthians 15. “If we have hope in Christ only for this life, we have more compassion than all men.”
If we were painters, would it (the resurrection) play a part in our work?
If ‘Victory over Death 2’ is McCahon’s most notable work, which seems to be the critical consensus, the resurrection is central to his life and body of work.
We have to wonder if it occupies our center. If we were painters, would it appear in our work? How would we make it work in the art movement of our time?
This column started with a walk through Karl Marx Allee, Berlin, a street of modernism. We looked at the work of an artist who has successfully integrated the era of modernist art and its faith. He’s not alone.
Karl Marx Alee points like an arrow to the large TV tower in the middle of Alexanderplatz as we walk into the city center. It was intended as a symbol of the GDR by the master planners of East Berlin. The tower rises through an ornate sphere – a 1960s building full of self-importance. As the sun hits the multifaceted globe, a clear symbol that the GDR would never have wanted appears, illuminated by the reflected sunlight—the cross.
As you look from Karl Marx Allee to the tower, we must remember that any human aesthetic can contain the Christian message – even those who struggle hard against the reality of a creation rooted in its creator.