Lutherans Gone Wild: Bad Art, Bad Taste, Bad Theology

Turns out Cardinal Mahoney isn’t the only one with a shaky grasp on the concept of Sacred Art.

In a move which portends great, great ugliness and heterodoxy, the historic¬†Lutheran Church of St. Anne in Dresden, known as the Annenkirche, has commissioned the Dutch-based South African artist Marlene Dumas to replace a ruined early 20th century fresco of the conversion of St. Paul on the road to Damascus, with an artwork of her creation and thematic choosing. The only restriction given her was that the resulting work not be “depressing”. Ms. Dumas promises to deliver something exploring different stories of creation in the form of trees.


With respect to the underlying premise of the project, I invite the reader to Google some of Ms. Dumas’ paintings, most of which are largely unoriginal, a mash-up of the work of Francis Bacon and Egon Schiele with some collage thrown in. More to the point of the commission, her works are usually portraits of people who look like corpses. Therefore you’ll no doubt wonder, as did I, why the church picked her, of all people to create a giant work of art that is not “depressing”.

Of course the real problem here is not so much the nature of the art, atrocious and expensive though it will be. Rather, the issue is what exactly this church community is trying to do with this art: How is this piece going to spread the Gospel? Is Christ’s message really aided by diluting it into a one-size-fits-all, Jesus-is-a-great-guru type of theology, where different religions and creation myths are blended together to create a bland but easily palatable whole?

Because whatever that end result is, it is not Christianity. Rather than give carte blanche to an artist who obviously doesn’t know Adam from Edam, the church fathers at the Annenkirche should have recognised that they have a duty to spread the Gospel, not just decorate their walls. By commissioning art which only muddies the waters, they are failing in their duty to the Christians of Dresden, whom they are supposed to be serving.


They Blew It: The Met Loses A Rubens

Those of us who follow the art world, even if only to a limited extent, are often dismayed to find ourselves confronted by glowing evaluations of poorly executed work. Part of the problem in this regard is the disastrously bad level of art education which most American children have been receiving in school over the past 40 years, thanks to an art establishment which seems incapable of agreeing on teaching anything of value. The problem is, the same slipshod attitude toward art history and appreciation may be having a negative influence on our artistic institutions as well.

Some weeks ago I wrote a piece discussing the fact that the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York appears to have no end of rich suitors plying her with gifts. Of course, The Met seeks to prove herself to be just as attractive to tech and media barons today, as she was to industrial titans a century ago. Yet in seeking to stay current, one wonders if she may be falling into the trap described above, spending too much time on keeping up with the youngsters, and too little on actually caring for her treasures.

For many years, The Met owned a painting supposedly by the great Peter Paul Rubens, the Dutch master of Baroque painting. The portrait of a young girl, believed to be one of Rubens’ daughters, was not hugely appreciated in its time at the museum; when an art expert decided it was not by Rubens, the Met decided to sell it, so as to gain more money and space for other objects. This is a practice known as deaccessioning, and it happens in museums more often than you might think.

When the painting went up for sale, the initial sales estimate proved to be a bit too low, because others were convinced the portrait WAS a genuine Rubens. Since being sold the piece has been restored to the listing of works by the great Old Master painter; indeed, it is now on display in the artist’s former home in Antwerp. The painting provides a fascinating, informal insight into the family life of a man who was himself larger than life, one of the most professionally successful artists who has ever lived.

This has been called “the biggest deaccessioning blunder of recent times,” and it’s not hard to see why. The fact that the museum relied on a single expert is weird enough. Also it’s not only ironic that, as the expert in the piece linked to above points out, with so much more and better technology available that a slip-up like this could occur, the fact that it did so at this level of artistic institution may also a factor indicative of decline.

The ability to tell what is good and what is bad has not only faded away from the moral lexicon used by society, it has increasingly faded away from the world of high art, as well. That is an unpopular view, of course. Nevertheless the point does need to be made, that if the powers that be at The Met were more concerned with studying and appreciating the works they already own, rather than pining for things which they do not, this likely would not have happened. Perhaps some remedial art appreciation is what’s needed up on Fifth Avenue to stop this sort of disaster from happening again.


Portrait of A Young Girl (poss. Clara Serena Rubens)

Masterpieces in Madrid: Rogier van den Weyden Exhibition Announced at The Prado

Now may be a very good time for you to schedule a trip to Madrid. Today the Prado has announced a major exhibition featuring three of the most important paintings by the 15th century Flemish painter Rogier van der Weyden, arguably the greatest of all Netherlandish artists of the Middle Ages. The occasion is the display of his recently restored “Crucifixion” altarpiece from the Escorial, which will be exhibited alongside the Prado’s famous “Deposition” and the “Miraflores Altarpiece” from Berlin for the first time, along with other, accompanying works to provide context.

Of the three, I have only seen van der Weyden’s “Deposition” in person, and it is not what you might think. This is not some small, delicate little jewel, like a page from an illuminated manuscript. The thing is HUGE; the figures look like painted works of sculpture, rather than flat images on a flat surface. It is a miracle of Medieval art.

This and indeed many other aspects of these three magnificent paintings are better perceived in person rather than in photographs. However in this instance, I think the images of all three of these works should give you pause to consider visiting the Spanish capital this Spring. Or at least, gentle reader, you ought to consider getting a copy of the exhibition catalogue.


The Deposition


The Miraflores Altarpiece


The Escorial Crucifixion