by Pastor Doug Kings
After the baptismal celebration (see last week’s Reflections), I took the train into the city and spent the night with good friends who lived downtown. Since I had a late flight back the next day (made even later by the Southwest snafu), I decided to spend a few Sunday afternoon hours at my favorite museum, the Art Institute of Chicago.
If you haven’t been there, AIC is a world class art museum, though perhaps 2nd tier. That is, it isn’t on the massive scale of New York’s Met or the Louvre in Paris. Yet it does have a huge collection and many pieces recognized as among the best, and sometimes the best, of the world’s greatest artists.
I spent most of my time in the galleries featuring works from the late 19th century on; that is, paintings (mostly) by Impressionist, Modern, and Contemporary artists. During that time art change enormously, yet there is consistent theme.
During the Middle Ages, art mostly focused on religious subjects or the lives of royalty and nobility. Starting in the Renaissance, however, artists began taking seriously more “common” subjects, especially the natural world and the lives of ordinary people. Making a picture “realistic” was, of course, an important goal. Yet many of the best painters also worked to convey non-visual qualities like mood, personality, and even natural qualities like temperature or the wind.
With the invention of photography in the 19th century, making a painting look real lost its value. A camera could do that. So, painters began emphasizing more subjective qualities and creating work that could convey a feeling as much as an image. The Impressionists were the breakthrough artists in this regard. AIC has a fine Impressionist collection, which includes many of its most popular paintings.
(The core of that collection came about when the museum was founded, thanks in large part to donations from wealthy Chicago patrons who had excellent eyes for what was then “contemporary” art. One of the most important of those was [Mrs. Potter] Bertha Honoré Palmer, who also helped popularize Sarasota as a winter retreat for the well-to-do.)
The early 20th century saw the great turn to Modernism, the primary characteristic of which could be said to be “anything goes.” For that reason, many people dismiss it as meaningless and indulgent. And certainly, like all periods, it has its share of schlock. Yet like other modern art forms (literature, movies, music, etc.), the paintings and other work of this time—of our time—are all striving to help us appreciate and make sense of this world in which we live.
In this period, thanks to science and technology, we have come to know the wonders and beauty of this world in new ways. At the same time, however, the world has experienced unprecedented political and cultural convulsions from world wars, nuclear weapons, revolutions, civil rights movements, sexual liberation, rampant consumerism, and ecological abuse.
Since genuine art is never escapist, modern artists have all tried in their own ways to reflect both the beauty and the pain of modern life. Good art always challenges us to a new appreciation of one or both qualities. Being “pretty” is never enough, especially when pretty has been so trivialized in our consumerist culture.
People are often confused, for example, by abstract expressionism, the most important nonrepresentational modern art movement. They often ask, “What does it mean?” But the questions such artists are posing are: How does it make you feel? What do you see? What is or isn’t appealing to you and why? They are exploring the reactions which we have to colors, values, shapes, and forms—the most basic elements of seeing.
Many such paintings are inspired by nature but often at a granular level. What is it that appeals to us about the swirls of our granite countertop, the changing light and colors of a sunset, the swaying branches of a tree, or the patterns in a leaf? Appreciating abstract art can help us to a new appreciation of the “ordinariness” of the world around us. It can open our eyes to objects and phenomena which we often ignore yet contain stunning beauty and mystery if we’ll pay attention and look closely.
One work I went to see especially on this visit was a new acquisition by AIC: The Hartwell Memorial Window by Tiffany Studios. It was created in 1917 for a Baptist church in Providence, Rhode Island. It is monumental (18’ wide by 26’ tall) and stunningly beautiful. Its 48 panels depict a mountain scene near the New Hampshire home of the woman who commissioned it. It includes no religious figures or symbols but across the bottom is the Psalm verse, “My help cometh from the Lord of heaven and earth.”
Many say that religious art ended after the Renaissance. I disagree. Rather, artists came to a new appreciation of the sacredness of the world and especially humanity and all forms of life. Sadly, organized religion has often resisted such a view. Yet modern artists express an intuition most of us have, that life and existence in all its forms is a mysterious and wonderful gift, full of meaning we can never exhaust, but which we can often ignore or even harm.
The Hartwell Window has no explicit religious imagery because, as its creators understood, it didn’t need any. Its dazzling stained-glass trees, mountains, and water fall all proclaim this world as the ultimate revelation of God’s glory and love. Jesus said the truth of his teaching was evident to all who had “eyes to see and ears to hear.” Artists today are still striving to open our eyes and ears to what is, in fact, all around us.
Blessings in your life and ministry.