Alfred Manessier, Flamme Vive, © 1954 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris
From March 23, 2018, through September 9, 2018, the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art in Charlotte, North Carolina, will present Wrestling the Angel, an exhibition that examines how religion and sacred art appear in work made by seemingly secular, avant-garde artists. The examples on view critically investigate the role of religion and spirituality as both a social component and as a visual language often implicitly present in daily life, even if the image is not explicitly referencing the original religious source.
Religious practices and spiritual contemplation have been integral to object-making throughout recorded history. Many disciplines study the practice, but most stop abruptly with the modern era. Yet numerous artists over the last two centuries have acknowledged that a religious upbringing, spiritual practice, or sacred art impact their work, whether overtly or obliquely. This effect can be seen in diverse ways—aesthetically, thematically, and formally.
Often these religious elements have intertwined with a larger social and political project. In times of uncertainty, religion offers another path of comfort, guidance, and reprieve. There are numerous examples of artists investigating spiritual practices to find respite in traumatic times or to bring a deeper empathy to their practice. These artists hoped to incorporate the use of contemplative practices to support a sense of empathy in their work that resonated outward into their audiences. In 1943, Alfred Manessier sought refuge with Trappist monks during the Nazi occupation of France; their ascetic, meditative lifestyle offered him a new direction and he infused his work with similar tranquility, presented in his paintings included in the exhibition. In the same period, Manessier’s contemporary Jean Bazaine, who also incorporated Christian themes into his abstract compositions, organized protest exhibitions in France against the Nazi occupation. Bazaine believed in the power of abstract art to unite diverse cultures against the divisive German government. Other artists on view sought non-Western sources. Mark Tobey and Sam Francis, for example, explored Tao and Zen Buddhist practices that affected both how they lived their lives and marked their canvases.
Some artists investigated the role of organized religion in social conflict. Using traditional stories and symbols, these artists sought reconciliation. Marc Chagall, Jean Bazaine, Georges Rouault, and Sandrow Birk looked to tomes such as the Bible and Qur’an to explain the religious intolerance sweeping their cultures. In the years between World War I and World War II, French artist Georges Rouault looked to the story of Christ in a series of 58 lithographs entitled Miserere, all of which will be on view. With somber tones and gestural brushstrokes, Rouault detailed this story of sacrifice as a way to remind audiences that the Passion was meant to ameliorate suffering, not perpetuate it. In this way, artists presented religious and spiritual traditions as tools that can reinforce values of social justice, not undermine them.
Still others juxtaposed details from religious art with topical references to examine the relationship between traditional practices and contemporary life. When Andy Warhol presented his icons of Marilyn Monroe (on view), Jacqueline Kennedy, and Elizabeth Taylor, he merged publicity photos and tabloid blow-ups with the icon of saints that filled his vision when he attended daily Mass through his childhood. Many artists explore the transition of moral education from Sunday school to Sunday matinees. Contemporary artists like Tom Thoune included in the exhibition ask what it means when children learn a moral code from Walt Disney—“if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all”—instead of Bible verse—“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”?
These explorations can be less literal—consider Niki de Saint Phalle with art on view that incorporates decorative motifs from religious architecture to evoke the symbolism of these forms when they cross over from a religious context into secular life. In each case, these artists address how spiritual pursuits manifest themselves in contemporary life, whether they appear in traditional or colloquial guises, and the critical presentation of Wrestling the Angelwill encourage viewers to consider how these practices continue to define societies and their relationships to each other and the larger world.