Stanley Spencer and Jesus’s Red Thong

My latest Top Lot is this extraordinary painting I saw recently at York Art Gallery: Stanley Spencer’s ‘The Deposition and Rolling Away of the Stone’ (1956).

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Spencer was a devout Christian and often used biblical scenes as the subject for his paintings. He believed God resided in all things and that the miraculous could be found in everyday objects and places. Many of his paintings are set in his home village of Cookham on the bank of the Thames – even if their subject matters were irrelevant to that particular location – and so often foster personal associations. What struck me most about ‘The Deposition’ was the way in which he creates ‘real’, characterful people out of a traditionally theological and idolised subject matter.

At once realistic, eccentric and filled with intense religious meaning, this piece is probably one of the most unusual depictions of the crucifixion I have ever seen. I couldn’t quite get my head around it. The subject is of course Christ, who is not dead – as commonly conveyed in church frescos or Renaissance paintings – but awake, alert and awaiting his fate. There is also a jarring absence of gore (his wounds have no blood) which builds on the unusual effect that Christ is alive… omnipresent.

Look on and the curiosity grows greater. The three men who are nailing Christ’s hands and feet are not the usual superficial props of the Renaissance scenes but are instead full of character. One, for example, is conscientiously checking under Christ’s foot that his positioning of the nail is correct, another seems to be working out how to best use his tool and the other is posed in such a way that really accentuates the force he is applying in order to complete the task at hand. Such conscientiousness is a strange distraction from the crucifixion itself, but again conveys these men as ‘real’ people… it’s as if the scene could be found at any time and place; not just the idolised scene in the bible.

Perhaps most arresting, however, are the red thongs Jesus and some of the other men are wearing. The colour signifies or foreshadows blood, danger and death – as one would expect from the crucifixion story – but the bizarre presence of this provocative underwear could suggest an unorthodox sexualisation of this most sacred of Christian scenes. Again, it transforms the subject and peripheral figures into some more human. John the Baptist, pictured on the left in a blue starry gown, is also believed to resemble the artist himself – again bringing in that element of personal realism and religious omnipresence.

While the top section of the painting has a claustrophobic feel, with figures dominating the length of space, the bottom part depicts a less chaotic atmosphere. The disciples are curled into tight balls in a physical display of their grief, almost reflecting the circular tomb, whilst two angels attend, foreseeing his redemption. By incorporating the more traditional aspects of the scene of the crucifixion with some quite unusual elements, Spencer introduces a very important and probably often overlooked aspect of Christian art: that of the omnipresence of Christ.

 

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DON’T BREATHE ON THE ART

Alexander Calder’s Performing Sculpture exhibition at the Tate Modern is a refreshing, playful and enlightening show of modern abstract art. Deemed ‘the artist who cannot keep still… the mobile man above all else’, Calder’s works are instantly recognisable as those colourful, hanging mobiles of abstract shapes and wires, swaying gently in the breeze. A delicate combination of frailty, balance and beauty, his mobile sculptures are not only pleasing to the eye but emotionally satisfying. They also lead the viewer to subjective interpretation: does that sequence of colour and space denote a branch of a tree? Which animal does that positioning of shapes remind me of?

While the exhibition is undoubtedly a superb collection of Calder’s works, ranging from the whimsical, toy-like mechanisms of his Le Grand Cirque to the all-encompassing and organic structures more often found in contemporary art galleries (or perhaps the foyers of architects’ offices), you can’t help but feel that something is missing. Whilst walking through the gallery, it doesn’t take long to identify this certain absent je ne sais quoi: a gallery sign prohibiting us from blowing on Calder’s mobile sculptures, as well as touching them. Strict gallery supervisors suffocate the exhibition space, watching the visitors’ every move.

Extolled as the pioneer of kinetic sculpture, Calder revolutionised abstract art by creating suspended forms that move. Comprising lengths of wires counterbalanced by shapes of varying materials, sizes and colours, the most interesting innovation behind these works is their unique interaction with space; the way they bob and swirl about in natural, spontaneous rhythm. A step away from the canvas artworks of his contemporaries Miró and Mondrian, Jean Paul Sartre described Calder’s mobiles (a term actually originating from Marcel Duchamp) as, ‘a little private celebration, an object defined by its movement and having no other existence. A mobile does not suggest anything. It captures genuine living movements.’

With such intent and meaning behind the movement of these works, it’s such a shame that visitors are unable to experience what really brings them to life. It almost follows that visitors aren’t actually able to experience them at all as these hanging mobiles are – by their very essence – an exercise in movement. If we can’t see them move and perform, what are we looking at? The air flows around the gallery so subtley that they actually appeared completely still, like their ‘stabile’ counterparts (and by definition, the opposite of what these mobiles represent).

I understand that the rationale behind the restrictions is to do with the preservation of these wonderful works. They are old and valuable and it is important that they are preserved for people to enjoy for as long as possible. I do question, however, how much cotton wool is really required, particularly given the fact that many of Calder’s works are displayed outdoors! Even just a regulated fan in the gallery space would improve the exhibition vastly, whilst also protecting against the seemingly unpredictable and dangerous blowing from visitors. It makes you wonder what Calder would prefer: stabile mobiles preserved against the test of time, or a little bit of risk to heighten the impact and dynamicism of these wonderful kinetic sculptures.