“Art & Soul”. January 2007.

Last night, I watch part of a fascinating programme about religion and art – Art and Soul.  It was presented by Richard Holloway, former Bishop of Edinburgh and all round renaissance man: he is making a new career for himself as a tv and radio presenter on BBC Scotland.  (I think – although I don’t know – that Art and Soul was only broadcast in Scotland.  So unless you are  north of the border, you were probably unable to watch it.)

This was the last programme in a series – all previous editions I missed, even though I had every intention of watching them.  (There always seemed to be something better to do: listening to music; reading a book…)  I wished I had seen them.

I only caught the last half hour or so; it involved Holloway talking to Scottish artists about their work and discussing their art, and how religion or their faith had influenced it, as well as examining other works of art involving religious themes.  (Wholly Christian, as far as I recall.)

One of the things that came across to me was Holloway’s own scepticism – his doubts about his faith.  I am not sure why he stopped being bishop – whether he retired, or decided his faith wasn’t strong enough, or just decided that being a media presenter might be a better job.

I came in part way through the programme’s discussion of Peter Howson.  Howson creates quite brutal pictures, large canvasses featuring snarling dogs and aggressive skinheads.  He was the official war artist accompanying British forces during a conflict in the former Yugoslavia: there a clip from a documentary about this, where some soldiers were cheerfully showing Howson where someone was blown up – “the grey stuff over there is his brains” – and asking him to get a move on with his sketching since they didn’t want to get shot.  Understandably, Howson found the horror of the conflict too much, and couldn’t create anything.  He had a mental collapse and returned to the UK, where he was apparently branded a coward by some parts of the media.

He returned to the former Yugoslavia to finish his commission, and created some striking, terrifying paintings: children playing in the shadow of a sniper; bodies hanging from trees; a woman being raped and having her throat cut.  The pictures were exhibited at the Imperial War Museum in London.  Howson sank into addiction and alcoholism, signing himself into a clinic with his remaining money.

Howson said he had always believed in God, but that the horrors that he had seen shattered but restored his faith.  (A soldier in the conflict was quoted of saying wherever God is, he is easiest to see in the lowest, most hellish places.)  Out of rehab, Howson paints mainly religious themes – his dealers said they’d never sell, though he seems to be very successful.  His pictures have a strong physicality; he paints saints amongst the gutter, since he says that’s where religion and faith are needed most.

One of Holloway’s themes was the balance between science and religion in the twentieth – and twenty first – century.  His discussion of Dali’s painting Christ of St John of the Cross (recently reinstalled in Glasgow’s refurbished and rehung Kelvingrove Museum; the painting is apparently Scotland’s favourite painting, after a poll someone did sometime).  Apparently, much of Dali’s work was in reaction to the horror of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and his paintings are full of mushroom-cloud motifs.  Dali’s portrayal of Christ has him hanging from the cross, suspended in darkness high over a landscape; you can’t see his face, since his head is hanging down; and his outstretched arms, as well as forming a triangle of the trinity with the cross-piece also form she shape of a mushroom cloud looming over the land.

It is a beautiful, somewhat mystical picture; it used to be housed in Glasgow’s museum of faith and religion (a fascinating place, should you ever find yourself near Glasgow cathedral).  It was interesting to hear what critics had to say about the picture, its structure and meaning.

Holloway then moved onto John Bellany. Bellany – now living in some style in Tuscany – grew up in a fishing village outside Edinburgh.  He has always painted religious topics, often using the theme of fishing.  It was the horror of war that caused Bellany’s crisis – a visit to the concentration camp at Buchenwald in the 1960s.  He couldn’t cope with what he saw there, and thoughts of the horror his head produced.  He sank into alcoholism  (another recurring theme, at least with the artists I saw) and drank himself to oblivion, resulting in damage to several organs. In the 1980s he had a liver transplant; he woke from the operation in searing pain, and, convinced he was going to die, reckoned that he should draw a final self portrait of himself.  He didn’t die; but he was seriously convinced that God had decided to spare him so that he could continue his art.  (I find it curious that God, with the whole universe to worry about, would concern herself with an alcoholic painter; such solipsistic philosophy probably explains why I tend towards atheism.)

Alison Watt painted a four-part altar piece, Still, which hangs in the chapel of remembrance of St Paul’s church in Edinburgh – a stone’s throw from Waverley station.  Holloway described this as his own church – I guess where he now practices.  It is a beautiful painting: folds of cloth rendered in detail.  Watt told how she took the idea from an old master’s painting of a crucified saint (an image she described as beautiful), the saint’s body largely hidden beneath the folds of his clothes.  Watt’s work was site-specific, but she didn’t know if it would work or not until it was in place – the prospect of working on a painting for so long without knowing if it would succeed kept her awake at night.  The chapel where the painting hangs contains the names of congregation members who died in the world wars, which adds to the painting’s poignancy.  (I saw the painting in a festival exhibition a couple of years ago, when I hadn’t realised it was a permanent fixture in St Paul’s; presumably one can see it whenever the church is open.)

Holloway finished off his pilgrimage in the garden of Charles Jenks.  Jenks was the creator of the sculptured Landform in the grounds of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh, and his own Garden of Cosmic Speculation was similarly earthworked, but on a much larger scale.  It contained a large number of sculptures, most of them based around modern scientific thought: the structure of DNA, the Big Bang.  It incorporated specific areas for living – “you go down here and escape into another universe… and then you eat here” – and seemed over developed, but still interesting – somewhere to visit if passing through Dumfries…

Holloway summed up his series by saying that religion, faith and art are deeply entwined.  I am not sure that I agree – there has been great art that isn’t based on religion – but it was an interesting programme.  Holloway himself came across very well, and his scepticism seemed very healthy.  He is (or, since they are changing the funding structure for the arts in Scotland, was) chairman of the Scottish Arts Council, so he clearly believes strongly in art.  The adviser to the programme was Duncan Mackintosh, who is an academic who seems to crop up whenever “Scotland” and “art” appear in the same sentence – I don’t know how much came from Holloway and how much from Mackintosh.

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