Holy Inspiration - Religion and Spirituality in Modern Art
Outline of the exhibition
Since 9/11 world religions, particularly Christianity and Islam, have been the subject of sometimes fierce debate at all levels of the global community. Religion is accordingly once more at the centre of public discussion. This renewed concern arises from general uncertainty about the validity of traditions, about values and norms, and about the dividing lines between the individual and the collective, the national and the global. In a recent lecture at the Nexus Institute in Tilburg the philosopher and sociologist Jürgen Habermas warned about the dangers of growing 'secularism fixated on criticism of religion'. He believes religion is essential for today's post-secular society. Faith communities make an important contribution to the discussion about political, social and moral standpoints. Far from being separated from politics, they should remain, in a rational manner, in dialogue with politics.
The exhibition Holy Inspiration. Religion and spirituality in modern art reflects the concern with religion in society. Outstanding works from the collection of the Stedelijk Museum show how diverse religious experience among modern artists has been and still is. Many of the works displayed have not been seen for years and now remind us of the extraordinary breadth of the collection. Others have long hung in the museum's permanent, chronological display, but now take on a different dimension in the context of De Nieuwe Kerk.
The exhibition Holy Inspiration has been spectacularly installed in De Nieuwe Kerk. Mels Crouwel (Benthem Crouwel Architects) and Gillian Schrofer (CONCERN) designed the exhibition. Graphic designer Irma Boom was responsible for the accompanying publication. Holy Inspiration was curated by Gijs van Tuyl, director of the Stedelijk Museum, Marten Jongema, Stedelijk Museum curator, and guest curator Marty Bax.
This is the fourth collaborative exhibition organized by De Nieuwe Kerk and the Stedelijk Museum. In 1992, 2002 and 2003 they held shows of modern sculpture and of the Stedelijk Museum's nineteenth- and early twentieth- century collection.
Religious experience and the historical background. Secularization since the nineteenth century and the position of art
Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam are currently regarded as the five great world religions. The terms 'religion', 'belief' and 'religious' are generally used in connection with these established religions. Belief and religious experience are not, however, confined to religion. They are indicators of man's need to believe that there is a higher power which determines and controls life on earth. Religions are institutions, within which religious experience has been given a certain structure. They provide the social context, in which it is tied to certain doctrines. There are also numerous philosophical movements which rely less on doctrine and are more loosely organized, and many elements of religious experience are found in these non-religious movements. This may be expressed in countless ways: in or outside a social context, on an entirely individual level or completely collectively within a clearly defined pattern.
The role played in our Christian society by religion and religious experience has fluctuated over the last few centuries. These fluctuations are directly related to social, political and scientific developments, but also chiefly to economic factors: changes and rifts take place remarkably often in times of prosperity, not during a recession.
In the course of the nineteenth century the Christian religious landscape changed drastically throughout Europe. Democratisation, individualisation, the rise of the empirical sciences and economic growth led to Christianity, as a system of belief that also determined the social structure, being called into question. The traditional religious revelations were less and less often the basis for morality and ethics.
The 'unmagicking' of religion and society was, however, made up for by the advent of new faiths. In the fin de siècle lie the roots of an unprecedented array of semi-religious, esoteric and occult philosophies. They formed alliances and then split up again. Socially, this liberation from the irksome bonds of Christian tradition led to secularisation. The secular society was on the rise. Resistance to the Christian God did not, however, mean resistance to belief or religious experience. Indeed, this resistance often gave new meaning to the established religions; the traditional ways of thinking were broken open and doctrines were re-examined. The blending in of new philosophical movements resulted in a more pluralist and often highly idiosyncratic interpretation of religious experience geared to an individual's spiritual needs.
After the Second World War secularisation occurred on an ever greater scale. This process is still continuing. This is not to say that religion has disappeared, only that it has new faces. The New Age movement in fact arose from the fertile soil of the fin de siècle. The general acceptance of Eastern religions and philosophies in Western society was strongly influenced by West Coast America and the hippie age. The widespread turning away from traditional belief created the general impression that the established religions no longer had a significant role in global society. But 9/11 and the developments afterwards proved the opposite. Religion is back, and demanding a place next to the secularised philosophies.
The art of the last century and a half reflects these social tendencies very accurately. Artists have traditionally been the visionaries in society. This is why they are not only the reflectors, but also the sensors of change. They often hit on the essence of a phenomenon, before society is aware of it. Around 1900 artists were involved in social and political movements aimed at bringing about sustainable changes in the social structure. Their art visually reflects the utopian dimensions of that aspiration. Contemporary artists are again seeking meaning in our secularised community, though in a very different way. Artists make thought-provoking work in which they go back to traditional religious iconography in order to raise the issue of lack of meaning.
The Stedelijk Museum's collection
The fluctuations in the concern with religion, and the changes in religious experience are clearly reflected in the Stedelijk Museum's collection. Founded in 1895, the museum is itself a product of the upheavals that took place from the fin de siècle in a society dominated by Christianity. The founding of the museum was a direct consequence of the desire on the part of the new bourgeois elite to distance themselves from tradition and to give expression to their own cultural identity. Modernist attitudes underpinned the collecting policies of successive directors. The increasingly secularised view of belief in the twentieth century is consistently evident in the collection, in which every variety of religious experience in the modern age is represented.
The structure of the Holy Inspiration exhibition
The aim in the placing of the works is a visually exciting and refreshing confrontation with the shift in Christianity towards 'belief for personal use'.
The exhibition is divided into four segments. One part visualises the way in which from about 1870 religious experience escaped from the strict frameworks of Christian belief - reinterpreting them, seeking alternatives and becoming increasingly individual (1). Another part shows the influence of new philosophies from about 1900, revealing how the iconography of the work was affected and changed (3). In addition to these two segments, two important general aspects of religious experience in art are considered: 'nature religion' (2) and 'non-Western religious experience' (4).
1: World religions in modern art
This part of the exhibition is concerned with works that explicitly refer, mainly through their iconography, to one of the world religions. It consists of work by among others Segantini, Israëls, Derkinderen, Chagall, Ensor, Toorop, Soutine and Malevich, and the sculptors Mendes da Costa, Barlach, Rädecker and Lipchitz. The unbroken traditions of the world religions as a source of inspiration for post-war artists are presented through work by Bacon, Rainer, Saura, Vitullo and Mulders among others.
Contemporary artists make use of religious iconography to comment critically on today's affluent society in which luxury is combined with, or stands in an often strained relation to, an intensive quest for spirituality. Their iconography accords with the visual vocabulary of the Church and other religious movements, although based on a post-secular attitude. The results are sometimes tongue in cheek. This applies in particular to the works by Gilbert & George, Eglin, Kelley, Koons, Schnabel, Serrano and Warhol.
2: Nature religion
This selection shows how an artist links his religious experience to his experience of nature. The religious experience stems from a relation with something outside the artist. This finds expression in, for example, a view of landscape inspired by the Romantic Movement, in an emphasis on material aspects, in the use of organic forms and in the visualisation of cosmic forces, by Arp, Etienne-Martin, Heyboer, Jawlensky, the early Kandinsky, Penone, Viola and Zadkine among others.
Another link with nature is found in the 'ritual practices' of 'primitive' peoples, and forms of shamanism (initiation rites), combined with new impulses from alchemy and anthroposophy. In some cases the accent is on the painting process itself. Good examples are the work of Beuys, Polke, Kounellis, Kiefer, Van den Dobbelsteen and Pollock among others.
The disappearance of the Christian tradition brought about a revival of a tendency that had been systematically opposed by the Church since the Renaissance, although it continued to have close links to it nonetheless: Western esotericism. The freemasons, the Rosicrucians and the cabbala became renewed sources of inspiration in art. New movements that came into being in the nineteenth century as a consequence of the 'unmagicking' of society, such as occultism and modern theosophy, made their appearance. The link with Christianity was often not broken, but elements from it were interpreted in a new way. There was an intense exchange of ideas between artists throughout Europe, with the result that the iconography of art changed.
The visual and ritual aspect of the image, which is meant to produce ecstasy in a church setting, is interpreted esoterically by these artists. This gives rise to images that are meant to evoke contemplation and ecstasy in themselves. A good example of this is the work of artists such as Kandinsky, Malevich, Mondrian, Chagall, Van den Dobbelsteen, Ensor, Itten, Kiefer, Klein, Matyushin, Newman and Rothko.
4: non-Western religious experience
Some artists find the religious experience in themselves. This experience is often expressed in stilling of the image. In most cases this is work created after contacts with Eastern religions, such as Islam, Buddhism and occasionally Hinduism. After the Second World War Japanese Zen Buddhism played a major role, exerting considerable influence on the west coast of America and from there on art elsewhere. These Eastern influences are significant in the work of Abramovic, Birza, Clemente, Van Golden, Neshat, Nam June Paik, Schoonhoven and Wheeler among others.
This is a summary of texts by Marty Bax written for the publication accompanying the exhibition Holy Inspiration.