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2. Breaking the Religious Image: Reinventing Religion in Art
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43 Two Tendencies Throughout the twentieth century, artists often took religion as a subject matter in its own terms, to interpret religious motifs in works produced in and for a secular context. There are many possible accounts of the relationship between religion and art in the last century. The volume of material means that there will be as many versions of such an overview as there are authors, each of whom will have his or her own reasons to highlight different moments, national contexts, and artworks. The overview might focus exclusively on religious art of the twentieth century, or on popular religious images produced in large numbers, or on a practice such as iconoclasm . The perspective adopted here traces the transformation of the status of religious motifs and their gradual detachment from a situation of religious worship.1 The presence of religious themes and motifs in the work of artists from different periods of the twentieth century can be traced on several levels. Figurative motifs are largely used as tools of criticism of the institutions of art and religion, while abstract art became the medium for expression of a positive form of spirituality. c h a p t e r 2 Breaking the Religious Image Reinventing Religion in Art 44 Reinventing Religion in Art In the twentieth century, most art ceased to be religious in the proper sense of the word and affirmed its autonomy from the institution of the church. When artists borrowed religious iconography, they in fact placed it in a context that is autonomous and secular. Detached from its initial context, the religious motif ceased to signify religious ideas or content. It acquired new meaning and signified as something borrowed.2 In general, such a strategy produces effects that are critical, and sometimes even perceived as blasphemous. Reference to existing and well-known masterpieces of religious art, or to formats of religious painting such as the triptych (used by Max Beckmann and much later by Bill Viola) and the predella (used by Bill Viola), occupy the mode of criticism of organized religion, as is the case in Surrealism, or are used as a means of inventing a personal interpretation of religion, a line present in James Ensor (1860–1949) and Symbolist and Expressionist painters. In these cases the critical gesture is performed by means of images. Just as the religious iconoclast mutilates the image and in doing so produces another image, artists borrow religious motifs and modify or distort them and thus produce new images. These practices are carried out on the surface of the image and produce more images; the religious iconoclast produces additional images through mutilation , the artistic iconoclast through modification. The reference to or reinterpretation of religious motifs in most of these cases is not associated with a positive expression of religiosity. Precisely when engaging with religious subject matter, most twentieth-century artists remained distant from the church. The clergy found these reinterpretations of traditional iconography problematic. Discussing the increasingly complex condition of twentieth-century church art, Dario Gamboni mentions the remark of Etienne Fouilloux that the meaning of the term iconoclasm in the context of church art in the twentieth century changed. It no longer referred exclusively to the actual practice of destroying images, but to the very “manner of depiction” of traditional iconography, which in many cases church officials did not find acceptable as church decoration.3 In the various art movements of the twentieth century, the practice of borrowing has had various different results. What is criticized could range from political circumstances of the day to more abstract concepts concerning the very regime in which images are produced. There are personal reinventions of Christian motifs by Expressionists such as Alexej von Jawlensky (1864–1941) and Emil Nolde (1867–1956)—painters who were, in fact, religious, but whose art did not find its place in the Church. There are paintings, such as those of Francis Bacon (1909–92), that are fiercely critical in tone; and there are other, specific effects of appropriating master- Reinventing Religion in Art 45 pieces of religious art associated with the practice of Andy Warhol (1928– 87). Warhol was known not for criticizing religion as such, but for focusing on such issues as originality and authorship—issues not necessarily religious , but internal to the articulation of the regime of art itself. The figurative borrowing, or the displaced motif, can be read as a ready-made image, which, similar to Duchamp’s ready-mades...