Across the great divide

Image of Peter Aspden

On a balmy evening this week, a small London gallery opens its latest exhibition. It is called Cross Purposes and puts together a series of images that refer to Christianity’s most terrible, and in some ways most holy, moment: the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. There is Graham Sutherland’s shocking depiction from 1947, showing a wretched, defeated Christ in stylised emaciation; Lee Miller’s surrealist photograph of a crucifixion statue in liberated Strasbourg, which has become a temporary cradle for a nest of phone cables; Eric Gill’s simple, sinuous wooden relief for a Sussex chapel.

The venue for the show is still more striking: it is the Ben Uri museum, Britain’s oldest Jewish cultural institution – but ever-mindful of what it describes as its “dual heritage” as a centre of Jewish culture but also of British and European 20th-century art. The crucifixion is not an obvious subject for a Jewish museum. Not to labour the point but it is an event that constitutes one of the faith’s public relations low points. But there is a feisty attitude about this little show that invests it with contemporary relevance and profundity. David Glasser, the museum’s chairman, puts it simply: “This exhibition is not about religion per se. It is a show of 20th-century art, and the way that a motif such as this can be treated in so many different ways.”

This is a show, in other words, that sharply illustrates the way that form and content began to drift apart a century ago, although crucifixion scenes may still, in contemporary art forms, carry a hefty emotional charge. Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was almost unwatchably brutal in its frank depiction of Jesus’s death, following it with a resurrection scene that was strikingly lacking in any redemptive solace.

But they have been debased too. Such is the way of popular culture, which insists on playing, like a curious toddler, with anything it finds in its way. Look at the photo-spread in a 2007 edition of Details magazine, showing K-Fed and Bobby Brown, the former husbands of Britney Spears and Whitney Houston respectively, nailed to crosses. If the image is not startling enough, try the caption: “Who’s responsible for Britney’s extra pounds and Whitney’s ratty furs? Not their ex-hubbies. Why does the guy always get the blame when things fall apart?”

Such a trivialisation would have been unthinkable in all but the most recent years of Christianity’s history. But it has become almost commonplace. Is the crucifixion story, indeed Christianity itself, robust enough to survive it? It is a question that hangs implicitly over this show.

There is another strain here, and it is the way in which art feeds off religion, giving its principal themes an extra layer of resonance. The suffering depicted in crucifixion scenes is not an emotion that is limited to Christians. Indeed Jewish artists have been prominent in dislodging the feeling from the literal event, and “transferring” it to describe their own experience.

In Marc Chagall’s “Apocalypse in Lilac, Capriccio”, a naked Christ confronts a Nazi soldier who is removing the ladder from the cross. There are skeletal, naked figures grouped pathetically at the bottom of the painting. A clock that doesn’t show the time – has it stopped, is it ended? – hurtles from the sky. The work was painted in 1945, and points clearly to photographs of the Holocaust that Chagall must have seen.

Here is the irony of Cross Purposes: the 20th century, which did so much to demystify and desensitise us from religious imagery, also provided the one event that could match, if not surpass, religion’s bleakest visions. This correlation was made explicit by Graham Sutherland, who was uncertain whether to accept the commission to paint a crucifixion scene, until he saw photographs of corpses from Belsen. “The whole idea of the depiction of Christ crucified became much more real to me,” he said, “and it seemed to be possible to do this subject again.”

So it is not as if trivialisation has taken away the power of crucifixion scenes to move us. Yes, the last century saw art take liberties with religious meaning, and indeed truth itself. It became more playful, less committed to the rigorous examination of the great human questions. And yet, it also began to speak a more universal language, and spoke of contemporary events with a vividness that made us think it might be able to change things.

Christ’s crucifixion remains a central tenet of Christian theology but its depiction has also become part of the grammar of art. That strengthens, rather than diminishes, its power. This show testifies to the common language that is shared by art and religion. They are not at cross purposes at all.

‘Cross Purposes: Shock and Contemplation in Images of the Crucifixion’, Ben Uri Gallery, London, until September 19.

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