Saturday, October 16, 2010

Notes on Art, Memory and Religion: Jesus Loves Me

Another Christ is on the cross/ The nails are words, the nails are lies/ To make it crawl and make it scream/ And make it real and make it bleed/ And make it bleed and make it bleed/ And make it bleed and make it dream/ Imitation of Christ/ Imitation of Christ

-Imitation of Christ by The Psychedelic Furs, 1980

In the spring of 1974 in the blond wood paneled basement of my parent’s attached brick house in Flatbush, Brooklyn, I, a young Roman Catholic queer boy, attempted to reenact the resurrection of Jesus Christ with a small model tomb fashioned out of what I don’t remember and homemade vanilla wafers to serve as the host of the Mass and the bread of the Last Supper.  Surprisingly, none of the other kids on my block were keen on the idea, but I was fascinated with Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection especially since that was also the year of my First Communion. 

At that time, I had become obsessed with a book of saints which presented ersatz High Renaissance pictures of saints and martyrs along with the narrative of their grisly demise at the hands of non-believers.  I was especially riveted by those saints who bore the wounds of Christ as a testament of their devotion.  In my young queer mind,  I longed for this miracle as proof of my own belief, but also as proof that God really did exist.  (Even today, I long for miracles.)

The images in my book of saints more than the text kept me fixated which is no surprise because if nothing else Roman Catholicism is a pictorial religion, almost cinematic really in its spectacular display of torture, death and resurrection.  The pictures in my book were like the images on the walls of the dark church in Brooklyn that I attended.  These paintings were the last gasp of the High Renaissance ideals of Raphael in their seamless and easy style.

As I grew older, I moved from the ersatz to the authentic and began seeing religious paintings by accomplished artists from periods where religion was a central component of everyday life, of everyone’s weltanschauung.  These works of art were more resonant than the pale imitators in that Brooklyn church and even their antecedent, the work of Raphael which became as I earned my art history degree in college, more tame, too perfect, too easy,  Works by Raphael and his contemporaries no longer appealed to me in their perfect idealism.

velazquez_christ Diego Velasquez, Christ Crucified, c.1632, oil on canvas, 67”x98”, Museo del Prado, Madrid.

In contrast, a work such as Christ Crucified by Velasquez is not easily digestible.  It is visceral in its depiction of the taut, muscular, smooth and dying body of Christ and the draining and dripping blood from his wounds.  This painting is not a shrill drama; there is a serenity here despite the painful death on display, a peacefulness heightened by the isolation of the figure against a stark black background.  Nothing distracts us from the simple emotion of the act of Christ’s masochistic sacrifice.  It is like a vision that materializes before the devoted viewer who is deep in prayer.  For me, a Raphael simply does not possess this kind of profound emotion.

As works like the Velasquez stimulated me emotionally and intellectually I had become by that time at 17 or 18 angry and alienated from the Catholic Church because of its misogynistic and homophobic dogma and teachings.  But while I stopped attending church and believing, religious works of art became in a sense my new religion- objects of faith and devotion.  A work such as the Velasquez ( and even the work of Raphael and maybe even those illustrations in that dark Brooklyn church) have for years and centuries been objects of worship and faith.  They are animated and inscribed with the religious emotion of all those people who have seen and felt them.  They are invested with power; Christ Crucified by Velasquez emanates not only an artistic, creative energy, but the spirit of all who have ever viewed it, contemplated it and been touched by it.  It resonates with a faith and desire whether you believe in God or not and one cannot deny its power when you stand before it.

Indeed, the key word here is “desire”, not only in a religious sense, a desire to be one with Christ, but also a sexual one in the spectacular display of Christ’s nearly naked body.  This body in its youth and lithe muscularity appealed to my young queer self (and many others I am sure) twisted through the lens of masochism.  Appealing not only visually as a desirable body, but also as an act of sacrifice, the crucifixion is ultimately a negation of traditional masculinity despite the formation from it of a patriarchal, misogynistic and homophobic Roman Catholic Church.  Christ has always been more radical than the religion(s) that were constructed around his teachings.

manetdeadchrist64 Edouard Manet, The Dead Christ with Angels, 1864, oil on canvas, 70”x59”, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Christ’s acceptance of death whether you believe he was divine or not is indeed a profound and radical act.  God dies.  He is not omnipotent, wrathful, vengeful, unapproachable or hierarchical like other gods.  He is a frail human being.  I am often reminded of this truth when looking at Manet’s The Dead Christ with Angels which I always contemplate when I go to the Met.  In this painting, the reality of Christ’s physical death is unavoidable- the bloodless pallor of the skin,, the dead stare of the open eyes, one more open than the other, and the dried wounds of the crucifixion.  The scant halo around the figure’s head seems like an afterthought, overshadowed by the visceral corporeality of the dead body.  There seems to be no hope of resurrection or divinity.

The pair of angels in the work also seem out of place or at least they are not the typical angels of for example a High Renaissance painting.  They are not idealized, but are facially distinct.  Their wings appear ornithologically accurate as if to underline the reality of the dead body displayed.  Or it suggests that they are costumed models with attached wings in an art studio scenario.  The entire painting is  a mockup, a fiction.  It is a painting about religious painting, rather than a religious painting.

Moreover, the wound on Christ’s torso is located on the wrong side.  Manet knew of this error, but did not change it as if to call into question the resurrection narrative of the painting:  God is just dead, not divine and incapable of resurrection.  Religion and representation are in question.  As Nietzsche said, “God is dead, “ killed by the modernity that Manet sought to represent both in form and content in his paintings of Second Empire Paris and after.

Gauguinyellowchrist Paul Gauguin, The Yellow Christ, 1889, oil on canvas, 36”x29”, The Albright-Knox Gallery, Buffalo.

In contrast to the 1864 Manet, God is certainly not dead in Gauguin’s The Yellow Christ, but mythology and ideology (as in all works of art) are still operating in this striking painting of Post-Impressionism.  Three kneeling women in traditional Breton costume are on one level having a vision of the crucified Christ as they engage in prayer and contemplation.  The brilliant color of the image- the vivid yellow of Christ’s body, the orange of the trees set off against the blues and whites of the female figures contributes to this sense of vision and the otherworldly.

On another level, Gauguin is looking to the countryside, in this case Pont-Aven, Brittany as a way to escape the modern city with all of its pleasures, but also problems.  Tourism is a decidedly late 19th century phenomenon when with the advent of the railroad one could leave the city for a fictitious, bucolic countryside supposedly unaffected by industrialization and the rise of consumer culture.  But this understanding is of course a myth of capitalism and the other. 

There is evidence to suggest that the Bretons revived the wearing of their traditional costume as a way to make Brittany a more popular tourist destination.  It added local color.  The Bretons were selling the picturesque and the quaint.  In this regard, both tourist/viewer and native participated knowingly and unknowingly in constructing the binaries of tourist/other, inside/outside, modern/rustic, city/country, masculine/feminine and so on.  In The Yellow Christ Gauguin is presenting the viewer as tourist what they want to see:  the simple religious devotion of the Breton peasant.  This sense of religious feeling is heightened by the painting’s form- the areas of bright color and the overall flatness of the image.  In the end, Pont-Aven was not far enough away from Paris, from modernity for Gauguin, so he travelled to Tahiti to find another Other, to find paradise, where he enthusiastically spread syphilis to the native population.

My devotion to religious painting continues to this day whether it is the visceral calm and emotional piety of the Velasquez, the paradigm shattering of the Manet or the myth building of the Gauguin.  Each of these works of art to varying degrees are inscribed with the power of the faithful.  They are embedded with devotion.  As with all things that arouse my desire, when I stand or have stood before these paintings I experience a moment of bliss.

The Psychedelic Furs Imitation of Christ

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Silver Desire: The Spooner

P1010703 Silverplate spooner by Pairpoint Manufacturing Company, Bedford, Massachusetts, after 188o.

Another archaic 19th century tabletop item in silver that I love to collect is known as a spooner.  It was considered an essential serving item used to hold and display teaspoons most often as part of a standard tea set of teapot, creamer, sugar bowl and waste bowl.  The spooner emerged in the Victorian era after 1850 and was made in a variety of materials, metal, porcelain and glass.  They went out of fashion by the 1930’s.

The display of one’s teaspoons in a spooner indicated a ready and visible hospitality for potential guests and was also a mark of status for the emerging middle class who for a variety of economic and cultural factors could by the late 19th century afford silver or at the very least its facsimile.  In this new consumer era, the middle class wanted to demonstrate its social standing and its sense of fashion.

The spooner is further a good example of how consumer capitalism develops ever more products that we are supposed to want, to need in order to have a successful and happy life.  By introducing the spooner as a  must-have, silver manufacturers had yet another item to sell to consumers that not only had a specialized function, but was also meant to convey the distinction and class of its owner, just as the proliferation of use specific flatware exploded during this period as well.  There was not just one fork for the dining table.  To be fashionable, to have status, one had to have a dinner fork, a fish fork,  a strawberry fork, an oyster fork, a pastry fork and so on into madness.  This proliferation was not only of course a way to sell more products, but a way to psychologically sell an aura of refinement, breeding and taste, further suggests the need of  19th century culture to classify, to divide, to specialize and to ultimately subjugate materially and conceptually the entire world.

My Silver Spooners

P1010690 Silverplate spooner by Rogers Smith & Company, Meriden, Connecticut, c. 1877-1887.

I presently have 5 spooners in my silver collection.  Four are Victorian silverplate and one is made of sterling from 1915.  Of the four 19th century pieces, 2 have the two handled vase-shape.  This particular form is a distinctly American invention and not found elsewhere.  It was most prominent  in the 1850’s and 1860’s.  By the 1870’s spooners were considered an essential part of a complete tea service.

P1010690 The Rogers Smith & Company spooner features a vase shape with a dimpled textured background with stylized flowers and can be considered aesthetic in style.  Seemingly applied in low relief on this Japanese metalwork inspired background is a fish, coral branches, a shell, a crab and a dragonfly.  The applying of naturalistic creatures to a piece of metalwork indicates the influence of Japanese art.  There are higher end aesthetic pieces in sterling  by such firms as Gorham and Whiting that use this technique of applying creatures in relief to a holloware or flatware form as well.  Often these animals are fashioned in another metal such as copper.  The Rogers spooner is a more mass market derivative of such pieces as the creatures are not applied, but part of the original die of the piece.





Like the Rogers Smith & Company, this Pairpoint spooner also has the typical vase shape with 2 handles on 4 elaborate feet.  Since Pairpoint was founded in 1880, the piece was made sometime after that date.  I suspect it was made sometime during that decade because of the fan motif of the handles which mildly suggests the Japanese inspired aesthetic style.



The vase form and its banded decoration of what I think are laurel leaves with berries, however, is decidedly unaesthetic in style and seems at odds with the handles of the spooner.  When dealing with silverplate, it is always important to remember that the dies used to produce plate items are quite valuable and are often used over a long period of time.  Often, dies were sold between manufacturers so similar if not the same forms and styles appear from one manufacturer to another.  Perhaps, Pairpoint bought this older spooner form from another company (the heyday of vase shaped spooners was the 1850’s and 60’s) and then added more fashionable handles to the older model in order to update the piece.  Just a silverplate guess.

P1010681Silverplate Trio by the Pairpoint Manufacturing Company, Bedford, Massachusetts, after 1880.

The third Victorian piece in my collection is part of a trio of a creamer, sugar bowl and spooner also by Pairpoint.  These trios called “Dessert Sets” emerged around 1890.  The style of this set unlike my other Pairpoint spooner is markedly aesthetic in style with its emphasis on naturalism and its nod to Japanese art.  Set amongst bamboo, leaves and a variety of seemingly fanciful flowers there is a profusion of birds and insects.  It is quite a beautiful and elaborate pattern.





P1010697 Silverplate spooner, unknown maker, after 1870.

The fourth spooner is a spoon rack and not a vessel to hold the spoons.  It can hold 6 teaspoons. These type of spooners are harder to find today and date from the 1870’s onward.

P1010699 Spooner hung with King Edward teaspoons by Whiting introduced in 1901.  These spoons are obviously stylistically not from the period of the spooner.

P1010696Sterling Spooner by Gorham with sword date mark for 1915.  It is filled with 6 King Edward teaspoons more appropriate for its style and could comfortably hold 12 spoons.

The last spooner in my collection is in sterling by Gorham and dates from 1915.  In contrast to the elaborate fussiness of Victorian spooners, this piece is more restrained and simple with a slight Rococo revival feel with its swirling forms.  The small, shallow tray form for holding spoons is quite an old type dating back to the early 18th century.  The Gorham spooner while reminiscent of this shape is slightly more designed in nature.  The footprint of the spooner is a figure 8 to more snugly hold the spoons.  Also, the sides of the spooner dip down in the center to allow one to easily remove one teaspoon at a time.

When I entertain, I love to use the items in my silver collection.  The spooners are always a conversation piece and are wonderful for holding teaspoons when having a dessert buffet.  I hope my spooners convey  hospitality to my guests as they did more than 100 years ago to ghosts that perhaps still surround them.