Art and spirituality

Spirituality and art are part of the human need to express emotion and to communicate this to other human beings. Yet often our understanding of an artwork might only be possible or of more value if we know the context, the emotional or the spiritual environment surrounding the artist. Religion results from faith – it involves a community of shared beliefs, ritual and introspection. Faith is a personal perspective on life. So too is art. The artist’s interpretations of the world are therefore shaped by their beliefs; this can be seen through Michelangelo Buonarroti figurative Last Judgment 1534-1541, Mark Rothko’s non-representational Light Red over Black 1957, Rover Thomas’s contemporary Aboriginal work Burradoo (Meeting Area) 1994 and Annette Messeger’s Post- modern Le Croix 1994.

When Christianity was illegal in Rome the painting in the Catacombs had to use symbols to convey messages to the audience. After Christianity was legalised in 313 A.D. symbols were not needed, however the idea of depicting a narrative to audiences was carried on. So when Michelangelo was commissioned to paint the ceiling and alter wall of the Sistine Chapel, it isn’t surprising that the images depicted were reminiscent of the bible stories. However when Michelangelo was asked or rather told to paint the altar wall, he was ‘enduring the tribulations of age and the long frustrations of art, his soul was further oppressed by the events that had been erupting around him from the time he fled Florence as a young man… Michelangelo felt himself an exile’ he had ‘turned from his Humanist beginnings to a deep religious preoccupation with the fate of man and of his own soul. His sense that the world had gone mad and that man forsaking God was doomed, must have been sharpened by his still vivid memory of Savonarola’s foreboding summons of sinners to repent and by his very close reading of Dante.’ Michelangelo did not want to paint the fresco but was made to. His personal and national context did not help the situation, and is most likely the explanation for the incredibly graphic depiction of the last Judgment, in which sinners and repenters are separated and delegated to the appropriate area. When the work was revealed it was highly ‘criticized for the nudity of many of its figures and for its supposed inaccuracies’ . These supposed inaccuracies however were Michelangelo’s deeply spiritual beliefs of how he thought the last judgment would look. The only reason he was criticised was because the previous depictions of the last judgment were very different. His beliefs therefore shaped his interpretation of the last judgment, in the Last Judgment 1534-1541.

Mark Rothko’s art came directly from his experiences. His parents moved from his birthplace in Russia when he was ten and he grew up in Oregon with vast expanses of open space around him; seemingly endless space, which put his own existence into the perspective of being almost meaningless. He employed rectangular blocks of colour to convey the space – evoking effects of colour.

“Like the paintings of many Jewish artists, Rothko’s may well contain a covert image of the invisible God of whom the religion forbade images to be made” .

The painting Light Red over Black 1957 shows how Rothko used powerful colour and simple forms to emphasise the overwhelming quality of the artwork for the viewer. The large dimensions of his work were explained by Rothko “I want to be very intimate and human. To paint a small picture is to place yourself outside your experience…However you paint the larger picture, you are in it.”

During the 1940’s Rothko’s images became more and more symbolic. He found the use of figures in his work less satisfying – reflecting the tragedy of the human condition around him in the aftermath of world war two.

The US government encouraged the American Abstract Expressionism movement of which Rothko was a part as it was seen to be a reflection of a new era – American cultural freedom as opposed to the old order of Europe – particularly the state oppressed artworks of Soviet Russia. These circumstances allowed artists like Rothko to flourish. So although his own Spiritualism was moving him towards his large emotive artworks – The political and social environment was also ready for his art. The spiritual was a source of inspiration for Rothko. ‘I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions – tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on – the people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them”. Rothko abandoned images entirely in the late 1940’s and until his death in 1970 continued to produce non-representational paintings using paint, colour, shape and size to communicate emotion and mood.

Rover Thomas is a highly regarded contemporary Aboriginal artist. He captures the spirit of the East Kimberley region with noticeable ‘simplicity’, in a topographical and spiritual sense. Whilst referring to local land sites he also incorporates heavy spiritual values common with most Aboriginal artworks. He paints areas of the landscape that have deeply spiritual and mythological significance to the land stories. His life has been spent moving and settling around the Kimberley region, the landscape and stories all having tremendous impact on his artmaking. ‘Thomas is primarily concerned with the inherent spirituality of the landscape. To this extent his paintings are both literal and metaphysical – the compositions depicting specific physical locations while also being vitally concerned with the essentially spiritual associations that provide these locations with their most profound significance. As once commentator has observed, for Thomas the landscape is embued with mythological power – and painting is an act or homage to this power.
Burradoo (Meeting Area) 1994 depicts a large ochre painting of a place on Lissadell Station that Thomas remembers from his younger years. ‘Rover Thomas’s paintings flow instinctually from the earth and evoke a universal resonance – they are works which usually have their origin in specific sites and regions but which invariably transcend their boundaries, communicating with the viewer in ways that are profound and intangible.’

Rover Thomas communicates his interpretation of the world around him through his beliefs of the land and his experiences through that land.

Annette Messeger, like Rover Thomas uses memories of childhood, feminine stereotypes and traditional religious images in her artmaking. Her distinctive style is often ‘unsettling’ to the viewer and has a surreal quality. In Le Croix 1994 Messenger brings her own thoughts and background to the work ‘My work is the work of a French Catholic woman’ In Le Croix 1994 a number of felt body organs are hung from a simple wooden cross. A large heart, a spine and other unrecognisable shapes make up this colourful group of shapes. They look a little na?ve but they are also a bit ghoulish.

Messeger often used craft skills in making her art works as a way of connecting with stereotypical feminine pursuits. ‘Annette Messeger fragments representations of the female body in an effort to show the impossibility of presenting a universalised feminine experience.

The body of Christ in this work has neither male nor female form – in this way Messeger has used her work to address an issue that is very close to her. That is the question that: Are we capable of a spiritual life beyond our bodies or are we just ‘a carcass that can be dissected and hung like meat?’
Annette Messeger uses her strong feminist beliefs to shape the way she interprets our world. By combining this with her deeply religious background, her works explore very spiritual themes.

All of these artworks are examples of how artists combine their individual life influences and their beliefs into their artmaking. Through this they are able to interpret and represent the world.

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