It’s been there for years… staring at me, taunting me, a self-confident concrete donut complacent on the Mall: the Hirshorn Museum. I give in… I confess, since my arrival in the city (1999) I’ve never thought any good could come from a place that flies so obviously in the face of classical culture. Recently, however, my conscience got the better of me, “If you really believe in looking for Christ in all things, you have to seek him at the Hirshorn too!” So I did. Admittedly, my first thought was, “That’s not a museum it’s a space station!” but I have to say the contemporary art collections at the Hirshorn led to some fruitful meditations.
The most striking part of the Hirshorn immediately formed a key for my understanding of it. The museum is a concrete circle. Other than its third-floor balcony, which offers stunning panoramic views of the entire Mall, there are no windows on the outer ring. Inside, however, all eyes look to the circular courtyard and its centerpiece fountain.
Calm pervades the inner court. Taking in the geometry of the place, there’s a sense of earth being lifted heavenward as the squares (earthly symbols) are elevated into the perfect [heavenly] circle of the structure. It’s a dynamic similar to the National Gallery’s rotunda: a perfect cube base containing a perfect sphere (i.e. the dome).
Circles and squares, heaven and earth, inward-facing windows… add to this the subjectivity of modern art: It exists to (a) reveal the inner thoughts of the artist and (b) invite a subjective analysis by the viewer. The Hirshorn is a place of deep introspection.
Entering the museum itself, my initial sense was “infinite.” Looking down each corridor, I could never see the “end” of the circle. It was comforting at first, the concept of having all the time in the world to explore art, both on the walls and in the human heart.
Further examination of the art brought changing thoughts, sadder thoughts.
Works by artists like Lucian Freud, Willem de Koonig, and Alberto Giacometti were among the most expressive to me because they directly represented and expressed the human form.
The humanity explored by these artists is broken, deeply wounded. A form without nobility, confused, frustrated, sorrowful. Consider Freud’s “Nude with Leg Up.” The stripped subject reclines next to a stripped bed, collapsed, as it were, on his crumpled linens. The subject’s upraised leg gives sense of having fallen out of bed. All representations of humanity necessarily show humanity’s fragility… we are, after all, fragile fallen creatures, but this art shows no indications of redemption or even the hope of it. The Hirshorn’s circle was changing from an orbit of infinite possibilities into a self-enclosed loop of futility.
Giacometti’s sculptures and de Koonig’s paintings are indicative. Both artists made their careers in post-war Europe. The destruction and broken hopes endemic of the time is obvious in their works. Giacometti’s busts of his brother Diego are described by curators as rough and naturalistic. I suppose there’s something to be said for roughness as a style, but as to the message conveyed I see only sad incomplete man, frozen in abstraction perpetually incomplete. Likewise, de Koonig’s studies of the female form which, we are told, were a search for the true identity of “woman.”
Two other works summed up and, really, confirmed my sense of loss, of mourning for the human condition portrayed by contemporary art. The first is “Untitled,” by Jannis Kounellis (1980), in which a series of classical sculptures are unceremoniously piled into a closet-like space. The broken shelves of the space intensify the sense that not only has form been passed by, but that it has been actively shunted onto the ash heap of history.
Finally, Hector Zamora’s video work, O Abuso da Historia shows a traditional courtyard in Brazil, into which dozens of potted palms are thrown crashing from the upper stories of the structure. A throwing out of history? It felt to me as if the whole structure was being prepared for demolition, destruction, fall.
Leaving the Hirshorn, sad as my impressions were, I was so glad I had encountered the art and the building. I offer no judgment against contemporary art. It is only a record of what people are feeling. It is data. Reflecting on my experience, I felt as if I’d just finished listening to the stories of a grieving family preparing for a funeral, but the family is my society, my neighbors, the men and women who’s culture has given rise to the art.
If we want the Church to be a place of encounter, if we want to go out “ad extra” as Pope Francis encourages us, modern art can give us a prescient snapshot of just how much work, how much love and hope we need to bring to bear upon our world. I’m glad I went to the Hirshorn, and I highly encourage the faithful to do likewise. It won’t be easy, but it’s important.
“I understand… that all souls cannot be the same, that it is necessary there be different types in order to honor each of God’s perfections in a particular way.”
“…What sweet joy it is to think that God is just, i.e., that he takes int account our weakness, that he is perfectly aware of our fragile nature. What should I fear then?”
In The Idea of a University, Blessed John Henry Newman said this:
“We attain to heaven by using this world well, though it is to pass away; we perfect our nature, not by undoing it, but by adding to it what is more than nature, and directing it towards aims higher than its own.”
Newman’s observation plays out well in my last two posts about hip-hop music and the dance form, “jookin” in which a thing of nature (music and dancing) is put to higher, even sacred uses by the human artist in question. Today I ran into two wonderful 19th-century examples of this same phenomenon.
The first comes from St. Therese of Lisieux. During a pilgrimage to Rome, Therese had her first encounter with… wait for it… and elevator! It may not seem like a big deal to most, but the new technological wonder would eventually be put to sacred uses. Years later, Therese, recalling the awe of her first elevator ride described Christ’s saving graces lifting us to heaven as… “a spiritual elevator.” The term is now a classical phrase of 19th century French spirituality.
Another – if more mundane – example is Edgar Degas’ Woman Ironing (on display at the National Gallery). In it we see what seems like an ordinary scene: a woman ironing in her apartment. But in 19th-century Paris this was more than a daily task, it was an icon. It was a new city – rebuilt by Haussmann in the 1850’s… a modern metropolis with modern amenities like irons in ever home. With a few strokes of his brush, Degas uses this ordinary moment to demonstrate the wonder of a new technological age… as well as some of its burdens. He generates what we might call today, a teachable moment; something that makes us think about deeper human realities.
What dimensions of the world we live in stick out to us? How might we use them to lift the hearts and minds of ourselves and others? Something to think about as we look on our world with eyes of faith.
Today the Church observes the memorial of the Passion of John the Baptist. We recall his death at the hands of Herod. As St. Bede points out in the Office of Readings, John was not executed explicitly because he pointed to Christ (though this was the thrust of John’s ministry). No, John died for testifying to the truth – namely: that Herod’s affair with his brother Philip’s wife Herodias was unnatural.
John’s heavenly father reminds us in the Church today that all Truth is worth professing… The earthly circumstances surrounding his fate remind us that with or without ever mentioning the name of Jesus, Truth can have a degree of danger associated with it.
John described his prophetic mission as the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord.” Normally my reflections on John the Baptist turn to Richard Wagner’s opera Salome. It’s well-worth a listen, especially when the discord of Herod’s court is pierced, silenced really, by the pure tones of John’s voice rising from his prison cell… but that’s not today’s focus. Today I want to point readers to a very fine interview from NPR (see below) with an intriguing artist, Sir “The Baptist.” Sir is a preacher’s son who’s using hip-hop’s art form to cry out in the wilderness about the needs of our most vulnerable in the inner cities. Whether or not you’re a fan of hip-hop, you may find yourself mesmerized by the poetry of Sir’s words and the pathos inherent in his message. His efforts to spread a message about real human needs using contemporary cultural methods is certainly worthy of a standing ovation.
I just read a great article on the website of The Atlantic. In it, James Hamblin makes an eloquent defense and promotion of arts education in our schools. Gamblin’s piece explores the concept of multiple intelligences, pointing to the arts as a useful way of accessing them all. The example he cites is an innovative dancer named Lil Buck who’s rendition of The Swan (accompanied by Yo-Yo Ma) brought him national attention. I’ll be the first to admit, ballet is not my thing… actually, I can’t stand ballet. I may be the only person on earth who finds ballet utterly un-graceful. Lil Buck’s use of jookin a hybrid form of modern dance, on the other hand, is one of the most graceful and evocative movements I’ve encountered. He seems to skim, rather than step, across his performance zone transforming his ball-capped self into a truly convincing… swan. I’m amazed. Something so beautiful must, by definition participate in truth and goodness… and thus in Christ. I’ll be re-viewing Lil Buck’s interpretation of The Swan with eyes of faith trying to encounter our Lord in his art form.
This evening, as part of my day off, I went to see Florence Foster Jenkins at the Georgetown movie theater. Based on a true story, the film follows a NY heiress in 1944. I followed her experience, watching with eyes of faith. As the movie makes clear from the start, Madame Florence has no ear and even less voice, but she has a huge a heart for music. Not one for overly sentimental subjects, I was incredulous through the first third of the movie, but this story eventually touches deep truths.
Madame Florence’s love for music and what it can do for the human soul moved her to sing. While her singing is (in a word) terrible, something shines through it to win the admiration of many, including a packed house at Carnegie Hall. It’s not just an affection for music, but rather a reverence for it… and a celebration of life even in the midst of great imperfections. For Madame Florence, those imperfections included a life threatening 50-year battle with syphilis (contracted from her unfaithful first husband), as well as the setting for the whole film, World War II.
There’s a certain tragic clarity when someone who can’t sing adores music… when a woman fighting daily for her life can be a celebrated socialite and rouse the spirits of young men wounded in war. It says to us, “there’s more to this.” Florence Foster Jenkins’ music was, perhaps, a witness to hope. For that, it deserves a standing ovation.
It’s been a while since I last paid vows in that awe-filled agora of the aesthetic, the National Gallery of Art. So I was thrilled to find on exhibit the works of Hubert Robert (1733-1808). This French luminary was known in his time not only for his mastery of architectural painting and classical history, but also for his identity as something of a bon vivant in Parisian and Roman society… quite an achievement given the French Revolution consumed many of his working years.
Robert’s particular genius was to evoke the grandeur of ancient Rome. His nick name, “Robert of the Ruins” comes from his love for depicting the remains of the imperial city. Often, he would combine various monuments into what is known as a capriccio, “trick,” depicting scenes that never actually existed. Looking at Hubert Robert’s work through eyes of faith, what can we see?
Like most who’ve tried to capture “ROME” in stone or on canvas, Robert conveys three sensations: warmth, la vita, and greatness.
Located as it is in central Italy, Rome has always been a warm city. Snow is so rare that when it fell on the Esquiline Hill, Pope Liberius dedicated the Basilica of Mary Major on the spot! This gave rise to the Roman saying, “when it snows, we build churches…” but I digress. Looking out over Rome on any given afternoon there is a sense of haze… sometimes that of modern smog, but more often a glow of sorts; perhaps the result of the city’s stones radiating the day’s heat back into the atmosphere. It slows down life. Roman’s walk slower, take their time at meals and are rarely in a rush to work. Romantics suggest this is a nod to the city’s eternity… a state in which rushing is pointless… I like that idea well enough, but practical experience taught me, things are slow because it’s just plane hot. Robert captures this warmth in his paintings, and perhaps especially in the hazy strokes of his favorite medium, red chalk.
La Vita is a concept characteristic of Italians. It’s their sense that life will be what it will be and we have very little control over it. Consequently life should be enjoyed. Historians and commentators suggest that La vita rises from centuries of conquest as foreign powers literally marched all over the peninsula.
This sense of la vita is typified most eloquently by the Italians’ use of a joyfully sardonic or ironic humor throughout their literature. Robert captures la vita by juxtaposing monumental architecture with the realities of peasant living; it’s subjects pulsing with triumph, tragedy and a healthy does of groundling laughter throughout.
Finally – and most important for us – Hubert Robert’s Rome is a GRAND vision. Think for a moment, have you ever seen a “humble” vision of Rome? No. Everything from Ben-Hur to Gladiator to the works at the Gallery show Rome as mighty. To be sure, when one walks the via Sacra in the Roman forum, it is impressive. The fact that at it’s height the city was home to well over one million people… two thousand years ago… is astounding. And yet… our images of Rome are often even greater than her reality. One sees this on display in Rome today. The Victor Emmanuel II Monument (the famed “Birthday Cake”) was built to show Rome’s resurrection under the Kingdom of Italy (1870), but – with the exception of the Colosseum – it dwarfs all of the monuments that once stood in the forum… which is one reason that modern Italians generally consider the monument to be garish in its disproportion. Nonetheless, behold the power of imagination.
Imagination has a vital role to play in our lives and should be exercised often. St. Thomas Aquinas spoke frequently about the role of imagination in prayer, in dialogue with the Lord, and generally in transcending this world. St. Ignatius Loyola gave great practical advice in this regard, by tracing out the concept of “Imaginative Prayer” as part of his Spiritual Exercises. In a hyper-empirical age, Robert’s outsized image of Rome could be criticized as “inaccurate,” but it was ideas fit to those mythic proportions that inspired people like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson; ideas like “Republic,” “Equal Justice Under the Law,” “Freedom from tyranny”… all of which found their origins in Roman government. That same dream of Rome is at the core of our city: the Capitol is spelled with an “o” as a reference to Capitoline Hill in the Forum… which, by the way, is reflected in the National Mall… Even Constitution Avenue, used to be a canal running through the capitol… a canal called, “Tiber.” Maybe, even in a scientific post-modern age, a little imagination has a useful role to play in building up our own city on a hill and bringing us all to the heavenly city one day.
Check out the homily page or click HERE for today’s homily, the fourth in a series on hope.
Check out this LINK to the Congressional Record for last Thursday when I had the privilege of praying on the floor of the US House of Representatives!