Two new works by contemporary British artist Mark Alexander are currently hanging on either side of the nave of St Paul’s Cathedral this summer, selected as a part of the Dean and Chapter’s ongoing Cathedral Art Programme.
The Red Mannheim is composed of two sets of screenprints — nine panels in each, hung in a grid, about four metres tall once grouped — the palette sharply limited to black and a visceral, super-saturated red. Non-identical, the paired works are based on an altarpiece originally created for the choir of the Sebastiankirk in Mannheim, Baden-Württemberg, by that master of Rococco woodcarving, Paul Egell, c. 1739-41. (A photo of one of the sets of panels appears at the bottom of this post.)
The history of the Mannheim altarpiece turns out to be a story of loss, transposition of meaning and woundedness.
When Egell’s brand of refined, elegantly attenuated Rococco woodcarving fell from doctrinal if not art-historical favour in the later years of the nineteenth century, the altarpiece was sold on to the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum — now the Bode Museum, effectively Prussia’s equivalent of the V&A — where it lingered for some years. In late 1941 or early 1942, however, the altarpiece was moved once again, this time to a bunker under one of the massive anti-aircraft towers, built of reinforced concrete, which Hilter’s favourite architect-armaments minister had erected in the Friedrichshain Volkspark in the centre of Berlin.
And here, alas, the altarpiece was effectively destroyed. At some point during the fall of Berlin, the contents of the bunker caught fire — whether due to an Allied bombing raid, the exertions of the invading Soviet army, or pure bad luck remains a debatable point — and may also have been looted by Soviet troops. In any event, the altarpiece which had apparently once included so much more — a relief of the Crucifixion complete with the usual mourners but also a clump of graceful palm trees, freestanding figures of St Sebastian and St Roch and, in the foreground, an altar in the shape of a sarcophagus — was ultimately reduced to an empty frame, scarred with largely-illegible memories of something irreparably lost. The battered remains have been returned to the Bode Museum. During the years when Mark Alexander lived in Berlin he apparently visited it regularly. And he, in turn, seems to have ended up somehow scarred by the experience.
Alexander has, as seems to be his usual practice, applied his ink with delicacy and precision. The result, quasi-photographic close up, looks from a distance more like the result of some chemical or thermographic process — burnt into the panels, rather than painted. Both in his imagery and his technique, Alexander has clearly learned something from Richter, although he also shows an appreciation for the impact of large areas of saturated monochrome to a degree that owes nothing to Richter at all. Represented by Haunch of Venison, Alexander is not a particularly prolific artist. Nor does he seem to have expended much effort in befriending Adrian Searle. Whether this makes one like him more or less is, I suppose, a question of personal taste.
Gareth Williams, who first alerted me to Mark Alexander’s installation at St Paul’s with this, has contributed an illuminating review of The Red Manheim here. As a long-time friend of the artist, Gareth writes with insight about the origins of the work, what he describes as the work’s ‘oblique’ relationship to Christian faith and, crucially, the artist’s own account of that relationship. For all these reasons the review constitutes essential reading for anyone attempting to make sense of The Red Mannheim. Having provided this context, though, Gareth concludes with his own more personal response to the presence of the work:
But even if you knew nothing about The Red Mannheim’s history or its creation you would still surely be struck by both its power and its delicacy: the scarlets, crimsons and charcoals are redolent of heat, sexual, diabolic or restoratively warming to taste. One also senses the lick of flames, kindling, consuming and charring. The odd drip of black paint suggests it might be melting.
It evokes more than an ultimately destructive heat, however. Its vividness in parts is lively, literally so: it’s the bright blood of childbirth or the softer glow of embryonic flesh illuminated by the probing camera of a thousand TV documentaries. And it’s inevitable that a palate of reds and blacks, by turns vivid and sombre, will communicate diverse emotions: rage, desire, despair and even hope.
All of which is, I think, not only expressed with typical fluency, but also entirely correct — not least in that central implication that The Red Mannheim exists not to provoke one single sort of response, but rather a diversity of possible responses. We are free to pour into its crucial emptiness all sorts of different emotions, historical reflections, existential questions, doubts or certainties spiritual or mundane. And to that extent, The Red Mannheim is a thoroughly mainstream contribution to the canon of postmodern religious art.
Of course, at perhaps its most obvious level The Red Mannheim reminds us of war. How could it be otherwise? War is, after all, integral not only to the terrible story of Egell’s original altarpiece, but also to its immediate context. Gareth is right to evoke, as he does, that famous wartime photograph of St. Paul’s Cathedral, wherein the building is seen rising up through those acrid clouds of Blitz-induced destruction, Wren’s isolated yet apparently inviolate dome thus providing the perfect visual trope for a more general image of Britain in 1940 — a nation hemmed in by lapping evil yet miraculously set apart from it, embattled yet successfully defiant. The danger of this photo, however, or at least its mythic status, is the extent to which it distracts us from remembering that in fact St. Paul’s took several direct hits — not least one, on the night of 9 October 1940, which actually pierced the roof itself, leaving a gaping crater in the middle of the n0w-immaculate chancel. Like Egell’s altarpiece, then, St Paul’s itself has been compromised, burned and badly damaged. Subsequent restoration hides the evidence. It does not, however, undo the reality.
Self-evidently, one can take away different morals from this. At a human level, part of the experience of maturity is, surely, the inevitable adult business of sustaining damage, either piecing things together again or, alternatively, learning to live with the absence of something previously assumed to be wholly necessary. The Red Mannheim speaks to this scarred quality, so central to our emotional and spiritual lives. That blood-red pigment evokes birth, life and healing as urgently as it does bloodshed or burning. More broadly, The Red Mannheim reminds us that making and destruction exist in a sort of balance. Berlin, within living memory an apocalyptic cityscape washed with firestorms, is now a place where a young British artist can once again live and learn — London a place where visitors to St Paul’s might be expected to reflect with compassion, perhaps even contrition, on the terrible fate of so many of the ancient churches of Mannheim, Dresden or Berlin itself. It’s as if the flat surface of The Red Mannheim opens a window onto the very recent past, onto an imagery which, for all sorts of reasons, it often seems more comfortable or at least more convenient to forget.
But then The Red Mannheim also speaks to a slightly less obvious aspect of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Wandering along the side aisles, it’s hard to ignore the reflection that, in precisely the place where any traditional Catholic church would house an array of side-chapels, each devoted to a particular saint, St. Paul’s has erected a tomb to a statesman, artist or architect — or, more likely, one of Britain’s own pantheon of military heroes. Wellington, Nelson, Napier, Roberts — they are all here, as well as a cenotaph for poor Gordon of Khartoum. The role of St. Paul’s Cathedral as a semi-secular shrine of Imperial enterprise and military valour has long existed in a sort of fruitful tension with its role as beacon of Christian ministry. Intentionally or not, The Red Mannheim keeps drawing our attention back to this point, reminding us gently if insistently of the reality that lies behind those enormous marble catafalques and classicised inscriptions. War, we cannot help but remember, is in many ways terrible — involving damage, suffering, death — as much as it is sometimes necessary, productive, even heroic. Well, that’s one way of reading it, anyway. Other visitors will obviously take away their own interpretations.
Mark Alexander’s installation comes across as respectful of its context, in terms of architecture and liturgy as well as the more obvious historical resonances. There’s something about the meticulously-rendered grunge-Rococco, for instance, that complements the gleaming Baroque majesty of the quire, just as the scale of the grouped panels speaks to architectural elements, including some of the doors or other openings, visible along the same sight-lines as the panels themselves. The curving forms of the central images echo the rounded arches of the great dome. Facing each other at the end of the nave, the two groups of panels create a sort of field of experience that must be confronted and crossed before emerging out into the light-flooded space of the dome.
Thus in playing by the rules of the building and the liturgy, as it were, The Red Mannheim seems to enter into conversation with all that’s going on around it, rather than merely interrupting. This is no minor point, either. Alexander deserves credit for resisting the rather infantile tendency to turn any installation within a sacred space into some sort of look-at-me mess. The palette of black and blood-red is less attenti0n-seeking than it is grave and serious. Anyone who supposes those intimations of sex and violence don’t have a place within the context of Christian worship needs to read a little more theology — or perhaps visit the National Gallery.
In short, what I am trying to say here, albeit in a rather indirect way, is that at all sorts of levels The Red Mannheim actually works. The Dean and Chapter have made a very sound decision in providing space for the installation. Mark Alexander has produced a genuinely successful piece of present-day religious art.
Yet as was emphasised above, perhaps the most notable quality of the work is its capacious, non-judgemental, thoroughly contemporary open-endedness. It’s more mirror than sign. Thus, while in his encounters with The Red Mannheim Gareth was drawn both to historical and biological readings — understandably so — when I first saw it in the nave of St Paul’s Cathedral, my own thoughts turned immediately to the imagery of Pentecost.
For those of you who are slightly vague when it comes to Christian high days and holy days — and in an age where displays of Christmas cards include ‘Christian’ as a specialist subcategory, where professional atheists award themselves the ironic luxury of elaborate church weddings and where the most obvious outward signs of religiosity visible in central London are generally Islamic ones, confusion is indeed understandable — Pentecost is the fiftieth day after Easter. Christians celebrate Pentecost as a the day on which the Holy Spirit first descended upon the Apostles, hovering over their heads in ‘cloven tongues like as of fire’, breaking down the barriers of language and idiom that separated each from the other and thus instituting God’s universal Church.
Now, The Red Mannheim reminded me of Pentecost for several reasons. Not least, red is the liturgical colour of Pentecost, traditionally symbolising those flames through which the Holy Spirit became manifest. In some churches, it is customary to hang up red banners, or to surround the altar with red flowers, in celebration of this. The Red Mannheim, so full of fire-related resonances, could be read as evoking those Pentecostal flames with something approaching literalism. But then there’s even more to it than that. For although Pentecost is in many ways a joyful event — traditionally conjoining not a little pre-Christian, welcome-to-summer festivity with its more orthodox Christian content — it has its more serious side, too, not least because the institution of the Church looks directly forward to the day when Christ will reign on earth once again.
This is expressed most directly in Acts 2, where the description of that first Pentecost is followed immediately with a reminder that this isn’t the end of Christ’s story. When some non-believers, hearing the Apostles speaking in tongues, claimed derisively that ‘these men are full of new wine’ — i.e. drunk — the apostle Peter was quick to deny this. He went on warn of a future, perhaps not so far away, when such gifts would become more general:
And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God,
I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh:
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams:
and on my servants and on my handmaidens
I will pour out in those days of my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy:
and I will show wonders in heaven above,
and signs in the earth beneath;
blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke:
the sun shall be turned into darkness,
and the moon into blood,
before that great and notable day of the Lord come:
and it shall come to pass,
that whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved.
So this, then, is what The Red Mannheim evoked for me — that time of ‘blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke’, when ‘the sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before that great and notable day of the Lord come’ — not that ‘flame of incandescent terror’ that burned in London 1940 or Berlin 1945, in other words, but the beginning of a different sort of time altogether, beside which our wars and sufferings will seem little things in comparison.
And this, in turn, feeds back into the imagery of The Red Mannheim, from which Christ and His cross seem to have vanished. For me, at least, the truth isn’t, as the artist himself put it, that ‘God had left the building’. Rather, with the descent of the Holy Spirit, celebrated at Pentecost, I am reminded both that the church no longer requires a literal dead man hanging on a tree, because the working of the Holy Spirit is now here all around us — around our worship, our mundane acts, our creativity and critical understanding — in St Paul’s as much as anywhere, but also that there will come a time when all this, too, will be burned away to absolute irrelevance.
God’s time, in short, is not like man’s time. While in Good Friday Christian believers experience woundedness, with Easter and Pentecost comes a transposition of meaning, wherein loss is translated into indestructible, transcendent unity. Looking between the grouped panels of The Red Mannheim up towards the open space below the dome of St. Paul’s — further still towards the high altar — I was left dwelling less of the horrors of war or the vulnerability of the flesh than reflecting on those varied, ultimately evanescent troubles through which we all have to pass before arriving at salvation. For me, then, The Red Mannheim‘s message was powerfully affirmative, consoling, perhaps even inspiring. Again, as religious art, for me at any rate, it worked.
Of course, I don’t for a moment suppose that Pentecostal imagery was at the forefront of Alexander’s thoughts as he worked on The Red Mannheim. Who knows whether he’s aware of Pentecost at all? Like most of my friends, he’s more likely to know recognise those little tongues of flame as a literary reference — e.g. from T. S. Eliot’s Little Gidding — than as a doctrinal certitude. Indeed, as far as that goes, I rather doubt that Alexander is a Christian, if only because I suspect that if he were a Christian, someone would by now have drawn attention to this most inexplicable of personal eccentricities.
But perhaps this doesn’t much matter. Not least, we’re living at a time when few would pause to wonder whether the producer of a cultural product actually believes that product to be in any objective sense ‘true’, although — and here’s a strange thing — by far the most interesting writer on this subject in its early modern context is in fact Macolm Bull, author not only of The Mirror of the Gods, but also of The Bigger Victory, a monographic study of Mark Alexander’s work which, alas, I have not yet read. It’s enough, now, to find an artist who shows himself willing to expose his work in a Christian environment — or, for that matter, to find a Christian environment willing to give house-room to contemporary art. As Canon Giles Fraser, Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral, said by way of his introduction to The Red Mannheim, ‘St Paul’s offers a powerful context in which to explore the relationship between art and faith. We hope that these images will enhance the experience of those visiting the cathedral, and provide a fitting focus for reflection and contemplation.’ For the moment, then, ‘exploration’ is perhaps the best that this juxtaposition can offer. ‘Discovery’, in contrast, might be too much.
I mean this neither as a criticism of Alexander himself nor of the Dean and Chapter of St. Paul’s, by the way. Like it or not, there’s simply an inevitable tension between the demands of devotional art and those of art per se, at least in its more recent sense. From the late eighteenth century onwards, it has become increasingly conventional to judge art on the basis of how obviously it succeeds as art, as opposed to whether it manages to function in some other way, e.g., whether it works as an instrument of propaganda or mourning, patriotic enthusiasm or dynastic point-scoring, pride of ownership (this sort or this sort), whether to console, titillate or cheer us. None of which is to say that pre-modern artists weren’t competitive amongst themselves regarding skill or status, or that there wasn’t a concentrated effort to make images that were visually striking. Rather, art simply wasn’t expected to constitute an end in itself.
At present, however, art that makes too much of a fuss about anything other than the ends of art is not, to put it bluntly, the sort of stuff that ends up being shown at the Haunch of Venison. It’s possible, at the margins, to insert a bit of feminist content, perhaps a little ambiguous stuff about the experience of being black or disabled, lesbian or Palestinian. ‘Out’ Christianity, however, whilst a minority interest here in the UK, at least amongst art-bothering circles, is not considered a suitably interesting minority interest. Of course it’s okay to use Christian imagery in art, but only if the artist carefully hedges it about with the conceptual equivalent of scare-quotes, a ghetto wall of prophylactic irony or critical detachment. Not least, this makes the resulting art a commentary on the art of the past, and hence about art, rather than anything that might otherwise have to be judged by a perhaps more exacting set of critical standards.
From the point of view of devotional art, it must be said, this cleavage has constituted what is at the least a temporary disaster. For while there was a time when the production of emphatically successful devotional art could coexist with all sorts of other practices within an artist’s oeuvre — this never prevented Titian from imagining this, for instance, any more than this prevented Michelangelo from entertaining himself with this, however much he may have regretted it in those late sonnets — that time is now long gone. Artists of the calibre of Giotto or Jan van Eyck could once spend a lifetime producing art that constituted as much of a help to Christian faith as any learned theological commentary, crowd-pleasing public sermon or fully-staged mystery play — but what artist with any desire for critical or commercial success would dare try that now? And while it is perfectly true that in the past, artists often used Christian iconography as a basis for works that also had a lot to say about perspective, their relationship with ancient Greece and Rome, the beauty of the human body or the contours of the local landscape, or any of a thousand other peripheral topics, it really was largely taken as read that these works, in all their various forms, represented an objective truth of general relevance and interest. Or to put it yet another way, hard though it may be to believe, there was was a time when art did not ‘explore the relationship between art and faith’ — simply because that relationship seemed at once too clear and too unequal to merit exploration.
How things have changed! My point, though, is neither to decry nor praise this state of affairs, which is what it is, at least for the moment — for if the great Peter Fuller spent the best years of his life trying to fit the square peg of faith into the round hole of modernism, or perhaps vice versa, what hope is there for me? Rather, it’s to draw attention to one reason why virtually everything that manages to bridge the gap between devotional functionality and art-critical prestige these days tends towards the open-ended, perhaps historically allusive yet doctrinally blurry end of the spectrum. It may genuinely too much to ask of a successful practicing artist to say ‘I believe’, at least through the medium of his or her work. Most, anyway, probably don’t believe. But then it seems tactless to press the question. In any event, I find myself repeating, perhaps it simply doesn’t matter that much. Is it just me, or is Bacon’s enjoyably anguished doubt at least as recognisable, perhaps even as welcome, as Sutherland’s somewhat featureless belief, let alone Spencer’s highly personal, often downright embarrassing religiosity? Does a work like The Red Mannheim hold up a mirror to men’s souls that if anything, proves a little more revealing than some of us might like? As a culture, are we simply getting the devotional art we deserve?
And as far as that goes, even the most backhanded tribute to faith probably ought to count for something. In the course of a perceptive piece about the need to bring art back into the Church of England, Rachel Campbell-Johnston observes about the BritArt generation of Saatchi-funded blasphemers: ‘in the flipside of their blasphemies lies an acknowledgement of the potency of the symbols that they attack.’ Well, amen, sister! Although I don’t entirely agree with Campbell-Johnson’s conclusion that ultimately the church needs art more than vice versa — my own view is that, all too often, the hungry sheep look up and are not fed by what they think they know about Christianity, leading them to venture instead into the gallery in search of sustenance, sheep being famous stupid and potentially self-destructive creatures in the absence of fairly energetic shepherding — our diverging views nevertheless bring us to the same broad conclusion, which is that the Church of England is right to pursue its ongoing engagement with contemporary art.
As Campbell-Johnston writes of some recent collaborations between contemporary artists and the Church of England,’ such works may not be directly religious, but they speak of a wider desire for the spiritual dimension of life, for the values that faith has traditionally espoused’. Might it be possible that, through its very emptiness — that idiomatic lack of clarity, the blind if beautiful search for something that the image alone can’t supply, that tendency to ‘explore’ but never either to discover or, indeed, assert that there is in fact nothing to be found there at all — the presence of contemporary art in churches could in fact constitute a sort of broad hint that viewers might wish to turn elsewhere for spiritual nourishment? Could contemporary art, in that negative sense, constitute an encouragement to faith?
Of course I know that most of what I have just written will variously bore, mystify, annoy or appall virtually everyone who reads it. Having been told on great authority that it’s impossible for a Tory to write about art (see the comment by Waldemar Januszczak here) I can only imagine the sort of reaction a professing Christian Tory is likely to receive!
Still, honesty is all that Fugitive Art ever promises, and certainly all that it delivers. In conclusion, however, I’d encourage anyone who is even vaguely interested in the relationship between contemporary art — skilful, intelligent, visually sensitive, historically informed contemporary art — and religion to make the journey to St. Paul’s Cathedral while The Red Mannheim is still in place there. The admission charge for a lone adult is £12.50. Except during service times, the cathedral is full of visitors — tourists, mostly, both from the UK and further afield — enlivened with the odd school group or roving specialist lecture programme. All of which serves to remind one that in its various incarnations St. Paul’s has always been more than ‘just’ a church. As we have seen, it’s a pantheon of the national heroes of the recent past, as well as a venue for important royal occasions, a magnificent building in its own right as well as the centre-point of London’s religious history from the time of the emperor Claudius onwards, if not earlier still.
But it’s also a reminder of the extent to which the church has long entangled itself with the things of this world, generously mingling the sacred with the mundane, its higher purpose with all its children’s urgent, divergent, generally purblind little purposes. On the day when I visited, the chancellor of the Exchequer was about to deliver his budget. Over the cathedral tannoy rang out a prayer — solemn, fluent, appropriate — for our nation’s leaders, their judgement and our finances. We were asked to say the Lord’s Prayer together. I was actually in the course of buying my entry ticket, but both I and the woman who was selling me my ticket paused, prayed — with that nervous tendency to avoid meeting anyone’s eyes that for some reason always afflicts Anglicans at public prayer — and then returned for the successful conclusion to our commercial transaction. The experience felt slightly strange, but also rather satisfying.
And that, in a sense, was how I felt about my week-day, late-morning visit to St. Paul’s Cathedral in search of The Red Mannheim. Was I there in the church as a tourist? As a student of history? As a lover of art? As a critic? Was I there as a Christian, however weak and unsteady my faith often proves? Well, I hope that the maker of The Red Mannheim will take it as the high praise I intend when I write that standing before the work, I felt entirely present in all these various conditions, if not unquestioningly so — which is considerably more, at any rate, than I can say for the vast majority of contemporary art that I ever end up seeing.
The Red Mannheim will be at St. Paul’s Cathedral until the end of the summer.