The Incarnation: An Interdisciplinary Symposium on the Incarnation of the Son of God

By Stephen T. Davis; Daniel Kendall et al. | Go to book overview

15 The Incarnation in Twentieth-Century Art

David Brown

The choice of title is deliberate. My focus will be doctrinal. At the heart of Christianity lies the assertion that Jesus Christ was (and is) at once divine and human. So in what follows I want to examine which particular aspects of that humanity or divinity the artists selected have chosen to focus on, the means they have employed to achieve their purpose (particularly in respect of divinity), and finally what the Christian viewer might learn from them. Immediately, though, the objection must be answered that great Christian art is now firmly in the past. Certainly, there is no denying that the twentieth century witnessed a great decline in the quantity and quality of art with explicit Christian reference. Not only has the church long since ceased to be the artist's principal patron, but also the general retreat from representational art and unfamiliarity with the details of Christ's story has meant that, insofar as Christ's life is treated at all, reference is now largely confined to his birth, death, and resurrection. Even so, this has still produced some great art, and we need also to recall that, although the amount of explicitly Christian art is in decline, there is no shortage of Western artists who have seen their main objective in spiritual or religious terms. One thinks, for instance, of Brancusi in sculpture or in painting of Kandinsky, Klee, and Mondrian in Europe or of Newman and Rothko in the United States. One other factor that needs to be borne in mind is that the use of Christian symbols has been by no means confined to artists with an explicit Christian faith. In some cases, as we shall see, their art succeeds in capturing important aspects of that faith, but, even where the intention was hostile, such art can still sometimes present a pertinent critique that the church needs to face. So, in what follows I shall survey art of both kinds. To avoid too much subjectivity, I shall focus on those who have achieved wide public recognition in the art world, thus ignoring

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