Traces of God at the NGV


BIG QUESTION: How can visual art be a spiritual language?

As part of the ‘Traces of God’ series, this unit of work visits the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) to explore the spiritual dimension of the visual arts. The creation of art is about transcendence. Artists speak of moving to another level of awareness when they are deeply involved with their work. Time and space dissolve as the artist enters into a profound experience of creativity that can only be described as a spiritual experience. Explore each section of this unit (see the panel on the right of the page) as you formulate your own answer to the question: How can visual art be a spiritual language?

The Artist and the Transcendent 1

Untitled (Red), Mark Rothko, 1956

Mark Rothko believed he experienced a kind of spiritual transcendence when he was painting. His works are large because he said that when you paint a large work you are in itRothko was concerned not with painting particular subjects but with expressing human emotions such as tragedy and ecstasy. He said that ‘the people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their colour relationship, then you miss the point’.

Rothko knew he was communicating something beyond words when people responded emotionally to his work. Why do you think his work has the potential to come close to a ‘religious experience’?

The French-American art collector, Dominique De Menil, said ‘We are cluttered with images and only abstract art can bring us to the threshold of the divine.

  • Do you agree with De Menil’s statement?
  • Do you think the absence of imagery, symbolism or obvious meanings leads you closer to the deepest heart of the Mystery that is God – for whom there is no adequate image or description?
  • Who is Mark Rothko?
  • Art and the transcendent: Investigating art and the spiritual?

Evensong, Hill End, Russell Drysdale, 1948

Drysdale has depicted a small country church flooded with evening light. In the image, the people sit in a kind of shadowy space in the pews. They are turned toward the light, yet seem to disappear in the context of this painting as if they are humbled by the beauty and silence of the light.

There are many references to the mystery of light in the Scriptures. One particularly appropriate reference is that from John’s Gospel:

What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it
(Jn 1: 3–5).

Although it is impossible to find an image for God, light is often used to portray the mystery of the Divine. Drysdale has used the simplicity of the evening light glowing on the inner wall of the little country church to portray something he believes is beyond words. Compare Drysdale’s imagery with that of Mark Rothko. Rothko strips away all forms and leaves only colour and light. Drysdale has used subject matter to evoke the transcendent.

  • Explore: Art and Spirituality by Veronica Brady.
  • How does Drysdale’s painting make you feel? How would you describe the atmosphere of this scene?

On the unscientific proof of light, Christoph Dahlhausen, 1997

In this piece from his series, On the unscientific proof of light, Dahlhausen has used light to ‘paint’ the image. It bears similarities to Rothko’s work. Dahlhausen’s preoccupation with light moves the viewer beyond the world of objective reality into a pared-back perception of the simplicity and truth of light and colour.

  • Explore some of Christoph Dahlhausen’s work.
  • What does this work make you want to explore?
  • Why do you think so many artists and photographers use light in such a way as to create a sense of mystery?
  • Explore some of the Scriptural references to light, e.g. Wisdom 7:26; 1 John 1:5; 1 Peter 2:9; Ephesians 5:8. How would you illustrate any one of these references?

The Artist and the Transcendent 2

Tender are the Stairs to heaven, Yayoi Kusama, 2004

In a pitch dark room, Kusama’s staircase draws the viewer to infinite depths and infinite heights. Using light and mirrors, Kusama has created the impression of limitless space and a never-ending illuminated staircase. The viewers participate in this work by being reflected in the mirrors as they gaze upward or downward. Kusama’s message to the world is that love is forever. It is a homage to all that survives beyond death. Love survives. It is eternal.

The mystical understanding of the spiritual journey is that the way up is the way down. Teresa of Avila likens the soul to a crystal globe, with God at the centre in radiant light. As we go deeper in our relationship with God, we begin to move out in service to others. We become people of love.

The ‘ladder’ that joins heaven to earth is an Old Testament image related to Jacob’s dream (Genesis 28 10–19). The image of the ladder was popularized in Christian teaching, and many people believed we moved through ever-ascending stages in spiritual life. This was based on a belief that God was ‘up’ in heaven and that we needed to journey upward to be close to God. Contemporary spirituality now views the spiritual journey as an interior movement toward the indwelling of God.

  • Compare Kusama’s ‘stairs to heaven’ with the icon of The Ladder of Divine Ascent from St Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai.
  • What do you see as the artist’s intention in each work? How would you describe your own spiritual journey? Would you identify love as being the heart and meaning of the spiritual life?

A Mountain Scene, Val d’Aosta, J.M.W. Turner, 1845

Turner has created a work with no particular subject matter, apart from the impression of light viewed from the mountain.

In the biblical tradition, people climbed mountains to experience transcendence or the presence of God. In 1 Kings 19:1–15 we read of Elijah encountering God in the sound of ‘sheer silence’ as he stood outside his mountain cave.

  • Where does this painting take you?
  • In what ways could Turner’s work lead people into the silence and the mystery of the mountain?
  • How do you think the experience of mystery could lead you to the ultimate, breathtaking Mystery of God?
  • View the YouTube video on Turner from The Great Artists – The English Masters

Homage to the Square: Autumn Echo, Josef Albers, 1966

Josef Albers was born into a German Catholic family. His early work was religious in nature, however Albers is most widely known for his hundreds of paintings titled ‘Homage to the Square’ in which he experimented with colour relationships, while striving for perfection of form.

In an article written about Albers after his death, Holland Cotter says, ‘Abstract paintings of an emptied-out kind are like meditation devices. To look at them in a serious way requires sustained concentration. To create them, particularly if the process is arduous, is a form of psychic discipline, a species of yoga, a performance of faith.’ He said that Albers’ overall aim was to create the impression of an effortless, inevitable harmony.

  • Do you agree with the author’s opinion about the meditative effect of Albers’ work?
  • If you were to sit in front of one of Albers’ Homage to the Square paintings for any length of time, with no other distractions, might you be drawn into a meditative state? When Albers himself was asked to name his primary purpose as an artist and teacher, he replied, ‘I want to open eyes.’
  • View Josef Albers Homage to the Square.

The Artist and the Transcendent 3

Leah King-Smith, Untitled no. 4, 1991 and Untitled No. 5, 1991

Aboriginal spirituality is inextricably linked to the land and the Dreaming. The Dreaming is the spiritual environment the Aboriginal people live in. It is all around them and they live within it.

Leah King-Smith is an Australian indigenous photographer whose series Patterns of Connections is a collection of landscape photographs overlaid with archival colonial images from the State Library of Victoria. These figures take on a ghostly appearance as they seem to come back to life within the layering of her images. By having the landscape run through the people in the photographs, King-Smith revives the spirit of connectedness to the land so central to Aboriginal spirituality.

  • Where do Leah King-Smith’s photographs take you? What aspects of Aboriginal spirituality would you like to explore after having viewed her images?

The Artist and Creativity

Untangling, Jeff Wall, 1994 printed 2006

Jeff Wall’s photograph depicts an impossible tangle of rope that seems to have no beginning or end. The man in the image looks helplessly at the tangle, expressing something of our modern selves facing the challenges life throws at us.

  • How would you describe the mix of order and chaos in this photograph?
  • Is this work soulless or creative and challenging?
  • What brings ‘soul’ to a person’s work?

The creativity of the human spirit is attributed to the spark of the divine in each of us. We have a choice in this picture: to accept and face the tangled rope with humour, grace and creativity or to become angered by it and end up being bound negatively to the tangled mess.

  • How do you think the human spirit finds the grace to overcome seemingly impossible odds?
  • When do you sense the spark of divine creativity in yourself?
  • View the video ‘There shall be physicians for the spirit’ on the healing nature of creativity. Take special notice of the many quotations about art and choose one that particularly resonates with you. Can you find evidence that art/creativity has the capacity to bring healing to the human spirit?

Cell (Glass spheres and hands), Louise Bourgeois, 1990 – 1993

Human suffering has many facets and can either destroy or transform the human spirit. Artists often try to visually express the mystery of suffering. In her Cell series, Louise Bourgeois has constructed small rooms that the viewer can peer into. In Cell (Glass Spheres and Hands) five large glass spheres sit on chairs, in a circle around a pair of crossed marble arms on a fabric-covered table. This could be a home or a prison.

‘The viewer is only able to view the interior through panels that have been knocked out or broken. In this piece, Bourgeois creates a symbolically charged, yet emotionally ambiguous space where every viewer reads it differently depending on one’s personal history’ (The Glass Quarterly).

  • Research what you can about Louise Bourgeois’ life.
  • What does this particular artwork make you want to explore? The issue of the fragility of human life, or perhaps the resilience of the human spirit, might be starting points.
  • Louise Bourgeois was 79 years of age when she created this work. How do you think her work is coloured by so many years of life experience? Is there beauty and hope in this work or a sense of foreboding? What does her work reveal about human creativity/divine creativity?
  • Read the article by Christine Valters Paintner, PhD about the relationship between spirituality, artistic expression and the importance of the imagination. She says:

The imagination is the central faculty of creativity, allowing us to imagine the unseen and give form to the new. The imagination is what allows us to see meaning hidden in the depths of the world. Creativity is at the heart of many human pursuits: art-making, dreaming and discerning our futures, creating loving relationships, playing in our leisure time, generating new ideas in the workplace, building new visions for what is possible for our communities, and working toward justice.

  • Summarise her article in your own words.
  • Read Pope John Paul II’s letter to artists, 1999. What are the key points in the Pope’s letter?
  • View Sir Ken Robinson’s talk ‘Do schools kill creativity?’ What is your response to his point of view?

Inland Sea, Rosalie Gascoigne, 1986

All creativity is an attempt to create something new – something that has never existed before. Occasionally an artist will create something new from what is very old. Here, Rosalie Gascoigne has arranged old sheets of corrugated iron to represent an inland sea.

There is an emerging sense of Australian spirituality related to the uniqueness of the Australian environment. Gascoigne has brought together the idea of an ancient inland sea with what is so truly symbolic of inland Australia – sheets of corrugated iron. She has arranged these in a way that paradoxically suggests the waves of the ocean.

  • What do you think inspires a person to think and create in this way?
  • What drives an artist to challenge common perceptions of what art should be?
  • Can Gascoigne’s work be described as spiritual, and is she expressing something of the Australian soul? How would you depict Australia’s soul?
  • Watch an interview with Rosalie Gascoigne.
  • Explore Landscape – Place, Memory, Experience– the art of Rosalie Gascoigne.
  • Rosalie Gascoigne – Poetry and Words.

The Artist and Faith

Love’s Pilgrimage, Nikolaos Gysis, 1876

You will see a large collection of works arranged in close proximity to one another in The Schaeffer Gallery. Choose a work from the many in this gallery that expresses for you something of the human condition. Find a work that shows some evidence of the virtues of faith, hope and love that underpin human life. What does the work you have chosen say about the human being and the deep longings of the heart?

The work depicted here shows two women in a dark cave looking for something or someone. One holds an unlit candle. What could be the story the artist is trying to convey? Why do you think he named this work ‘Love’s Pilgrimages? Does this say something to you about the journey of faith?

The European Collection 14th-16th Centuries, Level 1 NGV

This room at the NGV International houses many religious works of art. Spend some time here imagining the historical contexts in which these works were created. In your mind, visualise the original settings of these works – in France, Italy, Russia, Germany, England, Spain, etc. How did the people of those times express their faith? What do you think sustained their beliefs? Choose a work to which you are particularly drawn and write a poem about it. Illustrate your poem with elements drawn from the work of art.

(Pictured here is Hans Memling’s The Man of Sorrows in the arms of the Virgin, 1475 – 79)

Stillness, Kim Hoa Tram, 2005

This image of a Buddhist monk seated and facing away from the viewer has been created by a few simple brush strokes. The monk himself, although illustrated in such a transient and transparent way, seems also to have the solidity of a rock in the landscape. Those who have practiced meditation would understand the concept of the rock-like posture in which one remains perfectly still, in tune with the heart of all that exists. The Christian would describe this as communion with God, a form of silent contemplative prayer.

  • What might the artist, Kim Hoa Tram, know about or believe? What do you think he is trying to express in this work?
  • Read about Kim Hoa Tram and how he sees art as not so much about rising to a higher realm of spirituality but going within, to purify one’s mind and attain spiritual enlightenment.
  • How can works such as this encourage inter-faith dialogue?
  • Explore the Art of Zen.

The Artist and the Absence of God

Hill End Ruins, Margaret Olley, 1948

The depiction of desolation and lifelessness implies an absence of God; an absence of goodness or beauty. Where once there was life, there is now only an eerie silence and empty ruins.

Before a person comes to a mature faith, childhood images of God need to collapse and give way to an imageless and silent awareness of God’s presence. What is experienced as an absence or nothingness becomes a way of knowing the life that emerges from death, the light that emerges from the darkness, and the hope that slowly grows from desolation. This is the language of faith.

Margaret Olley may have had no intention of people reading her work in this way. However, the artist leaves his or her work in the world as a silent language to be read and interpreted by the observer.

  • What do you think Margaret Olley is trying to depict here?
  • Could her work find references to the human soul and human experience?
  • How do human beings cope with the experience of desolation?

Collins Street 5pm, John Brack, 1955

Another work that could illustrate an absence of God is John Brack’s Collins Street, 5pm. ‘This is considered to be both an iconic painting of peak-hour Melbourne and a social commentary on daily life in the 1950s. The painting depicts people emotionally closed down by the grind of daily work. The office workers are unaware of each other, despite their close proximity, suggesting a loss of individuality and a lack of social cohesion among the masses’ (c.f. NGV website).

  • What does John Brack’s painting say about the human experience of the ‘daily grind’; the monotony of going to work and returning home every day?
  • What impact do you see in Brack’s choice of a monotone palette; the singular direction of the walkers; the lifeless expressions?
  • Is Brack depicting a godless world? What happens to the depths of the soul, the poetry of life, human creativity, when one seems caught in a seemingly mechanical grind?
  • View Concrete Cage by Josh O’Keefe, an animation inspired by John Brack’s Collins Street 5pm.

The Artist and Death

Parents Resurrecting, Stanley Spencer, 1933

This work is one of Stanley Spencer’s many ‘resurrection’ works in which he explores the mystery of life after death. His scenes are almost always set in his local churchyard at Cookham in England. This piece shows the resurrection of four fathers and three wives. The wives are clasping their husbands ‘in an ecstasy of joy’. Spencer himself wrote of how ‘the woman on the right is full of happiness at feeling his legs, real living ones, and real trouser cloth … the whole affair is fenced off from the world by a chain. Everything inside that chain is Holy, every incident is Sacred joy’. We also witness three grieving family members (obviously the children) with their backs to the viewer. These seemingly cannot see this reunion taking place. They look down at the grave, lost in grief.

  • Stanley’s work brings to mind the account of Christ’s resurrection in which Mary of Magdala tried to cling to him. How would you illustrate the concept of resurrection?
  • How would you express the idea of a sacred space from which we are barely separated, yet which we cannot see?

Death of the Father, Jean Ipoustéguy, 1967 – 68

The death of Pope John XXIII in 1963, and the death of his own father in 1967, had a profound effect on the artist Jean Ipoustéguy. In this work he has replaced the features of the Pope with those of his own father. This is a profoundly disturbing work with many layers of meaning. It is largely a funeral procession and a reflection on death – the death of a father; the death of a Pope; the perceived ‘death’ of the Tridentine era of the Church following the Second Vatican Council. The work is full of grief, decay and dismemberment but it is a work that demands attention and much discussion.

  • What is your initial response to this work?
  • What do you think the artist is trying to say to the viewer?
  • Has the artist left a sense of hope hidden in his work?