Image: Bruce Herman, detail of QU4RTETS #4 (Winter)
At the still point of the turning world…there the dance is…
T. S. Eliot, cf. “Burnt Norton” from Four Quartets
When I began my art training in the early 1970s, among the relatively small circle of art cognoscenti it was thought that traditional observation-based painting was largely a moribund practice. Painting itself had been declared “dead” and literary or narrative elements in art were thought simply beyond the pale of current practice––which was still held captive to formalist orthodoxies inherited from critics like Clement Greenberg and others. Yet I thought at the time, and believe now, that much of this was simple prejudice and the result of a narrow concept of art history––namely that it inexorably moves, in linear fashion, “forward” with the avant-garde shock troops. Since that time this heavily constrained view of visual art that considers literary reference to be contraband has been virtually demolished by the actual movement of art history––which develops organically, not according to neat theoretical grids.
My own recent project, QU4RTETS, comes out of the conviction that a robust “cross-pollination” is possible between visual, literary, and musical forms––and it has developed over the past three years into a collaborative touring exhibition and concert performance with painter Makoto Fujimura and composer Christopher Theofanidis. Our project is centered in a response to T. S. Eliot’s magnum opus Four Quartets. In a kind of reverse ekphrasis, we’ve allowed the poem to thoroughly color the paintings and music entailed in our collaboration. Thanks to the generosity of several patrons, the painters and composer were commissioned to create new works for this project: eight large-scale paintings and a score for piano and string quartet. The exhibition/concert has been seen and heard at Carnegie Hall; at Yale, Duke, and Baylor universities; and at Gordon, Wheaton, Westmont, Roanoke, and Westmont colleges. The show traveled overseas to Hong Kong University this past September, and will be the featured art display at Kings College Chapel, Cambridge, UK this coming Easter, 2015.
Why Eliot’s Four Quartets and why painting and music in connection with this poem?
I believe that Eliot’s poem is relevant to our own cultural moment because of its powerful witness in modern literary form to the grace and vision of the Gospel of Christ. In the poet’s vision everything hinges upon the “still point” where the human experience of time evokes wonder, fear and longing for continuance and redemption in the midst of the chaos and violence of human history––and where Christ’s presence is the pivot point not only for human but also cosmic history. Our ensemble has attempted in art and music to evoke Eliot’s “objective correlative”––a visual and aural equivalent to the poem’s meditation on time, death, and rebirth. Chris Theofanidis has produced a compelling score that evokes the brooding and brilliant light of Four Quartets and the painters have tried, through color, texture, and form to get at a visual quintessence––which Eliot strove to achieve in word. In effect, the painters and composer collaborated in intentional dialogue with the dead poet, revealing the staying power of his genius and self-declared reliance on the Christian literary and theological tradition.
That staying power of Eliot’s work (and of theological traditions) is further corroborated in the success of our exhibition tour as the following examples show. At Duke University theologian Jeremy Begbie hosted our exhibit and invited the Ciompi Quartet to perform Theofanidis’ piece At the Still Point. The Nasher Museum there created large installation walls to have the paintings displayed in University Chapel as part of a festival of theology and the arts entitled “Engaging Eliot”––in which Eliot’s masterpiece generated high-level discussion and our collaborative project was engaged by literature and art history professors at the school. At Yale our exhibition was incorporated into several days of academic discussions and chapel programming, and the music was performed twice––at the School of Music and at the Institute for Sacred Music. At Baylor University we were invited to participate in three days of programming around our project, and we participated in scholarly panel discussion with David Lyle Jeffrey as well as other related events on campus. And in Hong Kong three weeks of art and music and dance celebrated our exhibition and Eliot’s poem throughout the city.
These travels and venues for our project have afforded me a deeply stretching and encouraging experience, revealing possibilities for a rich and textured interrelation between art, literature, music, and theology. My own sense of Christian vocation has deepened and grown immeasurably through it all, and I sense a growing atmospheric “thaw” toward the potential for religious imagery and dialogue in the art world. Our hope is that QU4RTETS contributes to this thaw in some measure.
1. Why do you think formalist art (art without recognizable imagery or references outside the abstracted painted surface) gained dominance mid-century last?
2. What if any role can visual art play in theology? What if any role can it play in Reformed church tradition, and why is it that imagery still seems out of bounds or awkward in the Protestant traditions 500 years after the initial purging of statuary and paintings from worship spaces?
Almighty God, unto Whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from Whom no secrets are hid. Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of Your Holy Spirit, that we might perfectly love you and worthily magnify Your Holy Name through Christ our Lord. Open our imagination to receive more of your own luminous light and Real Presence. Galvanize our spirits that we might be fearless in your service as artists and please do inhabit the praises of Your people as we attempt to make art that reflects Your beauty and truth and goodness. Amen.
Further Reading and Viewing
T. S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton” from Four Quartets. Mariner Books, 1968.
Bruce Herman, QU4RTETS Project website, http://www.bruceherman.com/project_item/qu4rtets/