In Norse mythology, the earth was formed from the body of Ymir, the father of the frost giants. His blood became the ocean, and his skull the sky. It’s a grim vision of life, and yet a strikingly anthropomorphic one: The world is shaped like a man and the man is dead.
“Real/Surreal,” an exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art which will run through February 12, portrays a post-Christian surrealism which echoes that pre-Christian mythos. The outside world becomes man-shaped here, with human perception radiating outward to influence and infect the world around us. Paul Tchelitchew’s 1946 “Anatomical Painting” makes the point most bluntly with a neon-colored human skeleton and nervous system. The electric-blue and green nerves radiate outward from the body, pulsing in the air around the human form. It’s an exuberant painting—and a lonely one. The nerves reach out beyond the skin, but meet only blank canvas.
There isn’t much explicitly religious imagery in the show. Peter Blume’s “Man of Sorrows” depicts a distorted, grotesque Christ on the cross, decked with colorful ribbons; in “The Light of the World,” scientific (or science-fictional) apparatus serves as the visual counterpoint to a crossless church. But the questions which animate the show are deeply religious questions. Are we a part of the world we see, or are we somehow alien to it, pilgrims or intruders or outcasts? Do we create meaning or encounter it? What happened to put humankind so crosswise to the world—was it just the development of a complex consciousness, which led to art and lies and religion, or was it the Fall?
Because the Christian story, too, portrays a world deeply tied to human consciousness, though not reducible to that consciousness. When Adam sinned the world changed. The action of his will shifted and corroded the meaning of everything around him, from his own naked body to the lion who could no longer lie down with the lamb.
Christians cannot be at home in the world as it now is, even as we see God’s fingerprints all over the world He created. And so Christian art has negotiated between realism, the fleshiness of the word made flesh, and a heightened, exaggerated style. Spanish art of the Counter-Reformation, for example, is often cited as a style emphasizing realism, the pain-wracked Jesus with dirt in the scrapes on his knees, and yet here too, light and shadow are used in non-representational ways to call attention to the inner lives and spiritual significance of Christ and the saints.
The Whitney show was designed to highlight the collision of realism and anti-realism in a very different time and a different artistic movement. The show draws out two sometimes-overlooked features of the surrealism of the first half of the twentieth century: its context as a movement, not just a random collection of geniuses, and its reliance on realist, representational technique to get its startling effects. Many of the artworks in the show look like they might have been made by one of the more famous surrealists—Giorgio de Chirico, say, or Man Ray—and yet they turn out to be the work of Arnold Wiltz or Erwin Blumenthal. (Blumenthal’s photo in this show, a solarized portrait of a woman in which the chemical treatment of the print turns half her face into shimmering, eldritch silver, is a terrific portrayal of the divided human soul. It’s scary and alluring.)
Two of the most jarring works in the show stick closely to representational art, even as they evoke fear and anxiety. Andrew Wyeth’s “Winter Fields” does actually depict fields in winter, but the main focus of the painting is the huge, glossy black dead crow in the foreground, its claws curled in front of it. In both its pose and the intensity of its detail and coloring, it’s reminiscent of paintings like Francisco de Zurbarán’s 17th-century “Agnus Dei,” a still life showing a trussed ram ready for slaughter. And Robert Riggs’s photograph “Children’s Ward,” a slice of life snapshot of a 1940s hospital in which a little girl watches a boy in a strange medical contraption draw and aim a toy pistol, lives up to the artist’s own mission statement that “a good picture should have a feeling of unearthliness.” It’s a playful picture in a way, showing kids being kids even under very difficult circumstances; it’s also a sad and lonely picture of children at night, without adults to care for and guide them, as in W.H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939”:
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.
A children’s hospital at night, with games and camaraderie but no mother or father: That’s one vision of the world. It’s a vision in which humans connect with nothing greater than ourselves; we have one another, and that gives us eccentricity and comfort, but we’re always shadowed by the possibility of meaningless violence and the certainty of meaningless suffering. That toy pistol is loaded with real bullets.
The Christian worldview doesn’t prettify the violence or wish away the suffering. Nor does it allow humans to be fully reconciled to the world as we find it. That “feeling of unearthliness” should haunt Christian artwork as much as it does the works on display at the Whitney.
But God can free the artist from the solitude of his own skull. The world may be a children’s hospital, but the children do have a loving Father. The lonely, anxious figures in so many of the paintings at the Whitney—a trapper alone with his dog in an empty snow-swept landscape, city dwellers eyeing each other with suspicion in a multiple-perspective nightmare subway station—need not remain alone. The artist himself can relax: He doesn’t need to create meaning, and he isn’t restricted only to whatever meaning he can create by himself. The world can be bigger than him, because it is God’s creation and not his. The trussed ram isn’t the dead crow, because the ram points to a meaning and redemption beyond the understanding or abilities of the artist. For Christians the world may often feel like the whirling, nightmare mass of chaos depicted in Ivan Le Lorraine Albright’s “Roaring Fork, Wyoming,” a streaky horror-show of brown and gray, ropes and rust and shapes which aren’t quite eyes. This sense of violation, with its lack of order, form, or beauty, is a response to real features of the world as we find it. And yet Christians insist that this is not the only truth.
How can a deeper and more complete truth best be portrayed? Is a redeemed world a realist world? When Salvador Dalí returned to the Catholic faith of his upbringing, and began to create works which expressed that faith (even submitting some of his religious work to Pope Pius XII for approval), he had to confront the question of whether a new worldview required a new artistic approach. Unlike his fellow modernist de Chirico, who ultimately rejected modern art and sought a return to classical styles, Dalí continued to use the symbolism and disruptions of surrealism even when his subject matter wasn’t melting clocks but the Virgin Mary.
In fact, Dalí found in surrealism the perfect genre for representing supernatural realities. His 1949 “Madonna of Port Lligát,” in which a portal opens in Our Lady’s body through which we can see the Christ child, captures the weirdness of God becoming man as well as the physicality and tender emotion of Mary’s maternity. (He later redid the painting twice, with various changes including showing a loaf of bread glimpsed through a similar portal in the infant Christ.) Many Madonna-and-Child paintings could just as easily be portraits of any woman and her baby. “Madonna of Port Lligát” can only be Mary and Jesus. Dalí brought his talent for portraying an off-balance world to his Christian artworks, and thereby managed to create some of the most striking modern depictions of the Last Supper and the Crucifixion.
One of the problems with separating “realist” from “nonrealist” art is that what you consider realistic may depend on your own position in life and your own worldview. A literary-mainstream novel, for example, is typically expected to lack supernatural elements. Putting in a miracle would shift its genre to “religious,” or maybe (and especially if your skin is brown) “magical realism.” Here religion is opposed to realism rather than being the highest expression of the truth about our reality.
Artists from marginalized groups may develop styles which twist and break traditional realism—think Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man—in order to highlight the ways in which their own perspectives are considered abnormal. Power relations often determine what’s considered realistic and what’s considered exaggeration. Christianity places marginal, rejected, or powerless figures at the center of the story of human redemption—the youngest son becomes king, some kid from Nazareth gets himself condemned to death and yet saves the world from his cross, the stone the builders rejected becomes the cornerstone. Christian wisdom is foolishness in the eyes of the world. Christian realism, therefore, might look like surrealism. The world is shaped like a man, and the man is risen from the dead.