Break the rules like an artist

Break the rules like an artist

Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist. – Pablo Picasso   Vincent Van Gogh is widely known today as a typically eccentric artist. He might not have invented Impressionism, but he was the first to paint stars swirling uncontrollably in the night sky, or to depict sunflowers as golden explosions, or the sky on fire above a wheatfield. His pictures were vivid, wild, daring, chaotic, full of bright yellows and deep blues. If you’ve ever had the opportunity to visit the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and be surrounded by a room full of his work – Sunflowers, Irises, Almond Blossom, The Bedroom and Potato Eaters – you’ll know the powerful visceral effect it can have. And yet, if you go to the 2nd floor to the “Van Gogh Close Up” exhibit you’ll find scores of meticulous drawings of hands and feet made by Vincent when he was beginning to learn art. And then it dawns on you – Vincent didn’t simply pick up a brush and start painting A Starry Night. He took boring art classes. He submitted himself to the slow discipline of learning his craft. I remember my father moaning about modern art and saying anyone could paint like Picasso (“It’s just cubes”) or Pollock (“You just splash paint on

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Is meaning simply in the eye of the beholder?

Is meaning simply in the eye of the beholder?

When I first saw a photo of the Fearless Girl defying the rampaging bull of Wall Street I loved it! There she stands – feet apart, back arched, hands on hips – boldly staring down the ultimate symbol of out-of-control capitalism. Viewed from behind it looks as if she’s stopped the bull in his tracks. He crouches tentatively, quizzically sizing up his opponent, unsure of whether he has the measure of this defiant girl. How clever to subvert such a masculine symbol of greed and power with a figure of sheer feminine chutzpah.   At least that’s what I thought until I discovered who created each sculpture and what their motives were for doing so. Charging Bull was created in 1987 by Italian-American sculptor Arturo Di Modica right after the Black Monday stock market crash. He claimed he wanted the bull to represent “the strength and power of the American people” – like a kind of shot in the arm after the collapse of the financial market. Interestingly, Di Modica wasn’t commissioned to design the bull and he spent $350,000 of his own money to create it. He trucked it into Manhattan himself and installed it – without permission – right in front of the New York Stock Exchange. It was guerrilla art in the true sense of the word,

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Is this the greatest Easter painting of all time?

Is this the greatest Easter painting of all time?

It has the imposing title, The Disciples Peter and John Running to the Sepulchre on the Morning of the Resurrection. More often than not it’s just referred to by the shortened form, The Disciples or Les Disciples. You won’t find it in the Louvre or the Met or the National Gallery. It hangs tucked away in an old railway station in Paris, now the Musée d’Orsay, on the left bank of the Seine. It was painted in 1898 by a relatively little known Swiss artist named Eugène Burnand. He was something of an old-fashioned realist at a time when all the cool kids were embracing modernism. The Disciples didn’t make a splash when it was first hung. Burnand’s style was already considered passé by the 1890s. But those who take the time to find it in the d’Orsay come away saying that viewing the canvas is akin to a spiritual experience. Some say it is the greatest Easter painting ever made.   Scroll up and look again at the picture. As the first blush of dawn is tinting the clouds, Peter and John are rushing to the tomb of Christ. They’ve just been told by Mary Magdalene that she and the other women found it empty, that Christ has risen. Her words are ringing in their ears. But their faces and their bodies

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Maybe it’s time to drop the “Christian fiction” genre altogether

Maybe it’s time to drop the “Christian fiction” genre altogether

With all the hullabaloo about the film version of The Shack I find it amusing to read reviews questioning whether the film (and by extension, the book) teaches biblical truth. Twenty years ago, Christians had no problem suggesting that Neo in The Matrix was a Christ figure, and that popping that red pill to see how deep the rabbit hole goes was a metaphor for Christian conversion. Fifteen years ago, preachers were happy to pepper their sermons with references to the Lord of the Rings film series. And even though Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was based in part on devotional works like the Friday of Sorrows and the reputed Marian apparitions attributed to Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich, Protestants happily hosted film nights and encouraged their members to bring their friends along to see it. So why is The Shack being viewed so suspiciously? Presumably because it’s been cursed with the classification as a “Christian novel” in a way that, say, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe wasn’t. C.S. Lewis was a devoted Christian and his Narnia books (and subsequent films) were embraced by Christians as presenting biblical themes, with Aslan becoming one of the most loved Christ figures in literature. But the Narnia series was never classified in a limited sense as “Christian fiction”. Likewise, novelist

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We find our fathers where we can

We find our fathers where we can

The man’s name is Juan. He finds the boy hiding in an abandoned apartment and takes him home and feeds him. The boy won’t speak. He doesn’t speak because no one ever listens to him. Not the other boys who bully him and call him “faggot”. Not his crack-addicted mother. But Juan listens. Or tries to. He and his partner Teresa set a place for him at their table. And make up a bed for him. They let him sleep peacefully and in the morning when he tells them his name is Chiron and where he lives Juan returns him to the toxic home from which he comes. Later, Juan takes the boy down to the beach and coaxes him into the water. He shows him how to float and the basics of how to swim. He cradles him in the water holding him like a baby, or like a baptism. It’s the beginning of a touching friendship, depicted in the opening chapter of Barry Jenkins’ Oscar-winning Moonlight, a powerful film about growing up poor, black and queer in America. But we know that Juan, played by Mahershala Ali, isn’t just a kindly neighbor. We know he’s a crack dealer. We know this because we’ve seen him plying his trade earlier in the film. And at first we think that Juan’s interest

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We’re cheering for Rogue One but we’re really on the Empire’s side

We’re cheering for Rogue One but we’re really on the Empire’s side

As you probably know by now, Rogue One is about a small band of rebels, part of the larger Rebel Alliance, who try to steal the design plans for a super-weapon called the Death Star. Even if you’re not that into Star Wars films (which I’m not) you’d enjoy it. It’s basically a heist movie – a ragtag bunch of compatriots, each possessing different but complementary skills, attempt to rip off an evil guy’s stuff. It’s like Oceans 11 in space. The movie’s tagline is “A rebellion built on hope.” And there’s lots of talk of hope. Because we all know that what the Rogue One crew is doing won’t defeat their enemy but will offer hope for the future for the Rebel Alliance (see Star Wars Episode IV for how all that turns out). But the Empire is all-pervasive. It has conquered the galaxy and seems invincible. The Rebel leadership is ready to capitulate. There’s simply no way to stop it. Until Jyn Erso and her plucky crew take matters into their own hands. And everyone cheers them on. After all, we hate Darth Vader and Moff Tarkin, right? But what if I told you that most of those in the cinema, munching blithely on their popcorn, were really on the side of the Empire without knowing it?   We watch films

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Advent Reflection 10: Yes, Jesus WAS a refugee

Advent Reflection 10: Yes, Jesus WAS a refugee

The final entry in my series of reflections based on ten of the greatest Christmas artworks of all time. Merry Christmas to you all! 10 THE FLIGHT TO EGYPT   Artwork: Rest on the Flight to Egypt – Orazio Gentileschi, Birmingham Art Gallery Reading: Matthew 2:13-23 Reflection: This isn’t a very well known Christmas painting, but I really like it. During their escape from the murderous King Herod, the holy family rests in what looks like a derelict building. Their donkey waits on the other side of a broken wall as Joseph takes a nap and Mary feeds her child. There are dark, foreboding clouds on the horizon. The setting reinforces the appalling situation they find themselves in. Destitute, alone, and taking brief shelter in a ruin. Orazio Gentileschi’s picture is a strange composition. But it beautifully portrays the utter exhaustion of the holy family’s hurried escape from Bethlehem. They look like a modern day refugee family fleeing Aleppo. Joseph has collapsed in sheer exhaustion. Mary’s feet are dirty and she appears too tired to even cradle her hungry child, who looks furtively in our direction. Gentileschi obviously related to the refugee status of the holy family. He painted five versions of this picture. As a young painter he had become caught up in the licentious and violent world of fellow

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Advent Reflection 9: How deep is your love?

Advent Reflection 9: How deep is your love?

Ten of the greatest pieces of Christian art ever created. Ten Advent reflections. A bit like the ten stations of the Christmas story. Here’s No.9. 9.  THE ADORATION OF THE MAGI   Artwork:  Adoration of the Magi – Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi Gallery, Florence Reading:  Matthew 2:7-12 Reflection: Botticelli was commissioned to paint this astonishing work in 1475 by Gaspare di Zanobi del Lama, a wealthy Italian banker connected to the Medici family. The holy family are positioned aloft in a derelict outhouse of yawning rafters on the brink of collapse. Below them, the Magi and their attendants have come bearing gifts for the Christ child. It’s a lush, dramatic, altogether beautiful nativity. That much is obvious to the uninformed viewer. What you might not know is the sly and artful way Botticelli has portrayed the images in the foreground. The three Magi are portrayed by patriarchs of the powerful Medici family. The magus kneeling before Christ and pompously touching his feet is Cosimo de’ Medici, the first of the Medici political dynasty. The second magus in the center with the red mantle is Cosimo’s son, Piero, who succeeded him as lord of Florence. And the third magus beside him is Piero’s brother Giovanni. They seem to be in conversation, perhaps disagreement. It was well known that Cosimo had intended for Giovanni to

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Advent Reflection 8: Where is Jesus?

Advent Reflection 8: Where is Jesus?

My Advent devotion series, based on the 10 greatest paintings of the Christmas story ever produced. Look carefully at the painting. Read the Bible text. Read the reflection. Recite the prayer. 8. THE MAGI SEARCH FOR THE CHRIST   Artwork: The Procession of the Magi – Benozzo Gozzoli, Medici Riccardi palace, Florence Reading: Matthew 2:1-10  Reflection: The Medicis were an Italian banking family that came to exercise such supreme control over the affairs of Tuscany and Florence that they became first a political dynasty and later a royal house. Wealthy and powerful beyond all reckoning, they transformed Florence into a stunningly beautiful and excessively luxurious city of the finest architecture and art. Medici money seemed to be inexhaustible. One Medici or another was patron to Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci, Raphael, Rubens, and even Galileo. Four Medicis became Pope, a host of others cardinal, and two went on to rule France. So, when in 1459 Piero de’ Medici commissioned Benozzo Gozzoli to paint a series of frescoes of the procession of the Magi, Gozzoli knew exactly which side his bread was buttered on. His painting is a monumental exercise in sucking up! Instead of depicting just three wise men riding camels in the desert, he painted 33 kings parading in a cavalcade of excess and grandeur, every one of them a

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Advent Reflection 7: Outliers no longer

Advent Reflection 7: Outliers no longer

This is the seventh in a series of ten reflections looking at the Christmas story through the eyes of some of the greatest artists in history. 7.  THE ADORATION OF THE SHEPHERDS   Artwork: The Adoration of the Shepherds – Giorgione, National Gallery of Art, Washington Reading: Luke 2:15-20  Reflection: This is such a daring way to compose a nativity scene. Nearly every other Renaissance painter places the Holy Family smack-dab in the center of their composition. Lesser characters like shepherds, wise men, angels, sheep and other figures get arranged around them. Not Giorgione. He places the shepherds right in the middle of his frame. Dressed in worn and ragged clothes, the shepherds kneel like contrite pilgrims, bare-headed before the Christ child. To their left our eye is drawn off down a winding road through the town and out to the mountains in the distance. These men don’t belong here among the civilized folk. They are fringe-dwellers, outliers, wild men from the hills beyond normal society.  In 1st Century Israel, shepherds were despised. They were considered second-class citizens and untrustworthy. They were not permitted to fulfill judicial offices nor be admitted in court as witnesses. Joachim Jeremias says of shepherds at the time, “Most of the time they were dishonest and thieving; they led their herds onto other people’s land and

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Advent Reflection 6: Don’t be afraid of the light

Advent Reflection 6: Don’t be afraid of the light

From Bruegel and Botticelli to Fra Angelico and Giorgione, I’m writing a series of devotions based on the greatest Christmas art of all time. Each devotion includes a picture, a Bible reading, a reflection and a prayer. Take your time. Look deeply. Breathe. Relax. Be with God. 6 ANNUNCIATION TO THE SHEPHERDS   Artwork:  Annunciation to the Shepherds – Taddeo Gaddi, Church of Santa Croce, Florence Reading:  Luke 2:8-15 Reflection: It’s the light that gets me. Look again at this picture, at the way the figures are lit. It’s quite remarkable really. It’s still evening. We can see that from the sliver of night sky beyond the brow of the hill. But the hill itself and the figures on it are bleached by a piercing light that bathes the sleepy shepherds and their flock. It’s as if the whole scene is being washed clean in light. Pure light. How extraordinary that this effect is created by paint and a brush. The artist Taddeo Gaddi is hardly known at all these days. In fact, most bios only discuss him with reference to his much more famous teacher, the grand master, Giotto. He’s usually referred to as “the pupil of…” or “a follower of…” One entry describes him as, “A capable artist, although lacking his teacher’s comprehensive aesthetic vision.” Ouch. But he

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Advent Reflection 5: That radiant place between worship and intimacy

Advent Reflection 5: That radiant place between worship and intimacy

This Advent, I’m writing a series of devotions, based on ten of the most beautiful paintings of the Christmas story ever created. Take some time to look carefully at the painting above. Read the Bible text. Read the reflection. Recite the prayer. 5.  THE BIRTH OF CHRIST   Artwork:  The Nativity – Federico Barocci, Prado museum, Madrid Reading: Luke 2:6-7 Reflection: You’ve looked at a thousand nativity scenes in your life, right? They range from the sickly, sentimental kind seen on greeting cards through to the melodramatic iconography of Catholic religious art. But not many are as intimate or as tender as Federico Barocci’s depiction of Mary and her newborn infant. She kneels, her hands outstretched and open, as if in the posture of worship. But at the same time her face shines like a young mother full to overflowing with love for her child. She adores her boy. And the child gazes back. In the otherwise darkened room, light plays across both their faces. The radiant child illuminates the exquisitely loving face of Mary, the whole composition emphasizing their mutual bond. Barocci was a sensitive soul. Deeply religious, often unwell, emotional but quite playful. As an expression of his eccentricity, in many of his religious paintings he included cats. Yep, cats. Here are two of his paintings of the

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