Tracing the Lines Of 20th Century's Varied Influences On Religious Art

By Chris Herlinger
Religion News Service
Saturday, February 17, 2007

NEW YORK -- The artistic giants of the 20th century -- the Andy Warhols, Jackson Pollocks and Pablo Picassos of the art world -- were known more for their modernist and abstract impulses than their depiction of religious themes.

But does that tell the whole story of art in the 20th century?

That's the question animating an exhibit of 20th century art, "Biblical Art in a Secular Century: Selections, 1896-1993," at New York's Museum of Biblical Art.

The show features artists whose work was often expressly religious in theme -- such as Marc Chagall and Ben-Zion -- as well as such artists as Andy Warhol whose work is rarely linked to religion.

Curator Patricia C. Pongracz said she hopes the exhibit helps counter the "broadly held notion" that 20th century artists had little or no interest in biblical or religious themes. It's a "rediscovery," she said, "a more nuanced approach to the 20th century."

There are two competing ideas at work in the exhibit -- one that religion and art grew apart in a century dominated by wars and bloodshed; the other, said museum Executive Director Ena Heller, that many 20th century artists "savored the challenge of interpreting the 'lingua franca' of the Bible" on their own terms.

Take Warhol, for example. The exhibit features his "Crosses (Twelve)," in which 12 repeated crosses seem cut from the same imaginative cloth that inspired his more famous Campbell's soup-can prints. The piece seems to speak more about commodity, less about veneration. It's up to the viewer to decide whether Warhol is critiquing religion itself or the way faith is represented in a media-saturated age.

Then there is American painter George Bellows, whose critique is more explicit. His 1916 painting, "The Sawdust Trail," depicts both the rapture and hypocrisy surrounding a crusade by evangelist Billy Sunday. Bellows made no secret that he loathed Sunday, linking him with "death to imagination, to spirituality, to art."

"I like to paint Billy Sunday, not because I like him," Bellows said, "but because I want to show the world what I think about him."

Still, alongside such stinging rebukes are works of quietly felt reverence, such as Georges Rouault's "Crucifixion" (1937). Kiki Smith's "Processional Cross" (1990), where the body of Christ is "floated" in the clear glass of the cross, is the only piece in the exhibit meant for use as a devotional object -- in this case by St. Peter's Lutheran Church in Manhattan.

Jewish artists with deep personal ties to the Bible take pride of place in the exhibit, including Ukrainian-born Benzion Weinman -- known as Ben-Zion -- whose 1957 painting "The Prophetess Deborah" reflects a deep debt to biblical themes for inspiration.

"I know of no other book in which the apocalyptic and elementary conflicts, as well as the psychological complications of our time, come to a strong symbolic expression than in the Bible," Ben-Zion said.

The intersection of history, personal experience and religious themes is reflected in several works where the sacred and the secular interact, touching on the carnage wrought by 20th century wars.

German artist Kathe Kollwitz said her sculpture "Pietà" (1938) -- a monument to her son killed in World War I -- was both autobiographical and non-religious. Unlike Michelangelo's poignant "Pietà" at the Vatican, which captured the sorrow of Jesus's mother as she held her son's body, Kollwitz's version depicts an "old, lonely, darkly brooding woman."

George Segal's sculpture depicting the sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham was created as a memorial to the student protesters killed at Ohio's Kent State University in 1970. It's a striking example of what Pongracz called an overlooked truism of 20th century art: that Biblical art in a predominately secular art world was not limited to "staid representations."

"Biblical Art in a Secular Century: Selections, 1896-1993" continues through March 11 at the museum in New York City. More information is available at

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