Articles

On Max Ernst’s ‘The virgin chastises the infant Jesus before Three Witnesses: André Breton, Paul Éluard, and the Painter’ (1926)

Max Ernst, The Virgin Spanking the Christ Child before Three Witnesses: André Breton, Paul Éluard, and the Painter, 1926. Oil on canvas, 196 x 130 cm. Museum Ludwig, Cologne, Germany.

It appears that to bear the weight of mum’s judgement means not only a sore bum but also a dropped halo. It appears that the Aryan half-pint might have again stolen her favourite manicure set from the middle drawer of the bathroom cabinet while he was supposed to be tidying his sister’s bedroom. It does not yet appear that in this act of descending freedom, of vacating a head that others might gild mockingly with thorns, the embarrassing shape of kenotic love is taking costly form. And it’s not as if

there is chaste indulgence here; this act of discipline reminiscent of Michelangelo’s Sistine Christ, this act of judgement upon cobalt and rubicund outlining her own contorted arm and deepening her own overtaxed gaze. A foretaste of arms bearing sin-gnarled stock and hers, those eyes that again will grieve as arms not her own are brought to bear upon her bare first-born, this unexpected fruit in whom her future and that of all shall find shape. And an open roof. Did it fly off with upswing arm so that one who sees everything could weep?

It has been some time too since Paul and Vincent came over, and now this other Paul, and André and Max; seemingly unsedated risk now transformed into dispassion. Was Gala really the benchmark of our friendship, our means of communication, our shared wife? What kind of love did we make to each other in her? And what of love once promised now turned, love now come to assault me? A naked face turned away in a sensuous spell.

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JASON GORONCY IS A THEOLOGIAN, ARTIST, AND FOLK FESTIVAL TRAGIC WHO LIVES AND PLAYS ON WURUNDJERI LAND.

Advent: But then … they appear

Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, c. 1558. Oil on canvas, mounted on wood, 73.5 x 112 cm. Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels, Belgium.

After W. H. Auden had visited the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique in Brussels, and seen Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, he went away and penned the following words:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

The American theologian William Willimon recalls Brueghel’s painting, and Auden’s poem, in his book On a Wild and Windy Mountain (Abingdon Press, 1984), wherein he observes that we trudge past bleeding crosses with a shrug of the shoulders, that Good Fridays are so commonplace among us as to be unnoteworthy, and that tragedy achieves nobility only in the theater. ‘Everydayness and ordinariness’, he writes, ‘become our best defenses, the most effective relativizers of the tragic in our midst. Some young Icarus falls from the sky every day, so one had best get on with the business at hand until the extraordinary comes. For now, go to work, eat, make friends, make money, make love, mind your business – that’s the best way to cope, for the time being, with the expectedness of the tragic. The old masters knew best’ (p. 15).

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Numbering at Bethlehem, 1566. Oil on panel, 116 × 164.5 cm. Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels, Belgium.

Willimon proceeds to compare Landscape with the Fall of Icarus with another of the Dutch masters’ works: Numbering at Bethlehem. He notes the ordinariness of the depiction, a day mundane and unpromising – in its highlights at least – and nothing beyond the expected.

But then … they appear.

They appear. ‘An inconspicuous, thoroughly ordinary young woman on a little donkey led by a stoop-shouldered, bearded peasant who carries a saw. Here is Mary, with Joseph the carpenter, come to town to be counted. They are so easily overlooked in the midst of ordinariness. Old masters like Brueghel’, Willimon suggests (and we might add Rembrandt, for example), ‘were never wrong’. Rather, they understood, and bore witness to in their work, the truth of Emmanuel, the scandal of the unostentatious God living – and dying – with us, of God stained with the sweat of human bondage and soaked – baptised – in the blood of human violence, of God incognito. ‘They understood our blindness not only to the tragic but also to the triumphant in our midst … In life, the Presence goes unnoted as we thumb through the evening paper. And so we wait, sitting in the darkness of the everyday until something extraordinary breaks in. Someday God may break into this world, we say. But for the time being, it is best to work, eat, make love, pay taxes, fill out government forms, and mind our business. The old masters knew it best’ (p. 16).

I have posted elsewhere on the pseudonymous activity of God, suggesting that ‘in the economy of holy love, the locus of greatest clarity equates to the point of greatest incongruity and surprise’. It is precisely that we may see what Willimon so beautifully refers to as ‘the triumphant in our midst’ that we are graced, and that we might witness to the day when good will triumph over all, certain that the grace of holy love will win at last because it did not fail to win at its most decisive time. In the meantime, such seeing typically requires what is another great advent theme: waiting, or what R. S. Thomas, in his poem ‘Kneeling’, referred to as ‘moments of great calm’:

Moments of great calm,
Kneeling before an altar
Of wood in a stone church
In summer, waiting for the God
To speak; the air a staircase
For silence; the sun’s light
Ringing me, as though I acted
A great role. And the audiences
Still; all that close throng
Of spirits waiting, as I,
For the message.
Prompt me, God;
But not yet. When I speak,
Though it be you who speak
Through me, something is lost.
The meaning is in the waiting.

– R. S. Thomas, ‘Kneeling’, in Not that He Brought Flowers (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1968), 32.

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JASON GORONCY IS A THEOLOGIAN, ARTIST, AND FOLK FESTIVAL TRAGIC WHO LIVES AND PLAYS ON WURUNDJERI LAND.

Toward Joy

This monologue, written by Amina McIntyre and performed by Stephanie McFarlane, tells the story of ‘a woman on the cusp of a restorative journey’ who ‘ponders the need for joy in the world right now’. It is part of the Virtual Downstage Monologue Series, an online initiative by Actor’s Express.

You can support the work of Actor’s Express here.

The process of making: The Name of Grief

L–R: Gabby Willmott, Waiting for the Dawn, 2017. Ink on watercolour paper. Karly Michelle Edgar, The Name of Grief, 2021. Mixed media. Karly Michelle Edgar, Preservation, 2016. Ink pen on paper.

Recently, I re-arranged some of the artworks in my home. One of my walls housed one of my black and white circle drawings titled Preservation, coupled with a black and white bird painting by local artist Gabby Willmott, two pieces that come from very particular times of my life. I recently added a third piece in the middle of these two. This piece is titled The Name of Grief, and its style and colour settle nicely beside the original two, complimenting in style but, more importantly, in theme and meaning. This piece began with quite a specific idea, but now that I see it housed beside these two other works and in relationship to their meaning and narrative, I have begun to recognise and engage with its potential for encompassing a broader experience of grief. And there is a lot of collective grief at the moment, both for what has happened but also for what hasn’t. Much of my experience of grief is for things that haven’t happened due in large part to chronic illness, even though this piece didn’t originate specifically within chronic illness, nor within COVID-19.

This piece had a gradual creation. I first thought about it a few years ago and I’ve begun it a few times without success. A few months ago, I picked it up again eventually figuring out how to complete it. I discovered that my original ideas had been too neat, with the names neatly written in rows and columns. Once I figured this out, I began scribbling the names over and over, eventually filling the page, at last recognising something that worked. I started again on another piece of dry, already ink-stained paper, building up the words in layers, gradually increasing the size. I then left it where I could observe it as I went about other things. It felt alone. In some ways this is an appropriate feeling for this piece, but it wasn’t quite the right type of ‘aloneness’.

Soon after, I broke the glass of a frame I was putting a new alcohol ink piece into. Not being one to ever throw out a frame no matter how damaged, I kept it – broken glass, and all – and this is where working within a bit of mess is quite useful. The broken glass and frame lent against the table leg. The unfinished names sprawled across the paper lay on top of the table and this proximity allowed me to see how they might interact. The image of the red thread spilling out of the frame was prompted by the placement of the broken glass and my ongoing love for, and use of, a spool of red thread I found in an op shop years ago. It is useless thread – it is so thin and fragile that it breaks immediately; but it is red and glossy and looks beautiful cascading down a white wall.

Karly Michelle Edgar, Detail of The Name of Grief, 2021. Mixed media. Artist’s collection.

I began to see how it might all go together – the names, the thread, the broken glass. The broken glass allowed the thread to be both inside and outside. As I experimented with framing using the mat board, I was initially annoyed that it was one that was just the tiniest little bit too big for the paper. I placed them all together, so I could look at it while I decided what to do. As often happens, it was as I spied it out of the corner of my eye one day that I decided what to do: leave it and allow the slight ripple to be visible. Maybe this was a cop out, but I have always liked the ripple of wet paper even though it is normally then enticed to be flat again. But it worked here, being able to see the whole piece of paper and its buckling, while still being framed. Red cotton underneath the glass and outside of it. Encased but not contained.

The other element I struggled with was the starkness of the white matting. It was too clean, too bright. So, as I played around with the matting and placement, I didn’t clean my hands, leaving fingerprints and marks, adding myself to it. I scuffed it up with charcoal as I tried to merge the different elements together, the black ink, pen and charcoal, the red thread, the now-dirty white matting. I’m not sure if these were the best decisions for this piece but in some ways it makes no difference because each piece is simply the cumulation of the moments of creation and resolution. Sometimes the only choice left is to decide a piece is finished, or to let it be forever unfinished. I decided to resolve these particular thoughts, but just for now. I know I’m not yet ‘done’ with the theme or thoughts entirely, for are we ever really ‘done’ with grief?

Our names for grief may be different, as might be our experience, but the deep well where grief lives within us is our meeting point. Your name for grief might have to do with the loss of persons or people, time, opportunity, potential people, friendship, family or potential family, ability, or any other number of things. Your grief might have a literal name, or it might be something that you cannot yet properly identify, something that, for the moment, can only be glimpsed in your peripheral vision. Grief travels with us, not dissipating entirely, but rather somehow, slowly, becoming incorporated into who we become, affecting how we approach the world and our place in it.

Sometimes we can sit alongside grief, or within it, sometimes we are unable to control it, sometimes unable to name it, and sometimes we have the knowledge and ability to recognise it and walk our way within the experience. Sometimes not. I’m no expert in the experience of grief, but I feel increasingly as though it is something that I must continually recognise and allow myself to intentionally practice and sit with, and this piece was one way for me to do this. I was a practical way to allow my hands and thoughts to come to a mutual place of action and reflection.

Karly Michelle Edgar, The Name of Grief, 2021. Mixed media. Artist’s collection.

Each year, those of us who follow Christ are invited into the practice of preparation and grief (amongst other things) during Lent and Easter, but we are also given the freedom to engage as we can, and year by year this may change. Our practice of Lent into Good Friday, Easter Saturday, and then Easter Sunday may inform our personal, ongoing practice of grief throughout our lives; a grief that sits within and around other emotions and experiences of life. Sometimes we are facing a direction when we cannot see anything but the grief; at other times, it can be experienced alongside other experiences. Neither right nor wrong, but simply how life is.

For now, with the various types of griefs I and others alongside me are experiencing, I have this piece. And for the moment it seems to fit between the two other pieces that speak to very particular times of my life. Together there is a connection and an opportunity for ongoing self-reflection. I treat my house as a mini gallery, showing individual and groupings of artworks. Some of my own pieces have already been exhibited, some haven’t, and others never will be, and some artworks are made by other artists, but each contributes to a developing and ongoing personal narrative. So, for now, this piece will rest on my wall as I try to figure out if there is still further meaning embedded within it that I haven’t yet realised. I expect that there probably is.

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KARLY MICHELLE EDGAR IS a mixed media artist and PhD candidate researching a palliative care biography program through La Trobe University. She is interested in the story, practice, and connection of spirituality and creativity. Karly lives with the chronic condition fibromyalgia and lives and works on Wurundjeri land. You can visit her work online at karlymichelle.com.

Matters of Life and Faith

Paul Mitchell is a Melbourne-based author of six books, including a novel, We. Are. Family. and three collections of poetry. He’s renowned for integrating Christian themes into his work, and he’s won national prizes for his fiction and poetry.

Earlier in 2021, he released a collection of personal essays, Matters of Life and Faith (Coventry Press). The book brings together works Paul has published over the past decade in publications such as The Melbourne Anglican, The Melbourne Catholic, The Age, The Guardian, and ABC Religion and Ethics.

On Thursday 14 October at 7.30 pm, Paul’s hosting an event to celebrate the book’s release. Author Helen Garner will give a speech, and poet Kevin Brophy will interview Paul about Matters of Life and Faith

Here’s the Zoom link for 14 October, 7.30pm. If you can’t make it along, you can order Matters of Life and Faith through Coventry Press.

Breath is life

Keith Dougall, Catching Your Breath, 2020. Suspended sculptural form incorporating the breath of 300 patients, visitors, and staff of the Royal Hobart Hospital, sealed into individual unique glass breath bubbles and suspended in seven woven stainless-steel nets.

Those entering the Royal Hobart Hospital each day do so with a variety of reasons that range from the mundane to the more pressing issues of life or death. It is an entranceway marked by fear and anxiety, as well as by compassion, kindness, and love. Perched high above these anxious concerns in the vast space of the atrium are seven large nets containing what seem like bubbles or spherical glass balls, floating as if on an invisible sea or cloud of air. This installation is the work of glass artist Keith Dougall, who has worked with hundreds of staff, patients, and a team of technical assistants to create a work – Catching Your Breath – that invites an instant sense of compassion and empathy. Installed in 2020, this public art project engages the viewer with a profound sense of delight and playfulness. Set within this vast entry lobby, its clear sense of wonder is enough to take your breath away.

The work has an immediate impact and lifts the eyes of the viewer up into the space to consider its construction and to foster curiosity about its meaning. Dougall is an experienced glass artist with a considerable body of work, from individual art glass pieces to major public commissions. As a glass blower who uses his own breath to form work out of molten glass, he has extended his practice to incorporate the breath of others as the basic metaphor explored by this work. When each glass bubble was formed in the studio, they were provided with a small entry hole, where later, patients, family members, and staff were invited to supply their own breath, when the work was then finally sealed up. The overall installation consists of containers for this gift of life, inspiring, expiring, in the rhythm of life-giving breath.

The artist explains: ‘The work symbolises the fragility and resilience of breath and life. The suspension of the work is a metaphor for the support and care that staff and family provide the patient, lifting them up in their time of need’. Behind the stunning presentation of the work high above the heads of those who enter the hospital lies a complex process of manufacture and preparation that amplifies the work’s achievement as a community arts project. As people filled each vessel with their breath, many of their stories were recorded on video and became part of the documentation of the work through a dedicated website. One, therefore, takes in the work and the history of its formation as a part of a whole process based in compassion and understanding that gives life to people. Here is a representation of the nets of connection that surround individuals as they come into the hospital environment, where every breath, and every heartbeat, is closely monitored.

The breath of life is a metaphor strongly present in the Christian tradition. We remember that God forms creation through the agency of breath, and in turn breathes life into the clay of creatures, including the creation of human beings. This fundamental connection was clearly in the mind of the artist who works each day breathing life into inert glass forms that became vessels of delicate fragility and profound beauty. Perhaps this is the role some artists are energised by, through breathing life into material things, through imagination and transformation remaking the world into a habitation for wonder and human kindness. This work is one of embodied spirituality and community connection that successfully celebrates the role of a health care institution and the fundamental human values of love and compassion that lie at the heart of all healing and wholeness.

[A version of this piece appeared in Artway.]

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ROD PATTENDEN IS AN ARTIST, ART HISTORIAN, AND THEOLOGIAN INTERESTED IN THE POWER OF IMAGES. HE LIVES AND WORKS ON AWABAKAL LAND.

How To Be Alone

It all begins with knowing
nothing lasts forever,
so you might as well start packing now.
In the meantime,
practice being alive.

There will be a party
where you’ll feel like
nobody’s paying you attention.
And there will be a party
where attention’s all you’ll get.
What you need to do
is to remember
to talk to yourself
between these parties.

And,
again,
there will be a day,
– a decade –
where you won’t
fit in with your body
even though you’re in
the only body you’re in.

You need to control
your habit of forgetting
to breathe.

Remember when you were younger
and you practiced kissing on your arm?
You were on to something then.
Sometimes harm knows its own healing
Comfort knows its own intelligence.
Kindness too.
It needs no reason.

There is a you
telling you another story of you.
Listen to her.

Where do you feel
anxiety in your body?
The chest? The fist? The dream before waking?
The head that feels like it’s at the top of the swing
or the clutch of gut like falling
& falling & falling and falling
It knows something: you’re dying.
Try to stay alive.

For now, touch yourself.
I’m serious.

Touch your
self.
Take your hand
and place your hand
some place
upon your body.
And listen
to the community of madness
that
you are.
You are
such an
interesting conversation.

You belong
here.

– Pádraig Ó Tuama, ‘How To Be Alone’. Dumbo Feather.

Poem by Pádraig Ó Tuama. Illustration & Animation by Leo G. Franchi. Sound by Chris Heagle. Music by Gautum Srikishan.

Sources: Dumbo Feather; On Being; The On Being Project.

Theology

pawel-czerwinski-wZHDa7cD7Ps-unsplash

Before beginning the theological task please remove any and all parts of the self currently deemed unacceptable. If suitable replacement parts are available, attach and use these. Please note, these replacement parts must remain hidden at all times. Only socially sanctioned theological tools may be used. Until current guidelines for theological engagement are met, the preferred method of communication is silence.

All theology must be submitted in writing.

What was it for you?
Which parts of yourself did you
willingly slice off so they would let you do this?

You never get those parts back.

All you can ever do
is point to the place
they used to be
in an attempt to warn others
about making the same mistake.

But it rarely works
we all sacrifice ourselves on this altar

But sometimes
as our hand, poised, ready to remove
that very last piece
we hear the still small voice
whisper

stop

And the knife
slick with our own blood
slips through our fingers

and we see the Lamb

– Stacey Wilson, ‘Theology’. In God’s Image 40 (2021): 55.

Photo by Pawel Czerwinski via Unsplash.

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Stacey Wilson (usually) spends many hours at her local café glaring at her laptop as she attempts to put the pondering of her heart into words. Through her roles at intergen, CBM australia, and Surrender Co., she provides resources, training, and mentoring to support people in their intergenerational ministry journey. SHE LIVES AND PLAYS ON WURUNDJERI LAND.