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Shock and Contemplation in Images of the Crucifixion at Ben Uri Gallery
Samuel Bak, Study I, 1995. Oil on Linen.

LONDON.- The cross - two perpendicular lines – is a simple geometric design yet an arrangement which for many is a symbol with enormous power. Although the moment of resurrection is more important spiritually, it is the cross as a representation of the crucifixion that has become the symbol for the Christian church. As Sister Wendy Beckett explains, “Death, even as horrible a death as crucifixion, is something we can understand, whereas resurrection is not. We know that Christ rose, but we cannot imagine how.”

Sometimes the image appears in an unexpected place and werealise its enormous symbolism as when the photographs that emerged from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The image of a prisoner hooded and forced to stand in the shape of the crucifixion added a further dynamic.

What is it that leads artists to use this symbol in their work? Jennifer Swan, a Jungian analyst, suggests the "image functions as a visual metaphor to establish or support the nature of an individual’s suffering". Professor Ziva Amishai- Maisels reflects that whilst Chagall used this motif in varying narratives throughout his long career he was but one of many Jewish artists who employed the crucifixion as central to their compositions and Christ as a Jew during the 19th and 20th Centuries.

This exhibition at Ben Uri examines how and why artists of different religions, or of none, use the crucifixion as a central motif in modern and contemporary practice.

Only five miles away from Mascalls Gallery is one of the UK’s finest examples of religious art and a moving example of the crucifixion as a 'conduit' for a very personal tragedy. The church in Tudeley is renowned internationally as the only church to have all its windows decorated by Chagall which fulfilled a long term ambition of the artist. The windows were commissioned by the family of Sarah d'Avigdor-Goldsmid as a commemoration of her tragic and untimely death.

Chagall’s drawings for Tudeley Church are being seen for the first time in Britain courtesy of Centre Pompidou. Chagall’s previously unpublished and haunting ‘Apocalypse en Lilas, Capriccio’, will also be shown at Ben Uri.

The 20th century has seen some of the most important and interesting depictions of the crucifixion interestingly in a time when the church’s influence waned measurably. One of the best known religious artists of our time was Graham Sutherland. Images from the concentration camps proved to be a catalyst for some of the most powerful depictions of the crucifixion. This exhibition shows a bloody and haggard Christ whose body bears witness to the “continuing beastliness and cruelty of mankind.”

The two world wars are represented in a number of works within the exhibition as artists look towards one of the few symbols that could contain the potency of their emotions. Chagall is not unique as a Jewish artist reclaiming the figure of Christ on the cross as a symbol of persecution. Emmanuel Levy produced ‘Jude, Crucifixion’ in 1942 at the height of the Second World War when rumours were rife but unaccepted at least publicly that concentration camps were in reality mass extermination factories through the use of gas chambers. Here we see an orthodox Jew wearing the traditional prayer shawl (Tallit) and phylacteries (Tefillin) nailed to the cross: “The thought ‘we are being crucified’ kept recurring to my mind over and over again” Levy reflected at the time.

These works illustrated and discussed here are a fraction of the works which form Cross Purposes - some secular in origin and some deeply spiritual. The 20 artists represented in the exhibition create narratives both of the artistic traditions of the time from Eric Gill to Maggie Hambling, Norman Adams and Tracey Emin and by doing so navigate a way through the major events of the century. The works show the crucifixion as both a symbol of shock and also as an object of contemplation: from the hollowed out scarecrow figure of Christ on the battlefield of Europe by Scottish artist R Hamilton Blyth to a rarely seen, life-size drawing of Duncan Grant’s crucifixion for Berwick Church in East Sussex.

The exhibition is curated by Nathaniel Hepburn.

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