Through Your Eyes: Dialogues on the Paintings of Bruce Herman
Bruce Herman; G. Walter Hansen
112 pp., 52.99
There is a loose genre of images that depict people looking at things together. They are shown sharing a visual experience, and our looking at them can be a kind of visual eavesdropping, as their gaze informs our gaze. There is a special subgroup in this genre where we see people—artists, critics, patrons, and friends—together in a studio. They are usually looking at and discussing someone's work, which may not be visible to us. An example is the French painter Frederic Bazille's painting of his studio from 1870. It shows him standing beside an easel with one of his paintings on it, in discussion with two people. One is known to be Manet, and the other is thought to be Monet. The painter Renoir and the critic Emile Zola are seen conversing a short distance from the easel, and their friend the musician Edmond Maitre is across the room seated at a piano. It is an informal scene of conversation, friendship, and artistic achievement.
What is palpable in such images is the feeling of the special companionship found as people share common visual experiences, savoring them, analyzing them, and perhaps arguing over some point of craft or meaning. The gestures, gazes, and little telltale attitudes expressed through a body's posture are indications that ideas are being exchanged in the presence of things passionately cared for. They create an imagery of visual engagement and pleasure, which is an intriguing subject—at least for artists.
What is not clear from these paintings themselves is the substance and content of the conversations they depict. Really, everything from the identification of the people depicted to the social and philosophical substrate that an image rests upon is not necessarily in a picture. Where do we find that knowledge? Most often we find it in books.
There don't seem to be many literary equivalents to the kind of companionship of seeing I've been describing, where a book's text is given over to friends discussing and savoring through print the pleasures and meanings of visual art. The books we most often see about visual art are historical and critical in nature, or the catalogues that are records of an exhibition. This makes Through Your Eyes: Dialogues on the Paintings of Bruce Herman a singular and atypical volume about an artist's work. It is neither critically oriented nor a historical record, though it has critical and historical elements. Instead it is a series of responses to and reflections on roughly 25 years of Herman's work, by both the artist and a major collector and patron of his work, G. Walter Hansen. These are interspersed within groups of high-quality reproductions of the paintings, so readers can see with their own eyes, and not just through Herman's and Hansen's words. The book is also a record of their friendship.
Herman is the Lothlorien Distinguished Chair in Fine Arts at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts, where he has taught for more than 30 years. He developed and led the art program at Gordon for many of those years, even as he maintained a prolific studio and exhibition schedule. Hansen is a New Testament scholar who has taught at both Fuller and Trinity theological seminaries, and authored books on the epistles of Philippians and Galatians. Somewhere along the way Hansen developed an interest in visual art, with special attention to its intersection with the Christian faith. Since Hansen is also a philanthropist, he has supported Christian artistic endeavors, with a desire to develop visual literacy and promote the use of art within the church.
It's a commonplace that there has been a disconnect between artists and American Protestantism in the "modern period," which stretches back somewhere between one and three centuries, depending on how modern is defined. But that gap figures in the making of Through Your Eyes, so it is important to briefly describe it here. One thread in that tangled history has been the growth and professionalization of the kinds of institutions that have supported, commissioned, and displayed the visual arts since the church ceased to be a major source of imagery for its culture.
Among the institutions that have stepped into the role of patron are colleges and universities. They might be the most important patrons of the fine arts in contemporary American culture today, as higher education supports the life and work of thousands of artists. Unsurprisingly, artists have become beholden to the values of their academic guild. Outside Christian colleges with viable art programs, there have been few places that reward the artist who might want to make art with Christian content, or exhibit in churches. It is likely that a CV full of such shows or commissions would be poorly received by a search committee, or in an evaluation for promotion and tenure. Thus artists drawn to Christian imagery have not had a "natural" home for their work, unless the work was shaped by contemporary ideas. James Elkins' 2004 book, On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art, provides one window into the biases and dilemmas that religiously interested artists have faced.
Among Protestants in the US, many issues—ranging from theological restraints regarding the nature and use of images to ethical concerns about where limited resources should be spent—have contributed to the paucity of contemporary fine art. With some significant exceptions, the church has not provided a serious audience for nor been a site of art over the last century. A pragmatic desire to reach the broadest possible "audience" with the gospel has militated against the acquisition, display, and use of fine art. Images that are cheap, quickly understood, and appealing have been preferred, and popular culture has been the largest source of imagery. Whether it has been seen as a theological aberration, a "useless luxury item," or the rarified and inaccessible province of an intellectually pretentious 1 percent, contemporary art has generally been ignored by Protestants of the modern period.
But now the situation is changing, and there are moves to bring contemporary art and the church into dialogue and partnership. Through Your Eyes is an example—and perhaps an agent—of that change. During a meeting held to discuss potential books about artists of faith at Wheaton College in 2011, Hansen made the point that what artists of faith urgently need is a sympathetic and informed audience within the church. So Through Your Eyes was conceived to be accessible to the church and its people, with the hope that it might stimulate an appreciation for the way the visual arts embody theological reflection in material form. It is written with directness and clarity of content, and organized around the rough chronological progression of Herman's paintings. The authors usually take turns writing the chapters accompanying the works. Often Hansen first responds to the work reproduced, and then Herman describes some of what he was after and the processes of creation. The initial chapter explains the project in terms of their hope that readers will enter into the discussion, developing their own responses to the work and using the book as a model for other dialogues about art and faith. Readers are encouraged to engage the work in terms of what they see and experience. Herman does not hover over his paintings with the droning voice of authority, and Hansen makes connections to things that Herman wasn't conscious of as he worked. They are quick to reject the idea that the meaning of Herman's paintings is exhausted by describing his intentions. They explain their openness to multiple interpretive responses by quoting Rowan Williams' idea of the "excess" of references and meaning that inheres in all created things. God has simply put more into everything than we can ever say.
The great 20th-century sculptor David Smith once explained that he was deeply influenced by the French art journal Cahiers d'Art. But, he added, since he couldn't read French, he "just looked at the pictures." There is a lot to learn by just looking at pictures. Paging slowly through the reproductions in Through Your Eyes helps readers see Herman's painterly and thematic development. His early series, like the 1989 Dream of Wet Pavements, are inflected with Expressionist painting's characteristic loaded brushwork, energetic sweeping gestures, and brooding palette. Herman began limning sacred imagery in 1990 when he proposed a Good Friday service for his local church that used painting, jazz, and film to accompany the worship. His roots in Expressionism served the Good Friday theme beautifully, and I find The Flogging and Night, two pastels from 1991, to be among the most moving works Herman has made.
As his work progresses, we see Herman's forms becoming less exaggerated, and his paint handling is a little more subdued—though it is hardly "naturalistic." The gap between what we identify as pictorial "reality" and the images Herman makes is partly due to his use of the picture plane to fracture the idea of a moment in time. He is not interested in suspending or stopping time to "capture" someone or something. His images often have discontinuous figures, and architectural elements and objects are sometimes fragmented. These are interspersed with abstract areas of color, or gold and silver leaf. The subject is thus perceived through the way the viewer personally adds up and connects the elements in the image, and the paintings always suggest that there is more to be seen than we can know by sight alone. Paradoxically, then, what is beyond sight is part of the picture.
Given this preference for keeping his subjects incomplete and beyond anyone's ability to definitively pin them down, it is striking that Herman is also a skilled "head buster." That is the term the sculptor Isamu Noguchi used to describe his early vocation making portrait heads. The heads on some of Herman's figures are arresting in their likenesses. He has used his daughter as a model on occasion, and also has painted friends. The figures depicted in the 2013 series of four paintings based on T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets are portraits, and the young child in the tree in Spring is Herman's grandson. These have toured in the exhibit Qu4rtets along with four paintings by Makoto Fujimura that explore the same subject. The exhibition has been seen in China, England, and Japan, as well as throughout the US, and will continue to tour in the future.
Herman's ability to think and move within different styles of imagery is evident in the series done between 2006 and 2008, Presence/Absence, abstractions based on his years of walking along the ledges behind his home on Cape Ann. The paintings showcase Herman's strengths as a colorist, and the apparently countless ways paint can be manipulated by the skilled hand. He explains that they were begun as a playful relief from painting the large altarpiece Magnificat. The abstracted passages seen in paintings such as The Visitation panel of the Magnificat triptych seem to fully flower in the Presence/Absence works. It is a beautiful series of responses to the perception of what Herman calls "ordinary miracles."
I am touched by many of the things Hansen says about Herman's paintings. It is evident that he responds deeply to them, and has been contemplating them over a long period of time. He approaches Herman's works in terms of their biblical and historical sources, and then engages them with personal theological reflection. I would guess he is one of a few contemporary Protestant biblical scholars and theologians who look regularly and deeply at contemporary art. He has owned the painting Rome: A Vision for well over a decade, and it now hangs in his office, where he uses it in conversations with visitors about the ministries and global initiatives he supports. It is also a source of meditation on the "presence of my Lord as I see the compassion of the Suffering Servant: 'Surely he has borne our grief and carried our sorrows.' " Hansen says the painting is like an icon, though he is careful to be clear he doesn't see it as an efficacious object. Rather, it is a stimulus to regular prayer and personal reflection. Could any artist wish for more?
Two photographs accompanying the initial chapter in which Herman and Hansen invite us into a conversation about the paintings shows them in Herman's studio. They are standing behind a table laden with brushes and bottles, smiling and laughing. In one, Hansen is gesturing receptively, as though caught in mid-sentence sharing something he has been moved by or admires. It is a perfect example of the studio genre, and recalls the conversational imagery of Bazille's painting. Interestingly, with Bazille's painting I have no sense of missing something. As an image of artistic camaraderie it is complete. But the conversational photographs in Through Your Eyes, which are surrounded by words about art, give me a longing to hear what was being said there. I suspect some hidden dynamic between words and images is at work here.
Readers can meditate on their own responses to what Hansen and Herman have said, but all that I love about conversing with others in the presence of shared visual experiences isn't possible—unless we were to read Through Your Eyes in a book group. Reading alone, there is no verbal play, no badinage, no pleasure in developing shared insights, no thrust and parry of "iron sharpens iron," nor the sudden "aha" that leads conversational partners to explore new terrain. The photographs make me aware of that absence, because I've been reading Hansen's and Herman's words.
That sense of something missing can be a useful byproduct of reading Through Your Eyes if readers take up the authors' invitation to "go and do likewise." But the difference between what words tell us about Herman's art and the felt perceptions that "just looking" reveal are also underscored by what Hansen himself wrote about his experiences. The critic Arthur Danto's could have been describing the tenor of Hansen's responses in his last book, What Art Is (Yale Univ. Press, 2013), which was published after his death. In the essay "The Body in Philosophy and Art," Danto writes, "The genius of the Christian religion is that however beyond our grasp its essential mysteries are[,] … a way was found to translate them into terms everyone understands[,] … representing human beings through their inner states—suffering in the crucifixion, hunger in the Christ child nursing, and above all, love in the way the Madonna holds the Child." Hansen connects so deeply with Herman's paintings because they make him feel their theological import, which then provokes a search for words. The recognition that art can make Christian beliefs sensible—palpable—felt— is at the core of Through Your Eyes. Perhaps the church will "take up and read"—and discover that truth again.
Theodore Prescott is emeritus professor of art at Messiah College, where he was chair of the art program. He is a sculptor who writes often about art. His work can be seen at tedprescottsculpture.com.
Copyright © 2016 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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