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Fairy Tale, Myth and Fantasy
Approaches to Spirituality in Art

December 07, 2006 to February 03, 2007

Spirituality means different things to different people, for there are many ways to engage the invisible and never completely knowable forces that may lie beyond our material existence. From earliest prehistoric times, art has served as an adjunct to the spiritual quest, codifying ancient myths and rituals in order to access the supernatural. Many modern and contemporary artists have remained keenly interested in spiritual content, but the creation of immediately recognizable, overtly religious imagery declined precipitously in the twentieth century. Formalist critical discourse, the power of the capitalist marketplace and the perennial academicization of the avant garde all conspired to seemingly rob mainstream art of what Wassily Kandinsky termed its "inner necessity." Interest in the work of self-taught artists initially developed as an antidote to this perceived deadening of the creative spirit. Through all its varied manifestations over the last century--from the "naive" to Art Brut, "folk" and "outsider" art--the paradigm of the unschooled artist served as a repository for the ideals of expressive intensity and authenticity. These ideals are exemplified by the popular use of the term "visionary" to describe self-taught artists, most notably by Baltimore's American Visionary Art Museum. There are, however, two significant problems with this approach. On the one hand, it implies that trained artists are not capable of visionary creativity, while on the other it implicitly denigrates spiritual content as the domain of society's "outsiders."

There is little question that the spiritual component in mainstream modern European and American art has been downplayed and often entirely ignored. To some extent, this phenomenon can be traced back to the Reformation, which banned religious icons from Protestant churches. By the late nineteenth century, however, industrialization and modern science had precipitated a full-blown spiritual crisis throughout Western Europe. Traditional Christianity appeared too stale, too familiar, and worst of all, too closely associated with the curse of bourgeois materialism to offer a viable solution to this crisis. As a result, some intellectuals became atheists or agnostics. Others experimented with alternative forms of spiritualism, such as Theosophy, Anthroposophy, Rosicrucianism, mysticism, the occult and Eastern religions. Kandinsky hoped that, after a period of upheaval, these disparate forces would eventually give birth to a "great epoch of the Spiritual." His goal, formulated both in his famous treatise On the Spiritual in Art and in his own paintings, was to create a new kind of monumental art appropriate to that epoch.

There were, Kandinsky believed, two ways to invest art with spiritual authenticity: "total realism" (by which he meant the complete absence of artifice) and "total abstraction" (by which he meant the absence of recognizable subject matter). Total realism, theoretically, was exemplified by naïfs such as Henri Rousseau, whereas the path Kandinsky chose for himself was abstraction, because it promised a more complete renunciation of materialism. While not every early-twentieth-century artist was prepared to go as far as Kandinsky in relinquishing representationalism, all modernists shared a desire to reinvigorate art by inventing a new pictorial language. With this new language, old subjects--whether secular, religious or more broadly mystical--could be seen afresh. It is ironic that, to further his political agenda, Hitler later accused artists such as Hermann Max Pechstein, Oskar Kokoschka and Emil Nolde of blasphemy, when they were actually attempting to revitalize Christian iconography.

Though the early modernists did not hide their spiritual preoccupations, the fact that these artists employed an arcane formal vocabulary made their spiritualism less than obvious to the uninitiated. Abstract art, in particular, was open to many interpretations, and as the twentieth century progressed, these interpretations veered away from the spiritual. Some of the same mystical crosscurrents that had nurtured modern artists could be discerned in the Nazi concept of the "master race." Both anti-fascism and the anti-communism of the postwar period fostered a predisposition toward content-free art. Abstraction, the antithesis of the left-leaning figurative art common in the 1920s and '30s, fit the bill. Alfred Barr, the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art, and the critic Clement Greenberg devised histories of modernism based on purely formalist criteria. Ignoring the spiritual concerns of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, Harold Rosenberg lauded Abstract Expressionism for its dearth of content: "The gesture on the canvas was a gesture of liberations, from Value--political, aesthetic, moral."

By denying or denigrating the spiritual content of modern art, postwar American critics created a cult of "art for art's sake" that abetted the very materialism many artists had ardently sought to escape. Art became a commodity with a mundane, readily decoded message, rather than a vector for inherently ineffable mystical experiences. Furthermore, the apotheosis of abstraction meant that attempts to depict spiritual subjects through more conventional representational means were considered retrograde and trivial. This aesthetic marginalization of the spiritual paralleled the broader marginalization of religion in an increasingly secular world. Politically, the separation of church from state and the necessity for tolerance in a multicultural society have made religious faith a personal, private matter. Scientifically, the explanations put forth in the Bible and other religious texts are constantly being challenged by discoveries in such fields as biology, physics and astronomy. While the feasibility of reconciling scientific and religious faith remains open to debate, the fact is that the contemporary world offers a variety of compelling organizational schema that are not inherently spiritual in nature. Sociology, psychology, anthropology and other disciplines provide ways of interpreting existential phenomena that once would have been the sole purview of priests or shamen.

Situated within an essentially secular context, the lingering hunger for spiritual authenticity in art creates paradoxes that are not easily resolved. In the absence of a single shared faith, it can be difficult for an artist to communicate spiritually with his or her audience. Yet we are rightly wary of the totalitarianism that shared faith can generate, whether through political ideologies, like fascism and communism, or through religious fundamentalism. When taken to dogmatic extremes, spirituality can be dangerous. We effectively defuse it by confining our interest in religious art to work created by "outsiders." Alternatively, spiritual art is often secularized; that is, interpreted in a fashion that maintains the art's existential relevance while down-playing the potentially divisive particulars of a given faith.

The psychologist C. G. Jung was one of the first and greatest theoreticians to devise a framework for understanding spirituality in a secular context. He postulated the existence of a collective unconscious: an innate universal repository of repressed feelings and psychic experiences that form the basis of all spiritual manifestations. In order to reconcile these subjective feelings with their objective experiences of the world, according to Jung, primitive humans created archetypes--conscious manifestations of primordial unconscious content--that were recorded in myths and fairy tales. Insofar as both myths and fairy tales derived from unconscious content, which often came to the surface through dreams or hallucinations, there was originally little to distinguish the two genres. However, as these stories were shaped by retelling over time, myths and fairy tales acquired slightly different cultural overlays. Whereas both story forms incorporate extra-ordinary magical forces, myths feature heroic characters who encounter the divine on earth, while the protagonists of fairy tales are usually every-day human beings. As the psychologist Bruno Bettelheim noted, fairy tales allow children, through personal identification, to deal with their anxieties and establish the foundations of moral awareness. Myths, on the other hand, offer sweeping, sacred explanations of how things came to be the way they are, and crucial information on how to live in harmony with the world.

Mythology is inherently rooted in the sacred, but the word "myth" has by now been so thoroughly de-sanctified that it has become synonymous with "falsehood." The de-sanctifying of the myths that were once central to Greek and Roman religion began more than five centuries before the birth of Christ. Having lost faith in the holiness of their gods, the ancient Greeks and Romans transformed their mythology into literature. The myths remained pertinent as allegory but not as literal truth. A similar choice between interpretations of the Bible as literal or allegorical truth confronts Judeo-Christian believers today. Nevertheless, the archetypes preserved in Judeo-Christian theology, as well as those in older or non-Western mythologies, survive, alongside the more wholly secular archetypes found in fairy tales. The universality of these archetypes forms the basis for a common spiritual language that artists everywhere can dip into.

Not surprisingly, a lot of overtly spiritual art derives from entrenched traditions of sacred imagery. The contemporary artist Kiki Smith, raised a Catholic, feels that, "Catholicism and art have gone well together, because both believe in the physical manifestation of the spiritual world." Smith gravitates to the more atavistic aspects of Catholicism: its visceral connections to the human body, the practical interventions of saints, and the embodiment of the sacred in animals and the natural environment. While Protestant theologians at one time feared that Catholic altars and icons could encourage idolatry, they condoned the use of Bible illustrations to teach the largely illiterate African-American population in the post-bellum South. These were the images that nurtured the self-styled Baptist preacher Sister Gertrude Morgan, who made art a central part of her New Orleans ministry.

The important role played by art in African religions has arguably conditioned the spiritually-inflected work of many self-taught artists of African descent. African religions tend to view the human body as a piece of sculpture brought to life by the soul. Souls do not die when the body dies, but rather can be reborn or communicate with the living through spirit mediums. The African-American artist Minnie Evans is a good example of how such spirit visitations can inspire art that is nonetheless wholly informed by Christian theology. In Haiti, on the other hand, where slaves and their descendants came to outnumber the white colonizers who originally brought them from Africa, a far more substantial residue of African religious tradition survives, even when given a Christian veneer. Vodou has always dominated Haitian popular art, and many artists are vodou priests, or houngans, whose paintings document religious ceremonies or trance visions.

In the far reaches of the former Soviet Union and the European continent, Eastern Orthodox Christianity merged with local history and folk tales to create a rich tradition that endures despite being opposed by the Communists. Vassilij Romanenkov, working as a gardener at a Moscow hotel, uses art to connect with the spiritual roots he left behind in his native Smolensk. Some of the symbolism in his intricately crafted drawings is so sacred that the artist refuses to explain it. Much of Romanenkov's work relates to ancient burial rites and the belief that on certain holy days the living can communicate with the dead. Archetypal images include circles or trees of life, and stairways linking earth to the heavens. The Serbian artist Ilija Bosilj-Basicevic, though not especially religious, was steeped in a similar stew of local secular and sacramental lore, which he drew upon to comprehend an extremely difficult life. Having been persecuted in succession by Austro-Hungarian occupiers, Croatian fascists, Nazis and Yugoslav Communists, Ilija saw the apocalypse not as a mythical battle to come, but as a living hell on earth. Salvation might be brought by the "wise men from the East" (a recurring, Christian-derived theme), but more than likely it could only be found in Ilija's own personal paradise, a parallel universe he called Ilijada.

In the absence of a comprehensive, satisfying spiritual faith, artists often invent personal fantasies that amalgamate elements from religion, history and fairy tale. One of the best known of these fantasy worlds is the one created by the reclusive artist Henry Darger in his rented Chicago room. A devout Catholic who felt abandoned by God, Darger recorded his own apocalyptic war between good and evil, first in a lengthy manuscript, and then in several hundred scroll-like watercolors. In addition to Catholic iconography, his influences included Civil War history, popular children's books, comic strips and commercial illustration. It is the contrast between Darger's fire-and-brimstone battles and the saccharine innocence of his child heroines that gives the artist's fantasy its profound emotional resonance. Such fantasy worlds are not, however, the sole province of self-taught artists. Ernesto Caivano won acclaim at the 2004 Whitney Biennial with After the Woods, a series of roughly 500 ink drawings narrating a romance between a young knight and a princess who turns into a spaceship. In Caivano's related print cycle, Knight Interlude, the knight is gradually transformed into a tree. The two characters, reunited after 1,000 years, embody, respectively, technology and nature.

Artists who evolve complex personal mythologies, such as Caivano and Darger, often need narrative cycles to explicate stories not previously known to their viewers. Artists who integrate narratives that are common cultural property, on the other hand, usually create more concise, one-off images. Although fading from popular awareness, the Greek myths were once among the best known stories in Western Europe. Mythological subjects were not only a mainstay of the academic salons, but they inspired renegades such as Pablo Picasso. Picasso famously projected his own sexual appetites onto the legendary Minotaur, a bull-man who annually devoured seven youths and seven maidens. Greek mythology is also one of the many narrative traditions drawn upon by Leonard Baskin. For example, the story of the murderous sorceress Medea, who kills her husband's younger lover, feels eternally fresh. Another tradition revived by Baskin is that of the Renaissance grotesque: fanciful creatures that are simultaneously gruesome and amusing. From these he derived a menagerie of "imaginary pets," which in turn evolved into a children's book.

The porous relationship between a child's imagination and pure fantasy contributes to the profound impression made by fairy tales. While the Walt Disney Studios to an extent sanitized and softened the classic tales, their cartoons have nonetheless become enduring childhood icons, fondly remembered by adults. As Bettelheim understood, these stories are not just passing entertainments; they offer crucial developmental lessons. Pinocchio, often recalled merely as the story of a puppet who lies, is in fact an allegory about the humanizing effects of empathy and honesty. It is for this reason that the Austrian artist Matthias Griebler sees Pinocchio as his alter ego, a frequent subject of his intricate hand-colored etchings, along with other emblematic figures that range from St. Anthony to Puss 'n Boots. Such archetypal figures enable Griebler to confront his own conflicts and desires, while at the same time referencing stories that are widely understood.

Whereas many artists access the spiritual realm through invented or pre-existing narratives, others seek simpler, more elemental images to express the emanations of their souls. Such an artist is Michel Nedjar. Scarred by his family's losses in the Holocaust, Nedjar has sought a means to recuperate the past and communicate with the dead through art. Though entirely self-taught and included in Jean Dubuffet's Musée de l'Art Brut, Nedjar has consciously searched through primitive visual material to locate archetypal images that evoke the spirit world. A similar self-styled spirit language was invented by peddler-turned-artist Scottie Wilson. Working in Canada and London in the years just before and after World War II, Wilson created a body of meticulous, semi-abstract drawings depicting a phantasmagorical realm inhabited by a mix of "good" creatures, such as birds and fish, and wicked, horned "greedies." Like Darger's, Scottie's oeuvre has been interpreted as depicting an ongoing battle between good and evil, in which good ultimately triumphs. However, in Scottie's work, the battle is conveyed entirely through symbols, without an overriding narrative.

Despite its modern-day secularization and commodification, art-making is still tantamount to a spiritual practice, a way of understanding and giving meaning to one's existence. To do so, artists reach into the depths of their souls, tapping resources of which they are not always fully conscious. And to express what they find therein, artists develop a pictorial language that will, ideally, arouse kindred feelings in their audience. Now that the hegemony of abstraction and its allied critical discourse has diminished, the spiritual re-emerges--not as something new, but as something that has always been there. Today's art world is awash in a multiplicity of expressive forms; no single dominant pictorial paradigm has replaced abstraction. And this is all to the good. For one must beware of dogmatic ideologies, whether they be aesthetic, political or religious. Art-making is a spiritual journey to an ambiguous and elusive destination; the magic is lost when the message becomes fixed and finite.

We would like to express our thanks to Fay Duftler and Elizabeth Marcus for their collaboration on this exhibition, and also to the colleagues and collectors whose generous cooperation made our presentation possible, including Hans Brockstedt, Jonathan Demme, Anthony Petullo, Robert Roth, Susan Yecies and several anonymous private lenders. Checklist entries include catalogue raisonné numbers, where applicable. Unless otherwise indicated, image dimensions are given for the prints and full dimensions for all other works.