Palimpsest: last updated 08/14/2008

Bruce Herman | The Body Broken

The Body Broken
By Bruce Herman, 2005

I was particularly honored and delighted when Professor John Skillen invited me to exhibit here in Orvieto at the Palazzo dei Sette, having considered this city my second home to Boston, ever since my first visit in July of 1993. The day I first arrived here, I instantly felt an affinity with the people and the spaces of the city--the openness and willing embrace of strangers; the raw beauty of the surrounding Umbrian landscape, and supremely the crown of this volcanic plateau: the beautiful Duomo. In my opinion this beautiful building has the most harmonious design of all the cathedrals in northern Italy. I have been deeply nourished here--spiritually and artistically--in ways that are impossible to articulate verbally, hence the paintings in this exhibition, which are deeply informed by my times in Orvieto. In particular, the sacred art of this place has taken root in me--the façade of the Duomo with the Maitani reliefs and the marvelous murals of Fra Angelico and Signorelli--as well as the countless other architectural and artistic surprises of the city.

The sacred-art tradition of Italy has been a source of both inspiration and frustration for me: inspiration, because of the perennial human themes and the profound understanding of form that the Italian school forwarded in its art and architecture; frustration, because of the inevitable sense of historical dislocation that one experiences when trying to address sacred themes in an era that suffers cultural amnesia or seems frankly uninterested in this realm of artistic endeavor.

In the late 1970's and early 1980's, when I began making large-scale religious narrative paintings in which the human presence was central, one influential Boston museum director declared my work "anachronistic" (he indicated his problem was more with the religious references than my use of the human form or the style of my painting, which he praised). I was also criticized by a reviewer in the Boston Globe newspaper for using Christian symbolism in the work--as though this also was passé. These instances of official disapproval of my project took place during the era of Andres Serrano (with his infamous photograph Piss Christ) and other prominent artists who employed ironic religious imagery through the postmodern practice of "appropriation"--use of historic or religious imagery with no real commitment to the original meanings. To use sincere or meant religious symbolism was seen as a sign of weakness and credulity at the time--as a hopelessly futile indulgence in retrograde art.

I've said that I have experienced frustration as a contemporary artist attempting to meaningfully reference the sacred art traditions of Italy. I should say that I've experienced a double conflict: as a believing Christian attempting to communicate via a broken tradition, and as a white male artist in an art world predisposed to be suspicious of my motives in doing so. I say this without any grumbling--I really am sympathetic to the critical mind of our times, which questions the narrow chauvinism of a patriarchal Christian image tradition. Yet I think T.S. Eliot was right in his famous 1920 essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent" when he said:

No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead. …what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. …And the poet who is aware of this will be aware of great difficulties and responsibilities.1

Eliot's dictum could be summarized as follows: no genuine artist operates in a vacuum. Whether she accepts it or not, she is a participant in a tradition--both as a beneficiary and a contributor. Since our house fire seven years ago, in which all of my undergraduate and graduate school paintings and nearly all my work from the 1980's were incinerated, I have gradually lost interest in the explicit religious narrative painting I practiced during that time. Perhaps this is an abdication of my responsibility to the tradition to which Eliot refers. But increasingly these days, I find that I am drawn to a more allusive means of evoking the human presence and sacred themes. One reason for this shift is a frank acknowledgement that we live in a post-Christian society and there are few who are able to decipher whatever I might intend by adopting a set of older religious symbols. Another reason is more personal, perhaps brought on by the destruction of so much of my former work: I am more aware of the weakness and marginal status of a religious artist in a secular age. Eliot's dictum seems out of reach in a time wherein not one, but literally hundreds of traditions co-exist in the same time and place.

We live in the new cultural panoply--not the tidy preeminence of the "one great Western tradition". We live in a complicated cultural setting where no one set of symbols, or references, or grand narrative reigns. Not even the Holy Bible. The Quran, the Bhagavad-Gita or American television might be on equal footing as far as our global culture is concerned. Eliot's plea seems quixotic at best if this is true. To my mind, a painter concerned with the human form and story must come to grips with the issues of our times and at the same time seek transcendence in the midst of the mess of human history.

Hans Urs von Balthasar, argues in his book Seeing the Form that the Incarnation of Christ is the guarantee of meaning in and through this "wrestling with the mess." In Christ, God fully entered the chaos of human history, even to the point of dying an ignominious and horrible death, yet overcoming it in his Resurrection and drawing his broken human form up, into the formless divine light. According to von Balthasar this action of Christ, of assuming the wounded human body into heaven, underwrites our own artistic wrestling with brokenness and finitude, as well as our attempts at transcendence in and through our art. The physical world, and thus our own bodies and the materials we wield as artists--all this has been sanctified and made wholesome for our life and work.

My own wrestling with the human form and story began early in my development as an artist -- and I think that the primary motivation behind everything I've done since 1973 has been a looking for the human face and form--beautiful or painful.

In his book Pictures of the Body: Pain and Metamorphosis, James Elkins says:

Every picture is a picture of the body. Every work of visual art is a representation of the body. To say this is to say that we see bodies even where there are none, and that the creation of a form is to some degree also the creation of a body. And if a splash of paint or a ruled grid can be a picture of a body--or the denial of a body--then there must be a desire at work, perhaps among the most primal desires of all; we prefer to have bodies in front of us, or in our hands, and if we cannot have them, we continue to see them as after-images or ghosts. This is a beautiful and complicated subject, the way our eyes continue to look out at the most diverse kinds of things and bring back echoes of bodies.2

According to Elkins we seek the body in every image, even seeing ghosts of bodies when we're denied access to the real thing. To illustrate this idea, Elkins narrates Alberto Giacometti's famous obsession with painting a portrait of the Japanese philosopher Yanaihara, in which the artist paid four times for the philosopher to travel from Tokyo to Italy to pose for him in order to complete his obsessive painting of the man's face and body.

In the end Giacometti felt his fifteen portraits of Yanaihara were all failures. He said that the canvas could not "hold" the body of the philosopher. His paintings, in Elkins' words, took on a surface like that of a religious idol--"shiny, undulating, like the wood of a cult statue that has been caressed until it is smooth." The artist's repeated attempts to locate the body of Yanaihara within the pictorial space of his canvas yielded a set of ghostly images and after-images.

Like Giacometti, I've been attempting to evoke not just an image or effigy of a body, like some wax-works, but real presence. And by real presence I am in fact referencing the sacred worship tradition of Christian Eucharist. Like the icon painters of the Eastern tradition, I attempt to offer my images as a means of encounter with the divine--searching for a means of communicating genuine presence, not mere appearance. Unlike the early Christians who felt the need to distance themselves from the pagan artistic traditions of physicality, I feel that it is in and through the physical--it's even in the very earthiness of the human form and story that our redemption happens. It is in Jesus' kenosis, his self-emptying and taking on the mess of physical existence that we glimpse a true transcendent--not in the false transcendence of the Gnostic or the Neo-Platonic refusal of the body.

Like the Greek philosopher Lucretius' concept of the act of physical seeing--the idea that membranes of a form come to us like shed snake-skins through the ether to give us a means of touching bodies that are distant from our own body--art is a means of making real presences of our thoughts, our feelings, and our faith. I'd go a step further and say that making art is a way of reaching toward hope. You make an image in order to see if it will stick--if it will become permanent. Our own internal sense of impermanence is ever increasing--especially as the war wears on--and I don't mean only the current war in Iraq or the oft-cited war on terror. The most wearisome war of all is the battle with our own self-destructive tendencies and our dance with death. This is also the war St. Paul speaks of in his letter to the Christians at Ephesus: not against flesh and blood, as the Apostle says.

I said that making art is like looking for hope. Like a man living on a desert island sending a message in a bottle out to see if anyone is looking or listening for him, in our sense of psychological isolation we are always attempting to communicate--to commune with the other. If, as Elkins says, every picture is an image of the body, and our hungering eye seeks always and everywhere to be sated with the human presence, then not only our eyes, but also our hearts and minds are filled with real presences--with eucharistic images of the human person.

Eliot, in his essay on tradition, speaks of the crucial need for artists to heed the "dead poets" as he puts it. These presences--of the dead--are no less real in the traditions of art and literature than the person next to us in a literature class or on a train. And the presence of the dead, of the past as a present voice, is the very essence of tradition. Tradition in this sense is understood as a sacred conversation unbroken by death or the passage of time--not as a means of stopping time or preserving some precious thing. It's not so much preservation as it is a means of transmitting. Every act of transmitting tradition, according to the German philosopher Hans Georg Gadamer, is simultaneously an act of translation.3 In other words, when we stand in a tradition we are not simply trying to maintain a status quo, we're in the business of translating what is past into what is truly present and thereby extending and elaborating that tradition. This is what Eliot refers to at the end of his essay as "what is already living"4--i.e., tradition is a means by which the past presses on us and forms us and lends meaning and purpose to our lives through a sense of continuity and coherence.

And this reality of a living past is exactly how Orvieto has come to be a place of refreshment and nourishment for me, a North American artist. Every street, every building, even the fragmentary vestiges of Etruscan, Roman, and medieval civilization--all of this serves as a medium of transmission to me--a means of communicating with the dead poets. And what the poets and painters of the past were always seeking was the same hope for transcendence in the midst of our complex and often contradictory lives. In order to forge images which evoke this hope, poets like Dante continually resorted to the Bible--as did Michelangelo, Signorelli, and countless others. The themes of the great art of the past were not chosen simply in order to satisfy a powerful Church or aristocracy (though these undoubtedly played a pivotal role). Rather, an entire culture of religious yearning existed out of which these great artists emerged--and from which they drew inspiration to make their images--images of a universal hope and reckoning.

But how can we hope for transcendence when our lives are continually marked by brokenness and failure and war? Remember, even a cursory look at history tells us that war and disease and hunger have always been with us--so our own era differs little except perhaps in scale. Von Balthasar's idea that the broken body of Christ, now residing in heaven, insures the value and meaning of our human attempts at transcendence helps me in my own striving for this goal. Because of Christ's willing sacrifice, a broken or weak body can be an image of transcendent beauty--even as it continues to acknowledge the reality of pathos and grief. This is my central thesis--that images of brokenness are actually more honest, truer, and therefore more beautiful in a fully developed sense than the truncated vision of beauty that is held out for us by a popular commercial culture of youth, celebrity, and fashion. The very truth of a broken beauty speaks into our era of loss, historical dislocation, and anomy.

Elaine Scarry, of Harvard University, says in her book On Beauty and Being Just that the opposite of beauty is not ugliness but injury.5 And this gives even more credence to the idea that a fully developed theory of beauty must at least deal with truth and justice. If Scarry is right, how are images of the body that show injury to be taken as beautiful? I would argue that the central image of the Western tradition is the broken body of Christ on the cross--and that this very brokenness and injury is the source of beauty, goodness, and truth in our lives as we contemplate the redemption offered in the Eucharist.

A prime example of this would be the Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grünewald. He painted this triptych for a quarantine hospital caring for those whose bodies were broken by Saint Anthony's fire (a disfiguring disease that often led to gangrene and loss of limb). The triptych opens at the center, revealing in its interior the narrative of Christ's life, from the Nativity to the Resurrection.  In order to open the central panel of the crucifixion, the right arm of Jesus must be "severed" as the seam of the panel runs through Christ's shoulder. Inside we can find healing and hope through images of sacrificial love and the hope of eternal life.

Grünewald and his generation understood that behind and within the pain of Christ's crucifixion--in his eucharistic self-offering--there is hope to be discovered through images of the broken body giving way to redemption and healing. This is a far cry from the current culture and its obsession with idealized images of physical perfection. Unlike Grünewald, I find myself painting within a contemporary art culture that is deeply compromised by worldly values that attach to prosaic, shallow standards of female beauty and masculine power. Our generation has a very confused notion of beauty and a deeply suspicious stance in relation to truth.

The beauty we see is often disconnected from truth and seldom associated with goodness. In fact, the very word goodness brings sneers from many of the sophisticated members of the intelligentsia--and this is presumably because the word has been debased and no longer carries the authority and awe of holiness. Goodness has been diminished to mere sentimentality and truth has been truncated to mere subjective experience. Consequently beauty is an orphan and often put in service of the worst forms of barbarity and futility--as the Nazi art of the past century proved. I believe that the antidote is to be found in revitalizing our vision of beauty and attempting to re-unite it to its two sisters goodness and truth--through the broken body of Christ.

I conclude with a final word from Hans Urs von Balthasar:

We no longer dare to believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it. Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance. We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past--whether he admits it or not--can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.6

Von Balthasar is at pains in this to hold out hope to our generation--but it is a costly hope than cannot be had by indulging in escapist philosophies that want to bypass the Cross and human suffering. Authentic beauty is only seen, from this side of the veil, in the face of one who gives himself away. My hope is that in these paintings my viewers may glimpse that face.

1 T.S. Eliot (1888-1965). The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism. London: Methune, 1920
James Elkins. Pictures of the Body: Pain and Metamorphosis, p. 1. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002
3 Hans Georg Gadamer. The Relevance of the Beautiful, pp.48, 49. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986
4 Eliot, Tradition, p.3
5 Elaine Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999
6 Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: Seeing the Form, p.18, London, T&T Clark Ltd., 1982

•    The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism, T.S. Eliot, London: Methune, 1920
•    Pictures of the Body: Pain and Metamorphosis, James Elkins, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002
•    The Glory of the Lord: Seeing the Form, Hans Urs von Balthasar,  p.18, London: T&T Clark Ltd., 1982
•    The Relevance of the Beautiful, Hans Georg Gadamer, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,1986
•    Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Robert D. Putnam, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000
•    On Beauty and Being Just, Elaine Scarry, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999
•    New American Standard Bible, Lockman Foundation, 1979

Bruce Herman is currently Lothlórien Distinguished Chair in the Fine Arts at Gordon College. He received the Distinguished Alumni Award from Boston University's School of Visual Arts in 2006. He lectures widely and has had work published in many books, journals, and popular magazines, and been profiled in IMAGE journal.  His artwork has been exhibited in over 55 exhibitions in eleven major cities and five countries, including England, Italy, Russia, Canada, and Israel. The essay published here was written for the catalog of the show hosted by the town of Orvieto in 2006 in its major exhibition space.  Bruce launched a major cycle of paintings about the Virgin Mary while teaching in the Orvieto Semester in 2005.