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“And the Word Was Made Flesh…”

By Terrence E. Dempsey


Exhibitions in recent years have revealed a growing concern with the community of artists for the sacred. Shows like the San Francisco Art Institute’s 1985 “Concerning the Spiritual,” the 1986 traveling show “Other Gods,” in the 1986 Whitney “Sacred images in Secular Art,” the 1987 “Sacred Spaces” at the Everson Museum and, most recently, last spring’s “Art of the Madonna”  in Chicago and “Revelations” in Tacoma have demonstrated that many contemporary artist have made this spiritual and religious exploration central to their work. Furthermore. The very ambitious exhibition organized in 1986 by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art entitled “The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985” convincingly indicated that for much of this century, many of the most important western artists have shown a profound interest in universal explorations. Many of their references are based on esoteric belief systems, many reflect a fascination with ritual, some refer exclusively to one belief system, but most are highly syncretistic. What is clear about all these artists is that they are (and have been) asking major questions about our origin, out nature and our destiny and, while their conclusions have cone in a variety of directions, they at least have attempted to recover for the twentieth century a yearning for mystery and a desire to look beyond what is empirically verifiable.

Also missing from the work of most of these artists is a glibness and irony so often associate with many of the present generation of “post-modern” artists. Instead, their searches have been in earnest, and the visualizations of their journey have the ability to touch areas within viewers for which there are no adequate verbal parallels.

Among these contemporary journeyers are a number of artists who have employed figurative expressionism to convey their own understandings of a sacred reality. Figurative expressionism is the deliberate distortion of recognizable figures – a distortion of shape, color and space – that allows the artist (and the viewer, it is hoped) to go beyond surface reality in order to reach deeper emotional and often spiritual realities. A major movement in Germany in the first part of this century, figurative expressionism has reasserted itself in contemporary art and in its finest manifestations (both then and now) it establishes what art historian Peter Selz describes as the “I-Thou relationship of Martin Buber.”

A number of contemporary artists have returned to figurative expressionism to call attention to the affective dimension (and not just the intellectual dimension) of what it means to be human – and it is in the affective where the dramatic “I-Thou” encounter with the sacred begins. Many of these artists are employing Christian images and symbols within their expressions – but this employment is modified by such factors as the unique histories of the specific artists.


This article will deal with four American artists – Charlotte Lichtblau, Frederik brown, Jim Morphesis, and Edward Knippers – whose work may be described as figuratively expressive. One must not, however, interpret this to mean that their work is essentially the same. It is as diverse as their various backgrounds, and this diversity indicates the richness that is possible within in a style of art.


Charlotte Lichtblau

Of the last four artists who will be discussed, New York-based Charlotte Lichtblau has the closest connections with the German Expressionists of the first part of our century. Born in Vienna in 1925, she went to art school in Austria before moving to the United States in 1940. Both in Europe and in this country, all of Charlotte’ art teachers were German, and so from her earliest years she was aware of the great power and unique beauty of German Expressionism.


Her early years in Vienna also had another lasting impact on her for, while she was raised in the Jewish faith, she was very aware of the strong influence on Catholicism in Austria. She states, “Austria is a Catholic country; it’s imbued with Catholicism. We breathed it.” But for Charlotte, there was another strong influence that attracted her to Catholicism – the visual arts. As she says, “Art is a very good converter.” Eventually, in the late 1950s, she did convert to Catholicism.


With few exceptions, the subject matter of Charlotte Lichtblau is religious, most often tied to both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New testament, and rendered in the expressionistic style. Lichtblau states that “the expression and intensity of the colors will create the kind of reality that will make the mysterious and transcendental possible on a level which isn’t confused with realism. If you look at the old icons, they are also expressionistic.”


Her images touch on the themes of exile, suffering, sacrifice, and all-embracing love. Lichtblau brings the full impact of these themes before us by obliterating three-dimensional space and by using sweeping lines and intense coloration. In one of a series of paintings she has done on Hagar, Sarai and Abram (“Sarai Presents Hagar to Abram I” (fig. 1), Lichtblau admits us into the psychological interactions among these three significant figures in the Book of Genesis. The aging and clothed figures of Abram and Sarai hover over the young, vulnerable, and apprehensive Hagar, the left hand of Sarai adjusting Hagar’s head so that the young woman would look at Abram. Abram holds her hand gently while looking at her with an expression that conveys his own hesitation as well as compassion. The draperies encircle this trio in a way similar to the seventeenth-century El Greco’s handling of draperies. The spectral white cloth that flows across the bottom of the painting, the haunting purple veil of Sarai, and the muddied green and red-streaked robe of Abram clearly take us out of the realm of the physical reality and give us access to the deeper, more difficult realities of this ambiguous relationship in which barren Sarai is presenting to her husband the young woman who will bear his offspring. It is not a relationship any of the participants who would have chosen in an ideal world. Lichtblau takes this subject, avoiding the melodramatic sentimentality that often accompanies visual depictions of it, and quite sensitively captures the complexities of emotions present among these three people.


In her painting of the Last Supper, entitled “Blood of the Covenant II” (fig. 2), Lichtblau once again takes an event from Scripture that has been painted so often and gives it a fresh interpretation. The colors of deep luminous blue and glowing, fiery reddish-orange dominate this painting, which is also punctuated with green and mustard-yellow.


From The Critic, 1988

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